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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January 1999

Following the Leader:
The Canberra Commission and the (Renewed) Case for Eliminating Nuclear Weapons
by Carl J. Ungerer


In late November 1998, the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech in Sydney in which he returned to one of the key policy proposals of his government: the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. (1) Keating sought to re-focus attention on the merits of the Canberra Commission's Report as a means of dealing with the renewed dangers of nuclear proliferation following the South Asian tests in May 1998. This paper looks at the impact of the Report in terms of influencing recent debates on the elimination of nuclear weapons. It argues that the Report has underwritten much of the elimination debate since it was released in August 1996. The paper concludes with an assessment of Keating's suggestion that the Canberra Commission should be reconvened to meet the challenges of contemporary nuclear proliferation and disarmament.

The Canberra Commission and the Nuclear Elimination Debate

With the end of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear confrontation which accompanied it, the idea that a nuclear-weapon free world was not only desirable but now feasible gained increasing attention in both academic and policy communities. This perception of a new political climate was reinforced by a series of major advances in arms control efforts throughout the early 1990s, including the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1995) and the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996). Recognising this new 'window of opportunity' for nuclear disarmament a number of respected institutions in the US began the task of piecing together the political and strategic arguments as to why nuclear weapons were no longer considered appropriate to the changed political realities of the post-Cold War world. In particular, the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) were at the forefront of early efforts to construct a more concerted dialogue on the utility of nuclear weapons in the context of US strategic policy. (2) For the most part however, the nuclear elimination debate was limited to Washington-based advocacy groups concerned with raising political awareness in the US on the dangers and costs of maintaining a nuclear deterrent posture on 'hair-trigger' alert. (3) The Stimson, FAS and NAS reports, while clearly focused on policy debates in Washington, nonetheless made some important strides in drawing together the emerging arguments about steps needed to progress the elimination debate in a global context.

But it was not until the publication of the Report by the Canberra Commission (4) in August 1996 that the elimination debate was elevated from the corridors of individual think-tanks and non-governmental organisations to the highest level of inter-State dialogue. The Canberra Commission, an initiative of the Australian Labor government under Prime Minister Keating, was convened to make the case, if it could be made, as to how the elimination of nuclear weapons might be achieved. The Commission's Report, presented to the Australian government in August 1996 and transmitted to the UN General Assembly on 30 September, stands as one of the most comprehensive and coherent arguments for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The consensus among the seventeen Commissioners, who included leading military, scientific and academic experts, was that assertions of nuclear weapons utility were no longer valid and that the failure to eliminate nuclear weapons immediately could lead to further horizontal proliferation and nuclear terrorism. The Report sets out a program of phased elimination steps ranging from an unequivocal commitment by the five nuclear-weapon States (NWS) to nuclear disarmament in the first instance, through to a number of reinforcing steps (de-alerting, removal of warheads from delivery systems, ending nuclear tests, initiating START III, and the negotiation of no-first-use agreements.)

The single most important aspect of the Canberra Commission was that the Report carried with it the clear-cut imprimatur of a leading Western State - one whose disarmament credentials were well-known and respected. In a press conference after the Commission's first meeting in January 1996, the Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, argued that a key strength of the Report was that it was "government sponsored, and it will be presented by a government to the other governments of the world". (5) It was the Keating government's full intention to use the Report as the basis of a sustained diplomatic campaign towards the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. In his November 1998 speech, Keating indicated that he had intended personally to raise the Report's findings with President Clinton and other leaders of the NWS. But despite all the good intentions, the Keating Labor government lost office before the Report could be finalised and with the new Conservative government in Australia showing no particular interest in the initiative, the Canberra Commission lost both its political sponsorship and momentum.

Some commentators suggested at the time that, divorced from its original political sponsors, the Report would be left to wither on the vine. (6) But a closer reading of the nuclear elimination debate over the past two years suggests that this has not been the case. Indeed, it can be argued that the Canberra Commission's Report has underwritten much of the elimination debate since 1996 and has been a direct catalyst for a number of related initiatives.

In the months after its release, the Report featured prominently in multilateral disarmament discussions in both Geneva and New York. Several other prominent 'middle powers', including Austria, Sweden and Brazil, used the Report's findings to call for greater consideration of nuclear weapons elimination in the context of the Conference on Disarmament's (CD) agenda. (7) Perhaps more importantly, both India and the United States agreed - referring positively to the Report's program of phased elimination steps in statements made to the UN General Assembly. For one brief moment it appeared as though the Canberra Commission Report might heal one of the main divisions between the two sides of the nuclear disarmament debate: namely, the difference of opinion over the obligations of the US and other NWS under Article VI of the NPT. But the new Australian government's limited advocacy of the Report, and the deteriorating climate for nuclear arms control throughout 1997, served to dampen any residual enthusiasm for the elimination cause. While the Report's findings continued to be pressed by some of the individual Commissioners, most notably General Lee Butler (8), a hardening of attitudes in Russia, the Middle East and South Asia meant that the nuclear disarmament debate had reached a stalemate and that the great advances in arms control of the previous decade were unlikely to be matched by any new agreements.

