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NZ Offers to be ‘Honest Broker’ in Nuclear Disarmament Breakthrough

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Foreign Affairs

Seventy-five years after the US detonated the first nuclear tests in the Pacific, New Zealand pledges its support to Joe Biden’s first tentative step towards disarmament.

Today, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into effect, making it illegal for New Zealand and the 50 other signatories to possess the warheads.

Attendees at an evening event to mark the occasion, at the University of Auckland, were greeted by an unexpected breakthrough: America’s new Biden Administration has offered to extend the last nuclear arms control pact between the US and Russia for five years.

New Zealand is applauding the move to stave off another nuclear arms race with Moscow. Minutes before addressing the event at the university’s law school, Disarmament Minister Phil Twyford told Newsroom that New Zealand would try to assist as an “honest broker” in nuclear disarmament talks.


NZ Offers to be ‘Honest Broker’ in Nuclear Disarmament BreakthroughThe UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, coming into effect this weekend, makes it illegal for signatories to possess nuclear weapons. How meaningful is this? Click here to comment.


The UN Treaty that comes into effect today will be seen by many as important but largely symbolic: most of the signatories are small Pacific nations, though among them are two previously nuclear-armed states: South Africa and Belarus. None of the states believed to now be nuclear-armed –  US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea or Israel – has signed the treaty.

However, the New START deal between Russia and US is anything but symbolic.

President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told lawmakers that New START restricts the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and deployed strategic delivery systems to 700. And it gives the United States “tremendous access to data and inspections” and is “certainly in the national interest to extend.”

French commandos board the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior off Mururoa atoll in 1985. Photo: Marcel Mochet / Getty Images
French commandos board the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior off Moruroa atoll in 1985. Photo: Marcel Mochet / Getty Images

The Washington Post reports that the decision to seek a five-year treaty extension, which Russia supports but the Biden administration hadn’t settled on until now, reflects the rapidly approaching deadline for Washington to renew the New START pact on February 5.

President Donald Trump tried to conclude a shorter extension with Moscow in the final months of his presidency, but he failed to reach an agreement after his nuclear envoy spent months trying to persuade China to join the accord before dropping that demand.

Letting the Treaty expire would allow Moscow and Washington to deploy an unlimited number of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and missiles in what many experts fear could spark a nuclear arms race and further exacerbate US-Russia tensions.

“It’s a paradox that the world’s attention is very much focused on things like climate change – that’s obviously important. But when you’ve got arms control agreements being unpicked, with growing tensions between the superpowers, and a nuclear stockpile that could destroy all life on the planet many, many times over, there are many experts around the world who view it as an increasingly dangerous situation.”
– Phil Twyford

“New START is manifestly in the national security interest of the United States and makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial,” a senior US official told the Post.

New Zealand has long been at the forefront of opposition to nuclear weapons. It opposed their testing in the Pacific, and in 1984, Prime Minister David Lange banned nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from using New Zealand ports or entering New Zealand waters.

In 1983, a 20-year-old Phil Twyford says he was among the protesters out on boats on Waitematā Harbour to blockade the visit of US nuclear ships. “These massive towering naval vessels in the Waitematā Harbour, and then people in sailing boats and evens surfboats and dinghies getting in the way of them,” he recalled.

Now, as Disarmament Minister, he said nuclear arms posed perhaps a greater risk than ever, and New Zealand believed even the signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had not been abiding by it.

“We also work with like-minded countries in, for example, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which includes the nuclear weapon states. We work all those angles to try to make progress. That reflects the honest broker role that New Zealand often likes to play.”
– Phil Twyford

“It’s a paradox that the world’s attention is very much focused on things like climate change – that’s obviously important. But when you’ve got arms control agreements being unpicked, with growing tensions between the superpowers, and a nuclear stockpile that could destroy all life on the planet many, many times over, there are many experts around the world who view it as an increasingly dangerous situation.”

“We will be communicating to the Americans that we welcome the announcement out of Washington today,” he said. “We want them to be more engaged with disarmament across the board – not only through bilateral agreements like New START but with others like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The US has never signed up to that … we hope this is just the beginning.”

Demonstrators with a Putin and Trump mask and a Merkel mask face each other with rocket models on Pariser Platz. They are protesting with their action against the imminent end of the INF disarmament agreement between Russia and the USA.
Demonstrators with a Putin and Trump mask face off with rocket models on Pariser Platz, protesting the imminent end of the INF disarmament agreement between Russia and the USA. Photo: Getty Images

He called on the US to also show its continued commitment in the South Pacific by ratified the protocols of the Treaty of Rarotonga, the 1985 agreement that formalises a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific.

“We also work with like-minded countries in, for example, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which includes the nuclear weapon states. We work all those angles to try to make progress. That reflects the honest broker role that New Zealand often likes to play.”

At the university, he told about 100 gathered guests that the entry of the UN Treaty into force was an important milepost on the path to disarmament. “Of course the nuclear armed states are not going to relinquish their nuclear arsenals tomorrow.

“It also becomes more difficult for members of the nuclear club to talk as if they are meeting their disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while at the same time modernising their arsenals and allowing hard-fought disarmament agreements to lapse.”
– Phil Twyford

“But when an overwhelming majority of the community of nations, global civil society, scientists, faith leaders, and public opinion all say that nuclear weapons are not only morally and ethically wrong but wrong and prohibited under international law, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the argument that they make us safer.

“It also becomes more difficult for members of the nuclear club to talk as if they are meeting their disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while at the same time modernising their arsenals and allowing hard-fought disarmament agreements to lapse.”

That was why the news that Biden was seeking a five-year extension to the New START treaty with Russia was so encouraging, he said. “Without this the Treaty would have lapsed in February, removing any limit on the number of Russian and US nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and missiles, with all the consequences that would have for a nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.”

Not all of Biden’s aides have supported the idea of a five-year extension for the treaty. Victoria Nuland, a longtime Russia hawk whom Biden will nominate to be the No. 3 official at the State Department, wrote in Foreign Affairs over the summer that the United States should seek only a one- or two-year renewal in the hopes of retaining leverage over the Kremlin.

“Washington should not grant Moscow what it wants most: a free rollover of New START without any negotiations to address Russia’s recent investments in short- and medium-range nuclear weapons systems and new conventional weapons,” she wrote.

Disarmament Minister Phil Twyford: " We work all those angles to try to make progress. That reflects the honest broker role that New Zealand often likes to play." Photo: Getty Images
Disarmament Minister Phil Twyford: ” We work all those angles to try to make progress. That reflects the honest broker role that New Zealand often likes to play.” Photo: Getty Images

US officials said they hoped a quick renewal of New START could provide a foundation for new arms control arrangements, potentially including China. “We believe it’s absolutely urgent for China to take on greater responsibility, transparency and restraint for its nuclear weapons arsenal,” the US official said.

According to today’s Wall St Journal, a five-year extension would provide a measure of predictability to US and Russian military competition, and has been urged by pro-arms control groups. In addition to limiting long-range nuclear arms, the accord provides for weapons inspections and monitoring.

With the demise of the US-Russian treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces, New START is the last major building block in the legal regime that regulates the nuclear competition between the US and Russia.

NZ Offers to be ‘Honest Broker’ in Nuclear Disarmament Breakthrough

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