• Shaping Australia’s Nuclear Policies
    John Tilemann

    At its forthcoming National Conference, the Australian Labor Party is likely to decide against Australia’s signature of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Therefore, whilst a potential change of government may see a reinvigoration of Australia’s nuclear diplomacy, major changes to Australia’s nuclear policy settings are unlikely.

    Australia’s current nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation policies were largely shaped by three issues: commercial interest in exporting uranium, opposition to French nuclear testing in the Pacific; and the nuclear umbrella implicit in Australia’s alliance with the United States. Australia’s nuclear policies have mostly enjoyed support from both sides of the domestic political divide. However, there has been a different emphasis and a greater commitment to activism by the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

    In 1973 the new ALP government put a decisive end to two decades of nuclear weapons hedging by ratifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It also initiated an enquiry into proposals to start exploiting the recently discovered vast uranium resources in Northern Australia.


    Out of government from 1975 till 1983, the ALP was deeply divided over uranium mining, with tensions aggravated by continued French nuclear testing. A compromise was finally reached at the 1984 ALP National Conference: uranium mining would be permitted at a limited number of mines under strict environmental conditions; and the export of uranium would be subject to strengthened safeguards. Furthermore, the government committed to greater international activism, including negotiation of a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.


    Successive ALP governments have upheld Australia’s leadership in multilateral arms control negotiations, playing a leading role in the successful conclusion of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and in strengthening the non-proliferation regime, creating the Australia Group to ensure exports do not contribute to the development of chemical or biological weapons. They commissioned authoritative reports to guide global arms control efforts: the 1996 report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and the 2009 Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), a joint project of Australia and Japan.


    Considering this background and subsequent policy statements of the ALP while in opposition, it can be expected that with the likely change of government in May 2019, Australia will reclaim a leadership role in global arms control efforts.


    However, the ALP’s nuclear policies have again become an issue within the party. In 2011, the ALP National Conference voted 206 to 185 to allow sales exceptionally to India, despite it not being a party to the NPT. In the wake of the extravagant claims made by the proponents of the India deal, the absence of any commercial sales suggests that principle was abandoned for no apparent gain.


    Next week’s (16-18 December) ALP National Conference will be faced with another contentious nuclear issue: whether Australia should join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Negotiated last year, the TPNW is the culmination of several years of agitation by governments angered by the absence of progress in nuclear disarmament. The initiative had strong support from non-governmental organisations such as the Australia-founded, Nobel Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The treaty been ratified by 19 countries but 50 are needed to bring it into force.
    A majority of shadow cabinet has signed the ICAN ‘Parliamentary Pledge’ to support joining the TPNW. 


    However the draft ALP National Platform 2018 to be considered by the National Conference, while lauding ICAN, and avoiding outright rejection of the TPNW, calls rather for “…the development of a time-bound framework to negotiate practical, legally binding agreements to achieve … the aspirations of the [TPNW].”
    Just as important, at the Annual Conference of the AIIA in October, the likely next Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, addressed the issue at length. She argued that while she agreed with the ‘objective’ of the treaty, it suffered three substantive shortcomings: lack of universality, shortcomings on verification and security.


    The speech chides the government for not participating in the TPNW negotiation, and thereby securing a better outcome. However even if Australia had been joined by all the thirty plus US-allied nuclear umbrella states not participating in the negotiation, it would have resulted in an even more poisonous split between allied and non-allied supporters of the NPT – a hiding to nothing as the Netherlands learned as the only NATO ally that did participate.


    Of the three shortcomings, two are compelling. First, the lack of participation, indeed hostility, of the states with nuclear weapons is a fatal flaw. It is only when the political-security conditions are right that it will be possible to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiles.


    Equally compelling is the consideration that the TPNW is incompatible with our reliance on the United States’ nuclear umbrella. Ultimately, ALP-led governments will acknowledge and protect that relationship, moderated by occasional assertions of differences. While a decision not to sign the TPNW will be welcome in Washington, it will still be irritated by the expressions of sympathy for the normative objective of the treaty.


