Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – what next for the nuclear “grand bargain?” – Speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs

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Kia ora tatou
It’s my great pleasure to be here today at the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. I welcome this opportunity to share with you the Government’s thinking on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT.
Forged in the depths of the Cold War nuclear arms race, for more than 50 years the NPT has been the cornerstone of multilateral efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. New Zealand was an early joiner of the NPT and remains a committed supporter.
A half-century after the NPT was agreed, it’s a suitable moment to take stock of what the Treaty is, what the major challenges and opportunities are, and why the NPT is still relevant in a world that looks very different from the one in which it was adopted in 1968. It’s especially timely now ahead of the NPT’s next five-yearly Review Conference—scheduled for New York in January 2022.
Today I want to first outline the history and context of the original NPT agreement, and explain the importance of the “Grand Bargain” the NPT sets up. I’ll touch on developments over the past 20 years, and explain the role New Zealand plays and continues to play. Throughout, I will be delivering a strong and clear message about the need for action by nuclear weapon states, if we are to ensure a successful meeting in 2022. I also want to touch briefly on the separate Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, highlighting how it reinforces the NPT and provides an additional opportunity for us to demonstrate our commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. I’m also more than happy to take questions and a discussion with you all when the floor is open.
Context for the NPT
To set the scene for the NPT, we need to go back to the early 1960s. At that time, the prospect of nuclear war was frighteningly real, and a consensus began to develop internationally on the need for concerted action to prevent this occurring. US President John F. Kennedy, speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 1961, summed up the problem succinctly when he said, “We must abolish these weapons before they abolish us”.
A year later, in October 1962, the world indeed came perilously close to the brink of nuclear war over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The Cuban Missile Crisis sobered political leaders in both East and West. It contributed to an impetus for international agreements to try to dampen the nuclear arms race through arms control, if not one day entirely reverse it through nuclear disarmament. Following the adoption of a treaty establishing a partial ban on nuclear testing in 1963, a much broader international agreement to prevent the spread or “proliferation” of nuclear weapons was adopted in May 1968. The objectives of this new treaty – the NPT – were threefold: to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology; to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.
Of course the NPT was – and remains – far from perfect. The NPT established a two-tier system of Nuclear-Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States. The former were the five countries that had made and exploded nuclear weapons prior to January 1967—China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States.
All other States had to either forego nuclear weapons, or not belong to the NPT and thus miss out on its benefits. Today four non-NPT States have nuclear weapons—India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea. Apart from them, the Treaty’s membership is almost universal.
The NPT’s discriminatory structure has been persistently criticised, as has its failure to establish a permanently resourced body to monitor and ensure implementation of its nuclear disarmament obligation. But the fact that a half-century after the Treaty’s adoption there are only nine nuclear-armed States is something of a miracle, even if it is a situation also tinged with disappointment and frustration due to the glacial pace of nuclear disarmament.
New Zealand has, over the decades, acquired an international reputation for championing nuclear disarmament. I like to think that New Zealanders have an underlying quality of fairness and justice. And it was those values that drove tens of thousands of kiwis into the streets – myself included – in the 70s and 80s – in response to devastating nuclear weapons tests that France, the US and the UK were detonating in our neighbourhood, the Pacific.
Over half a century, the nuclear powers collectively tested more than three hundred nuclear weapons; devastating communities and ecosystems, and driving Pacific people from their homelands.
And as David Lange went on to say at the Oxford Union debate in 1985, nuclear weapons have a “strange, dubious and totally unaccepted moral purpose which holds the whole of the world to ransom.”
But this policy shift had its origins in the Third Labour government, which had sent New Zealand navy frigates to protest the atmospheric nuclear tests that France was conducting at Mururoa, in spite of a ruling by the International Court of Justice prohibiting the tests. Such was the seriousness of the government response that cabinet minister Fraser Colman was tasked with joining the navy crew on their mission.
At the diplomatic level, New Zealand worked to advance disarmament through the NPT and, recently, in promoting the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or TPNW).
