New Zealand has marked the 30th anniversary of its nuclear-free legislation, but according to a visiting professor, the world is at a greater risk of “nuclear catastrophe” than ever before. Sam Sachdeva reports.

New Zealand’s nuclear-free status has become a crucial part of our national identity.

The story of a plucky underdog defying the mighty United States is a popular tale, while David Lange’s famous Oxford Union address decrying nuclear weapons was even turned into a song.

With this week marking the 30th anniversary of the country’s nuclear-free legislation, activists from the time have reflected fondly on their success.

However, the occasion has been somewhat overshadowed by North Korea’s provocations and growing uncertainty about a possible nuclear attack.

Ramesh Thakur, director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament and a former United Nations assistant secretary-general, is among those offering a warning about the need to change course.

Thakur addressed MPs on Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee, saying the world currently faces only two “existential threats”: climate change, and nuclear war.

“It’s interesting that those who reject climate science are widely derided as denialists…but intriguingly, those who reject the facts of nuclear risk and threats are praised for their realism in most countries.”

Greater nuclear risk

With boundaries between nuclear and conventional weapons steadily eroding, and rising tensions in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Thakur says it’s no surprise that former US defence secretary William Perry believes the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than during the Cold War.

“The nuclear peace so far has held as much due to luck as to sound stewardship and management of nuclear weapons. If not abolished, nothing is more certain that they will proliferate and be used again someday, somewhere, somehow.”

For nuclear peace to hold while countries remain armed, he says, deterrents and failsafes must work every time, while rational decision-makers must always be in office – “a dubious proposition”.

“How reassured should we be that the world’s nuclear peace depends on Donald Trump’s and Kim Jong-un’s fingers being on the nuclear button?” he asked.

While the first nuclear era was shaped by the battle between the US and the Soviet Union and coupled by running discussions to ensure stability, Thakur says the current situation is far different.

Multiple nuclear powers have “criss-crossing ties of cooperation and conflict”, with fragile control systems, long-running disputes over territory, and different views of their arsenal’s military and political value.

That means any changes to a country’s nuclear doctrine can have a “cascading effect” on the others involved.

“For example, the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan is historically, conceptually, strategically and even operationally tied deeply with China as a nuclear power – you can’t separate them out.”

Even though there are fewer nuclear weapons today – reducing from a high of 65,000 to about 15,000 – he says the chances of a nuclear war are higher, “because of more countries possessing them in more volatile, unstable regions with a history of armed conflicts”.

Former UN official and nuclear disarmament expert Ramesh Thakur believes New Zealand could be doing more to promote the elimination of nuclear weapons. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

New Zealand’s location gives the debate over nuclear weapons added resonance.

Thakur says the “theatre of nuclear rivalry” has shifted from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific, with Asia home to four of the nine countries with nuclear weapons.

While the stockpiles of China, Pakistan, India and North Korea only make up three per cent of global numbers, Asia is the only continent where nuclear warhead numbers are actually growing.

That rise could continue, says Thakur, if North Korea’s neighbours grow increasingly anxious about its nuclear weapons programme and the threat it poses.

“North Korea’s unchecked nuclear ambitions could in turn trigger a cascade of proliferation throughout the subregion: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan.”

New nuclear treaty

To tackle the growing threat, the UN has been carrying out negotiations on a new treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons. Some countries are dissatisfied with the efficacy of the existing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a nearly 50-year-old deal with loopholes and a lack of teeth.

Thakur says the deal may have reached its limit, with not a single warhead eliminated through a multilateral agreement to date and nuclear-armed states paying only lip service to the elimination of their weaponry.

“If we in New Zealand want to do something realistic about nuclear weapons, we have to go beyond the NPT – not imperil the NPT because it’s valuable, but go beyond it.”

A number of countries including the US and Australia have boycotted UN meetings to draft the new treaty, arguing it will not make a significant difference and could actually undermine the NPT.

However, Thakur says the participation of over two-thirds of the NPT signatories suggests the new treaty is about strengthening, not wounding, the existing deal. He argues the boycott is disrespectful and possibly illegal, as a violation of article six of the NPT requiring countries to “pursue negotiations in good faith”.

It would make more sense for them to shape the discussions from inside, given the lack of credible alternatives to tackling the issue.

“The ban treaty is at present the only practical and credible effort to fulfil the dream of a world freed at last of the existence of nuclear weapons that constitute an existential threat to humanity.”

NZ:ambitious or ambivalent?

New Zealand has taken a leading role in negotiating the new treaty, with our ambassador for disarmament Dell Higie serving as a vice-president of the UN conference.

Thakur says we have traditionally parted company with our big brother Australia on nuclear weaponry due in part to our differing opinions on defence alliances that date back to the ANZUS fallout – adding that history has tended to vindicate New Zealand rather than Australia.

However, he argues the country been “a bit ambivalent” when it comes to making the most of its gravitas on nuclear issues. New Zealand has not joined 127 other countries in signing a pledge to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear weapons, supposedly due to concerns about the use of the word “stigmatise”.

“Because of its own history of actions on this, including its national legislation, New Zealand has a certain authority internationally in speaking to the issues…

“On some issues it has had a leadership role…on other issues New Zealand has stayed at a slight distance, which has been puzzling to others as well.”

That supposed ambivalence played out at Parliament: the Greens opposed a government motion to mark the 30th anniversary of nuclear-free legislation, with the party’s global affairs spokesman Kennedy Graham arguing it should be doing more to promote the ongoing UN negotiations.

“To truly make the world safe from nuclear weapon attacks, we need to work together to make them a relic for all states, not just North Korea.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee hit back, accusing the Greens of “playing petty politics”.

New Zealand still has time to promote its involvement: another round of negotiations is set to start next week.

And what better global tribute to the 30th anniversary, Thakur says, than getting a new nuclear-free deal across the line?

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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