Speech by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross, delivered at Griffith University.
4 August 2015
Seventy years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Why the elimination of nuclear weapons is more important than ever before
It is a privilege to be asked to deliver this public lecture at Griffith University. At the outset I want to by acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet today, the Jagera and Turrbul people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I am also very proud of the fact that 6% of Red Cross employees are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people and they make a magnificent contribution to the work of Red Cross right around Australia.
We meet here today in the shadow of an infamous week in human history. On the 6th and the 9th of August, the world will mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings of these two cities marks the first and last times that nuclear weapons were used in war.
Nuclear weapons vaporized Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an instant. The cities were destroyed by the immediate nuclear blast and fireball, and what remained of the built environment and human life, quickly succumbed to ruin and death.
The real death toll of the atomic bombs will never be known. In the chaos that ensued few records were kept however estimates of 150,000 killed and wounded in Hiroshima, and 75,000 in Nagasaki are likely to be overly conservative. Even now, there are those who are still being treated for the effects of the atomic bombings, generations after the initial impacts.
The Japanese Red Cross Society has run hospitals for atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima since 1956 and Nagasaki since 1969 and has recently released a study conducted in cooperation with ICRC on the numbers of people impacted by the blasts. During the period of Red Cross management of these hospitals they have handled more than 2.5 million outpatient visits by atomic bomb survivors and more than 2.6 million admissions of survivors as in-patients. These are truly incredible figures.
In Japan, atomic bomb survivors are referred to as Hibakusha, literally 'bomb-affected people'. In March 2014 the Japanese government officially recognized 192,719 living persons as atomic bomb survivors - of these 119,169 were directly exposed at the time of the bombings, 54,260 were exposed by entering the cities in the following weekas and nearly 21,000 risked exposure through providing relief, burial and similar activities. 7351 were unborn children at the time their parents were exposed.
Sadako Sasaki is perhaps the most famous Hibakusha, although she lived only a short life. Sadako was 2 years old at the time of the Hiroshima bombing, and was exposed to a huge dose of nuclear radiation, that resulted in leukemia. Facing death, Sadako was inspired by the Japanese legend that said if you folded 1000 paper cranes your greatest wish would be granted. Sadako's wish was to live. She never managed to fold a 1000 cranes, but died from her illness before she reached that number and while still just a young girl. So this week, when we fold paper cranes, we do it for peace, but we also do it in memory of Sadako. At the Hiroshima memorial, Sadako's Statue is one of the most visited sites in the park, and remains both a symbol of peace and the desire to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world.
At the most recent Intergovernmental conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna in December 2014, Hibakusha survivor Setsuko Thurlow, entreated states to use of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings as motivation to make real progress on banning nuclear weapons. Setsuko, and many other Hibakusha, fear that soon they will not be alive to advocate for the prohibition of nuclear weapons, and that others will have to live with the catastrophic humanitarian consequences caused by nuclear weapons.
Following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, it became abundantly clear that the world's deadliest weapon was now in operation. Since then, we have managed to avoid nuclear war by either dumb luck, or divine intervention, and not being a particularly religious person, I am putting my money on dumb luck!
Fortunately, in the past 5 years there has been a magnificent break through in the global campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons. For the first time since 1945, the debate in the international community of governments has shifted from international political debate, to a focus on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and the high risk of an accidental or deliberate detonation. At the very heart of that seismic shift in the debate, as I will explain, is a role played by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I hope that by the time you leave this auditorium, you are convinced that banning nuclear weapons is not a far-fetched ideal, but an achievable goal that depends on both political leadership and public support, including here in Australia.
In this lecture, I want to outline the humanitarian work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, including Australian Red Cross, and the context for our involvement in banning nuclear weapons. I will then speak about the recent developments of the so-called humanitarian initiative to prohibit nuclear weapons, and the recent outcomes of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, known as the NPT. Finally, I want to consider the future of humanitarian initiative to ban nuclear weapons, and consider how Australia's previous experience in contributing to international leadership in developing international humanitarian law globally can show us the way to effectively contribute to the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
I am sure that most of you will know the important work my Organisation does across our entire country. Australian Red Cross was formed in 1914 just 9 days after the outbreak of World War 1 and has been a part of the fabric of the Australian community ever since. Globally we are part of an international movement - the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement - that proudly stands for a peaceful world and promotes non-violence in our communities. Last year we celebrated 100 years of Red Cross in Australia..
