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Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament: Global and Regional Challenges

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to University of Melbourne, AIIA and UN Youth Australia Lecture Series, Australia’s Role in the World, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, Melbourne, 9 August 2012

Nuclear weapons are, simply, the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented and the only ones capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it. There is only one other global policy issue remotely comparable in terms of its impact on planetary survivability, and that is climate change: but nuclear bombs can kill us a lot faster than CO2.

Since the end of the Cold War, even with the recent wake-up call we have had last year from the Fukushima disaster about how much damage can be caused by uncontrolled radiation, policymakers and publics have been very slow to accept that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are not just another set of difficult policy issues – but ones in a class all of their own, and with a gravity and urgency all of their own.

When the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Disarmament (ICNND), a Rudd government initiative that I co-chaired with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, produced our report in 2009, we did so in a spirit of considerable optimism.  After a decade of sleepwalking, a major effort had been made to shock the world out of its complacency by four of the hardest-nosed realists ever to hold public office -- former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and Senator Sam Nunn -- in their series of Wall Street Journal articles since 2007, arguing that whatever role nuclear weapons may have played in the Cold War, in the present international  environment the risks of any state retaining them far outweighed any possible security reward.  And with the election of Barack Obama, we at last had a US president totally committed, intellectually and emotionally, to the ultimate achievement of a nuclear weapon free world, a vision which he articulated superbly in his 2009 Prague speech.

In the consultations my Commission conducted around the world, in every sensitive region – including North East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East– and involving every significant nuclear state, we sensed a real hunger for major new movement on disarmament by all the nuclear armed states, for strengthening and extending the reach of the non-proliferation regime in all its aspects, and for strengthening the most crucial building blocks for both – viz. bedding down the comprehensive ban on  weapons testing, negotiating a  comprehensive new ban on the production of fissile material for such weapons, and eliminating once and for all the security risks associated with imperfectly secured nuclear weapons and material.

And we reflected those findings in our recommendations for action across the spectrum of these issues:  in the short term to 2012; the medium term to 2025 (by which time we argued that we could and should achieve a 90 per cent reduction in the world’s stockpile of 22,000 + weapons); and the longer term thereafter, where the ultimate target had to be zero nuclear weapons.

Now, three years later, as we approach the end of our first benchmark period, the end of 2012, it is harder to maintain that spirit of optimism. In January this year, the hands of the Doomsday Clock were moved a minute closer to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the respected global organization that for decades has tracked the risk of a nuclear-weapons catastrophe, whether caused by accident or design, state or terrorist, fission bomb or dirty radiological bomb. The message was that progress since 2007 – when the Clock’s hands were last set at five minutes to midnight – has stalled, and political leadership has gone missing on all of the critical issues.

On disarmament, the balloon has well and truly deflated. The New START treaty, signed by the United States and Russia in 2010, reduced the number of deployed strategic weapons, but left both sides’ actual stockpiles intact, their high-alert status undisturbed, weapons-modernization programs in place, disagreements about missile defense and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved – and talks on further draw-downs going nowhere. With no further movement by the US and Russia, which together hold 95 per cent of the world’s total of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, no other nuclear-armed state has felt pressure to reduce its own stocks significantly, and some – China, India, and Pakistan – have been, on all available evidence, increasing them.

On non-proliferation, the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was a modest success, mainly because it did not collapse in disarray, as had the previous one in 2005. But it could not agree on measures to strengthen the regime, and its push for talks on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East has so far gathered no momentum. North Korea seems no closer to being put back in its NPT box: for every step forward there’s another back, as withthe agreement with the US on a moratorium on nuclear-related activity and return of IAEA inspectors in February, then the renunciation of that agreement followed by a long-range ballistic missile test in April. And Iran may be closer than ever to jumping out of its box: though that is a hotly contested conclusion, if it did make that decision the consequences would ricochet very dramatically around the region – and the global economy.

On building block issues, despite President Barack Obama’s good intentions, the US Senate is no closer to ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, while China, India, and Pakistan, among others, take shelter behind that inaction, with a fragile voluntary moratorium the only obstacle to resumed testing. And negotiations in Geneva on another crucial building block for both disarmament and non-proliferation – a treaty to ban further production of weapons-grade fissile material – remain at a total impasse.  The only half-way good news is that, with the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March, progress continues on the third building block: ensuring that weapons-usable materials, and weapons themselves, currently stored in multiple locations in 32 countries, do not fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. But progress even here is painfully slow, and there is not much reason for optimism that the original target will be met, of achieving complete security by 2014.