    Senator Wong’s commitment to ‘building the capacity’ of the international safeguards system is very welcome. However, it is a distraction to argue that the TPNW undermines international safeguards by not requiring parties to adopt best practice Additional Protocol verification. Australia and others have been urging universal acceptance of the Additional Protocol since its adoption 20 years ago. But several states have resolutely resisted. Had the TPNW included such a requirement those hold out states would not have agreed to the treaty and its normative impact would have been further diminished.


    The advocates of the TPNW argue the treaty closes a gap in the bans on weapons of mass destruction: chemical and biological weapons had been long proscribed and now nuclear weapons are banned. This is dangerously deceptive. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, large quantities of chemical weapons have been destroyed. There is no prospect of even one nuclear weapon being dismantled in the name of the TPNW. Efforts being devoted to securing new members of the TPNW simply distract from the practical measures that could over time help create the conditions necessary for nuclear disarmament.


    Unfortunately, the ALP’s policy agenda for practical measures is disappointing. Universal ‘no first use’ declarations, stockpile reductions and a ‘cut-off’ treaty are all very worthy objectives but have been under discussion for decades. The nuclear disarmament log-jam has to be overcome by directly tackling the nuclear deterrence dyads and triads. Deeper engagement on nuclear issues in the Indo-Pacific should be the starting point. Our alliance with the United States should be invoked to secure urgent evidence of good intent on nuclear disarmament to bolster the NPT as it approaches its 50th anniversary. We should work with our regional partners on options for supporting a denuclearised Korean Peninsula. Leveraging our nuclear cooperation agreement with India, and the admission of India earlier this year to the Australia Group, Australia could work with others to strengthen nuclear security in South Asia.


    The forthcoming ALP National Conference will reflect the party’s fitness for government. The leadership will therefore be keen to avoid a recurrence of the divisive debates of the past on nuclear issues. The course mapped out by Senator Wong, based on the ICNND report, is the sensible middle path. The requirement now is for a reinvigorated action agenda supported by high level political leadership and expanded diplomatic activity. Labor governments have provided the necessary leadership and resources in the past and must do so again.


    John Tilemann is a former career diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
    This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution. To view the original, please click here.

  • The Iran Nuclear Deal: Can the Centre Hold?
    John Tilemann

    With US sanctions being reimposed on Iran, the world faces a real prospect of nuclear anarchy returning to the Middle East.


    On 26 September, a special high-level meeting of the United Nations Security Council dedicated to eliminating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was chaired by the United States as Council President. As he had the day before in the UN General Assembly, US President Donald Trumpused the occasion to lash out at Iran: “A regime with this track record must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.” He went on to announce that the US was reintroducing all nuclear-related sanctions and “will pursue additional sanctions, tougher than ever before, to counter the entire range of Iran’s malign conduct. Any individual or entity who fails to comply with these sanctions will face severe consequences.”


    The Iran deal at a tipping point
    This follows from the US withdrawal in May from the Iran nuclear deal: the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) brokered by the Obama Administration which committed Iran, the five permanent members of the Security Council, Germany and the European Union to a series of measures to contain Iran’s nuclear activities. It includes an annex 29 pages long detailing what Iran is obliged to do: from re-purposing a research reactor, restrictions on its uranium enrichment activity, limits on its holdings of heavy water and restrictions on research and development activity.
    Despite its withdrawal, the US remains adamant that Iran live up to its part of the bargain and is keen to see the continuation of the intensive inspection regime. To this end, it has not withdrawn its significant funding support for inspection activity.


    How realistic is it to expect that Iran will continue to cooperate under the deal while the most powerful partner to the deal is reneging on its commitments? Much will depend on how the other parties – and other potential trade and investment partners – can deliver the desperately-needed economic benefits that Iran had been expecting from the deal. That, in turn, will depend on the effectiveness of US secondary sanctions. Even the threat of those sanctions is reportedly already having an impact.


    On the other hand, Iran has been delivered an undreamed-of political gift: the US has wedged itself from its European and Asia-Pacific allies, leaving only Israel, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies cheering. This gives Iran a huge incentive to stay the course.