From 2005, after over 90 years operating as relatively siloed state and territory Red Cross organisations with separate state boards and CEOs, we began to evolve a cohesive national framework with a single national board with Governance Authority, and a national CEO responsible to that board. We then undertook a total branch review of all our services and sharpened our focus on the priority areas for our future work, which includes: our longstanding international aid development work; our responses to disasters and emergencies in Australia and around the world; over 20 years of domestic work meeting the needs of asylum seekers and refugees; and our representative engagement with the dissemination of international humanitarian law. In addition to these four areas, we also have three other priority areas of work of more recent focus, including: our partnerships with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; our programmes which tackle social exclusion including those which focus on Justice reinvestment and marginalised young offenders; and finally our concentrated work in communities we have identified where extremely high levels of disadvantage have been often concentrated for decades. We also provide a world first class blood services to the people of Australia.
We have also adopted our Ways of Working, which sets the ethical framework for the delivery of all our services and our commitment to such things as empowerment, community development, respecting issues of gender and diversity, meeting the challenges of climate change, focussing on monitoring and evaluation of our work and always the ongoing commitment to impartiality and neutrality. These and other key principles shape the way we work.
We will soon be publicly launching our new whole-of-organisation strategy, known as Strategy 2020, which will guide our work for the next 5 years, and which will also continue our focus on international humanitarian law, or IHL. Our work in IHL can be traced back to the Movement's genesis 150 years ago and the global mandate to alleviate suffering during times of conflict. In IHL we champion the ideas that: civilians should be spared during conflict; that the red cross and red crescent emblems should be protected and medical and humanitarian aid provided safe access during war; that war criminals should be prosecuted and that there are methods and means of warfare, including specific weapons such as biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster munitions, that are illegal under international law.
In our work in IHL we leverage our unique auxiliary status with the public authorities in the humanitarian field and we train key military personnel in IHL across Australia.
It is important at the start to place on record our specific way of raising our issues of humanitarian concern with governments and others - via humanitarian diplomacy - using our Fundamental Principles. Our principle of Humanity as the basis for the pressing need to speak out and urge for action; our principle of Impartiality to show that help goes to those who need it, irrelevant of race, nationality, class, or religious belief; our principle of Neutrality to demonstrate that our concerns don't lie in controversies of a political or ideological nature but rather rest with the prosperity of the human family; our principle of Independence which urges us to continue to engage with government and authorities (even if they disagree with us) in a respectful but consistent manner with the aim of achieving policies and decisions that are humane; our principle of Voluntary Service to harness the goodwill and commitment and desire for action of thousands of people who are sick of living in a world which is threated by war and it consequences; and our principles of Unity and Universality which now sees this global Movement in almost every nation on earth with a strong and united vision of helping the most vulnerable people in our societies.
When I joined Red Cross as the CEO, the profundity of the world's largest humanitarian movement, the 7 Fundamental Principles, and its purely humanitarian mission captured both my heart and my mind. I saw, and continue to see, the great beauty and humanitarian inspiration in the Movement. The seven Fundamental Principles inspire and underpin every action. They call us to address the panorama of humanitarian issues facing the modern age, from inequality to the challenges facing indigenous populations, from aid and development to conflict and war. And today, I hope you will see that they guide us to work towards the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.
With the support of the Movement, the international community now appears to be at a cross roads with nuclear weapons - a decision point on whether we push forward to create a legally binding instrument to deal with clarity and precision on these weapons, or pass them on as an inheritance of horror to our future generations.
Since their first use the Red Cross has been there, raising its voice against nuclear weapons. As you know, on 6 August 1945, a white flash appeared over Hiroshima. Seconds later, the city was flattened. In the midst of this appalling devastation, one hospital could be seen - the Hiroshima Red Cross hospital. Over the next few days it struggled to treat the many thousands who sought assistance. On top of this the first non-military doctor to assist was Dr Marcel Junod, a health delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross, known as the ICRC. If you visit Hiroshima today you will see a very moving tribute to Dr Junod and the ICRC in the peace park, not far from the statue of Sadako Sasaki. Today the Japanese Red Cross still runs the hospitals dealing with the horrors of this use of nuclear weapons, in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For the Movement, the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealed that nuclear weapons should be unambiguously and conclusively recognised as violating the general principles of IHL, for which we are the custodians, as well as the principle of humanity. Despite the absence of a specific treaty or convention banning nuclear weapons, our position is clear that we find it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of IHL.