We approach the NPT Review Conference with clear expectations, and a sense of how much is at stake.
Underlying our approach is our fundamental commitment to seeing the “grand bargain” between the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation provisions of the Treaty fully implemented. This is the second key point I would like to focus on today.
The Grand Bargain
The “grand bargain” is at the heart of the NPT. It’s what made it all possible. And it is necessary in sustaining it for the future.
The Grand Bargain is the deal whereby most States gave up the opportunity to pursue nuclear weapons, in exchange for those five already possessing them pursuing nuclear disarmament.
The “grand bargain” is fundamental to achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world.
Although New Zealand is perhaps most prominent in our promotion of the nuclear disarmament pillar of the Treaty, of course we have interests that span the other pillars too.
Non-proliferation helps to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of more States. It inhibits the ambitions of proliferators, including in our Indo-Pacific region.
We also have a strong stake in ensuring that the peaceful uses of nuclear energy are subject to the highest nuclear safety and security standards. You don’t need to look any further than Chernobyl, or more recently and closer to home, Fukushima—to understand why.
Recognising the fundamental importance of all pillars of the NPT, then, it is clear that the stakes are high for the upcoming Review Conference.
So what are the prospects for a successful outcome, and how did we get here?
How did we get here?
To answer this, it is necessary to look back briefly at what has happened over the past 20 years at previous review conferences. This is the third of the points I want to cover.
Originally, the Treaty was limited to 25 years in duration.
But in 1995, the NPT was indefinitely extended. Countries without nuclear weapons made a commitment that they would never seek to obtain them. The ‘extension package’ was the result of wrangling and concessions by all NPT States Parties, and provided an opportunity for non-nuclear weapon States to capture their expectations regarding implementation of all pillars of the Treaty.
Subsequent Review Conferences have also seen the adoption of additional undertakings and commitments relating to nuclear disarmament and to the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. And while we have seen some real progress in the implementation of commitments made in respect of non-proliferation and peaceful uses – in large part reflecting the efforts of the permanent and incredibly effective International Atomic Energy Agency – this has not the been the experience for either the Middle East and disarmament commitments.
In fact, failure to agree on how to move forward on implementation of the 1995 and 2010 undertakings relating to the Middle East prevented the adoption of any outcome at all from the most recent NPT Review Conference in 2015.
And in respect of nuclear disarmament, the cupboard is particularly bare.
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty – lauded as part of the 1995 NPT extension package and adopted in 1996 – has still not entered into force.
Negotiations on a treaty to curb the production of fissile material – which again were heralded at the 1995 Review Conference and every subsequent meeting – have not even commenced due to a significant blockage among the nuclear-armed States in the Conference on Disarmament.
And, despite undertakings to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines and reject the development of new types of nuclear weapons, we have seen the modernisation and expansion of nuclear arsenals, long-term funding programmes, and destabilising rhetoric around the use of nuclear weapons.
In fact it is hard to point to the concrete and irreversible implementation of any nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments by the nuclear weapon States, although we acknowledge the ongoing importance of nuclear arms reduction measures by the US and Russia and welcome their extension of New START for a further five years.
Why so slow?
The failure of the NWS to deliver on nuclear disarmament has caused great stress to the NPT system. If the NPT’s grand bargain is to succeed, the nuclear weapons states must honour their commitment to disarmament. The lingering question out of all of this is – why haven’t they done more? Surely it is in their interests, as much as everyone else’s, to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.
The nuclear weapon states blame the international context, citing “increased tensions” for the absence of progress in implementing Article VI. They say there is a need to create conditions—or an environment—in which nuclear disarmament, including the implementation of previous commitments made, might only be possible at some future, indeterminate point. It implies that, for now, nuclear disarmament is off the table and the international community to which these commitments were made should not rock the boat in forums like the NPT – or risk losing non-proliferation gains.
These circular arguments are used to justify the modernisation and in some cases expansion of nuclear arsenals that makes the world a more dangerous place.
