Nuclear weapons in a time of universal deceit

Melissa Parke

Good evening everyone and thanks to all of you for being here to support the fantastic work of ICAN through the Tom Uren Memorial Fund. A big thankyou to Bruce Childs and Yola Lucire for kindly hosting us in their beautiful home. I acknowledge fellow patrons Anthony Albanese and Tom’s widow Christine Logan, Robert Tickner, and Tim Wright, Asia-Pacific director of ICAN. I also acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on. As Akram Azimi the former Young Australian of the Year once said, we make this acknowledgement not out of a sense of protocol but out of recognition that the dreaming has not ended and we’re all a part of it.

Unlike many of you in this room, I never had the pleasure of meeting Tom Uren, but I have always considered him a kindred spirit for his social justice activism and his passion on many subjects, most especially his belief that the struggle for nuclear disarmament is the most important struggle in the human race. I remember when I was at school the spectre of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. Children and adults spoke of it fearfully as the greatest threat to humankind. But when the wall came down and the Cold War ended, instead of mass disarmament, we have seen nuclear proliferation as NWS have made their weapons more powerful and as more and more countries have developed nuclear capacity. As Richard Butler, Australia’s UN Ambassador from 1992 to 1997, has said: ‘There is, in fact, an axiom of proliferation. It states that as long as any state holds nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them.’

Even in Australia, which has so far resisted the toxic lure of nuclear power generation, nuclear deterrence has become normalised as part of our defence policy. This is incredible when you consider that in the last two years we have commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings – the latter of which was witnessed by Tom Uren as a prisoner of war in Japan – and the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. We continue to hear about the shocking aftermath of Fukushima. There has always been concern around the potential for rogue actors such as terrorists to get their hands on nuclear material, but it is I think even more terrifying that some states with hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons are ruled by what I will politely call ‘unstable personalities’.

Even in the absence of malice, madness or impulsive recklessness, we know that accidents happen. Only two weeks ago it was revealed that last June a test missile from the British Trident nuclear program malfunctioned and veered towards the US coast before self-destructing. Luckily the missile was not armed with a nuclear warhead on that occasion, but the British and US governments did not reveal the incident when it happened, which was just before the UK Parliament voted on renewing the Trident nuclear program. The UK minister has now refused to answer questions in the UK parliament, claiming these are operational matters.

This incident – along with many others over the years – illustrates the point made by the former UN Secretary-General that ‘There are no right hands for wrong weapons.’ Two weeks ago the Atomic scientists moved the hand of the Doomsday Clock forward 30 seconds to two and a half minutes to midnight, for the first time since 1953, citing nuclear volatility, climate change, and the election of Donald Trump, who has talked of expanding the US nuclear program, urged other nations to develop nuclear programs and repeatedly refused to rule out using nuclear weapons.

Trump’s rise has made manifest and profound a downward trend that has been evolving for some time, not just in the US but in many other countries including Australia. A trend away from respect for human rights, for the environment, for the rule of law, for science, for increased transparency and accountability, for evidence-based policy, and for international obligations. We cannot forget the Howard-government claims that Aboriginal Australians would take people’s backyards post-Mabo, that asylum seekers threw their own children overboard, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Today the Australian government maintains that it is fully complying with international obligations, while committing egregious human rights abuses of asylum seekers and children in detention. Our government calls upon China to respect the international rule of law in the south china sea, while it treats the rights of our poverty-stricken friend and neighbour Timor-Leste with contempt. Our government proclaims that we are fully contributing to global efforts to reduce carbon emissions while it scraps the carbon price and renewable energy programs, sacks scientists and approves new coal mines.

Our government claims to be upholding international nuclear safeguards, while it enters into agreements trashing them. I was a member of the Treaties Committee for most of my time in federal parliament. One of the treaties we dealt with before the last federal election was the Australia-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. During the inquiry a number of high-level experts gave evidence that the proposed agreement fell far outside the standards Australia had set for many years with regard to uranium sales and nuclear safeguards. The experts said this agreement would undermine international non-proliferation efforts, and should not be proceeded with.

The experts I am referring to were not our beloved warriors from ICAN, ACF Friends of the Earth and the Uniting Church, but John Carlson, the former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office for more than 20 years, Ron Walker, former governor of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Professor Lawrence Scheinman, former Asst-Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, among others. These were people who were not opposed to uranium sales to India in principle but who considered the deficiencies in this particular agreement to be downright dangerous.

