Weasel words at UN working group; Turkish president moves to head off Kurds; Russia ‘shows off’. By Hamish McDonald.

People’s tribunal finds Australia guilty over nuclear weapons

The Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs.
The Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs.

Malcolm Turnbull is getting accused of many things as he heads towards the first anniversary of his snafu-prone prime ministership. But aiding and abetting the planning of genocide, ecocide and even omnicide (that is, the destruction of everyone and all living things)?

Well, yes. The University of Sydney was recently the venue for an international people’s tribunal, a kind of volunteer court, in which the leaders of the nine nuclear powers were on trial for planning the above crimes through their explicit threats to use their weapons. Turnbull, as our current leader, was up for facilitating the use of American weapons. The judges were New Zealand’s former disarmament minister Matthew Robson and Sydney politics academic Keith Suter, who duly found the accused guilty, in absentia of course. 

They ruled that nuclear weapons violate the accepted principles of international humanitarian law in wartime because they cannot discriminate between military and civilian targets; go far beyond proportional response and military objectives; don’t protect non-combatants; cause unnecessary suffering by spreading poison, disease and genetic damage; cause massive environmental damage; threaten future generations; threaten death on a scale amounting to genocide; and involve massive collateral damage to neutral countries.

The United States, France, Russia, Pakistan and Britain refuse to rule out first use of their nuclear weapons, “but all indicted leaders have military plans and exercises that demonstrate that they are ready to use nuclear weapons if they deem it necessary”, the tribunal found. 

Turnbull had retired politics professor Bob Howard, brother of predecessor John Howard, speaking up as volunteer defence counsel. But it was guilty as charged, since Australia’s position was that it would accept the use of nuclear weapons by the US in its defence.

The gesture comes as nuclear powers are expanding or modernising their arsenals. India and Pakistan are in a nuclear arms race: even use of 100 Hiroshima sized-bombs in that theatre would plunge the Earth into its coldest climate for a thousand years, University of Missouri expert Steven Starr told the tribunal. An exchange between the big powers would, aside from the immediate casualties, create a new Ice Age and result in most surviving humans and large animals dying of starvation.

Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, has just had legislation passed for a $69 billion replacement fleet of ballistic missile submarines. The Americans are developing a new guided bomb called the B61-12, which has got the Federation of American Scientists worried because it could be the most “usable” or “thinkable” nuclear weapon ever developed. Its relatively small yield can be adjusted up or down to a maximum 50 kilotons. Combined with high accuracy from its motors and steerable fins, this could tempt commanders into a “precision” nuclear strike, taking a gamble nuclear escalation won’t result.

1 . Nuclear ‘weasels’

Australia has steadily retreated from the push for universal nuclear disarmament that Bill Hayden, notably, inserted into policy when he was foreign minister in the Hawke government to provide moral balance to the alliance with the US.

As we’ve noticed before, the new Defence White Paper this year dropped all that. “Australia’s security is underpinned by the ANZUS Treaty, United States extended deterrence and access to advanced United States technology and information,” it stated. “Only the nuclear and conventional military capabilities of the United States can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia.”

Some might argue that joint facilities such as the space warfare facilities at Pine Gap and Geraldton would be first targets of a nuclear opponent seeking to disable the US command network. China says it would not use its weapons against a non-nuclear power. But would a country that hosts nuclear war-fighting facilities count as one?

Julie Bishop is all for nuclear weapons, gushing that “the horrendous humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are precisely why deterrence has worked”. In Geneva, her diplomats have been hard at work trying to derail efforts for a United Nations ban on nuclear weapons.

Richard Lennane, a former Australian diplomat who now runs a Geneva NGO called Wildfire which supports such a ban, chronicled the manoeuvres this week on the Lowy Institute’s website The Interpreter. Australian delegates in a UN working group have been trying to moderate the push for a ban, by seeking a “progressive” elimination of nuclear weapons rather than an outright ban, in company with some 28 nations that rely on extended deterrence from nuclear protectors. They are known variously as the nuclear “umbrella” or “weasel” group.

As the working group headed for its conclusive vote on August 19, it seemed that a suitably weasel-worded consensus resolution had been agreed upon to send to the UN General Assembly: a recommendation for a start on negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban treaty, with a note of the umbrella states’ dissenting view.

Then Australia baulked at the consensus and declared on behalf of 14 umbrella states that the text was not acceptable, and forced a vote. Lennane said it was felt Australia had acted in bad faith “by using the prospect of a consensus report to extract concessions and negotiate a weaker text, and then when others thought all was agreed, pulling the rug from under them and calling for a vote”. Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway were among the umbrella states that refused to join Australia and voted for the resolution. It was passed, but with much bad will towards Australia. Bishop can be sure of brownie points in Washington, no doubt.

Maybe the Sydney tribunal will be more than a futile gesture against this kind of thing. 

2 . Erdoğan eyes Kurds

The Syrian conflict got even more multi-sided this week. Turkey sent tanks and special forces across the border to help its local allies take the town of Jarabulus from Daesh, with US air support. 

The Americans sent up fighter jets to warn off Syrian government aircraft that were attacking Kurdish positions elsewhere in the country’s north where US special forces are embedded, though the Pentagon insists this doesn’t amount to a no-fly zone. A two-day ceasefire was suggested for Aleppo.

A suicide bomber killed 51 people, about half of them children, at a Kurdish wedding inside Turkey at the weekend. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government blamed Daesh and expressed sympathy, but his Kurdish population was not convinced about his sincerity. Until recently, Daesh could get its recruits and supplies across the border from Turkey, and sell its oil production back.

Erdoğan has lately been warming up to Russia and Iran, suggesting he’s switching priorities from seeking the downfall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to squelching Kurdish hopes of a new state straddling the present borders of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The move on Jarabulus was to prevent Kurdish groups capturing it first. The Turks have warned the Kurds to back off to the eastern side of the Euphrates River, or they will be attacked. The US balancing act between its Turkish and Kurdish friends gets ever harder.   

3 . Russia ‘shows off’

Vladimir Putin does not seem at all deterred, meanwhile, gathering troops, armour, aircraft and advanced missile systems on the frontier with Ukraine. He is poised for attack, but it could all be posturing ahead of Russian parliamentary elections next month.

But posturing hasn’t gone down too well in Tehran. Russia’s recent use of an Iranian air base for bombing runs into Syria got Iranian MPs asking about the terms of use. Defence minister Hossein Dehghan assured them the arrangement had been temporary and was “finished, for now”. And he added, in a radio interview, that “Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in the political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of showoff and ungentlemanly [attitude] in this field.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 27, 2016 as "Australia guilty by association on nukes".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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