Nuclear Weapons Convention: A Role for Aotearoa-New Zealand

by Alyn Ware*

“We are a small nation but we will not abjectly surrender to injustice…. No self-respecting nation with right on its side can merely acquiesce to the intransigence of others.”

Prime Minister Norman Kirk farewelling the HMNZS Otago on its voyage to Moruroa to protest French nuclear testing.

For over half a century a few powerful states have abrogated to themselves the exclusive right to threaten humanity with nuclear weapons and have steadfastly refused to adhere to their obligations to eliminate this threat. At the dawn of the 21st Century, approximately 30,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the nuclear weapon states, over 5000 of these on hair trigger alert, and the prospect of proliferation of these weapons to additional states and non-state actors appears to be growing. The nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998 and the concomitant embrace of nuclear deterrence policies by these two countries increases the risk of nuclear disaster.

The nuclear weapon states continue to reaffirm their nuclear deterrence policies, even expanding them to include deterrence against non-nuclear threats as well as against nuclear threats. The development of ballistic missile defence by the US is prompting Russia to maintain its arsenal on alert status, and sets back prospects of China or Russia agreeing to nuclear force reductions or restraints.

In May 2000, a slight glimmer of hope burst out from the gloomy basement corridors of the United Nations in New York, as the nuclear weapon states, meeting with other parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), agreed to “an unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all states are committed under Article VI,” and to “a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination”[1]

The undertaking was significant because, for the first time in the history of NPT meetings, the nuclear weapon states (NWS) accepted that the nuclear disarmament obligation is not necessarily linked to progress on general and complete disarmament, nor the ultimate – or final – objective in the disarmament process.

However, given the tenacity with which the NWS have held onto their nuclear weapons, it is unrealistic to think that they will immediately implement this commitment. In fact, just a month later, at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the NWS blocked the establishment of an ad hoc committee to consider nuclear disarmament despite them agreeing to this at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

There may be political reasons for the NWS wishing to retain their nuclear arsenals. But even if this were not the case, progress would be hampered by a number of remaining issues about the elimination of nuclear weapons including questions on universality of a global nuclear ban, security in a nuclear free world, verification and enforcement, the relation between nuclear disarmament and nuclear energy, security of fissile materials, nuclear knowledge and possible re-emergence of nuclear threats.

A conceptual and practical framework for addressing these issues, and to stimulate progress in nuclear disarmament, has emerged in the form of a nuclear weapons convention.

Seeds of a Nuclear Weapons Convention

In July 1996, the International Court of Justice affirmed unanimously that “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”[2]

The United Nations General Assembly, which had requested the ICJ’s opinion on the issue, adopted a resolution calling for the implementation of this obligation by the “commencement of multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination;”[3]

The following year the United Nations circulated a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention,[4] submitted by Costa Rica, “setting forth the legal, technical and political issues that should be considered in order to obtain an actual nuclear weapons convention.”

The Model Convention outlines general obligations of states and individuals under a nuclear weapons abolition regime, a phased program for dismantling and destroying existing nuclear stockpiles, control mechanisms for nuclear facilities and materials, elements of a verification regime, protection measures for whistleblowers, dispute resolution and enforcement procedures, measures for dealing with delivery vehicles and dual use materials, national implementation measures, an agency for overseeing the convention, entry into force options, relationship to other nuclear related agreements and regimes, and a protocol concerning nuclear energy.

New Agenda Coalition and the Nuclear Weapons Convention

On June 9, 1998, the foreign ministers of eight countries including Aotearoa-New Zealand released a joint declaration calling for a new agenda for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world. Their proposed agenda has gained considerable international support to such an extent that it formed the basis for the May 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference conclusions on nuclear disarmament. New Zealand ambassador Clive Pearson, as chair of the subsidiary body on a program for nuclear disarmament, played a key role in this achievement.

The NAC agenda and the call for negotiations leading to a nuclear weapons convention are mutually reinforcing. The latter provides a picture of the final objective; the former provides a program of steps to achieve it.

While not specifically calling for it by name, the 1998 New Agenda Declaration noted that “The maintenance of a world free of nuclear weapons will require the underpinnings of a universal and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument or a framework encompassing a mutually reinforcing set of instruments,” in other words a nuclear weapons convention.

