New Australian nuclear non proliferation commission
New Australian nuclear non proliferation commission
How the World Lost Faith in the UN
How the World Lost Faith in the UN
Interview / Global 9 minutes

New Australian nuclear non proliferation commission

Interview with Gareth Evans on ABC Radio National Breakfast Program.

The Prime Minister’s grand plan for Australia to help disarm the world’s nuclear weapons – something he announced yesterday in Japan. There are few details, but the ambition is large – to create a new framework to involve the nuclear powers sitting outside the current non-proliferation treaty, nations like India, Pakistan and maybe even Iran. The new body was announced by Kevin Rudd yesterday and will be co-chaired by the former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, who discussed the idea with the PM in January apparently. The group will be called the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and it will compete with many other groups trying to do the same thing. I spoke with Gareth Evans a little earlier from Bucharest.

Gareth Evans (GE): Good morning Mark. Nice to talk to you again.

ABC: Why does the world need another non-proliferation body? Why is this necessary?

Because the truth of the matter is that there is still no firm commitment not only to effective non-proliferation strategies, but to the big issue of disarmament which is inextricably linked with it. As the Canberra Commission said back in 1996, so long as anyone has nuclear weapons, others will want them, and as long as anyone has them, there’s a very real risk that they’ll be used. So there is an environment still out there where this remains the world’s biggest, or one of the biggest, security problems. And I think Australia can add some value in addressing this inter-related range of issues.

It seems to have come like something of a bolt out of the blue. How much preparation went on? When were you asked?

I was involved in discussions with Kevin Rudd about doing something on this front back in January when I was in Australia, and of course it was an election commitment and is something the government has been thinking about for a long time, doing something by way of follow-up to the ’96 Canberra Commission. Obviously the visit to Japan focused people’s minds on the possibility of putting together a joint enterprise. Things always take time in negotiating these sorts of things with Tokyo and we weren’t able to put the whole thing to bed, but the Prime Minister took the view that it was time to announce at least the basic shape and direction of this enterprise. It will take another couple of months, probably, to sort out who is precisely doing what and how, but the directions are clear.

But you can understand how very rapidly the Opposition will say, well this just seems like another bright idea that they’ve just cooked up as a publicity stunt.

Well they would, wouldn’t they? But the truth of the matter is that the nuclear issue is a huge one. It’s one that I personally have been deeply involved in, not just as ancient history when I was foreign minister and getting the Canberra Commission started, but in my present job at the International Crisis Group where I’ve been much involved in the North Korea and Iran issues. I was a member of the Blix Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, and I’ve just very recently finished a stint working in a panel with Mohamed ElBaradei on putting together a set of proposals for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s role over the next twenty years. So it’s something that I’ve been personally involved in thinking about and urging the government to pick up the pieces on and take an initiative on, and I am delighted that that’s what’s happening.

It does imply that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the process around it is close to fragmenting if we need this new kind of body. Is there some truth in that?

Well the NPT process has been limping has been fragile, for many years now. The last Review Conference ended basically in failure. The World Summit in 2005 ended without a single line of agreement on any issue relating to non-proliferation or disarmament. So it’s all hands to the tiller: every possible international initiative or support process that can help this process along is hugely important. Australia, being the world’s biggest potential uranium supplier, with our track record of engagement across a broad range of nuclear policy issues, is supremely well equipped to play some kind of leadership role here. Moreover, it’s not just – I repeat – the Non-Proliferation Treaty that’s involved here. It is a matter of doing something more, I think very strongly, on the disarmament side. We’re not going to get the kind of buy-in we need on these proliferation issues unless there’s visible movement on the actual process of outlawing these awful weapons once and for all. And in particular, of course, in that context we’ve got to bring in more than the Non-Proliferation Treaty parties. We have to bring in India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea – all those who are presently with weapons but outside that framework.

All right. I think the Prime Minister says the last NPT review failed because the hard work wasn’t done, and there have been countries getting together on this. I mean, what can this commission do that is more?

