The Value of National Nuclear Free Law: The New Zealand Example

Dr Nick Wilson

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (New Zealand)

New Zealand is a South Pacific country that in 1987 adopted a law making its territory a nuclear weapon free zone.1 The law also has a number of non-proliferation aspects. There is at present strong long-term support for this law amongst the New Zealand public, as well as by both major political parties and all but one of the six smaller parliamentary parties. Specific advantages of the law include:

1) The benefit for nuclear disarmament: Nuclear weapon free zones are a valuable disarmament initiative by contributing to de-legitimizing nuclear weapons and supporting their abolition. The New Zealand law is part of a trend to develop such zones at a national level (as exemplified by Mongolia and the Philippines2). National nuclear weapon free zones can also contribute to the extent and strength of the eight regional zones of this kind. Because New Zealand has embodied its concerns about nuclear weapons in law, the credibility of its politicians, diplomats and NGO advocates who promote nuclear disarmament at the international level, is considerably enhanced. For example, through New Zealand’s role in promoting disarmament through the New Agenda Coalition group of countries.


Water-based protests against visiting nuclear-powered and armed warships helped persuade the government to ban nuclear weapons in 1987.

2) The benefit for non-proliferation: New Zealand’s law prohibits the production, acquisition, transfer, stationing, testing, threat or use of nuclear weapons within its territory. It also established criminal responsibility for citizens and officials performing such activities within the country and extended this to extra-territorial conduct by New Zealand officials anywhere in the world. This approach of including extra-territoriality aspects has subsequently been supported by:

(i) the 1996 International Court of Justice (World Court) advisory opinion on nuclear weapons, which confirmed that the threat or use of nuclear weapons was generally contrary to international law; and (ii) the adoption in 2004 of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which required all United Nations Member States to take action against nuclear proliferators, regardless of their citizenship or residency.

3) The benefit of rejecting nuclear-powered vessels: The New Zealand law also bans nuclear powered vessels given that these pose safety risks.For example, there have been at least three accidents involving nuclear-powered US submarines in recent years (eg: involving the USS Greeneville, the USS Hartford and the USS San Francisco). There has also been the spectacular Sinking of a modern Russian nuclear-powered submarine – the Kursk, while two other Soviet and two American nuclear-powered submarines had sunk previously, and still remain on the ocean floor.4 There is also the concern that nuclear powered vessels could become terrorist targets 5 given the terrorist attack on the American warship the USS Cole,6 and the arrest of al Qaeda agents in Morocco in 2002 for allegedly planning to sink a US or British warship.7

4) The potential trade and economic benefits: For scenic and agricultural countries such as New Zealand, being “nuclear free” may have trade and economic benefits. That is, this status may reinforce a country’s international image as being “clean and green” with a relatively unspoilt natural environment. Such an image may indirectly benefit both tourism and food exports.8

Scope for strengthening this type of national nuclear free law

Given these benefits of national nuclear weapons free zones, they could be made stronger in various ways:


Nuclear weapon free zone welcome sign at Wellington International Airport

References & Notes

  1. New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, Arms Control Act 1987.

  2. Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament. Parliamentarians and Nuclear Weapons (a briefing book). Wellington: Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament, 2002.

  3. Ware A. International Ju-Jitsu: Using United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 to advance nuclear disarmament. July 2004

  4. Arkin WM, Handler JM. Nuclear disasters at sea, then and now. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 1989; (July/August): 20-24. Available online. URL:

  5. Wilson N. Safety concerns about nuclear-powered vessels persist. NZ Med J 2004;117(1196).

  6. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. Government of the United States of America. June 2004. Available at:

  7. Gardner F. Morocco gleans new al-Qaeda insight. BBC News (World Edition) 16 June 2002.

  8. While some critics have suggested that New Zealand’s law may have actually had an adverse impact on its trade with the United States, no solid evidence in support of this claim has emerged. Indeed, since the law was introduced, the value of New Zealand’s exports to the US has continued to grow (for example, by 300% in the period between 1985 and 2002 alone).

  9. An existing example of a law with extra-territoriality aspects is the United States Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998.

  10. A number of these points are elaborated in: Ware A, Dewes K, Powles M. “Snaring the Sun: Opportunities to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation and advance nuclear disarmament through an abolition framework”. Peace Foundation Disarmament and Security Centre, 2005.