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Why Rudd commission won't stop the bomb

  • 19 June 2008
Kevin Rudd's new organisation to assess global nuclear disarmament — the Nuclear Non-Proliferations and Disarmament Commission — is typical of his recent, mixed report card on foreign policy initiatives: much potential with little clarity.

The occasion of the announcement was auspicious. It was taken in Kyoto, hours before he lay a wreath for the victims of Hiroshima. It gave Rudd a chance to pen a reflection in the guest book at the museum: 'Let the world resolve afresh from the ashes of this city — to work together for the common mission of peace for this Asia-Pacific century, and for a world where one day nuclear weapons are no more.'

Aside from the implicit belief that this century will belong to the Asia-Pacific region, Rudd's remark alludes to an abolitionist agenda for nuclear weapons. On that front, Rudd proposes this new organisation will be co-chaired by former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans, with the intention of continuing the work of the defunct Canberra Commission, created by the Keating Government in 1995.

This has the flavour of sad repetition, re-inventing a wheel which never worked in the first place. What then can be made of this new organisation, should it ever reach some concrete form?

Rudd, for one, sees it as necessary to save the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty from the 'death of a thousand cuts'. But he is challenging the conventional NPT regime. And while that regime has not been a spectacular success, it has not been an abysmal failure either.

Rudd's proposal does little to edge countries such as Israel, Pakistan or India towards a regime of nuclear disarmament. Little is said, for instance, on the perennial need for more effective inspections.

The nuclear conversation is an imperative for modern global security, whatever realists or the morally jaundiced might think. But as always, the issue hinges on how the conversation is to take place.

There is an obvious difficulty with how Australian foreign policy will reconcile its vast natural deposits of uranium with the agenda of the commission. Ban the bomb, yet still sell uranium. The argument here is that uranium patrons will be checked for their anti-proliferation credentials — India, a non-signatory of the NPT, won't be on the list of customers, nor, presumably, Pakistan or Israel. Russia, inexplicably, will continue to be a recipient.

Another, oft neglected problem is that if the object of