An ALP-Led Australia Should Sign The Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty


For years, Australia has shirked its international responsibilities around the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Dr Monique Cormier, an Australian legal expert on nuclear deterrence, disarmament and non-proliferation, argues that a window of opportunity has opened for our nation to finally do the right thing.

Each year, the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor tracks actions and undertakings that states have made towards the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world, and highlights risk factors for nuclear war. The Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor’s annual report released in March noted that fear of nuclear war was at a high not seen since the Cold War, warning that “2022 was a year of exceptional danger”.

Russia’s high profile threats to use nuclear weapons in its war of aggression against Ukraine and the fact that nuclear-armed states continue to increase and modernise their nuclear arsenals are sobering reminders of the existential threat that these weapons pose.

There is, however, a tiny silver lining in the otherwise bleak assessment of the current nuclear landscape: Australia’s reversal of its objection to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Ban Treaty). The ALP’s victory at the federal election in May last year was welcomed by nuclear ban advocates ready to hold the ALP to its promise that “Labor in government will sign and ratify the Ban Treaty”.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese, pictured on election night in May 2022.

After years of active opposition to the Nuclear Ban Treaty by successive Coalition governments, the Labor government’s small but significant steps towards engagement with the treaty have been viewed as important progress. In June 2022, Australia sent an observer delegation to the first meeting of states parties, and in October Australia voted to abstain from the annual UN General Assembly resolution supporting the Nuclear Ban Treaty, rather than vote against it, becoming the first nuclear umbrella state to do so.

While Australia’s tentative engagement with the Nuclear Ban Treaty has important symbolic value and should be applauded, things are not all roses for an ALP-led Australia on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

For one, the government continues to rely heavily on its commitment to “take into account” a list of de facto pre-conditions to joining the Nuclear Ban Treaty. They include the need to ensure an effective verification and enforcement regime; to ensure interaction of the Nuclear Ban Treaty with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and to work towards universal support for the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

Originally listed in the 2021 Labor National Platform in which the ALP first pledged to sign and ratify the treaty and repeated in the newly adopted 2023 platform, these considerations are becoming convenient excuses for the status quo. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, these issues are hardly insurmountable hurdles to ratification.

An Astute class nuclear powered submarine, from the United Kingdom. (IMAGE: UK Ministry of Defence)

In addition, the ALP-led government is forging ahead with the Coalition-initiated AUKUS alliance and the controversial plan to allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Australia will be the first non-nuclear-weapon state to have nuclear propulsion technology and the first to take advantage of a loophole in the international verification regime that will allow Australia to withdraw weapons-grade uranium from the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguard system.

While it is highly unlikely that Australia would ever divert such nuclear material to illicit development of nuclear weapons, there has been considerable pushback from other states and civil society concerned about the poor precedent that this will set for nuclear non-proliferation.

And finally, while the recently released Defence Strategic Review acknowledged that the “risk of nuclear escalation must be regarded as real”, it was disheartening to read that the Review recommended that Australia’s best protection against this remains US extended nuclear deterrence.

In its response to the Strategic Review, the government did not make any comment regarding this recommendation. Reliance on extended nuclear deterrence is prohibited under the Nuclear Ban Treaty as “assisting, encouraging or inducing” the possession or stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

Controversially, the ALP government has further embraced US extended nuclear deterrence by committing to allow the US to deploy up to six nuclear-capable B-52 aircraft to the Northern Territory, which is also clearly prohibited under Article 1 of the Nuclear Ban Treaty. Simply accepting the US policy of neither confirming nor denying whether these aircraft will be armed with nuclear weapons amounts to wilful blindness and would not exonerate Australia. Remaining under the nuclear umbrella is therefore not an option if Australia is to ratify the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

U.S. Air Force B-1 Bombers are refuelled by RAAF KC-30A during an integration training exercise over Australia in 2021.
(IMAGE: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Flickr)

If the ALP is serious about its commitment to “take urgent action to reduce the risk of nuclear war” and its pledge to join the Nuclear Ban Treaty, there are a few additional considerations that it should take into account.

The Defence Strategic Review emphasised the centrality of the US alliance to Australia’s security but also noted that “in the context of the Alliance and the deteriorating strategic environment, Australia must be more self-reliant so we are able to contribute more to regional stability”. There are no insurmountable legal or political obstacles in the way of Australia withdrawing from the US nuclear umbrella, and no reason why Australia could not maintain a strong conventional alliance with the US.

If the Ukraine conflict has demonstrated anything, it is that nuclear threats have enabled and emboldened Russian aggression. An entrenched war in which thousands have been killed, thousands more injured and numerous war crimes have been committed should not be hailed as a shining example of nuclear deterrence.

Ending Australia’s defence policy of extended nuclear deterrence would be a bold move that would demonstrate Australia’s self-reliance and leadership in the region and among other nuclear umbrella states.

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii. Australia’s Collins-class submarine, HMAS Rankin (SSK 78), enters Pearl Harbour for a port visit after completing exercises in the Pacific region. (IMAGE: Marion Doss, Flickr).

Renouncing extended nuclear deterrence and joining the Nuclear Ban Treaty would also change the narrative surrounding AUKUS and the nuclear-powered submarines. Ratification of the treaty would allay any fears that Australia might divert nuclear material to weapons, and also help to reassure allies concerned that the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will escalate tensions in the region. Importantly, it would set a positive precedent for other non-nuclear-weapon states who might want to acquire their own nuclear-powered submarines.

If the ALP really is committed to working towards ratification of the Nuclear Ban Treaty, then it should also be accountable and transparent about its priorities and concerns. It is not enough to simply regurgitate the vague, open-ended considerations from the 2021 Labor National Platform without some concrete targets and timeframes. The conditional promise to join the treaty otherwise rings hollow.

It’s time for the ALP to validate its anti-nuclear credentials. Without proper action, small victories can easily be undone, momentum becomes inertia and a potential legacy lost.

Dr Monique Cormier is a Senior Lecturer at Monash Faculty of Law, where she researches and writes on legal issues relating to nuclear deterrence, disarmament and non-proliferation.