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The Canberra Commission On The Elimination Of Nuclear Weapons And Subsequent International Developments

Paper Presented by Hon Gareth Evans QC, President of the International Crisis Group and Former Foreign Minister of Australia, to the NIRA Roundtable, Tokyo, 6-7 October 2000

The Canberra Commission

The great contribution of the Canberra Commission to the nuclear weapons debate was that its report, presented in 1996, was the first ever commissioned by a sovereign state squarely to address the common assumption that because the world has nuclear weapons, it continues to need them to deter their use. This is an argument that has no resonance at all when it comes to chemical and biological weapons, but has had an extraordinary tenacity when it comes to the nuclear debate. If the elimination of nuclear weapons was ever to gain momentum, this argument had to be tackled head-on. What was needed, and what the Canberra Commission sought to provide, was an intellectually compelling case for both the desirability and feasibility of completely eliminating nuclear weapons, part of which would be a map of how the ultimate goal could be achieved by a series of concrete and realistic steps without prejudicing any state’s security along the way

Established by the Australian Labor Government in 1995 with Ambassador Richard Butler as Convenor, the Commission had a large, diverse and distinguished membership, which enhanced the authority of its conclusions. That membership included not only indefatigable long-time campaigners for a nuclear weapon free world like the Pugwash Nobel Prize winner Joseph Rotblat; but also hands-on military practitioners like General Lee Butler, responsible until 1994 for all U.S. strategic nuclear forces, and Field Marshal Lord Carver, the former Chief of the British Defence Staff; together with some accomplished political sceptics like Michel Rocard, the former Prime Minister of France. The Japanese representative was Professor Ryukichi Imai, the distinguished Counsellor to the Atomic Energy Commission and former Disarmament Ambassador.

The basic argument of the Report was stated in three simple propositions:

  • So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them.
  • The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity by any state and never used—accidentally or by decision—defies credibility.
  • Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic.

The Commission then went on to map, in varying degrees of detail, the successive steps that would need to be taken to achieve elimination. The essential elements can be summarised as follows:

Element I: Commitment

  • An unambiguous commitment by the nuclear weapon states to achieving the elimination of all nuclear weapons within a reasonable time frame.

Element II: Immediate Steps

  • Take nuclear forces off alert and remove warheads from delivery vehicles.
  • End deployment of non-strategic weapons.
  • Commit to no first use.
  • Initiate negotiations to further reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Element III: Reinforcing Steps

  • End testing once and for all.
  • Act to prevent further horizontal proliferation.
  • Cease production of fissile material.
  • Account for stocks of fissile material.
  • Further assist Russia to address the overhang problem.
  • Develop verification arrangements.

Element IV: Final Steps

  • Draw nuclear weapon states other than the U.S. and Russia into the process.
  • Get to zero, with a new Nuclear Weapons Convention consolidating all elements of the new legal regime.

Subsequent Reports

The Canberra Commission Report was followed in rapid succession by a series of influential reports from other bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Stimson Center, the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, and the Canadian Parliament, all pursuing similar themes and mapping similar agendas of practical next steps. The case for elimination received a major boost in July 1996 with the unanimous declaration of the International Court of Justice that there is an obligation in international law to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to comprehensive nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control. And the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in May 1998, while administering a sharp jolt to anyone inclined to believe that the age of nuclear nightmare was at last over, at least certainly demonstrated the full force of the stunningly simple conclusions of the Canberra Commission Report - in particular that so long as any state retained nuclear weapons others would want them.

The South Asian tests also stimulated a further major contribution to the intellectual debate from Japan, in the work of the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, set up in August 1998. The Forum’s Report, Facing Nuclear Dangers: an Action Plan for the 21st Century, was presented to the Security Council on 25 July 1999. Although the Chinese participant dissented from some aspects of the report, particularly those parts relating to missiles, fissile material and unilateral inventory reduction, and the Indian representative absented himself after the second meeting, the Report very much reinforced the Canberra Commission’s findings - and very usefully extended them by focusing also on measures such as controls on missile proliferation, revitalisation of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and creation of effective non-compliance mechanisms for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, as well as giving special attention to specific areas of nuclear concern around the world, particularly in South Asia.

One of the most useful immediate outcomes of the Canberra Commission Report and its successors was to stimulate a resurgence of NGO activity in this area. The most interesting and productive development to date has been the establishment in March 1998, under the chairmanship of former Canadian Disarmament Ambassador Douglas Roche, of the “Middle Powers Initiative”, designed to encourage influential non-nuclear states to take a lead on the issue: this in turn inspired the “New Agenda Coalition” which has led the way in recent years in terms of government activity . Subsequent Government Activity

A number of states, treating the Canberra Commission Report as a core reference point, took up its challenge to advance the nuclear agenda in concrete ways. Australia itself, unfortunately, was not one of them. The Labor Government was defeated in March 1996 while the Canberra Commission report was still in preparation, and our conservative successor was much more nervous than we would have been about how the United States would regard some of the elements in the report. After a low-key presentation of the final Report to the UN General Assembly by the new Foreign Minister in September 1996, the Howard Government chose to engage in no active advocacy of it at all in international forums (although interestingly, and no doubt in deference to another important alliance relationship, Australia did second a Foreign Affairs official to help the secretariat of the Tokyo Forum produce its report).

