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The Significance of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987

  • AUTHORGeoffrey Palmer, Public Advisory Committee for Disarmament and Arms Control
  • Jul 27, 2017

Public Opinion

The enactment of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987 was at the time, and remains, a signal statement of New Zealand’s determination to stand up for a principle in which its people believe.

The significance of the Act lies in its affirmation that New Zealand exists as an independent and proud democracy concerned about the future of the planet.  

The high politics surrounding this Act of Parliament were momentous, both domestically and internationally.

Strong and persistent anti-nuclear public opinion in New Zealand in the years leading up to the Act revolved around deep concern about both the prospects of a nuclear war and nuclear testing being carried out by France in French Polynesia. 

The tests inflamed New Zealand public opinion and the 3rd Labour Government deployed a frigate to the area in 1973 with a Minister on board as a means of protesting the testing.

The testing, first atmospheric and then underground, led ultimately to New Zealand making two journeys to the International Court of Justice to try and shut it down.1  

Then there were the infamous actions of 10 July 1985 carried out by France in support of its nuclear test programme by bombing and sinking the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. 

The subsequent conviction of two French operatives for manslaughter of the dead crew member who was on board increased in dramatic fashion the public concern about what the nuclear weapons culture could lead to.

People earlier had also been alarmed at developments in the arms race arising from President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as “star wars”. 

The fact that one of the nuclear powers was racing to achieve a capacity to protect against nuclear attack seemed to New Zealanders to intensify the risk of a catatrophic pre-emptive nuclear attack from the other side.

But President Reagan was right to describe the doctrine of mutually assured destruction as a suicide pact. 

As Maire Leadbeater has rightly written, New Zealand’s nuclear free policy and the legislation following resulted from “how ordinary people created a movement that changed New Zealand’s foreign policy and identity as a nation.”2  

New Zealand had a strong and vociferous peace movement during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Such passion seems absent from the present political scene and not only on this issue. 

The purpose of the 1987 Act

The purpose of the Act was ambitious and wide-ranging: “to establish in New Zealand a Nuclear Free Zone, to promote and encourage an active and effective contribution by New Zealand to the essential process of disarmament and international arms control and to implement [a number of treaties].”

One of the treaties referred to was the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty of 6 August 1985, the text of which appears in the statute.

This was promoted by New Zealand over a long period. It took years after that to be accepted by the nuclear weapons states.3 

 It was not finally completed until France ceased nuclear testing in 1996. Looking back we can feel justified in this effort. Today the whole of the southern hemisphere is protected by nuclear weapons free zones. 

The 1987 Act of Parliament established the legal framework for New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy. 

The law also established the Committee under whose auspices this meeting has been organised.4 And a separate ministerial portfolio of Arms Control and Disarmament was created.

The Act embodied what the Minister who promoted it, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister the Rt Hon David Lange, described in the following terms:5 

If we genuinely want to make a leap forward into a world not dominated by nuclear weapons we have to accept that one day arrangements for a nuclear defence will have to be replaced by arrangements for a conventional defence. If we really want to be free of nuclear weapons we will have to come to terms with the irrationality that drives the arms race.

The Act formed part of a difficult diplomatic period that lasted many years over a dispute with the United States over naval ship visits. 

The 4th Labour Government was elected in 1984 on a policy pledge to declare New Zealand nuclear-free and work actively for a nuclear-weapons-free-zone in the South Pacific. 

Labour Party conferences had for years been passing resolutions to ban nuclear powered and nuclear armed ships from New Zealand ports. 

The policy may have required a review of ANZUS—the 1951 collective security agreement which bound Australia, New Zealand and the United States to co-operate on military matters in the Pacific Ocean region—but the party leadership was not prepared to campaign on a policy to leave the Alliance. 

The ANZUS dispute

The dispute with the Americans revolved around whether New Zealand could have a nuclear free policy and remain in ANZUS. There was an enormous amount of diplomatic and political manoeuvring over these issues.6  

The precise nature of the legal obligation under the ANZUS Treaty was problematic because of the loose and general manner in which the language of obligation was framed. The Treaty itself imposes no obligations to accept ship visits. 

New Zealand accepted that naval visits may assist in maintaining the three nations’ “individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”7 But it did not see any reason why such visits needed to include nuclear powered ships or those armed with nuclear weapons. 

