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Nuclear weapons, some enabled from Pine Gap, on wrong side of law


As of Friday, 22 January 2021, Australia will be on the wrong side of international law. This is the day the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force, having attained last October the threshold ratification by 50 member states of the United Nations.

Honduras was the 50th on 25 October, 2020; the 51st, Benin, followed on 11 December. The very first was The Vatican (Holy See) in September 2017.

A total of 86 countries have signed the treaty, the first step towards ratification. Australia isn’t one of them. Indeed, under the present government Australia has stood in the way of the development of the ban treaty and of debate in the Australian parliament about it.

This puts our country in conflict with its obligation – under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a party – to pursue negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.

If it were pursuing such measures,  Australia’s “greatest contribution”, argues the Nobel laureate ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – would be to renounce any role for nuclear weapons in the defence of the country and to join the ban treaty.

Under the treaty, Australia would have to desist from helping the United States with the possible use of its nuclear weapons, which is where the  issue becomes particularly relevant to Central Australia.

As Professor Richard Tanter has explained previously in the Alice Springs News, the American military base we host at Pine Gap has a critical role in US nuclear command, control and intelligence. This is specific to a discrete facility at the base, the Relay Ground Station (RGS) in the western compound.

He argues that an Australian Government, to become compliant with the ban treaty, could require the closure of the RGS without impacting the rest of the base, and that this is technically and strategically achievable without throwing the alliance into crisis.

The Relay Ground Station at Pine Gap. Far from closing, it is currently being expanded. Google Earth image, ©2020 Maxar Technologies, July 2020.

There is no hint of interest in going down this path from the present Australian Government. However, this might change with a future Labor government, the Labor Party having committed to sign and ratify the treaty. Indeed, Labor leader Anthony Albanese – who has described nuclear weapons as “the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created” – will speak at one the national events celebrating the treaty coming into force.

On the impact that ratifying the treaty could have on the alliance with the US he told the party’s national conference in 2018:

“I am a very strong supporter of our friends and our alliance with the United States, it goes beyond a relation between individuals. The fact is that we can disagree with our friends in the short term, while maintaining those relations.

“When other treaties such as landmines first came up, the United States and many other countries that ended up supporting it today were hostile to the idea.”

The present government, however, refuses to give serious consideration to the ban treaty – dispensing with it in just one paragraph on the Department of Foreign Affairs website, a paragraph “riddled with misrepresentations”, according to ICAN, which has published a succinct document to answer each, titled For the record.

This refusal puts us out of step with other allies and friends in the region: most of our Pacific neighbours have ratified the treaty, including Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Our immediate large neighbours to the north, Indonesia and The Philippines, have signed the treaty. Some south Asian states, like Bangladesh and Malaysia, have ratified it. 

No country with a nuclear arsenal has signed, nor have most NATO members, nor many of their military allies; on the contrary, they mostly boycotted the negotiations, which left the field largely to the countries of the Global South, typically excluded from playing a role in nuclear policy discussions.

Of the non-aligned EU member states, Austria and Ireland have ratified the treaty. Indeed, Austria has taken a leading role in negotiations and will host the first meeting of the “states parties” to the treaty within the year. Non-states parties could attend as observers.

One of the obligations the treaty places on its states parties is to seek universality, meaning that they must work to get states that are not party to the treaty to sign on and ratify.

Australia could thus come under increasing pressure at international and regional fora.

Meanwhile the treaty has popular support, says Gem Romuld, Australian director of ICAN, citing an IPSOS poll which asked whether Australia should sign and ratify the treaty: 71% answered yes (20% were unsure, 9% said no).

She says dozens of unions, religious, medical, humanitarian and environmental organisations have joined the movement to push for Australian ratification of the treaty, including the Australian Medical Association, Australian Red Cross and Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Some 88 federal parliamentarians have pledged to work for Australia to join the ban and some local governments are getting involved. In Hobart, for instance, the Lord Mayor will host a reception to celebrate the entry into force of the treaty.

In Alice Springs the Peace Action Think Tank (ASPATT) will host a film night this Saturday to raise awareness and mobilise support for Australia to ratify the treaty, while celebrating the historic occasion.

The 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy, starring Paul Newman in a story about the Manhattan Project – the secret endeavour during World War 11 to develop the first nuclear weapons – will screen at the Alice Springs Cinema, 6pm ($15 at the door, cash only). It will follow a short film featuring Karina Lester (pictured, photo supplied). She is a Yankuntjatjara/Pitjantjatjara second generation survivor of the nuclear tests at Maralinga, which devastated her Country and were believed to have blinded her father, Yami Lester OAM. 

Says ASPATT’s convenor Jonathan Pilbrow: “Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear weapons does not belong to a bygone era, but remains a present and real threat of our times.

“The most powerful way to honour the victims and survivors of nuclear weapons is to progress the elimination of these abhorrent weapons.

“It will be a step towards addressing some of the wrongs of the past, and ensuring Australia doesn’t legitimise the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances.”


Images, at top: Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, photos by George R. Caron, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Below: Aftermath of the bomb in Hiroshima, August 1945, photo by National Fire Service photographers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. For an unforgettable account of what it was like to live through the bombing and into its aftermath, see Hiroshima by John Hersey, Penguin Classics, first published in the New Yorker in August 1946. 


  1. In the best Kieran style, this article is well documented and may encourage Australia to reconsider its position vis-a-vis the nuclear ban and take positive steps to become part of the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I really believe we may all be winners in that respect, both locally and globally.

  2. Whilst the banning of nuclear weapons is certainly a good move, how do you really police it and what are the penalties for those who break the treaty? Unfortunately in today’s world, many people and countries think they are above the rules and there is nothing that can be done to eliminate this bad behaviour.
    I see that as the real challenge, solve that puzzle and many other things will fall into place.

  3. @Surprised! Independent verification of a country’s elimination of its nuclear weapons program is of course provided for by the treaty (Article 4). The role will be carried out by a competent international authority designated by the “states parties” – the countries who have ratified the treaty.
    The kind of surveillance technology used at Pine Gap – but in the hands of an independent international authority – could be one of the tools used, as verification of arms agreements is an important function of Pine Gap, certainly the one that the Australian Government is the most comfortable in talking about.
    The treaty also provides for the International Atomic Energy Agency to continue to verify that the disarmed facilities and nuclear materials are not being used for weapons-related activities.
    But, as with all international bodies and agreements, the treaty will only be as good as the family of nations can make it. Civil society across multiple nations – including our own, despite our government – got the treaty to where it is today. There is still much work to do.

  4. Australia should lease bases and equipment to and from America as weapons are quickly obsolete, with a caveat, as necessary to retain our sovereignty


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