As I mentioned, IHL is known as 'the laws of war.' However neither the Geneva Conventions nor their 1977 Additional Protocols - the cornerstones of IHL - specifically mention weapons of any kind - rather they provide principles to guide these debates.
These general principles of IHL govern the use of all weapons during times of conflict, including nuclear weapons. These rules include the following:
I contend that after hearing the absolute devastation nuclear weapons cause, that it would be difficult for anyone to argue that those effects are compatible with the rules I've just explained. However despite this, the International Court of Justice in a 1996 Advisory Opinion failed by a slim majority to unambiguously conclude that the use of nuclear weapons was in all times and circumstances contrary to international law. This outcome is sometimes described as a gap in IHL and contributes to the case for a convention to completely ban the use of these weapons.
The Movement also sees the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons within the context of our inability to adequately mount an emergency humanitarian response, should these weapons be used. As I mentioned earlier, our commitment to banning nuclear weapons is also found in our experience in bringing relief to Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, and in our global expertise as a leader in humanitarian emergency and disaster response.
I want you to consider the following reality. Even large, expert organisations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and actors such as the United Nations, and governments themselves, for all their vast resources and decades if not centuries of expertise, have seen that humanitarian responders can often be overwhelmed even after a natural disaster. The challenge of reaching and caring for survivors would be simply impossible to meet, and by way of example, the 2004 tsunami which killed over 230,000 people pushed the world's humanitarian responders to their capacity.
But in the case of a nuclear war,, it is clear that even for the coordinated efforts of the whole of the international community, a humanitarian response would be impossible. The humanitarian consequences of a blast, heat, electromagnetic pulse and radiation associated with nuclear explosions would be insurmountable for medical and humanitarian responders and are not remotely or reasonably comparable to experiences with major natural disasters. And one must remember that the yields of modern nuclear weapons are thousands of times more potent that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The total destruction of not just the impact site but extensive areas surrounding the impact site are forgone conclusions with modern nuclear weapons, making the ability of those left to respond almost non-existent.
By way of background, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is independent from, but often works alongside, civil society organisations, which also play a leading role globally. The worldwide launch of the International Campaign against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Vienna in 2007, fashioned on the successful International Campaign to Ban Landmines model, galvanised civil society groups to work to ban nuclear weapons due to their horrifying humanitarian impact. A diverse number of civil society actors, including policy makers, physicians, scientists, advocates, and members of the general public, now work together as partners under the ICAN banner, and their Australian Chapter is particularly strong, including a Nobel peace prize winner on the international Board.
In April 2010 in a critical intervention, President of the ICRC Jakob Kellenberger addressed the Diplomatic Corps in Geneva about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. He appealed to states to work urgently towards their prohibition, essentially paving the way for the Movement to endorse its public opposition to the use of nuclear weapons. It is to this third point, the engagement of the Movement, to which I can speak authoritatively.
Restating the Movement's position on nuclear weapons in 2010 was a bold gesture from President Kellenberger because nuclear weapons were a low-ranking priority on the agenda of states. I think it is true to say that for decades debate on issues of disarmament and the legality of the use of nuclear weapons had been bogged down in the processes of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. These processes were clearly dominated by the existing nuclear weapons states.
In addressing the threat of nuclear weapons the President made reference to universal humanitarian values, IHL, the Movement's emergency and disaster relief expertise, and the direct experience of the Japanese Red Cross and the ICRC in WWII. President Kellenberger's holistic humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons reinvested the Movement into the nuclear weapons debate with gusto.
Encouragingly, the support of governments and ordinary citizens for the humanitarian endeavor to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons soon grew rapidly. Two months after President Kellenberger's speech, the 2010 NPT Review Conference unanimously expressed their "deep concern at the … catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons". Never before had a Review Conference explicitly employed the language of the 'humanitarian consequences', and this small step helped legitimize this new narrative and begin tilting the debate on its axis, towards the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons
However, an historic turning point and defining moment came in 2011 in Geneva, when the Movement raised its voice with strong certainty and adopted a resolution on the elimination of nuclear weapons at the 'Council of Delegates' - the highest decision making body of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. The Resolution committed all parts of the Movement to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. I was privileged to be one of the major speakers in support of this resolution, representing Australian Red Cross.
