Australia’s nuclear and arms policy

By Peter Woolcott AO

I have recently responded to correspondence asking why Australia has decided not to participate in recent negotiations towards a nuclear ban treaty.  Given that this is an important policy position – and one where Australia’s position differs to that taken by New Zealand – I thought it would be useful to share my response more widely. I have also addressed comments regarding Australia’s support for progressing the Arms Trade Treaty. 

Australia shares the goal of a peaceful and secure world free of nuclear weapons, but this will not be a quick or easy task.  It will take sustained, practical steps.  Steps which Australia has long supported, including implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); working towards a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and developing nuclear disarmament verification.

The NPT is one of the most universal treaties in the world.  It is not only the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, but one of global peace and security.  The 2010 NPT Action Plan has a consensus-based roadmap for the elimination of nuclear weapons.  Australia’s priority is to strengthen the NPT and to implement the Action Plan.

Regrettably, a nuclear weapons ban treaty would be ineffective in eliminating nuclear weapons.  Proceeding with ban treaty negotiations without the participation of states possessing nuclear weapons, or without due regard for the international security environment, will not help to create the conditions for further major reductions in nuclear arsenals.

The draft text of a ban treaty issued on 22 May 2017 by the President of the negotiating conference only bares these concerns out.  It risks undermining the NPT by creating ambiguity and confusion through parallel obligations, and by deepening divisions between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states.  It contains non-proliferation safeguards that are weaker than those already existing under the NPT.

I should emphasise that so long as the threat of nuclear attack exists, US extended nuclear deterrence will serve Australia’s fundamental national security interests.  We need to be realistic about the environment in which we operate.  Democratic People’s Republic of Korea provocations and nuclear tests are a case in point.

Australia will therefore not participate in the UN Conference to negotiate a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Australia has long been a key player in negotiating treaties of significance in pursuit of global peace and prosperity.  I am particularly proud of Australia’s involvement in negotiating the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).  I was heavily involved in these negotiations when I was Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and was President of the Conference that led to the adoption of the Treaty text in 2013.  The ATT now has 92 State Parties and 41 additional signatories.


Australia is currently supporting and guiding a project aimed at universalising the ATT.  Without universalisation, there will continue to be weaknesses in the global arms trade system.  Working with the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction, Australia is endeavouring for the first time to develop a single reference on the broader benefits of the ATT – including how it promotes security, economic interests and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Australia is hopeful that this work will receive positive global attention.  The project has been announced this week at ATT meetings in Geneva and it is envisaged that the work will be shared at the 3rd Conference of States Parties in September this year.


Peter Woolcott AO is the Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand and is a former Ambassador to the United Nations. You can read his full biography here.

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