More than ever, New Zealand rejects this Alice in Wonderland logic. To quote David Lange again: “The people of New Zealand reached a very straightforward conclusion: that nuclear weapons which would defend them; they believed, caused them more alarm than any which threatened them, and accordingly, they deem it pointless to be defended by them.”
This is not to say the international strategic environment is not important. It is hard to achieve arms control and disarmament progress when strategic tensions between nuclear-armed States are heightening. But we have seen progress on the non-proliferation pillar, with nuclear weapon states pushing hard for this. And more fundamentally, it’s incorrect to imply that nuclear arms control and disarmament measures are unrealistic in a time of international tension. Our experience in the 1960s shows the opposite – with much progress made amid the great superpower tensions of the decade.
What is New Zealand doing to help?
I want to turn next to the specific, practical things New Zealand is doing to contribute to a positive outcome to the NPT Review Conference.
New Zealand is committed to the achievement of a nuclear-weapon-free world. This has been at the heart of our foreign policy for several decades. So what are we doing about it?
As a committed but quite small global player, we must appreciate that New Zealand is not going to change the world by itself.
First and foremost, New Zealand pursues our NPT goals as a member of the New Agenda Coalition. Formed in 1998 from fear that the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 might already be interpreted by the nuclear weapon States as acquiescence in their permanent possession of their arsenals, the NAC has consistently sought to hold the nuclear weapon states to account in terms of Article VI implementation, and to promote realistic, but ambitious steps to this end.
In 2000, the NAC was instrumental in negotiating the “unequivocal undertaking” made by the nuclear weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear weapons – a critical outcome that demonstrated alignment between all parties to the NPT regarding the intended objective of nuclear disarmament. The NAC has been active at all subsequent Review Conferences and is particularly well-known for its work on effective legally-binding measures for nuclear disarmament. At next year’s Conference, The NAC will press for a reiteration of the unequivocal undertaking and for transparent and measurable practical progress on nuclear disarmament alongside complementary measures to reduce the risks of nuclear crisis and conflict.
In 2019, New Zealand also joined a new, complementary cooperative undertaking on nuclear disarmament. Instigated by Sweden, it perhaps inevitably became known as the Stockholm Initiative. This initiative, which includes New Zealand and 15 other nations, shares some of the same concerns as the New Agenda Coalition, including pushing for reiteration of the unequivocal undertaking by the Nuclear-Weapon States. It is a diverse initiative, featuring a wide range of countries, including several nuclear umbrella States such as Canada, Germany, Norway and Japan. This is a grouping of countries with the desire and the ability to have a dialogue with the nuclear weapon States.
The Stockholm Initiative aims to promote a successful NPT Review Conference outcome by building support for a pragmatic and result-oriented disarmament agenda. As part of this, Stockholm Initiative Ministers have proposed specific stepping stones to this end. The stepping stones include items such as nuclear-weapon states reducing or further reducing their nuclear arsenals and contributing to next generation arms control agreements. There are also a range of transparency and risk-reduction measures – for example nuclear weapon states reporting to the NPT on their arsenals; and establishing hotlines to reduce risks in the case of a crisis.
On the latter, New Zealand has taken a particular interest in nuclear weapon risk measures that could help to contribute to uptake or success of such stepping stones, although we have consistently underscored that nuclear risk reduction measures are not a substitute for concrete progress on disarmament.
Taken in sum, the ideas put forward by the NAC and the Stockholm Initiative constitute proposals to advance nuclear disarmament. Individually, the chances of success of these proposals—at least in unaltered form—may not be high. Compromises will need to be made, and all-day (and probably night) negotiating sessions will be necessary.
However, elements are likely to be taken up into a final outcome, reflecting as they do the views of a significant number of engaged States with support from many other NPT State Parties.
These proposals are also important because they keep the pressure on. If the nuclear weapon states are not progressing on implementation of Article VI, it is not for want of constructive, practical ideas or a lack of engagement from the Non-Nuclear-Weapon States.