But other countries, less niggardly, stepped in to fill the gap. Sweden and Brazil proposed in 1996 that the Canberra report form the basis of future work on nuclear disarmament in the Conference on Disarmament. Other states also cited it with approval in a variety of forums. But by far the most organised support came from the small group of like-minded governments calling themselves the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), led by Ireland and New Zealand, and including Sweden, Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa, and briefly Slovenia.

On 9 June 1998, the NAC released a declaration setting out their goals, as a foundation for a UN General Assembly resolution. The second paragraph of the declaration is worth repeating in full:

“We fully share the conclusion expressed by the commissioners of the Canberra Commission in their Statement that ‘the proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used—accidentally or by decision—defies credibility. The only complete defence is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again’.”

The rest of the declaration, and subsequent resolution, was drafted in deceptively mild language, which nevertheless made it clear that a crunch-point had been reached: “We are deeply concerned at the persistent reluctance of the nuclear-weapon states to approach their Treaty obligations as an urgent commitment to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons.” The declaration called on the nuclear weapon states (NWS) “to agree to start work immediately on the practical steps and negotiations” necessary to achieve nuclear disarmament, though it did not set any time frame for such negotiations to be completed. The declaration also called on all states to take steps such as ratification of the CTBT, negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty, joint no-first use undertakings between the nuclear-weapon states and as regards non-use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states, and more nuclear weapon-free zones around the world in addition to those that already exist under treaties such as Raratonga, Pelindaba, Tlatelolco and Bangkok. In other words, the Declaration followed the step by step approach recommended by the Canberra Commission almost exactly.

Despite its mild language, the declaration proved too much for some of the nuclear-weapon states, and particularly the United States, who argued that the criticism directed against the original five nuclear-weapon states (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France) was not only unfounded, but ignored the very real nuclear disarmament gains made under the START process. In their view, the declaration placed those states on the same level as the new testers, India and Pakistan, who were defying the norms established in the NPT and more recently the CTBT.

The language of the NAC declaration resolution was nevertheless adopted by the General Assembly on 13 November 1998 as Resolution 53/77Y with 118 votes for, 18 against and 38 abstentions. Those who voted against included, obviously enough, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan. But the abstentions were perhaps the most interesting—and potentially worrying for the US—since they included many of the United States’ close friends and allies, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, the ROK, and quite a number of allies in Western Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Spain and Greece. China also abstained, significantly enough.

Since 1998, the situation has hardened even further against the nuclear-weapon states, with countries like Canada, Japan and some of the West Europeans agonising over a possible change to a positive vote for a similar resolution adopted at the 1999 General Assembly. Australia, unhappily, remained fixed in its view that it was pointless to talk about negotiating a general nuclear disarmament treaty without the agreement of the states with nuclear weapons since any such treaty would be toothless. While such a view has a certain internal logic, it nonetheless ignores the sheer weight of world opinion which wants to see more than just words.

As it turned out, “more words” are what seems to have resulted with the New Agenda Coalition resolution when it came before the General Assembly in 1999. The sponsors obviously wanted to obtain as much support as possible, and not surprisingly, this led to dilution of the language. The draft that emerged bore some resemblance to the 1998 resolution, but it pointed the finger more directly at India and Pakistan and removed the language deemed to be overtly critical of the original five NWS. Moreover, while still calling on the NWS to commit themselves to early negotiation of a disarmament treaty, it only called on them ‘to examine ways and means’ of achieving such things as a reduction in tactical weapons, de-alerting, removal of nuclear warheads and such. Resolution 54G was adopted on 1 December 1999 with 150 votes for (including the original NWS, Australia, Japan and nearly all who abstained in 1998), 3 against (India, Pakistan and Israel), and 2 abstentions (Bhutan and Cuba).

The Current State of Play

At the Conference on Disarmament

The momentum generated elsewhere has not so far extended to the CD in Geneva, which has been essentially inactive for the last three years, bogged down by the opposition of the United States and Russia to any move which could be interpreted as a willingness to do any more than simply talk about the issue. In response, the international anger over the perceived recalcitrance of the NWS has been visibly growing.