And from the New Zealand perspective it was not unreasonable for a democractic ally to ask that such a policy be respected.

All the more so because, joint exercises could be held without port visits and visits  by nuclear ships were clearly not required for the operations of the United States to be effective. They had never been part of the normal pattern of US naval visits to  New Zealand until the Muldoon Government went out of its way to welcome them.   

For the Americans, however, in the tense strategic context of the 1980s, discriminating between nuclear and non nuclear ships for port visits seemed to be a rejection of an inherent obligation in any treaty alliance. 

They argued that such visits were essential for maintaining the three members individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.

The American interpretation of an alliance relationship seemed to be that New Zealand was required to admit to its ports without hesitation all ships of the United States Navy. 

New Zealand argued it was reasonable in a region where there was no need for the deployment of nuclear weapons, to request that its allies not deploy nuclear weapons in ships coming to its ports.

The Government had no appetite to retreat from its anti-nuclear policy but wanted to stay in ANZUS. 

The burning issue was whether a way through could be found that would allow both of these aims to be achieved. In the end it proved impossible, so a sea change was wrought in New Zealand’s foreign and security policy. 

In retrospect, the decision to turn down the visit of the USS Buchanan was the turning point in the dispute and it was a decision in which I was closely personally involved.8 

The request from the United States had been submitted but was withdrawn to avoid the Christmas shutdown in New Zealand, and was resubmitted on 17 January 1985.

A great media fuss erupted over the request while David Lange was visiting the Tokelau Islands. He left on that trip without briefing me on developments. When the story broke it was not possible to communicate with him on a secure line. 

There was a political uproar. There was a lot of pressure from the Australian Labor Government that had been elected on a similar policy to that of New Zealand but had reversed it after attaining office. There were leaks in both Washington and Australia designed to put pressure on New Zealand. 

Looking at the official advice before the Cabinet meeting I believed the advice from officials did not provide sufficient clarity from the New Zealand point of view about whether the vessel carried nuclear weapons. The standard of proof approached the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than the civil standard judged on the balance of probabilities.

The possibility of nuclear tipped ASROC missiles which we understood this destroyer might carry was particularly in my mind and was not convincingly ruled out.

The New Zealand public on this issue was much like a jury. And if we could not convince them we were satisfied the vessel had no nuclear weapons we were in serious difficulty, not only with the public but also the party.

There had been a great deal of work between officials and military people on both sides behind the scenes involving ship selection and David Lange as the Minister was involved in the process. But he did not brief me before he went to Tokelau. I knew he was working on the issue but not the detail. 

The vessel was in fact not going to be carrying nuclear weapons but the written advice from the Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force was ambiguous. 

I summarised my views to the Cabinet when it met on Monday morning but before David was present. David was delayed in arriving back from Tokelau and late to the Cabinet; it was afternoon before he arrived. 

There had been a short discussion of the issue by then and when he came the matter did not detain Cabinet much longer. There was no long or contentious discussion. The ship was turned down, although the communication to the Americans and public announcement took some time. 

The Caucus was content with the decision. David wrote to the American Ambassador on 31 January saying we did not have enough information to let the USS Buchanan in but could the Americans send an FFG 7 naval vessel, a frigate class of ship not suitable for nuclear weapons, instead.

The Americans felt they had taken pains to send a suitable ship and New Zealand had let them down.  

The drafting of the legislation followed. It was designed as a way of formalising the policy and also trying to design a workable framework for its operation in a way that was consistent with the Government’s view that visits by non nuclear naval ships were welcome. 

We thought the formula in the legislation would not compromise the United States “neither confirm or deny” policy as to the presence of nuclear weapons on board. 

New Zealand would make its own mind up as it had with the Buchanan on the basis of advice from its own officials about which vessels to let into New Zealand ports. 

I conducted negotiations in Washington on the draft legislation with the relevant players before it was introduced.  The Secretary of State George Shultz was the most clear and straightforward of the officials with whom I dealt.

Mr Shultz after leaving office became a prominent leader in the Nuclear Threat Initiative dedicated to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, preventing their use and ending them as a threat to future generations.9 

The Secretary of State told me in September 1985 that he knew New Zealanders. They were from a small, law abiding country with a very direct sort of democracy. They were not going to accept the ambivalences on the issue that were accepted in some quarters. 