However, the international community was rudely shaken out of its lethargy on the issue by the series of nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in May 1998. The tests in South Asia represent the most serious set-back for the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regimes, though hardly one that can have been unexpected. The Canberra Commission's Report explicitly warned of the dangers of further proliferation and nuclear terrorism in the event that the NWS did not take immediate and concrete steps towards eliminating their existing nuclear arsenals. Constrained by their continued reliance on the doctrine of deterrence, the NWS have been unable or unwilling to adopt a position of leadership on the question of nuclear weapons.

The New Abolitionists on the Block

Following the South Asian tests, the elimination debate was infused with a renewed vigour with the announcement of two separate initiatives: the Irish-led New Agenda Coalition (NAC) and the Japanese-sponsored Tokyo Forum. In both cases, these latest 'middle power' initiatives can be seen as direct by-products of the Canberra Commission in terms of style and substance. However, serious doubts remain as to whether either initiative has the potential to shift the elimination debate forward or simply further entrench existing divisions between the nuclear 'haves' and 'have-nots'.

A month after the South Asian tests, the Irish government led a group of eight 'middle powers' in forming a new international coalition against the continued possession of nuclear weapons. The New Agenda Coalition - involving Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden - wrote a letter to the UN Secretary-General in June 1998 calling for immediate action to eliminate nuclear weapons. (9) The letter itself owed a considerable intellectual debt to the Canberra Commission Report, acknowledging the Report's conclusions as one of the most forceful arguments on the need to move towards a position of zero. The rest of the letter, and the UN General Assembly resolution that followed it in November 1998 (10), were, for the most part, a restatement of the Canberra Commission's main recommendations (de-alerting; a fissile material cut-off convention; the negotiation of no-first-use agreements; and support for nuclear free zones).

The NAC resolution overshadowed much of the nuclear disarmament debate in the First Committee at the General Assembly's 53rd session. (11) Following the Canberra Commission's lead, the NAC resolution called for a program of phased elimination steps as well as proposing the negotiation of a legally binding instrument for a nuclear-weapon-free world. The resolution attempted to bridge the typically benign resolutions by the pro-Western group and the more hard-line positions taken by the non-aligned movement (NAM). In the end, the resolution was adopted in the General Assembly by a vote of 114 in favour, 18 against with 38 abstentions. Among the countries abstaining from the vote were prominent allies of the US including Canada and Germany who recognised the positive intentions of the resolution but were not prepared to step outside the strategic interests of NATO or the NWS.

While it was the intention of the Irish government to "galvanise the international community in common action for the purpose of eradicating [nuclear] weapons for once and for all", the NAC initiative has not had the desired effect. Rather than bringing the international community together around a common set of nuclear disarmament goals, the UNGA resolution has only served to entrench divisions between the NWS and some members of the NAM. Despite the explicit attempt to accommodate NAM sensitivities (including not mentioning the May tests), India voted against the resolution on the basis that it did not go far enough in criticising the inequalities of the existing NPT regime. The NAC initiative has undoubtedly added a new level of intensity to the nuclear disarmament debate, but the extent to which this will have a positive effect on future negotiations remains uncertain.

The second major 'middle power' initiative following the South Asian nuclear tests has been the establishment of the Tokyo Forum on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. The Forum - a joint initiative of the Japanese government, the Japan Institute of International Affairs and the Hiroshima Peace Institute - is almost a direct copy of the Canberra Commission in terms of structure and mandate. Eighteen individuals, representing a diversity of official, academic and scientific backgrounds, have been invited to make recommendations to the Japanese government on "ways of further promoting global nuclear disarmament". (12) The Forum is expected to present its findings in a report to the Japanese government by mid-1999.

While aspects of the Tokyo Forum appear encouraging in terms of moving the nuclear disarmament debate forward in the wake of the South Asian tests, it, like the NAC initiative, will face a number of problems in meeting its own objectives. First, the Japanese government under Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi have emphasised the 'track two' or non-official status of the Forum's activities. This is despite the fact that it was Obuchi himself who announced the initiative in his former role as Foreign Minister. Second, the membership of the Forum includes semi-official representatives from both India and Pakistan which may hamper the production of a consensus report. Finally, given political sensitivities surrounding the US alliance, Japan is unlikely to give the Forum's findings and recommendations the political sponsorship needed to have a significant impact on the NWS.