Using a nuclear weapons convention to engage the nuclear weapon states

The nuclear weapons convention (NWC) provides a useful tool to engage the nuclear weapon states (NWS) in ways to overcome their resistance to nuclear disarmament. On one hand it re-frames the debate from a context of “Why don’t the nuclear weapon states move towards nuclear disarmament?” to one of “How can nuclear disarmament be achieved?” Rather than calling for disarmament steps and attempting to persuade the NWS to drop their resistance to these, the NWC invites NWS to join in designing and creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament. For example, verification, one of the key elements identified in the Model NWC, has become the subject of increasing dialogue and cooperation between NWS and nuclear disarmament advocates, leading to initiatives such as the US Sandia Cooperative Monitoring Center[5] and the UK Defence Department study on the elimination of nuclear weapons.[6]

A NWC also combines the advantages of a step-by-step disarmament approach with a comprehensive approach, while circumventing the disadvantages of each. Step-by-step disarmament measures are useful in that they deal with small and manageable pieces of the nuclear weapons infrastructure. The achievement of small steps can help build confidence and technical expertise to move to more comprehensive steps. On the other hand they can stunt disarmament momentum by giving the erroneous impression that the nuclear threat has been dealt with.[7] In addition, due to technology developments, step-by-step measures tend to become redundant by the time they are concluded, thus threatening their significance. They can also be difficult to achieve because the asymmetry between states makes them somewhat discriminatory. [8]

Comprehensive approaches are useful in that they are non- discriminatory, provide a complete picture of what is required for disarmament, and can close loopholes that are left open by incremental steps. They can help overcome obstacles that are created by unanswered questions on the feasibility of disarmament, and by resistance to partial measures. Negotiations for the disarmament of both chemical weapons and landmines, for example, were successful once comprehensive approaches to these were initiated.

International support for a nuclear weapons convention

In 1995, Abolition 2000, an international network now numbering over 2000 organisations, was established to promote the achievement of a nuclear weapons convention. This call has been supported by resolutions of both the United Nations and European Parliament. Public opinion polls in countries not yet supporting the NWC indicate public support for a NWC at over 80%.[9] An appeal calling for a nuclear weapons convention has gained over 60 million signatures making it the largest petition in the world.

The Model NWC has stimulated considerable discussion and positive feedback on the feasibility and practicalities of nuclear abolition by academics, scientists, government officials (including from the NWS) and civil society representatives.[10]

The Role of Aotearoa-New Zealand

Aotearoa has lead in a number of international nuclear disarmament initiatives including the campaign against nuclear testing and the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on nuclear weapons. The ICJ advisory opinion and the success of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, provide the legal justification and the political opportunity for New Zealand to now take a lead in promoting a nuclear weapons convention. New Zealand could:

Leadership by New Zealand on the nuclear weapons convention could provide just the boost needed to move the abolition of nuclear weapons from idea to reality.

[1] Final Document, 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

[2] International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, July 8, 1996.

[3] UN General Assembly Resolution 51/45 M of 10 December 1996

[4] UN Document A/C.1/52/7. A revised and annotated version of the MNWC is included in Security and Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, Datan and Ware, IPPNW, 1999.

[5] Sandia Cooperative Monitoring Center assists in the development of verification and monitoring regimes for arms control and disarmament treaties.

[6] Confidence, Security and Verification: The Challenge of global nuclear arms control. Aldermaston Weapons Establishment, 2000. (

[7] The conclusion of the Partial Teat Ban Treaty in 1963 all but removed the issue of nuclear weapons from the attention of the media and public globally. As a result, even though the numbers of nuclear weapons increased and there were more nuclear tests after the PTBT than before, political pressure for subsequent disarmament measures all but evaporated.

[8] The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, for example, was supposed to prevent any further testing and development of nuclear weapons. However, by the time it was opened for signature, the major NWS had developed other means for testing and developing nuclear weapons. Thus India, an early proponent of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, has refused to sign the CTBT, which has prevented the CTBT from being able to enter into force.


[10] See Nuclear Weapons Convention Monitor: Updating the debate on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, Issue 1, April 2000, IPPNW.