The central rhetorical battleground continues to be, as it has been for years, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with the Indian and Pakistani tests and their aftermath sharpening and deepening an already long-established divide. But there is now an almost irresistible groundswell of countries which want to see action now and not at some vague time in the distant future (an issue which, it must be conceded, the Canberra Commission chose to fudge). Whereas a year ago acceptance by the US and Russia—as well, it must be admitted, as some of the hard-line developing countries who felt it was too little—of even such a simple proposition as that put forward by Belgium to set up a mechanism for an exchange of views on how to move the nuclear disarmament debate forward, might have been enough, it is now probably far too late for that to have any effect.

The CD session for this year closed on 21 September 2000, again with absolutely no progress made on the central issues. Indeed, if anything, the divide was even greater, made worse by Russian and Chinese-led opposition to US proposals for national missile defence, and China’s growing insistence on resurrection of proposals for preventing an arms race in outer space (PAROS) which it sees as linked to the missile defence issue.

Negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) is both a victim and symbol of these developments. The Canberra Commission called for such a treaty as an important “reinforcing measure” along the path to full nuclear disarmament. It would also have served as a channel for some of the pent-up frustration of the international community over the lack of movement in other aspects of the nuclear debate. However, after consensus was very painfully achieved at UNGA 53 in 1998 to start negotiation of an FMCT early in 1999, nothing of substance has occurred since then. Preliminary negotiations showed signs of bogging down over the question of the scope of the treaty: whether or not it would cover existing stockpiles of fissile materials. But FMCT quickly became yet another hostage to the broader question of nuclear disarmament negotiations, with the hard-line developing countries saying they would not discuss FMCT without a corresponding commitment from the NWS to negotiate on nuclear disarmament; and with China adding that it would only be willing to participate in FMCT negotiations if there were negotiations in good faith on PAROS.

In short, the situation is a mess, and one cannot be confident about the prospects for finding some middle way through it all. One possibility might be to try to persuade the US, Russia and others to accept commencement of negotiations on some of the technical—as opposed to the more political—aspects of nuclear disarmament, such as the technical side of an eventual verification regime. A great many verification tasks are involved in nearly every step along the way to elimination of nuclear weapons, and they are spelt out in detail in the Canberra Commission Report. Even sticking just to the technical aspects would serve the dual purpose of actually engaging the nuclear states in an aspect of nuclear disarmament negotiations, which should satisfy most non-nuclear-weapon states, while at the same time, it would actually reduce the time required in the eventual nuclear disarmament negotiations, given that verification aspects are usually the most time-consuming part of arms control negotiations. But the United States may well see this as the start of a slippery slope to full nuclear disarmament negotiations, and the hard-liners may well insist on no negotiations at all without a commitment by the nuclear powers to negotiate a full disarmament treaty.

NPT Review Conference

Not everything is unreservedly dark and gloomy. There was a potentially significant development at the sixth Review Conference of NPT parties held in New York in May 2000. Given that three of the previous five Review Conferences had failed to produce a final document, the fact that the most recent one came to a consensus on such a document was striking, particularly given the lack of any propitious signs in this regard emanating from the Prepcoms from 1997 onwards. The most important element of this document was perhaps the “unequivocal undertaking” of the nuclear powers to eliminate totally their nuclear weapons. Most significant was the lack of the usual, conditional references to “ultimate” and “general and complete” disarmament, although the commitment still lacks any clear time frame.

Also significant about the final document was its reaffirmation of the importance of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability”,although, as I will indicate when discussing US proposals for a national missile defence system, we are by no means out of the woods with regard to the future viability of the ABM treaty. In a practical sense, perhaps one of the more important elements of the final document was a call by all NPT parties for recommendations to go to the next Review Conference to make NPT-related negative security assurances legally binding. If such a development comes to fruition, it would be a significant step indeed in the reduction of the remaining level of nuclear threat. START

Another tentative glimmer of positive movement is in relation to the strategic arms reduction, or START, process between Russia and the United States. With Russia’s overdue ratification of START II in April this year, the way is now open to begin substantive negotiations on START III. The significance of this should not be underestimated in all the rush of rhetoric over nuclear disarmament. START reductions to date have more than halved the nuclear arsenals of both countries from highs of well over 20,000 each. Full implementation of START II should see further reductions down to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads each, and it is hoped START III could see them further reduced to between 1200 and 1600. This is an enormous, practical reduction in the hitherto truly MAD nuclear threat facing the world. Even the comparatively lilliputian nuclear threat from North Korea has receded somewhat in the last two years, though concern over India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and possibly Libya, remains. CTBT

Another glimmer of hope relates to the status of the CTBT. The Canberra Commission gave a great degree of impulsion and respectability to the concept of a CTBT, whose negotiation had already begun by the time the Commission sat. While Minister, I also sought to ensure Australia played an active and constructive role in those negotiations when we submitted a full model CTBT text to the conference at the end of February 1996. At least on this issue, I am pleased to report, my successor - following the change of government - maintained Australia’s contribution the unusual, and successful, step of moving the draft treaty from the CD, where it had been blocked by an Indian veto, to the General Assembly, where it was adopted on 24 September 1996. Since then, its fortune has varied. On the one hand, it must be said that it is no closer to being ratified by India, Pakistan or North Korea, none of which has even signed the treaty. And of course, their ratification, in a group of 44 named states, is required before the treaty can enter into force. To date, 160 countries have signed the treaty and 63 have ratified it. Of the required 44 ratifications, however, while there have been 41 signatures, only 30 have actually ratified to date. These include Britain and France which both ratified in April 1998, and Russia which did so on 21 April this year.