For these reasons, neither the NAC initiative nor the Tokyo Forum are likely to produce the same kind of comprehensive action plan as the Canberra Commission. Ultimately, the Canberra Commission's Report does what no other report or statement on nuclear disarmament has been able to achieve: it sets out in a clear and comprehensive manner the steps needed to eliminate nuclear weapons within the context of maintaining global stability. It recognises the special security interests of the NWS, while at the same time demonstrating that the political, technical and strategic arguments for maintaining nuclear weapons are no longer valid, if they ever were. (13)

So what are the prospects for reconvening the Canberra Commission, as Keating has suggested, and what problems would it face?

Reconvening the Canberra Commission: Problems and Prospects

In the wake of the South Asian tests, there is a much greater need than before to publicise the Commission's original findings and have the NWS sign-on to a program of phased elimination steps. One suggestion would be to have the Commission reconstituted as more permanent 'one-and-a-half' track advisory body to focus on implementing the Report's recommendations and to look at the renewed dangers of nuclear proliferation. Of course, reconvening the Canberra Commission will not, by itself, lead to a reduction in nuclear weapons. But it will refocus the debate on elimination. In the interests of global security, the current Australian government would be well-advised to take Keating's assessment on board: "As a firm ally of the United States, with a high reputation in international arms control negotiations, Australia has a better chance than any other country to refocus international debate on the final goal of eliminating nuclear weapons". (14)

The prospects for reconvening the Canberra Commission in the short-term however, are not good. The current Liberal/National government in Australia has shown little enthusiasm for independent nuclear disarmament initiatives, particularly ones that would require a degree of argumentation with Washington. While the Canberra Commission's Report may be the best placed and most comprehensive program for dealing with the twin goals of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the absence of any sustained political support by the Australian government means that it is unlikely to achieve what Keating, Evans and others had hoped for it. As noted earlier, the one advantage the Canberra Commission's Report had over similar statements and reports was that it was government-sponsored and carried with it the imprimatur of a leading Western State on disarmament issues. Unfortunately, it will take either a change of heart or a change of government before serious consideration is given to reconvening the Canberra Commission.

Notes and References

1. Paul Keating, 'Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: A Survival Guide for the Twenty First Century', Lecture to the University of New South Wales, Sydney, 25 November 1998. The full text of Keating's speech is at http://www.keating.org.au/newspeechframe.html; substantial extracts are featured in Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue no. 32, November 1998, pp.34-38.

2. The three Stimson Centre Steering Committee Reports on eliminating nuclear weapons can be found at http://www.stimson.org . Documents relating to the FAS's program on nuclear non-proliferation are at http://www.fas.org. The 1997 NAS study titled 'The Future of United States Nuclear Weapons Policy' can be viewed at http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/fun . In addition, see the final report of the Carnegie Commission, Preventing Deadly Conflict (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 1997).

3. Of course, numerous community groups in the US and elsewhere had long advocated the abolition of nuclear weapons. For a comprehensive history of the world nuclear disarmament movement see Lawrence S. Wittner, One World or None, Vols. I and II (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993). This paper however, is concerned with the evolution of the nuclear elimination debate after the Cold War and its links to contemporary policy initiatives.

4. The full text of the Report is at http://www.dfat.gov.au/dfat/cc/cchome.html.

5. Transcript of Press Conference by Senator Gareth Evans and Ambassador Richard Butler, Canberra, 25 January 1996, p.4.

6. See, for example, Cameron Stewart, 'Ambitious Plan Dies in Silence', The Australian, 17 April 1997, p. 11.

7. Conference on Disarmament, CD/PV.755; CD/PV.760; CD/PV.759

8. Butler was instrumental in organising the associated Statement on Nuclear Weapons by International Generals and Admirals (December 1996) and the Statement by International Civilian Leaders (February 1998). The texts of both statements are at http://www.worldforum.org/initiatives.

9. UNGA A/53/138.

10. UNGA 53/77 Y.

11. For a summary of the debate see Rebecca Johnson, 'First Committee Report', Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue no. 32, November 1998, pp.12-33.

12. Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 'Holding of the First Meeting of the Conference on Urgent Actions for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament', Press Release No. 0477-12, 7 August 1998.

13. For a more thorough examination of the Report's specific arguments see Marianne Hanson and Carl Ungerer, 'Promoting an Agenda for Nuclear Weapons Elimination: The Canberra Commission and Dilemmas of Disarmament,' Australian Journal of Politics and History, Volume 44 No. 4, (December 1998), pp.533-551.

14. Keating, op. cit., p.10.

Carl J. Ungerer is a Ph.D. student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia, working on arms control issues. He is currently on leave from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Department or of the Australian government.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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