Nuclear War Or Prohibition? Australia Can Choose


Australia’s alliance with the US does not mean we have to follow them to nuclear war, writes Gem Romuld from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Faced with two irrational and aggressive nuclear-armed leaders, deterrence theory is failing. The promise of nuclear attack is meant to keep nuclear states from using their weapons. Is it becoming clearer every week that this fragile structure is not built to last.

North Korea’s 6th nuclear test is alarming, yes, but an unsurprising next move in the war-game with US President Trump. Both Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are threatening each other with some form of catastrophic “fire”, a thin veil for nuclear war.

Both the US and North Korea are engaging in reckless provocations. Joint US/South Korean military drills on the Korean peninsula and the pursuit of the THAAD missile defence system are continually fueling the fire. Trump and Jong-un are paving the path to nuclear war. Another path exists and we must take it.


On September 20, heads of state and foreign ministers will line up at the United Nations to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). All states are invited to participate in the signing ceremony. When 50 countries have ratified, the new Treaty will enter into force. The TPNW was negotiated and adopted at the UN by 122 nations earlier this year, and promises to be a powerful tool to de-escalate, de-legitimise and disarm nuclear weapons.

The TPNW categorically rejects nuclear weapons for the instruments of catastrophe that they are. Founded on a deep and detailed understanding of the humanitarian impacts of the weapon, the treaty’s drafters have closed the legal gap by which nuclear possession by some was apparently tolerable.

Now, all three weapons of mass destruction are outlawed by international treaties, and nuclear possession by anyone is declared equally unacceptable. As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “there are no right hands for the wrong weapon.”

A screencap from ABC footage of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing a greater focus on terrorism, July 2017.
A screencap from ABC footage of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing a greater focus on terrorism, July 2017.

The TPNW prohibits the development, stockpiling, testing, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. It also prohibits any nations from encouraging, assisting or inducing others to engage in the prohibited activities. The goal of the Treaty is the total elimination of nuclear weapons; and it provides the formal legal channel to facilitate the process.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s unqualified support for Trump serves to legitimize and condone his actions. Instead of providing constant approval, Australia is in a position to change the landscape. The ANZUS Treaty doesn’t require us to be “joined at the hip”, as Turnbull suggests, but to consult together. Australia’s interests are not identical to the US’. Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong explained in the Lowy Interpreter last October; “being in an alliance does not mean Australia must agree reflexively with every aspect of American policy or make its foreign policy subservient to that of our partner”.


On September 20, the Australian leadership is faced with a choice to support or reject nuclear weapons. If it fails to sign the TPNW, Australia’s commitment to nuclear disarmament is fictional. As a signatory to the treaties banning biological and chemical weapons, anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, expectations are high. Public opinion is with the Treaty; a March 2017 IPSOS poll found 74 per cent of Australians wanted our government to join the negotiations that led to this landmark agreement.

With every new signatory on the TPNW, the international norm against nuclear aggression will strengthen. The weapon will lose its status and it will be harder for nuclear programs to secure resources for modernization and maintenance. Countries that claim dependence on extended nuclear deterrence, like Australia, will experience increasing pressure to sign on and choose a non-nuclear defence posture.

What right does Turnbull have to criticise the North Korean nuclear program when Australia claims that nuclear weapons are essential for our security? De-escalation is urgently required, and the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides a legally sound and feasible alternative to the perilous path we’re currently on.

Gem Romuld is the Outreach Coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Australia, and produces Earth Matters for 3CR Radio.