The message that must go out to the world’s policymakers – and Australia, with its long record of policy innovation and leadership on nuclear and other weapons-of-mass-destruction issues, has an important continuing international role here –  is that they simply have to get serious about eliminating the whole range of risks associated with nuclear weapons and civil nuclear energy. Neither piecemeal change nor sloganeering will do the job: sound bites and tweets are not the route to nuclear salvation. Nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and civil nuclear-energy risk reduction are inextricably connected, and they call for sustained commitment around a comprehensive agenda, and detailed argument.

Disarmament.  Although disarmament is by far the hardest of all nuclear objectives to achieve, the nuclear threat will continue to hang over us until the last nuclear-armed state destroys its last weapon. Getting serious about disarmament means the five original nuclear weapons state members of the NPT getting serious, in a way that they have never been in the past, about their explicit commitment under Article VI of that Treaty to go down that path. And it also means the three nuclear-armed elephants outside the NPT – India, Pakistan and Israel – also being prepared to ultimately eliminate their own respective arsenals.

There are three crucial messages that just have to get out here. The first is that the threat of a nuclear weapons catastrophe remains alarmingly real. Existing global stockpiles have a destructive capacity equal to 150,000 Hiroshima bombs, and in handling them there is an omnipresent potential for human error, system error, or misjudgment under stress. There are regular new revelations – not least about the Cuban missile crisis –about just how close the world came to nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War years (when the so-called failsafe command and control systems operated by the US and Soviet Union are likely to have been rather more sophisticated than those between India and Pakistan today).

The second message is that Cold War nuclear-deterrence doctrine is irrelevant to today’s world. So long as nuclear weapons remain, we know that states – whether this be a rational motivation or not – are going to want to maintain a minimum nuclear-deterrent capability. But that can be done without weapons on high alert; and it can be done with drastically reduced arsenals in the case of the US and Russia, and, at worst, at current levels for the other nuclear-armed states. It can also be done in a way that reduces the military salience of nuclear weapons. States like Japan, ROK and (to a lesser extent, because of our geographical position, Australia) which rely on extended nuclear deterrence from the US can make a major contribution of their own to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in defence thinking by making clear that they do not rely on nuclear weapons for anything other than protection from nuclear threat contingencies.

The third message, related to that, is that if the existing nuclear powers are serious about non-proliferation, and sincerely want to prevent others from joining their club, they cannot keep justifying the possession of nuclear weapons as a means of protection for themselves or their allies against other weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, or conventional weapons. Indeed, the single most difficult issue inhibiting serious movement toward disarmament – certainly in the case of Pakistan in the context of India, and Russia and China in the context of the US – are conventional arms imbalances (including ballistic missile defence capabilities), and ways of addressing them must rise to the top of the policy agenda.

These messages must be matched by willingness to map a credible path to zero -- showing how it is possible to get to where we need to go, within a reasonable time. Advocates – like the Global Zero movement, of which I am otherwise a strong supporter – who favour a  very specific early target date for total elimination, like 2025 or 2030, have to wrestle with the reality that setting dates which are seen by policymakers as impossibly ambitious seems bound to stop them listening altogether. My own Commisison argued that it was more credible and productive to focus on a 2025 ‘minimization’ target – reducing the world’s stockpile from 22-23,000 to 2,000 – and not put a specific date on getting to zero thereafter, recognizing that before this can happen we will have to overcome three really big hurdles: remove geo-political uncertainty in key regions like South Asia, overcome the psychological reluctance of states to give up weapons, and have in place verification and enforcement systems which every state is totally confident will stop any subsequent breakout.

Non-Proliferation. Getting serious about non-proliferation means in the first instance strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the relevant watchdog organization, and strengthening the weaknesses in the Non-Proliferation Treaty that have long been identified – in particular achieving universal embrace of the more stringent safeguard procedures in the Additional Protocol, and some effective penalties for those like North Korea purporting to walk away from the NPT. Agreed language on these issues at the 2010 NPT Review Conference was limp or non-existent, and it is a matter now of starting all over again in the long run-up to 2015.

Getting serious about non-proliferation also means addressing the proliferation risks potentially associated with whatever expansion of civil nuclear energy occurs in the years ahead, although post-Fukushima this is likely to be much less dramatic than previously anticipated.  Proliferation resistant technology – involving mainly new reactor designs which don’t require or produce sensitive material – may be part of the answer in the longer run, but the most immediate need is to ensure that no new ‘bomb starter kits’ (i.e. fissile material production facilities) are built by new countries. That means in turn being able to offer them assurances of supply of the fuel they need, the creation of an internationally managed fuel bank, or some other multilateral arrangement that would pose less risk. The IAEA is slowly moving down this path, but not fast enough for anyone’s comfort.

