There are a handful of empty chairs in Committee Room 1 in the UN General Assembly building in New York. One of them should have been occupied by an Australian representative, but these negotiations are going ahead without us. Yesterday, the second draft of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons was circulated, despite Australia’s best efforts to prevent these talks from happening at all.
Now, the devils in the detail are being coaxed into the light. Should the treaty ban transit of these weapons through states’ territories, and if so, how would that be verified? How should people whose lives have been ruined through the development and testing of nuclear weapons be assisted, and by whom? Because the small handful of nuclear weapons states and their proxies have mostly stayed away, it has been a remarkably fruitful negotiation thus far, with several dozen civil society organisations lending substantial expertise and determination to the dialogue. Nonetheless, there are some tensions in the room as this treaty is wrangled clause by clause. One NATO member seems to be acting as a spoiler, and a week out from finalisation, a lot of work remains to be done.
Australia, having quietly supported the deployment of US nuclear weapons for decades, could have played a breakthrough role in this room. It is long past time for countries like Australia, which claim to support the abolition of nuclear weapons, to get behind the first major progress in decades to actually get it done. Our government, in placing an obsolete faith in these weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction, is defying the will of the vast majority of nations and their peoples. In the abstract, as dry paragraphs in successive defence white papers, they can get away with it. Should these hideous weapons ever actually be used, the Australian Government’s indefensible role in blocking and then boycotting this process will be exposed as the hollow and amoral stance that it is. But by then of course, it will be too late.
In some form or other, this treaty will be done without Australia. Soon our energy will turn to the urgent task to getting us signed up, but it is impossible to let this moment pass without reflecting on what might have been if our Government had chosen to seize this unique opportunity and thrown its support behind this historic international movement.