    Iran knows the alternative would be disaster for the Iranian economy and would potentially unleash regional tensions with overtones of nuclear anarchy. There is reason for optimism in the relatively temperate Iranian response to date. Iran has spoken positively about the continuing commitments of other partners, while insisting that in light of the US decision more needs to be done more quickly. It has toyed with rather than totally dismissing the US demand for a broader dialogue.


    The role of the IAEA
    One of the most important aspects of the Iran nuclear deal was the endorsement by the Security Council that the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “undertake the necessary verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments for the full duration of those commitments under the JCPOA.”
    Since “Implementation Day” in January 2016, the IAEA has been accorded unprecedented access and intensity of inspection. The IAEA’s Director General Yukiya Amano has reported quarterly to the IAEA’s Board of Governors on progress, and annually to the IAEA’s peak body the General Conference open to all 180 IAEA member countries.


    Whatever the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, the IAEA’s reputation has been burnished. If the deal collapses it will not be because of the IAEA. The IAEA has done exactly what it has needed to do in the way of inspection activity: it has responded in a timely and very professional way to the recruitment and training demands arising from the rapid expansion of inspection activity required under the JCPOA and has maintained a disciplined and coherent approach to the drawing and presentation of conclusions. Its independence and professionalism have earned the respect of all parties, even if begrudging on the part of the US.


    The costs for this activity were initially met predominantly from additional payments by willing IAEA member countries, particularly the United States. This reliance on extra-budgetary funding had undesirable political implications of undue influence on the independence of the IAEA in the conduct of inspections. Cleverly, over successive budget periods the funding for the inspections in Iran have been regularised.


    The experience of the Iran inspection effort has strengthened confidence that, should circumstances permit, the IAEA would be well-equipped to undertake the even more demanding job of resuming safeguards activity in North Korea.
    Last year, IAEA Director General Amano, a former Japanese diplomat, was reappointed by the General Conference for a further four-year term. Despite some inevitable critics, his cautious but clear leadership on the Iran issue continues to impress and helps reinforce the case for strong and generous support by Australia and others in the Indo Pacific to the UN’s indispensable nuclear watchdog as it prepares itself to tackle the de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.


    John Tilemann is the director of research for the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a former career diplomat and was chief of staff to IAEA directors-general Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei.
    This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. It can be republished with permission. To view the original article, please click here.

  • Nuclear Security: The Focus Must Not Flag
    Manpreet Sethi

    Dr Manpreet Sethi cautions that while great strides have been made in global nuclear security, steep challenges still remain

    The last few weeks have witnessed the release of at least three reports (1, 2, 3) on nuclear security. This is a welcome development since the import of this subject has in no way diminished since the end of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process in 2016, and the urgency of the challenge must be kept alive. In fact, nuclear security is a journey and not a destination. It is hence critical that every now and then the spotlight is placed on the issue to check whether the international community is on the right track.

    In theory, it could well be argued that a considerable distance has been travelled since the first NSS in 2010. There is indeed in place today a mosaic of institutional mechanisms, international treaties, cooperation arrangements, national efforts and even a couple of dozens of Centres of Excellence on nuclear security across the world. The NSS process did have an impact on awareness levels, and countries came to the Summits armed with reports on their actions and with new commitments contained in a gift basket. Membership of treaties accordingly went up and national legislations and regulations were tweaked to meet international benchmarks. As a follow up to the NSS process, five action plans on nuclear security today exist at the UN, the IAEA, the Global Partnership against spread of WMD, Interpol, and the Global Initiative on Countering Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). Yet, challenges remain, and these must be well understood to further nuclear security to the next level.