Those not yet having ratified include the United States, whose Senate of course rejected ratification in October last year. The kindest response to this debacle is to describe the U.S. contribution as ironical, given that it was President Clinton who was first to sign the treaty in 1996 and has supported ratification ever since. It remains to be seen whether the new US Administration, to be elected later this year, will move—or be allowed by Congress to move—any more rapidly to ratify. But if the US continues not to ratify, there is little chance of convincing others, such as India, Pakistan and North Korea, to do so. Nevertheless, while the treaty thus creeps only slowly towards formal entry into force, there are some grounds, with the high rate of signature and the prevailing international feeling against nuclear weapons generally, for arguing that the non-testing norm embodied in the treaty has already become part of customary international law. If so, the underlying purpose of the Treaty could be said to have been largely achieved.

In a very practical sense as well, the CTBT has already led to the creation of international machinery to verify the non-testing of nuclear weapons, or at least to detect if ever they are tested again. The CTBT Organisation has been established in Vienna and seems to be working well, and good progress has been made in setting up an International Monitoring System. Having such a system up and running will not only guard against future cheating, but also guarantee that the international community will have early knowledge of even small nuclear tests anywhere in the world. Missiles

The other area where there has recently been a small glimmer of hope—however ephemeral it might prove to be in practice—has not so much to do with nuclear weapons themselves, as with their missile delivery systems. The strong push by the US military, the Republicans and even some Democrats to implement in a modified form the ‘Star Wars’ program of Ronald Reagan is running into difficulty, with the American proposals to build a national missile defence (or NMD) system—as well as to develop more effective theatre missile defence, TMD— provoking understandably strong international controversy. Russia’s refusal to contemplate any revision of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it has with the United States; US threats to abrogate the Treaty if necessary; and Chinese concern over what both NMD would mean for its own small ICBM force and what TMD would mean for its relations with Taiwan and regional neighbours, have all caused many traditional allies of the US not only to question the perceived need for such systems but also to express strong concern about undermining the ABM Treaty and thus arms control and non-proliferation commitments more generally which that treaty underpins. The strong reaffirmation of the centrality of the ABM Treaty made in the Final Document of this year’s NPT Review Conference is evidence of that concern.

In this regard, they echo the Canberra Commission Report which said that it “would be extremely important … to protect fully the integrity of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.” The extent to which that integrity would be damaged by American amendment proposals can only be judged when the detailed proposals become public, if they ever do. But given the role of many of these US allies as potential hosts for NMD early warning radar sites, their objections could prove to be much more than merely rhetorical. Indeed, it is even possible to imagine at least some of them seeking US pledges to take more substantive steps towards nuclear disarmament as the price for letting their territory be used as part of the NMD systems.

President Clinton’s announcement in early September 2000 that he would leave the question of whether the US would develop NMD to his successor, was thus greeted with considerable relief in many international quarters, even if the relief proves to be temporary. While there is little doubt that a Republican Administration would proceed with NMD come what may, the jury is still out on what a Democrat victory might bring, given that some elements of that party support NMD. But it is another matter entirely whether this current breathing space will be long enough for the notoriously slow Russian civil and military bureaucracies to work through to a position better able to react sensibly to whatever course the new American Administration might decide to take. Certainly, many in Putin’s cabinet—and that includes some of the military—understand that Russia simply does not have the money or the capacity any longer to keep up with the US in the nuclear field. Getting around the hard-liners in the Russian system, however, will be a major problem.


Despite a handful of positive developments, overall progress towards nuclear disarmament has been at best fitful, and at worst retrograde, over the four years since the Canberra Commission reported was presented. But that said, the report did lay the foundations for the development, for the first time since the invention of nuclear weapons, of a really serious and global constituency—both government and non-government—for their elimination, as distinct from mere reduction. In the days in which, as Australia’s Foreign Minister, I was deeply involved in the Cambodian peace process, I often quoted President Eisenhower statement that sometimes the people want democracy so much that governments and leaders just have to get out of the way and let them have it. I do believe that some nations now want nuclear disarmament so much that sooner or later those blocking this outcome will just have to get out of way and let them have it. If the Canberra Commission has helped bring us to that point, it won’t—for all the frustrations all of us associated with the process feel—have been a waste of time.