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Nuclear Weapons - Adjournment Speech

 I rise to highlight that this week, at the United Nations in New York, over 120 countries are taking part in negotiations for a new global nuclear weapons treaty. For more than two decades, multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations were at a standstill. The last treaty concluded in this field was the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996. But this long period of inaction has now come to an end.

Yesterday, a majority of the world's governments began work on negotiating a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. This historic UN treaty-making process draws on previous humanitarian disarmament initiatives to ban chemical weapons, biological weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. Its interest has been building for some time among states to negotiate a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons based on their unacceptable humanitarian consequences.

Yet the Australian government announced last month that it was boycotting these nuclear disarmament negotiations, as they supposedly are not in our national interests. It told Senate estimates on 2 March that it 'would not be able to negotiate in good faith'. Turning our back on the United Nations at a moment of great international instability and uncertainty, when global solutions to collective security and humanitarian challenges are more crucial and urgent than ever, is not the answer. That is why Labor is urging the government to fully explain its position.

The boycott has the effect of seriously tarnishing Australia's international reputation, alienating those of our neighbours in South-East Asia and the Pacific who are among the leaders of this vital UN initiative. Another notable distinction is that, of the 115 nations belonging to nuclear-weapon-free zones, Australia was the only one to vote against the start of these negotiations. As a party to the non-proliferation treaty, Australia is legally required to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament. So how is boycotting the negotiations compatible with that obligation? That was the conclusion of John Carlson, who headed Australia's nuclear safeguards office for two decades, in a recent article for the Lowy Institute. ANU Professor Ramesh Thakur has also argued that the boycott could breach the NPT. The government must explain to the parliament and to the public how its decision can be reconciled with its international legal obligations.

In 2010, all parties to the NPT expressed their deep concern that any use of nuclear weapons would have 'catastrophic humanitarian consequences'. Why, then, has Australia refused to join 159 nations in declaring that these weapons should never be used again, under any circumstances? How can any government insist that these are legitimate, useful and necessary weapons, when they are clearly inhumane and immoral? We must fundamentally reassess our position on these ultimate weapons of mass destruction. These instruments of incineration and radioactive contamination are not acceptable for any nation. Most of the world's nations recognise that and are now taking appropriate action towards humanitarian disarmament.

The Australian Labor Party supports this week's UN negotiations, which will continue for three weeks in June and July. We support the humanitarian imperative of these negotiations and share international frustrations with the pace of disarmament. Our national platform, adopted in 2015, expresses firm support for 'the negotiation of a global treaty banning nuclear weapons and welcomes the growing global movement of nations that is supporting this objective.' With this in mind, I moved a motion in the Senate yesterday noting the grave threat that nuclear weapons pose to all humanity and urging the government to participate constructively in the negotiations supported by the Senate. Earlier this month, an Ipsos poll showed that the vast majority of Australians want the government to join the negotiations. Only one in 10 Australians think that the government should not support the process. The government is wildly out of step with public opinion. That is why Labor supports effective and feasible action towards nonproliferation and disarmament and will continue to actively pursue a path towards these objectives.

If we are truly dedicated to achieving a world without nuclear weapons, we should be firm in our conviction that these weapons are unacceptable for all nations, in all circumstances—no exceptions. The UN treaty being negotiated in New York to prohibit nuclear weapons will establish this as a principle in international law. How can other types of weapons be prohibited under global conventions but not yet the most destructive weapons of all? The Australian government argues that nuclear weapons can be prohibited once they have been completely eliminated. But for other indiscriminate weapons, prohibition has stimulated action towards elimination by stigmatising their use, production and stockpiling. I think that is an incredibly important factor that has come about. The statement provided this week at the UN by Mr Peter Maurer, the President of the ICRC, highlighted this fact. He said:

Of course, adopting a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons will not make them immediately disappear. But it will reinforce the stigma against their use, support commitments to nuclear risk reduction, and be a disincentive for proliferation. It will be a concrete step towards fulfilling existing commitments for nuclear disarmament, notably those of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As with chemical and biological weapons, a clear and unambiguous prohibition is the cornerstone of their elimination.

It is a clear statement. What is clear is that these negotiations will proceed, with or without Australia at the table.

While Australia is not represented in any official capacity at the negotiations this week, several members of Australian civil society are there as part of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. They are working alongside like minded governments to achieve a successful outcome. Among them is Sue Coleman-Haseldine, a Kokatha-Mula woman from South Australia, whose community has suffered greatly from the dreadful, ongoing impact of British atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Three years ago, she travelled to Vienna to speak at a major diplomatic conference that helped pave the way for this week's UN negotiations. There she showed courage. She said:

We are telling the story so that our history is not forgotten but also to create a better future for all people, all over the world.

If you love your own children and care for the children of the world, you will find the courage to stand up and say "enough".

Always keeping in mind that the future forever belongs to the next generation

For the sake of current and future generations, I urge the Australian government to change its position, to stand on the right side of history and join the UN negotiations this week in New York and commit to the cause of eliminating nuclear weapons.