    A preliminary challenge comes from the lack of good relations amongst big powers. If they are not on the same page in their assessment of the threat, it can prove to be a huge stumbling block when moving on issues that have global dimensions. Different countries obviously have different priorities. It is the sense of consensus amongst the big stakeholders in the international community that can bring about a sense of urgency on issues to make them a priority for all. This happened, for instance, in the 1970s in the case of the conclusion of the NPT, and then in the early 1990s regarding the extension of the NPT. It happened again in 2010-2014 when President Obama pushed for nuclear security as a common concern. But once Crimea happened and Russia became the ‘enemy’, collaboration on the issue stopped. President Putin refused to participate in the 2016 NSS claiming that for Russia the issue of nuclear security was over. As of today, despite the Helsinki Summit, the US-Russia relationship does not look good. Neither is the US-China track offering any hope of consensus on matters of global concern. On the other hand, the sense of salience attached to nuclear weapons is seriously up, making countries clam up on their nuclear weapons ambitions. So, if nuclear material in military holdings was to be the next thing on the agenda of nuclear security, it is unlikely to get anywhere for a while. And, if countries with the biggest nuclear stockpiles sound more belligerent and reticent on sharing nuclear information, one can hardly expect smaller players to offer transparency. Nuclear security, therefore, looks less a matter of priority for now.

    The second challenge is that the lack of focus from big stakeholders leads to lack of uniformity in recognising the threat and rigour of implementation amongst others. While those that recognise it as a national threat remain focused on it, others may become more lax and end up as weak links in the chain. So, a country that deals in no nuclear material may refuse to enter treaties or accept burdensome national regulations when there is no international spotlight on the subject owing to no major power pressure. It is no secret that nuclear/radiological material accounting and reporting are perceived as burdensome by countries that do not perceive this threat as of a high concern. Since it is not considered a priority, the material and human resources available are never enough to meet the requirements of the reports that need to be submitted to some international instruments such as the UNSCR 1540 Committee.

    The third challenge comes from the need to balance national sovereignty with international responsibility. Since both dimensions impinge on each other on a subject like this, too much international oversight could be perceived as overly intrusive, just as much as a lack of international commitment could make countries overly lax and make them de-prioritise actions needed to enhance not just their own but everyone else’s nuclear security. This balancing act between national and international, however, is not easy.

    The fourth challenge remains the lack of punishment for non-compliance. Most nuclear security measures are voluntary, and there is no instrument under which punishment for violation is possible. Given that countries that have indulged in proliferation have gone unpunished, the risk of similar behaviour not eliciting any action might not prove to be enough of a deterrent in case nuclear security in some country is compromised.

    The fifth challenge arises from the fact that after Fukushima, which dissipated the sense of nuclear renaissance, the nuclear market is once again a buyer’s market. So, sellers are ready to sweeten deals to sell nuclear reactors. Given that the predominant sellers in the nuclear market today are Russia and China who are hardly known for high standards themselves, the sale of reactors to countries that might have less than strong regulatory environments and unstable security situations could create risks for nuclear security. A lack of insistence on high level security anywhere could lead to a disaster somewhere, but its impact would be more than just national.

    To turn the situation around, nuclear security must be perceived as a common goal by the major stakeholders. Hence, the focus at levels where it continues to receive the highest political attention is important. Secondly, sharing of a few kinds of material or information could be most helpful. For instance, sharing technologies for detection of nuclear material such as scanners at ports, decontamination techniques or materials, and medical counter-measures could enable their manufacturing at lower costs and thus incentivise countries to have them installed. Similarly, sharing advances in nuclear forensics could help prevent nuclear terrorism through deterrence by threat of punishment. In another example, sharing best practices and experiences in enforcement e.g. training of physical security guards, on the making of personnel reliability programmes, tools for data mining and storage for easy retrieval, etc could help countries learn from one another. India’s nuclear security centre under the GCNEP could take up some of these issues.

    Lastly, events and efforts will be periodically needed to keep the momentum going on nuclear security. Some such opportunities are bound to come up during the review conferences of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), which is due in 2021, IAEA ministerial conference, etc. More will have to be created. In fact, it is essential to understand the paradox that confronts the world. The absence of an untoward incident over a period of time could lessen the threat perception and interest in nuclear security. But that laxity may lead to an incident. So, nuclear security will have to be a journey that is embarked upon till such time as nuclear material and terrorism continue to exist.

    It will be a long journey.

    Dr Manpreet Sethi Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi, where she heads the project on nuclear security.


    This article was originally published in the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. To view the original article, please click here.