The most immediately pressing of all non-proliferation needs is, of course, to deal effectively with the specific problems of North Korea and Iran. Although the North Korean problem on the face of it is more immediately serious, given that it has already tested nuclear explosive devices and possesses half dozen or so of them, it is in a sense more manageable: neither of the countries most threatened by this development, Japan or South Korea, have shown any signs of wanting to join the race; there is no reason to fear – unless one accepts a ‘madman’ theory, never usually a good idea in international relations despite its popularity in the world’s tabloids – that North Korea would ever commit national suicide by actually using its devices aggressively;  and with the succession issue now apparently decisively resolved, it may be that Pyongyang will again get serious about restarting denuclearisation negotiations. None of us should hold our breath for a result but the old contain-and-deter-but-keep-the-door-open-for-negotiations formula seems to be working.

In the case of Iran, although in many ways even more troubling than DPRK, both because of the existential threat any weapons might pose to Israel and because of the very real proliferation breakout threat posed by some of its neighbours, I continue to believe  – as does almost everyone except, apparently, Binyamin Netanyahu and those around him (and in that category it seems now we have to include Mitt Romney) –  that this is capable of resolution by the same combination of deterrence, containment and pressure-backed negotiations, and that any preemptive strike by Israel, with or without US backing, certainly before Tehran actually crossed the threshold and possessed useable nuclear weapons, would be crazily wrongheaded. It should not be assumed that Iran’s nuclear program has ever been designed to give it any more than a weapon-making capability, as distinct from weapons themselves, and while any such program gives real ground for concern and is in manifest breach of the NPT, it is not a defensible basis, legally, morally or rationally, for going to war.

Testing, Fissile Material and Nuclear Security. Getting serious about the building blocks for non-proliferation and disarmament means, in relation to nuclear testing, the hold-out ratification countries, including especially China and India, not continuing to shelter behind the inability of successive US presidents to persuade the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In relation to introducing a ban on the production of weapons grade fissile material, this means countries like India and China not sheltering comfortably behind the intransigence of Pakistan in refusing consensus on any kind of negotiation proceeding at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. And on the subject of putting “loose nukes”, i.e. nuclear weapons and materials insufficiently guarded against theft or diversion,  once and for all out of the reach of rogue states and non-state terrorist actors, this means every key state throwing  not just rhetorical but total practical effort into the full implementation of the multiple treaties, resolutions, arrangements, agreements and cooperative threat reduction programs, and individual national commitments, already in place, and reinforced at the  Seoul summit in March.

Re-Energising the Agenda. So how can policymakers and those who seek to influence them – including Australia’s political leaders – regenerate that momentum that seemed so promising just a couple of years ago?  What can we do to reinflate the balloon – and ensure that it’s not just full of hot air? Others will have ideas about how best to do this both in the short and long term – including no doubt through the education system, where nuclear issues seem to have been long more or less completely neglected in every country of which I’m aware – but let me mention finally three particular initiatives which have been recommended by my  ICNND, on the last  two of which at least some progress has recently been made.

One initiative, about the utility of which the interested international community is fairly evenly divided, is to develop and promote a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention, building on a proposal which already has strong civil society and some useful government support, as a framework for advocacy action, and as a detailed and credible foundation for multilateral disarmament negotiations whenever these could be started. While, given the enormous complexity and difficulty of the issues involved, there is little prospect of such a draft Convention exercise here acquiring the same early momentum as did the Ottawa treaty on land mines and the Oslo treaty on cluster bombs, this could be a useful focusing and energising mechanism over the longer term. I would certainly like to see some serious and sustained research effort, hopefully supported by the Australian government, going into producing a really comprehensive and credible draft convention.

A second initiative would be to regularly publish a detailed report card that pulls no punches in assessing which states are meeting their disarmament and non-proliferation commitments, and which are not,  and which are taking seriously the benchmark challenges set out by the ICNND and similar reports, and which are not. I have been involved in establishing over the last year a new Centre  at the Australian National University Crawford School of Public Policy, directed by Professor Ramesh Thakur and supported by the Australian Government, which is now working to do just that – with the renowned Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)  in Sweden, and with  the support of the Swiss Government for outreach  outreach activities in Geneva.  Our first “State of Play” report is targeted for early 2013.

The third initiative is to gather together in regional networks experienced and high-profile current and former figures from politics, diplomacy and the services to inform and energise public opinion, and especially high-level policymakers, to take seriously the very real threats posed by nuclear weapons, and do everything possible to achieve a world in which they are contained, diminished and ultimately eliminated. Such networks now exist with the European Leadership Network (ELN) and the Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (which I convene, with its Secretariat based at the Centre in Canberra), and another is planned for start-up soon in Latin America.

No quick fix will turn all this around. Getting the kind of messages that I have talked about here today embedded in public and political consciousness is going to involve very slow boring through very hard boards. But the messages demand attention, and we simply have to keep drilling. The stakes are enormous, and those of us who care about these issues – and I am sure that includes everyone here this evening – persist simply because we must, in the interests of ourselves, our children and our children’s children.