Australia drops opposition to treaty banning nuclear weapons at UN vote

After the former Coalition government repeatedly sided with the US against it, Labor has shifted positions to abstain

Australia has dropped its opposition to a landmark treaty banning nuclear weapons in a vote at the United Nations in New York on Saturday.

While Australia has not actually joined the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, the shift in voting position to “abstain” after five years of “no” is seen by campaigners as a sign of progress given the former Coalition government has repeatedly sided with the United States against it.

The foreign minister, Penny Wong, said through her spokesperson that Australia had a "long and proud commitment to a global non-proliferation and disarmament regime" and that the government supported "the ambitions of a new treaty on a world without nuclear weapons". Sign up for our free morning and evening email newsletter from Guardian Australia for your daily news gathering.

Previous Coalition governments have vehemently opposed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a relatively new international treaty that imposes a complete ban on developing, testing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons – or assisting other countries to carry out such activities. .

Australia voted against opening negotiations on a proposed new treaty in late 2016 and did not participate in those talks in 2017. Since 2018 Australia has voted against annual resolutions at the UN general assembly and the first committee calling on all countries to join the treaty "at the earliest possible date." "

That changed on Saturday morning when Australia changed its voting position to abstention. Indonesia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Ireland are among the countries that co-sponsored this year's supportive UN resolution.

Australia has traditionally argued that the treaty would not work because no nuclear weapons state had joined and because it "ignored the realities of the global security environment".

He also argued joining would violate the obligations of the US alliance, with Australia relying on American nuclear power to prevent any nuclear attack on Australia.

But the agreement has gained momentum due to growing discontent among activists and non-nuclear states about the prospect of disarmament, given that nuclear-weapon states such as the US, Russia and China are in the process of modernizing their arsenals. The treaty currently has 91 signatories, 68 of whom have formally ratified it, and entered into force last year.

The Nobel peace prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (Ican) has urged Australia to vote in favor of a UN resolution on Saturday - or at least abstain to "end five years of opposition to the TPNW under the previous administration".

Three of the four members of the Labor caucus – including Anthony Albanese – have signed the Ican pledge binding MPs “to work for the signing and ratification of this important treaty by our respective countries”.

The Labor Party's 2021 national platform commits to signing and ratifying the agreement “after considering” several factors, including the need for an effective verification and enforcement architecture and efforts to achieve universal support.

This condition indicates the barriers to actually signing may still be high. But Gem Romuld, director of Ican Australia, said the government was "heading in the right direction" and was engaging positively with the agreement. Romuld said it would be "very self-defeating to wait for all the nuclear-armed nations to join" before Australia joins.

"Indeed, no disarmament treaty has achieved universal support and Australia has joined all other disarmament treaties, even those our ally - the US - have not signed, such as the landmine ban treaty," Romuld said.

In 2017, the US, UK and France stated that they "do not intend to sign, ratify, or have ever been parties" to the new treaty, and the Trump administration is actively lobbying countries to withdraw.

Wong told the UN general assembly last month that Australia would "redouble our efforts" towards disarmament because "Russian President Vladimir Putin's weak and desperate nuclear threat underscores the danger nuclear weapons pose to all of us".

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