Indeed, the evidence was so strong that the Coalition-majority committee recommended that the government not proceed with uranium sales to India until a number of tough conditions had been met to improve safeguards, including the establishment by India of a nuclear regulator with statutory independence, full separation of India’s civilian and military nuclear programs, tracking of nuclear material and full compliance with IAEA safeguards. In light of this, it was extraordinary to see the government reject the conditions, stating that it was completely satisfied the Agreement was consistent with Australia’s longstanding uranium export policies.

It was as if, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.’ It does seem that we are now again in a markedly anti-science and anti-transparency time where inconvenient evidence, truths and facts may simply be met with alternative facts –formerly known as lying, with mere opinions, or with evasion by citing national security or commercial in confidence grounds, or the all-purpose ‘operational reasons’. With social media and new technology it is now easier than ever to spread false information. Some commentators have suggested that the Enlightenment project is under attack, that this may be the end of the age of reason and the beginning of a new dark age. Barry Jones writes in tomorrow’s Saturday Paper that democracy faces its greatest existential crisis since the 1930s.

If this is correct, how should we respond? Again, Orwell’s words seem particularly apt: ‘During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.’ At a time when media organisations are under increasing pressure, we must support strong independent investigative journalism; journalism involving the in-depth research needed to hold authorities to account. Secondly, we must actively and constructively resist attempts to take us backwards. In the wake of Trump’s Executive Order referred to as the Muslim ban, we saw mass protests and resistance to that order in the US, from courageous public servants, NY taxi drivers, the Courts and many others. Bruce Springsteen, also known as The Boss, who is presently in Australia doing concerts, has spoken of being part of a new Resistance.

In Australia, the nurses and doctors who refused to send children back to detention on Nauru are part of such Resistance, as was Tom Uren in an earlier time, being fiercely anti-war and anti-nuclear. We must recognise the responsibility of each of us as scientists, academics, lawyers, investigative journalists, medical practitioners, writers, artists, teachers, students, parliamentarians, community and business organisations and citizens everywhere to not run away and hide in unpleasant times, but to stand up for truth, justice and science, for the strength of our public institutions and the rule of law, for the health and dignity of our fellow human beings, the environment and the planet.

Ironically in an age of increased nationalism, fascism and right wing nuttery, Trump may end up being the catalyst for the reinvigoration of the global left and of the nuclear disarmament cause. The Doomsday clock tells us that the work of ICAN to organise locally and internationally for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons has never been more urgent or more important. An ICAN-commissioned Nielsen poll in 2014 indicated that 84 per cent of Australians want the government to work towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

However, there is one group presently missing from the debate on this issue. As I noted at the beginning, the fear of nuclear annihilation was ever-present when I was young. But for today’s young people, who have been extremely effective in mobilizing on issues like climate change, global poverty and marriage equality, the nuclear threat does not often feature in their list of greatest concerns. We are going to need the dynamism, passion and energy of this generation of young people if we are to achieve a nuclear weapons-free future.

Next month, nations will gather at the United Nations to begin negotiations on a new treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. With biological weapons, chemical weapons, land mines and cluster munitions banned, nuclear weapons remain the only weapons of mass destruction not yet explicitly prohibited under international law. It is critical that the Australian Government join the majority of nations in supporting a ban. ICAN’s work campaigning in the Australian community, influencing governments and public officials, and educating and persuading young people is integral to this.

In assisting ICAN’s efforts through the Tom Uren Memorial Fund we honour Tom Uren’s life work and we ensure there is a future for our children. Thank you all for being here and please be generous in supporting ICAN.


The Hon. Melissa Parke is the former ALP Member for Fremantle and Minister for International Development. This is the text of her speech at the Disarmament Dinner organised by the Tom Uren Memorial Fund and hosted by Yola Lucire and Bruce Childs in Edgecliff, Sydney, on 10 February 2017. The dinner raised funds for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Visit ICAN to read the speech by Hon. Anthony Albanese MP and for more information.


Suggested citation
Parke, Melissa, 'Nuclear weapons in a time of universal deceit', Evatt Journal, Vol.16, No.1, February 2017.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/nuclear-weapons-time-universal-deceit.html>