The resolution is carefully crafted; it builds upon many of the promising legal and political developments that have occurred in recent years from a variety of fora including United Nations treaty processes, the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. It also draws from Resolutions from International Conferences of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, which are adopted by the Movement and all signatories to the Geneva Conventions.
The resolution sets out our clear aims in this area that are simple:
Momentum was quickly building as experts, opinion leaders, the Movement, and civil society began to vocalize their opposition to the use of nuclear weapons in a number of high-profile forums. In 2012 the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War met in Hiroshima to progress civil society actions and perspectives on the elimination of nuclear weapons. Their Congress Statement reinforced the growing momentum of the humanitarian narrative, and also welcomed the "renewed resolve' of the Movement in regards to nuclear weapons.
States also began to take up the humanitarian perspective, and began using the humanitarian narrative during UN debates and meetings. In 2013 and 2014 the UN First Committee on Disarmament held back to back special thematic debates on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. These were first ever specific debates on this issue since the formation of the UN. In the 2013 debate, New Zealand delivered a statement on behalf of 125 states deploring the existence of nuclear weapons and their humanitarian consequences. The following year, 155 states supported a follow-up statement by New Zealand; this represents nearly 80% of UN member states, Australia was not one of them.
In March 2013 the Norwegian Government hosted the first ever intergovernmental conference dedicated solely to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons - over 120 states attended and the ICRC was accorded a respected status as one of the leading key note speakers at the Conference where the importance of the Movement resolution was unambiguously recognised.
In November 2013 the Movement gathered in Sydney and adopted a follow up resolution, setting out in a plan of action the sort of activities to be implemented by Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in order to influence their governments and public opinion globally. The 2013 plan of action combined with the 2011 resolution guide our work and ensure we approach this critical issue in a consistent and credible way - no mean feat when dealing with a Movement made up of 189 different National Societies, an International Federation and the ICRC.
The Movement's leadership on this subject has contributed significantly to building the now so-called humanitarian initiative to ban nuclear weapons, which I will now explore. Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies, the International Federation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) can all claim a portion of the responsibility for reinvigorating the humanitarian struggle to ban nuclear weapons.
Many and diverse governments, including the conservative government of New Zealand as well as civil society actors embraced the resolutions. The Resolutions have been recognised and read out in parliaments around the world, as well as at the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly and NPT meetings. Our nuclear weapons resolutions have been critical in shifting the nuclear weapons debate from military doctrine and strategic concerns, to one of humanitarian imperatives.
Following on from the Oslo conference that I have already mentioned, a second international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons was held in February 2014 in Mexico and was attended by 146 States. On this occasion the ICRC together with the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies delivered a landmark joint statement which recognised the need for the Movement to continue to speak with one voice on this critical humanitarian issue. At the conclusion of the conference the Chair announced that he believed the time had come for a diplomatic process to begin to eliminate these weapons, calling the Mexico Conference 'the point of no return'. I think it must be said that this statement from the Chair was strongly disavowed by some countries that did not share these views.
A third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons was held in Vienna in December 2014. The Vienna conference was attended by 158 states and over 900 delegates, and continued to explore the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons discussed at two previous conferences. The significant outcome of this conference is something I will return to momentarily. First, I want to reflect on what we have learnt thanks to these series of intergovernmental conferences.
Humanity is now better informed about the effects of nuclear weapons than ever before. We can calculate the boundaries of a nuclear blast and its ongoing effects on the climate and the built environment. We have concluded that nuclear deterrence strategies are hopelessly volatile. We know that the reliance on nuclear weapons for global stability and peace is both a myth and an affront to our democratic and humanitarian principles. We know that the health effects are prodigious in their assault on the human body, can last a lifetime, and affects women and girls more than men and boys. And we cannot see how nuclear weapons could be used in conformity with IHL, and the principle of humanity.