Deception and dissembling would not work with New Zealanders. He was saying the US required more ambiguity than New Zealanders could live with. “We can’t go there. You will have to decide what to do now.”

Forced to chose between ANZUS and a nuclear free New Zealand policy the Government chose to proceed with the legislation be nuclear free.The United States gave formal notice that it did not recognise New Zealand as an ally of the United States and New Zealand became a friend instead. 

Subsequent developments

It is noteworthy that before long three other nuclear powers, the UK, France and China demonstrated that the provisions of the New Zealand legislation were not an inhibition to port visits by their naval ships. 

At the domestic level, however, it took a long time for the policy to become bipartisan. The National Party Opposition opposed the policy vigorously at its inception and voted against it in Parliament. 

They campaigned against it in the 1987 general election and lost. They did change the party policy before the 1990 election and pledged to retain the legislation, causing the Shadow Defence Spokesman Don McKinnon to resign the portfolio. 

In office the Bolger National Government found it no easier to convince the Americans about ship visits than Labour had done.  

The 5th Labour Government from 1999 until 2008 kept the policy in place. The Prime Minister Rt Hon Helen Clark had been a most active proponent of the policy during the 4th Labour Government. She chaired the Select Committee that scrutinised the Bill. 

In 2005 there was a political fuss about whether some National MPs had told the Americans in Washington the nuclear policy would be “gone by lunchtime” were they to be elected.

The National Government elected in 2008 under Rt Hon John Key and Hon Murray McCully made strenuous efforts to warm up the New Zealand relationship with the United States.10 

The Wellington Declaration of 2010 was followed in 2012 by the Washington Declaration on Defense Cooperation.11 

Finally a ship visit occurred in 2016. The decisions the Government made in relation to this visit were in conformity with the Act.  

The visit by an American destroyer the USS Sampson for the 75th anniversary of the New Zealand Navy did great rescue and relief work after the Kaikoura earthquake. More help was provided  by the US Coastguard ice-breaker Polar Star at the time of the big fire on the Port Hills in Christchurch in 2017.12 

What of the future for the anti-nuclear policy?

The ship visit provisions in the legislation have proved to be perfectly workable. They have survived to this day with many military vessels being admitted from nuclear weapons states.13  

As the Cold War came to an end, the American decision in 1991 to remove nuclear weapons from surface ships fundamentally changed the situation.14 

It reduced the significance of the “neither confirm nor deny” policy and the underlying dispute with New Zealand. 

There are no final victories in politics and vigilance by the public will be important in this space. 

The improving relationship of New Zealand with the United States may pose some challenges in advocating for action on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons agreed in New York on 8 July 2017.15  

The successful negotiation on this Treaty is the most stunning achievement in nuclear disarmament for many years.16  

New Zealand was active in these negotiations and I pay tribute to the leadership role performed by New Zealand Ambassador Dell Higgie.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice in an advisory opinion requested by the General Assembly ruled that the use of nuclear weapons was unlawful in almost all circumstances at international law.17 

In extreme circumstances involving the very survival of the state the use of nuclear weapons may be lawful.18 

That position is not credible and it may not even be the present law, given how international humanitarian law and customary international law have  evolved in the two decades since the ICJ ruling.  

As the NTI recently stated in an Open Letter to President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”19 

Russia and the United States control 93 percent of global nuclear stockpiles. 

The new Treaty aims to make the development, testing, manufacture, possession, or stockpiling nuclear weapons by any country illegal.

In the words of Professor Ramesh Thakur the Treaty goals are to “delegitimise, prohibit, cap and contain, reduce, and eliminate” nuclear weapons.20 

The Treaty was approved by 122 to 1 at the United Nations.

The one was the Netherlands.  

The Treaty will come into force after ratification by 50 countries.

I hope and expect New Zealand to be among the first nations to sign the Treaty when it is opened for signature in September.

Thanks to the 1987 Act we should be one of the very first to ratify. 

The wide level of support for the treaty disguises the fact that the nuclear weapons states and their friends oppose the Treaty. They did not attend the negotiations.

Australia, Japan, Canada and Norway were absent, as were most NATO member states and much of the EU.

The countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union also boycotted the negotiations.

All the powerful countries in the Asian region stayed away.

It will be a stern struggle to turn around the attitudes of the nuclear weapons states and their supporters.

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence is increasingly discredited as being a recipe for mutually assured destruction. 

While it may not be rational to use nuclear weapons there are many terrorists who would love to get their hands on them, theft and sabotage cannot be ruled out.

Command and control systems may fail.

The temptation to use smaller tactical nuclear weapons in some regions is ever present.

A calculus of the risk analysis says it will only be a matter of time before there is another nuclear explosion unless action is taken. 

The only secure protection for humanity is to ban the nuclear bomb and eliminate it.   

It will not be possible to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds on this issue. 

Two "wicked problems" confront humanity: the nuclear weapons issue and climate change. It is hard to say which is worse. Big nuclear explosions, if they occur, will produce a nuclear winter that will make human life impossible to sustain.

Anthropogenic climate change is heating up the atmosphere, raising sea levels, increasing ocean acidification, increasing the frequency and intensity of storms and other extreme weather events that will make life seriously endangered. 

Both prohibiting nuclear weapons and combatting climate change raise issues for the future of people on this planet. 

I am hopeful we can meet both these challenges.

How to achieve the aim in both cases will require political and global leadership of a high order.

New Zealand’s history of courage and determination in the anti-nuclear struggle have given us a significant voice.  

Let it be heard.


1 Nuclear Tests Case (Australia v France) (Judgment) [1974] ICJ Rep 253; (New Zealand v France) (Judgment) [1974] ICJ Rep 457; and the attempt to reopen the case Request for an Examination of the Situation in Accordance with Paragraph 63 of the Court’s Judgment of 20 December 1974 in the Nuclear Tests (New Zealand v. France) Case (New Zealand v France) (Orders) [1995] ICJ Rep 288. 

2 Maire Leadbeater Peace, Power & Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free (Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2013) at 9.

3 Malcolm Templeton Standing Upright Here: New Zealand in the Nuclear Age 1945–1990 (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2006). See pages 306–348 for the difficult history of the negotiations. 

4 New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987, ss 16-20.

5 New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Bill, 2nd reading(12 February 1987) 477 NZPD 6978.

6 Not surprisingly quite an extensive New Zealand literature has been written over the origins and execution of the anti-nuclear policy and it has contentious elements: Malcolm Templeton Standing Upright Here: New Zealand in the nuclear age 1945–1990 (Victoria University Press in association with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Wellington, 2006); David Lange Nuclear Free: The New Zealand Way (Penguin Books, Auckland, 1990); David Lange My Life (Viking, Auckland, 2005); Michael Bassett Working with David: Inside the Lange Cabinet (Hodder Moa, Auckland, 2008); Margaret Pope At the Turning Point: My political life with David Lange (AM Publishing New Zealand, 2011); Margaret Clark (ed) For the Record: Lange and the Fourth Labour Government (Dunmore Publishing, Wellington, 2005). Of particular relevance to what is said here are the contributions in For the Record of Dr John Henderson at 136, Merwyn Norrish at 150, and Gerald Hensley at 129. Ewan Jamieson Friend or Ally, New Zealand at Odds with its Past (Brassey’s, Australia, 1990); Raymond Richards Palmer: The Parliamentary Years (University of Canterbury Press, Christchurch, 2010) at 11–30; Geoffrey Palmer “Living History Interview” (1991) 1 Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems 241. An account of the diplomacy from a New Zealand public servant opposed to the policy is Gerald Hensley Friendly Fire: Nuclear Politics and the Collapse of ANZUS 1984–1987 (Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2013).

7 Security Treaty between Australia New Zealand and United States [1952] ATS 2 (signed 1 September 1951, entered into force 29 April 1952) at Article II.

8 For a detailed account of my involvement see my book Reform: A Memoir (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2013) at 461–493.

9 <www.nti.org/about/global-nuclear-policy>.

This organisation was formed by a number of prominent former international leaders who were concerned about the threat posed by nuclear weapons They include Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, all of whom have held high office in the United States either as Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. 

