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History of NZ Legislation

Photo credit: Gil Hanly

New Zealand has now been nuclear free for over thirty years. New Zealand’s nuclear-free law was the result of a broad-based movement of ordinary New Zealanders, who worked tirelessly over decades to convince other New Zealanders, and their government, to oppose the most destructive, inhumane weapons ever invented. This citizens’ movement included faith-based organisations, sports groups, students, tangata whenua Māori, women’s groups, business networks, doctors’ and lawyers’ associations, and many others. By 1986, there were 350 active, local-area peace groups working on nuclear issues. In the process of becoming nuclear free, the nuclear free movement helped to redefine what it means to be a New Zealander. A new national identity was emerging—declaring New Zealand a nuclear free zone was also a declaration of national independence. New Zealand’s identity as an independent, principled nation still resonates today in venues such as the United Nations Security Council, on which New Zealand served in 2015-16.

The New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987 is arguably the strongest anti-nuclear weapon domestic legislation in the world. It bans nuclear weapons and propulsion from New Zealand’s land, sea and airspace out to the country’s 12-mile territorial limits. The law also has ‘extraterritorial’ jurisdiction, meaning that it applies to the actions of New Zealand government agents while they are outside the country. Any government agents—including the armed forces—who provide support anywhere in the world for nuclear weapons development, maintenance or operation can be imprisoned for up to 10 years upon return or extradition to New Zealand.

The Nuclear Free Zone law is a cornerstone of contemporary national identity for many New Zealanders, uniting them across political, cultural and generational boundaries. An important aspect of New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation is that it called for the establishment of a Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control, and that one of the committee members must be the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control. The functions of the Committee are  —

  1. to advise the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade on such aspects of disarmament and arms control matters as it thinks fit:
  2. to advise the Prime Minister on the implementation of this Act:
  3. and to publish from time to time public reports in relation to disarmament and arms control matters and on the implementation of this Act:
  4. to make such recommendations as it thinks fit for the granting of money from such fund or funds as may be established for the purpose of promoting greater public understanding of disarmament and arms control matters.
Former NZ Prime Minister David Lange and his wife Naomi, returning home after his 1986 Oxford Union Debate.
Photo credit: Gil Hanly

Read more about New Zealand’s nuclear free history and related issues here

For further reading on this topic, please visit the Disarmament and Security Centre’s archived website here

Check out the great collection of films on this subject in the NZonScreen Nuclear Free collection.

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