Well that remains to be seen – what precisely the value-added there can be. There are a lot of people working very hard between now and 2010 to put this together, and I’m not suggesting that we’re going to be Robinson Crusoe in that respect. But I repeat: if the non-proliferation process is to be successful, it has to be accompanied by something which is operating outside the immediate preoccupations of the negotiators for that particular NPT conference, and that is the disarmament issue. And I think the real value-added for this particular enterprise will be to bring together these two strands in a hopefully very articulate way and a very compelling way, to make a case for a serious move towards elimination and see where we go from there. I should add that the time is very ripe for this in the context of developments in America,  where you not only have both McCain and Obama pretty strongly committed to quite radical rethinking of the US’s traditional reliance on the nuclear armoury but,  as the Prime Minister said in his speech, you’ve got Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn and Perry – the four horsemen of the Apocalypse,  as I call them –  making over the last year or so a realist case for the outlawing, for the elimination,  of nuclear weapons, which is a completely new dynamic in US thinking. The trouble is that nobody has moved from that general statement into operationalising this in any programmatic way. And again I think part of the utility of this new commission --  one of the roles that it could play --  is bringing those pieces together.

Okay. But surely the make-up of the committee then is going to be crucial. You’ve talked about the Japanese occupying a place on this. Wouldn’t you need to have those superpowers there as well?

Oh of course you would.

How would that work do you think?

Well it’s going to take some time, it’s going to take a lot of phone calls, it’s going to take a lot of personal advocacy. But I put together the Canberra Commission composition – it took me about a month of assiduous activity as Foreign Minister back then -- and I’m happy to work with the government in putting together this one. With all the contacts that I have, with all the contacts the government has, with the credibility this government has, I don’t think it will be a difficult task, because out there in the international community there is a real anxiety about this issue. It’s right up there with climate change, it’s right up there with a continuing concern about terrorism and all its implications, as an unresolved security issue. It’s a big issue. The world wants something done. And the truth of the matter is that we have not yet got the kind of momentum we need as an international community to get something done. And if this can contribute even if only in a small way to generating that momentum, it will be worthwhile.

But I want to understand this. In a sense, even if you get those major powers, the other powers that stand outside it, like North Korea, like possibly Iran, like India – that is, they stand outside at the moment – how do drag them into the disarmament process.

Well, I’m not going to pre-empt what will be, I believe and hope, one of the key elements in this whole commission enterprise...

Give us a sense of it though

What we should be trying to do is create a framework in which, rather than being outside,  these guys once again become insiders. That may mean thinking about a whole new nuclear weapons treaty which builds upon and creates a new framework around the existing Non-Proliferation Treaty, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, together with the fissile materials ban that’s being negotiated or proposed to be negotiated at the moment – bringing all those threads together and creating a new environment in which you don’t have the perceived discrimination that exists at the moment within the NPT between the nuclear haves and have nots, where you don’t have outsiders and don’t have insiders, but have a whole new approach to bringing these threads together.

But that’s an extraordinary...

This would be extraordinarily ambitious. It would take probably twenty years to negotiate. But every journey requires a first step. Rethinking, Mark, some of these fundamentals about the way the world’s problems are unfolding  --  and the kind of problems that future generations are going to have to deal with if this generation doesn’t get some runs on the board -- is exactly the way we’re thinking about this.

Now, you talk about us as if we were an honest broker, that we could play a part in this, a major part, but we do have a lot of essentially uranium. Is there something in this for us? Does this mean that we would seek to sell uranium more widely and this would give us a framework to do that?

Not in any crude sense like that. But the truth of the matter is that any kind of deal at all involving tighter controls on proliferation and disarmament is going to have to be a deal that acknowledges the reality and the continuity of nuclear power and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. And Australia, as a major player in that respect, is very well equipped in that kind of context to bring something to the debate. But nobody regards us as a self-interested player when it comes to the non-proliferation and disarmament side of the equation. The truth of the matter is that, by virtue of our uranium resources, we have a particular responsibility to get right the way in which those resources are used, and to ensure that they are confined to peaceful purposes, and never ever get diverted into horrific weapons of mass destruction.

Now, this is no cheap shot at all, but I gather you have got a book to finish, and I would have thought that time is pretty important here. Are you going to do that first?

Well, Mark, sorry, but that’s a very cheap shot.  I’m working full-time as the President of the International Crisis Group. I’m doing a hundred other things. I made it very clear to the government that this part-time job as co-chair of this commission would be just that. And I also made it clear that I wouldn’t be able to get to work in any very substantial way on helping to bed this down for another month or so. But this is a process that’s got plenty of time to work its way through. Yes, we’re targeting some sort of input into the Non-Proliferation Treaty process by the end of next year: sure, that’s very much the immediate timetable in all our minds. But there’s plenty of time to do that, and plenty of time also to work on these longer and bigger issues still that I’ve been trying to describe.

Gareth Evans, we appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for talking to Radio National Breakfast.

Thank you, Mark. Nice to talk to you. Bye.

Former Labour Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, the new chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, speaking with us there from the Romanian capital of Bucharest on Radio National Breakfast.

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