Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Nuclear Prohibition Law

Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Nuclear Prohibition Law Achieve Universal Nuclear Disarmament

The horrific health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and growing concern about the risks of nuclear war led to a surge in anti-nuclear sentiment and campaigns in Aotearoa-New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s, which, in turn, led to the adoption of a nuclear-free policy by the government in 1984. In 1987, the policy was cemented by the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act, which was adopted despite considerable opposition from New Zealand’s allies, and is among the strongest existing legal prohibitions against nuclear arms

In 2013, the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Arms Control and Disarmament Act, 1987, received the Silver Award of the World Future Council’s annual Future Policy Award, held on the theme of disarmament, in partnership with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. On 23 October 2013, at a ceremony held at the UN Headquarters in New York, the Act was recognised as a leader amongst peace and disarmament initiatives and for having fundamentally changed Aotearoa-New Zealand’s culture, role and identity on the world stage as the result of a movement which originated in civil society.

At a Glance

  • The most far-reaching nuclear prohibition law.
  • Ensured a nuclear-free legacy for Aotearoa-New Zealand.
  • Establishes the unique position of Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control.
  • Re-shaped the national identity and rejected nuclear deterrence.

 

Policy Reference

New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Arms Control and Disarmament Act, 1987. [English]

Connected Policies

Not Applicable

Selection as a Future-Just Policy

New Zealand’s nuclear-free law is the most comprehensive and far-reaching nuclear weapons prohibition law in the world.

New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy was very much the result of a bottom-up movement. It has inspired other countries and regions to undertake similar initiatives and has given great impetus to the global nuclear abolition movement.

Research shows that the law facilitated New Zealand to fundamentally change the country’s culture and identity and role on the world stage. It is now seen as a leader on peace and disarmament initiatives and has gained respect in the process.

Future-Just Policy Scorecard

Our “Best Policies” are those which meet the Future-Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise that interrelated challenges require interconnected solutions. The World Future Council’s unique research and analysis ensures that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are coherently considered by policy-makers.

 

   Sustainable use of natural resources

  • The development of the policy went hand in hand with the de-legitimisation of nuclear power as an energy source and paved the way for green alternatives to nuclear and fossil-fuel based energy proposals.
  • The policy took into consideration concerns of indigenous communities about nuclear contamination, resulting either from nuclear weapons (testing) or nuclear power. 

   Equity and poverty eradication

  • The policy concerns both current and future generations, and ensured that New Zealand removed itself from the nuclear equation, thereby mitigating chances of a nuclear accident that would affect generations to come.

   Precautionary approach

  • Discussion on the probability and consequences of a nuclear accident featured heavily in discussions on the development of the law.
  • The law’s key strength (as with other nuclear disarmament policies) is prevention. “Better active now that radioactive later.”

   Public participation, access to information and justice

  • Civil society groups were continuously informed and involved in designing and implementing the law – notably through the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control (PACDAC).
  • The legislation flowed out from sustained and expanding mass mobilisation of public opinion and support and cemented a civil society-driven policy development.
  • Since the legislation is seen as a public good, if it were to be breached (e.g. a nuclear-armed, powered or capable vessel entering a New Zealand port), there is no doubt that the public would immediately be informed.

    Good governance and human security

  • The development of the policy went hand in hand with the de-legitimisation of nuclear power as an energy source and paved the way for green alternatives to nuclear and fossil-fuel based energy proposals.
  • The policy took into consideration concerns of indigenous communities about nuclear contamination, resulting either from nuclear weapons (testing) or nuclear power.

   Integration and interrelationship

  • The legislation created the space for discussion on nuclear energy, which led to an unequivocal exclusion of nuclear power – as any nuclear enterprise, whether military or civilian by nature, can have lasting impacts on the environment and society.
  • There were huge socio-economic benefits to removing New Zealand from the nuclear equation. Though causality is difficult to prove as it is difficult to predict what could have happened if New Zealand had not banned nuclear weapons.

   Common but differentiated responsibilities

  • The legislation gave encouragement to indigenous peoples in their struggles against nuclear issues (e.g. nuclear testing).
  • The law put into action public opinion and as such was a clear reflection of the values, culture, and traditions at the time. It also acted as a vehicle for the formation and solidification of a national identity (peaceful, clean, green etc).

Context

The horrific health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, growing concern about the risks of nuclear war, and government plans to develop nuclear energy led to a surge in anti-nuclear sentiment in Aotearoa-New Zealand in the 1970s.

Among the campaigns employed by the anti-nuclear movement was the Declaration of Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) in classrooms, work places, towns and cities. By the 1984 general election, over 66 percent of New Zealanders lived in such NWFZs, and the victorious Labour Party, under leadership of David Lange, had adopted an unequivocal policy to ban nuclear weapons from the country’s territory and waters.

Our nuclear free status is a statement of our belief that we and our fellow human beings can build the institutions which will one day allow us all to renounce the weapons of mass destruction. We are a small country and what we can do is limited.
But in this as in every other great issue, we have to start somewhere.

David Lange, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1984-1989

 

A critical moment came in 1985, when the New Zealand government refused a request from the United States to allow the visit of the non-nuclear destroyer USS Buchanan on the grounds that it was potentially capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The US subsequently suspended its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS treaty.

