The 30th anniversary of the bombing of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior on 10 July by French secret service agents in Auckland Harbour is a timely opportunity of the need to take stock of progress towards nuclear disarmament and to consider what more New Zealand can do to help achieve it.
The Greenpeace ship was targeted to prevent it travelling to Mururoa Atoll to take part in protest action against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. After a flurry of final tests in 1996 to beat the deadline imposed by the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), France ended its full-scale nuclear testing programme. While the Greenpeace protests were not the proximate cause of this halt, France’s destruction of the peace boat scored an own goal by focusing global attention, albeit fleetingly, on the anti-nuclear movement and the nuclear disarmament cause.
Yet the weapons themselves persist. In addition to the eight states listed above, Israel also holds nuclear weapons while Iran and Syria are deemed to have conducted nuclear activities that could not be justified, nor verified, as being solely for peaceful, non-weapons purposes. Some measure of progress since 1985 is the effective curbing of ‘horizontal proliferation’ to yet more States, although this situation is precarious and requires vigilance and effective verification to maintain. Notable progress on nuclear disarmament includes the verified dismantlement of Iraq’s (during 1991-2003) and Libya’s (during 2003-2004) nuclear weapons programmes. These efforts are buoyed by nuclear weapons cuts by the United States and Russia (which hold an estimated 7,100 and 7,500 nuclear weapons respectively), under the New START agreement and the United Kingdom’s unilateral announcement that it will reduce its stockpile and the number of operationally deployed warheads. However all five NPT nuclear weapon states are in the throes of modernizing their nuclear weapons programmes, with the UK set to approve a costly replacement to its Trident submarine nuclear ballistic missile delivery system in 2016.
In recent years, efforts to address the nuclear weapons problem have shifted from focusing on the weapons themselves to their inherent risks. Diplomatic and civil society discourse is turning to concerns over the safety of deployed and non-deployed weapons, the potential for accidents and unintended explosions and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use. The latter issue is driving a new process for achieving nuclear disarmament, involving conferences held in Norway (2013), Mexico (2014) and Austria (2014). States adhering to the process’s Humanitarian Pledge call on the NPT nuclear weapon states to fulfill their disarmament obligation under the NPT and offer to assist them to do so; request all nuclear armed states to reduce the risk of nuclear explosions including by reducing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons (such as by de-alerting); and commit to cooperate with others to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. The pledge commitments are not dissimilar to the repeated calls from the New Agenda Coalition grouping on nuclear disarmament, of which New Zealand is a member.
So what more might New Zealand do to support global nuclear disarmament?
First, and very simply, it could sign on to the Humanitarian Pledge, in line with all of its fellow New Agenda Coalition members and its statement in support of the humanitarian consequences initiative on behalf of 150 states to the UN General Assembly in October 2014 (New Zealand hadn’t signed as of 9 July 2015). Supporting this action should not raise eyebrows in policy circles.
Second, it could leverage its position on the UN Security Council—and its Presidency during July 2015—to endorse measures and activities in support of nuclear disarmament. One of the most promising avenues here concerns verification. New Zealand could support nascent efforts to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency’s capabilities to verify nuclear disarmament, in accordance with its mandate, especially during the remainder of its term on the Agency’s Board of Governors, which expires in December 2015. If it can’t do so financially, then lending its political support and encouraging others to do so too, will enhance the Agency’s readiness for such activities and increase the possibility that nuclear disarmament agreements will be negotiated and multilaterally verified in the future. Such actions are entirely in keeping with New Zealand’s middle power status and nuclear disarmament policy.
Angela Woodward is Deputy Executive Director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC), working remotely from Christchurch, New Zealand. VERTIC has a project on strengthening the IAEA’s capability to conduct nuclear disarmament verification. She can be emailed at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Greenpeace