10 In “Promoting the New Zealand brand” 42 New Zealand International Review, July/August 2017, an address on his standing down from the office of Foreign Minister Mr McCully summarised the policy this way: “For quite sometime the National Party had been uncertain,or intentionally ambiguous, on this question

[the anti-nuclear legislation and the relationship with the US] During my time as Opposition spokesman we declared our intention to retain the anti-nuclear legislation, to focus on rebuilding trust and confidence in our relationship with the United States and to build a new type of security relationship with the United States, but outside of the ANZUS alliance.” at 3.

11 For the text of these declarations see <usnzcouncil.org/us-nz-issues/wellington-declaration> and <usnzcouncil.org/us-nz-issues/washington-declaration>. The latter agreement between the US Department of Defense and the New Zealand Ministry of Defence calls for “a stronger and deeper bilateral defense relationship.” It may be worth noting that in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the United Sates, Australia loudly declared that it would provide troops to Operation Enduring Freedom in accordance with its obligations under ANZUS. New Zealand, on the other hand, just provided troops. 

12 Stuff news website, 17 February 2017, http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/89508124/Christchurch-Port-Hills-fires-What-you-need-to-know-on-Friday

13 Audrey Young NZME 21 July 2016 reported the Prime Minister the Rt Hon John Key as saying he had signed at least 40 declarations under the Act for ship visits. Nuclear weapons states France, Great Britain and China had all sent ships to New Zealand. <www.newstalkzb.co.nz/news/politics/us-vice-president-joe-biden-formally-welcomed-to-nz>.

14 Hans M Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists “DeClassified: US Nuclear Weapons at Sea” (3 February 2016) <fas.org/blogs/security/2016/02/nuclear-weapons-at-sea>.

15 Audrey Young “Brownlee and Brown make a good double act as ties with US closer” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 8 July 2017)  <www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article/cfm?c_id=280&objectid=11887456>. 

She comments “What is already evident is that it is getting closer and is about to get a lot closer with both diplomatic and military engagement.”

This may make it difficult for New Zealand to press the US on the nuclear weapons issue.

There are some other factors as well.

We no longer have a dedicated Minister for Arms Control and Disarmament.

Te Kaha extended her RNZ Naval task Group deployment throughout Asian waters consequent upon the collision between an American ship, the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship. Te Kaha contributed to the security and protection of the Nimitz carrier group: Media release the Hon Mark Mitchel, Minister of Defence, 26 June 2017 <www.beehive.govt.nz/release/navy-frigate-help-out-after-us-destroyer-collision>.

Then there is the odd decision of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon Gerry Brownlee, in refusing an amendment to the Government’s notice of motion in Parliament on 8 June 2017 marking the 30th anniversary of the Act. The motion said the “legislation has become a defining aspect of this country’s international reputation” but the Minister refused to agree to an addition proposed by Dr Kennedy Graham, a Green MP, that said it “also called upon all States to support the ongoing negotiations for a Convention of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in which New Zealand is actively engaged.”

16 United Nations General Assembly A/CONF.229/2017/L.3.Rev 1.

17 New Zealanders were active in bringing about the request to the Court, in the first instance when the World Health Organization requested an advisory opinion. 

18 Advisory opinion on the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapon [1996] ICJ Rep 226.

19 See <www.nti.org/newsroom/news/open-letter-president-donald-trump-and-president-vladimir-putin>.

20 Ramesh Thakur “Dame Laurie Salas and the Fierce Urgency of Freedom from the Sum of Nuclear Fears” ( lecture delivered to United Nations Association of New Zealand National Conference, Wellington,  8 June 2017) at 10. The functions was organised to celebrate 30 years of New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation and to recognise the significance of the UN Draft Treaty and the life of Dame Laurie Salas.  

This lecture contains a rigorous analysis of the deficiencies in existing international policies on the issue as does the book he has co-authored with Gareth Evans: Ramesh Thakur and Gareth Evans Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play (Australian National University, Canberra, 2015).


Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC is a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. The author wishes to acknowledge assistance with this paper from: Colin Keating former New Zealand Ambassador to the United Nations, who was the lead official on the drafting of the 1987 legislation;  Sir Douglas Kidd, former Speaker of the House and Kevin Riordan, a member of PACDAC. None of them can be held accountable for its contents.


This speech was addressed to the Symposium organized by the Public Advisory Committee for Disarmament and Arms Control, New Zealand Parliament on July 27, 2017.