These groupings—the New Agenda Coalition and the Stockholm Initiative—are by no means the only groupings through which New Zealand works. We continue to partner with others in the nuclear de-alerting initiative. In a crisis, nuclear weapons primed to launch on warning of possible attack could lead to their accidental use. We and others in the De-alerting Group will continue to seek to influence the nuclear weapon states towards lowering the alert status of their deployed nuclear weapons. As a member of the Humanitarian Initiative, we will continue to advocate for recognition of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons to be adequately reflected in any NPT outcome. The cooperative spirit demonstrated by these groupings is our main source of optimism leading into 2022.
Non-proliferation and peaceful uses
Lack of progress on Article VI, which contains the commitment to disarmament, is the biggest hurdle facing the Review Conference. But the other two pillars of the NPT must also receive due attention. On non-proliferation, we need only look at the situations in Iran, North Korea and Syria to see the importance of nuclear safeguards, monitored and verified by the IAEA. The IAEA’s work on all these issues – and its efforts to ensure the safeguards system remains fit for purpose – is a particular focus for New Zealand, and we are determined that, through the Review Conference, NPT parties will send a clear message in support of its critical work.
On peaceful uses of nuclear energy, we are active in advocating for nuclear safety and security. We also recognise the potential of emerging nuclear techniques. Across all uses, however, the highest possible standards of nuclear safety and security must be maintained. No nuclear activities are risk free and too often those that bear the costs of accidents or deliberate misuse are not those receiving any benefits.
A bright spot: the TPNW
As a final point before I conclude, I will return to nuclear disarmament, and talk briefly about the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and how it relates to the NPT.
The TPNW is the most positive and promising development in nuclear disarmament in a long time. With its entry into force earlier this year, nuclear weapons are now illegal for those countries that have joined. That is a significant achievement. The TPNW also has provisions on transparency, requiring the same standard of nuclear safeguards as under the NPT, and, importantly, on providing assistance for victims of nuclear testing and for environmental remediation.
New Zealand is proud of the TPNW and of the role we played in bringing it to life. It was the culmination of an international movement to abolish nuclear weapons, and saw non-nuclear weapons States send a clear message about our frustration at the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about the TPNW, and some of it seems to be designed to deter others from joining. I won’t go into all the arguments here – suffice to say, there are clear and compelling counterarguments to all the points that are made.
I will touch on, though, the relationship between the TPNW and the NPT. Some say that the TPNW is a disarmament forum in competition with the NPT. This is not the case. New Zealand is firmly committed to both and we don’t see their relationship as problematic. The TPNW is a legitimate response, consistent with our obligation under NPT Article VI, to undertake good faith efforts with a view to achieving nuclear disarmament.
Among its purposes, the TPNW offers a constructive alternative to outright NPT rupture as frustration has grown with the faltering pace of nuclear disarmament. Indeed, the NPT community will need to find a way to reflect the existence of the TPNW – something it has proven able to do with a range of treaties that relate to the NPT, including the CTBT and various bilateral agreements.
This brings me to my final remarks. As I reflect on all of this, I can see the journey we’ve made – from the Cold War years, to New Zealand’s long and proud history of nuclear activism, through successive NPT Review Conferences with their successes and failures, all against a backdrop of an unacceptably slow pace of nuclear disarmament.
And now, here we are at the end of 2021, approaching another Review Conference. There is a lot at stake and, from what I can see, there is a real chance that we could go backwards at the Review Conference. I can also see why, in such a situation, it is tempting to aim or advocate only for the status quo – standing still is after all surely preferable to moving backwards.
But this has never been New Zealand’s approach and we aren’t about to lower the bar now.
Instead, we are working as hard as we can to try to get a positive outcome at the Review Conference which moves us forward in our important effort to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. This is what we owe to all those New Zealanders and advocates in the Pacific and around the world who have taken this cause up over the years, and continue to fight for it today.
What happens next depends in a large part on the nuclear weapon states. I urge them to come to the Review Conference ready to make progress on nuclear disarmament – to keep the Grand Bargain moving forward.
We simply cannot allow the NPT as a central part of the disarmament and non-proliferation architecture to fail.

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