What is extremely disturbing, and not highlighted enough, is the real and momentous risk of an accidental or purposeful nuclear weapons detonation in the future. The respected author Eric Schlosser in his book 'Command and Control' raises this point with chilling clarity, giving example after example of the 'near misses' that have occurred with potential devastating consequences, including lost nuclear weapons, yes you heard that right nuclear weapons being misplaced; nuclear weapons being accidentally dropped from planes as well as being accidentally transported across America. As Schlosser concludes: "Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away, literally out of sight, topped with warheads and ready to go…they are a collective death wish, barely suppressed…They are out there, waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial - and they work." Schlosser delivered this message to an audience in Vienna, who sat frozen as he pronounced the ultimate inevitability of a nuclear weapons detonation if they are not prohibited and eliminated.
At the close of the Vienna conference, the Chair, in presenting the Conference outcomes document, concluded that the new evidence from not only Vienna, but all three humanitarian consequences conferences, had revealed that:
These 8 points are in many ways a restatement of the things we knew about the effects of nuclear weapons, but backed by new evidence and testimony. It's what came next from the Chair, which was the real surprise.
In another turning point, Austria produced a one-page pledge outlining the actions Austria would independently commit to in order to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The pledge included, and I quote:
"to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, States, international organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks."
In short, the 'Austrian Pledge' as it was known then, was a commitment by Austria to work to fill the legal gap in regards to the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law. Furthermore, Austria called upon states parties to the NPT to "renew their commitment to the urgent and full implementation of existing obligations under Article VI", which says that states agree to work in good faith towards negotiating general and complete disarmament.
This pledge was a creative diplomatic device as it significantly increased the pressure on nuclear weapons states and their dependents, by placing the nuclear weapons issue firmly in the arena of civilian protection and human security, and while some diplomats passed it off as a 'stunt', the pledge has rapidly gained significant momentum.
The ICRC, on the back of the success of the intergovernmental conferences and the 'Austrian Pledge', saw the potential for the 2015 NPT Review Conference held in New York to be of renewed significance. Two months before the Conference, like his Presidential predecessor, ICRC President Peter Maurer delivered an address on nuclear weapons to the diplomatic corps in Geneva.
President Maurer reiterated the important messages that have been developed through the humanitarian impacts conferences and reflected on the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the human suffering they would cause and the catastrophic long lasting consequences for health, the environment, climate, food production, and socio-economic development. Peter Maurer argued that the elimination of nuclear weapons is now a 'humanitarian imperative' and called on Governments to establish a time-bound process to negotiate a legally binding instrument to this end.
The 2015 Review Conference had been considered a potential turning point for the future of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, because for the first time at an NPT Review Conference, new evidence of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons would inform the discussions and negotiations between participants. And of course, the NPT is currently the only binding commitment to the goal of disarmament by States possessing nuclear weapons. A majority of states, the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, and civil society groups, were calling for states to urgently fulfil their obligations under the NPT, and consider a time-bound framework to begin negotiations towards a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
There has never been this much pressure on the states parties to the NPT, to make good on fulfilling the promises they signed onto in 1968.
Once again the Austrian Government was showing critical leadership by injecting the humanitarian aspects into the debate, proclaiming "the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons affect not only governments, but each and every citizen of our interconnected world. They have deep implications for human survival; for our environment; for socio-economic development; for our economies; and for the health of future generations."
The International Committee of the Red Cross urged States to heed the 2011 appeal of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to "ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used", and "establish a time-bound framework to negotiate a legally binding international agreement" to prohibit nuclear weapons under international law.
"Nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction not explicitly and comprehensively prohibited under international law today. In light of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons, which the NPT States Parties have recognized, filling this gap is a humanitarian imperative."
In the lead up to the Review Conference, ICAN had foreseen the potential of the Austrian Pledge as a tool for civil society to engage with governments and encourage them to attend. ICAN set about persuading as many states as possible to endorse the pledge before and throughout the Conference. During the Conference the Austrian Pledge was rebranded as the 'Humanitarian Pledge', and has now gained popular support from some 113 states. The major accomplishment of the 2015 Review Conference, as viewed by civil society groups, is the endorsement of the Humanitarian Pledge by a large number of states. Disappointingly, this does not include Australia.
