Why Rudd commission won't stop the bomb

Nagasaki atomic exlosionKevin 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 this commission was realised — global eradication and abolition of nuclear weapons, ending Dr Strangelove doomsday scenarios that crowd the shelves of policy-makers — we would still be left with the wandering know-how, freelance scientists hawking their wares.

The greatest problem in that case is how to convince scientists otherwise engaged in military ventures to cease offering their services to foreign powers or non-state networks.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, was courted by various regimes from Tripoli to Pyongyang before being put under house arrest by General Pervez Musharraf. His network comprised 40 individuals, only a handful of whom were apprehended.

Its contacts within this proliferating web included companies in Germany, Italy and Spain, along with 'private actors' in countries from Singapore to Turkey. Supposedly crippled in 2004, the Khan network threatened a resumption of smuggling activities in 2007.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, some 429 nuclear trafficking cases were recorded between 2001–2005, while 10 per cent of them have involved criminal organisations.

Not every scientist has the mercenary eye of Khan, but preventing the brains behind projects from following their career wanderlust is the challenge in any post-nuclear framework. Nuclear smuggling, and the dilemma of non-state actors, remains a problem within a decentralised nuclear network.

While removing the lethal armory of nuclear weapons from states such as Russia and the United States should be a priority, the more immediate expectation would be to curb networks profiting in the trade of illicit nuclear material.

Otherwise this committee threatens to go the same way the Canberra Commission did, its recommendations left unrecognised and inconsequential.

'Rudd heralds new nuclear disarmament body' (ABC News)

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

Topic tags: binoy kampmark, kevin rudd, Nuclear Non-Proliferations and Disarmament Commission, hiroshima



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Existing comments

This article casts easy aspersions without grasping the importance of how regimes in global governance get started and their capacity to evolve over time to a point where they have real impact on the problems they are addressing.

Also, emphasising rogue scientists (in an attempt to underline the writer's argument about the impotence of the proposed commission as an inter-state body) ignores the importance of state actors in the nuclear regimes and as clients of the rogue scientists.

If the Commission is able to generate meaningful international consensus on technical and political means for inspection and confidence building, the space in which rogue scientists (and states) are able to operate would hopefully begin shrinking. The risks they pose will not be eliminated, but they can be reduced.

And the 'defunct' Canberra Commission had a small problem known as Australia's change of government which ensured it became 'unrecognised and inconsequential' - such a fate is a result of political choices, not an inherent characteristic of such bodies.

Indeed the positive international reaction to Rudd's proposals demonstrated how much the Canberra Commission achieved before the government of its state sponsor changed and turned its back on it.
Sandy Ross | 19 June 2008

At least our Prime Minister is making a new start in an effort to address this appalling problem and it should be remembered that politics continues to be art of the possible. It is all too easy to be critical.
David Dyer | 19 June 2008


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