In 1987 the nuclear-free policy was firmly cemented in the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Arms Control, And Disarmament Act – “to establish in New Zealand a Nuclear Free Zone, to promote and encourage an active and effective contribution by New Zealand to the essential process of disarmament and international arms control“.

Objectives

The primary objectives of the law are:

  • to ban nuclear weapons from New Zealand territory (Articles 5(1), 10 and 11); and
  • to hold criminally liable any New Zealand individual who acts in breach of the law (Article 14).

The law’s provisions are aimed at implementing New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance, which encompasses:

  • a rejection of reliance on nuclear weapons for security (notably the extended nuclear deterrence provided by the US);
  • the recognition of the risks and dangers of nuclear weapons (and energy) and the lasting effects of their use; and
  • the promotion of alternative measures to achieve security objectives.

Methods of Implementation

  • Article 5(1): The prohibition of manufacture, acquisition, possession or control over nuclear weapons as well as aiding and abetting any person in doing so, by New Zealand citizens or residents.
  • Article 5(2): The prohibition of such acts by agents of New Zealand anywhere in the world (extraterritoriality clause).
  • Article 6: The prohibition of the emplacement or transport of nuclear weapons on land or internal waters, including harbours, in New Zealand.
  • Articles 10 and 11: The prohibition of the landing in New Zealand of foreign military aircraft if there is reason to believe it may be carrying nuclear weapons and entry into the country’s internal waters of any ship whose propulsion is wholly or partly dependent on nuclear power.
  • Article 14: Those who contravene or fail to comply with the Act commit a criminal offence against it, punishable by imprisonment.
  • Articles 16-18: The Act also established a Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control to advise the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade on any disarmament issues it deems important, the Chairman of which is the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control; a unique position not found in any other country.

Impact

Although New Zealand never possessed nuclear weapons, or an active nuclear weapons programme, it was a member of the ANZUS alliance that effectively provided New Zealand with US extended nuclear deterrence. The anti-nuclear policy drastically changed the nature of this alliance, as the US suspended its treaty obligations to New Zealand in response.

Although it did not physically disarm any nuclear warheads, the law kept the Cold War nuclear stand-off between East and West out of New Zealand and had strong normative effects for building the nuclear prohibition principle. The law challenged the nuclear deterrence doctrine and was aimed at preventing and diminishing vulnerability by mitigating the highly lethal potential of the nuclear enterprise. It also re-shaped the national identity of New Zealand as a “clean, green and nuclear-free” country.

New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation is among the strongest existing legal prohibitions against nuclear arms, and at the time was the first of its kind. It goes beyond the country’s obligations under the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga), which permits port visits of nuclear ships.

However, the law has some significant limitations and there have been calls to further strengthen this policy. It does not ban the entrance of nuclear weapons into New Zealand’s territorial waters (12-mile extension from land) or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (200-mile extension). In 2000, the Green Party introduced a bill aimed at extending the legislation to prohibit the transit of nuclear-armed or propelled warships, as well as transport of nuclear waste through the 200-mile EEZ. This was not unprecedented, as the 1995 Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (Bangkok Treaty) includes such a prohibition.  However, the New Zealand Government held that such an extension would be unenforceable, as well as in breach of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In his testimony to the New Zealand Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Judge Christopher Weeramantry, former Vice-President of the International Court of Justice and Councillor of the WFC, disputed both claims. Judge Weeramantry drew on his experience of implementing decisions of the International Court of Justice, noting that norms are generally complied with, even in the absence of effective enforcement mechanisms. As for the legality of such an EEZ-extension under UNCLOS, he held that nuclear weapon-armed submarines could be banned from the EEZ as they would constitute a threat of use of nuclear weapons, which the ICJ’s 1996 Advisory Opinion had found generally illegal under international law.  These arguments were unfortunately to no avail and the bill was defeated in its second reading in Parliament.

Although New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation came under severe pressure from its Western allies –particularly the United States, United Kingdom and Australia– and led to significant diplomatic ostracism, successive governments have been steadfast in maintaining the policy and keeping it a cornerstone of the country’s identity.

More recently, a shift in the US attitude towards the anti-nuclear legislation has taken place under the Obama administration. In November 2010, during the signing of an agreement to forge stronger strategic ties between the two countries, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton commended New Zealand’s leading role on nuclear non-proliferation, effectively ending the 25-year nuclear row.

 

Potential as a Transferable Model

New Zealand’s nuclear prohibition law has a number of elements which can be incorporated into a transferable model:

  • The general prohibition elements (manufacture, acquisition, possession or control over nuclear weapons, as well as aiding and abetting in such acts), which effectively make the territory nuclear weapon free zone;
  • the extraterritorially clause which prohibits any nuclear weapon-related acts by agents of New Zealand anywhere in the world;
  • the establishment of an Advisory Committee on nuclear disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation matters, as well as the creation of the post of Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control; and
  • the promotion of active and constructive work on multilateral nuclear disarmament initiatives.

It should be taken into account that the domestic civil society-led anti-nuclear movement was vital to the eventual adoption and implementation of the government’s nuclear prohibition policy. The campaign to declare Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) in classrooms, work places, towns and cities was particularly effective and can be easily transferred – in fact, it has served as a model for the anti-nuclear campaigns currently employed in Scotland.

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