With the exception of the historic support received for the Humanitarian Pledge, the Review conference proceeded predictably, with nuclear weapons states, as they are known, arguing strongly to retain the status quo, and contesting that we are not ready for security without nuclear weapons. Sadly, the formal proceedings of the 2015 Review Conference closed without states reaching agreement on a final document, and with no clear direction achieved for how to progress efforts towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation over the next 5 years. Ultimately, unanimous agreement was blocked by the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Canada, over a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East, an item which has been on the NPT agenda since 1995.
What does this all mean for the future of the prohibition of nuclear weapons? What hope can we ascribe to the humanitarian pledge to help fill the 'legal gap' and achieve the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law? I want to focus on this question for the final section of my lecture tonight, and the role I believe Australia could play to enable the closing of the legal gap, and help to ban nuclear weapons.
Australia has a long history of both sides of politics at different times making a significant contribution to the development of modern international law. Australian High Court judge and Foreign Minister Dr Evatt, appointed in 1948 as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations (the only Australian to hold this post), is in many ways the founding parent of this contribution - beginning with the United Nations Charter.
Future Australian Governments from all political parties, have, to a greater or lesser extent, built on this contribution. I don't have time to refer to them all today, yet it is indisputable that all sides of politics over time have provided important contributions.
For example the Hawke government championed the creation of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone treaty. In 1986 it also enacted implementing legislation effectively ruling out the nuclear weapons option for Australia. One of my modest life achievements to have taken up the debate within the government to argue for the passing of this legislation - an act of the Australian Parliament which would not have been embraced by nuclear weapons states at the time, many of whom were our closest and respected allies.
In the late 1990s Australia Chaired the 'like minded group' of States who were pushing for a strong and fair International Criminal Court and under the Howard government we were amongst the first nations to sign and ratify this significant treaty and to incorporate the changes required into domestic law.
At other times Australia has shown willingness to take the tough stance on nuclear issues and indeed Gareth Evans did this when giving Australia's submission to the International Court of Justice in their Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.
It is important to remember that no political party has a monopoly on leadership of IHL issues, and over the years all sides of politics have demonstrated at times great courage and done the right thing in relation to critical IHL issues. For example in 1996, following a change of government the new Foreign Minister Downer and Defence Minister McLaughlan announced that Australia would be changing its policy and supporting a global ban on the use, transfer, production and stockpile of anti-personnel landmines. This was a magnificent example of foreign policy that took humanitarian issues into account.
The first engagement of Australian Red Cross with government on the nuclear weapons issue was in late 2010 when we spelled out the work both Australian Red Cross and the ICRC was doing to raise the issue of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons with a strong voice. This was followed by further letters after the adoption of the 2011 and 2013 resolutions as well as regular updates of the work of the Movement during this period.
The former Labor government initially sent letters of support and encouragement for our activities - however we were rather concerned when we learnt (via a Freedom of Information request by another organisation) that political factors undermined the humanitarian debate.
Similarly, when the current government was in opposition, we received a strongly worded letter of support from the then Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs. More recently we are aware that the sentiment in the letters is not reflective of the government's current foreign policy.
History shows that great gains in developing international humanitarian law can be made by Australia when people of good will take a stand and are sometimes able to put aside party political differences to work for the common good and a better world. Sadly we see all too little of this in our body politic in current times. I am an optimist and believe that the campaign to render the use of nuclear weapons illegal under international law is a campaign to bring people together for a common humanitarian goal.
We now have an alternative avenue on the table to negotiate the prohibition of nuclear weapons. At the intergovernmental forums in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna, the comprehensive evidence has shown us that prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons is more urgent than ever before. Leading states in the humanitarian initiative are now saying that another humanitarian conference is unnecessary, that the international community must now choose to commence preparations to develop the legal means to prohibit nuclear weapons. The humanitarian pledge by 113 states, to prohibit nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences, provides the precise terms of reference to advance this course of action.
Armed with this pledge and its unambiguous objectives, States are on the cusp of beginning negotiations to ban the use of nuclear weapons under international law, just as they did with cluster munition, and anti-personnel landmines. The only things stopping them, is themselves and the whole world is watching.
I call on all Australian political leaders to reflect on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings these week, and eventually heed the message of the majority of states, civil society actors, and the 80% of Australians, whom agree that banning nuclear weapons is an idea whose time has come.