Disarmament work could be wasted

23:48, Apr 10 2012
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A LONG HISTORY: A 1976 photo of an anti-nuclear protest in Auckland, from the Sunday Star-Times archive.

New Zealand showcased its anti-nuclear credentials to the world recently at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, but back home in Wellington, our hard-earned reputation as a leader in disarmament and arms control is in danger of being squandered.

The Government has made the fatal assumption that a reputation, once earned, can be maintained on the cheap, without investing further resources and without committed leadership.

Two recent developments illustrate New Zealand's dwindling commitment to disarmament.

It is clear that in recent years fewer resources have been dedicated to the disarmament and arms control work by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

It has extremely capable and hard-working officials led by New Zealand's Geneva-based ambassador, Dell Higgie, but the international security and disarmament division is perennially short- staffed, with officials spread too thinly across a range of pressing issues.

The struggle to meet expectations with just a handful of staff is likely to be further exacerbated by proposed ministry cutbacks, including measures to curb office support that is essential to maintaining our frontline diplomatic clout.


The Government's decision to axe the separate portfolio of minister for disarmament and arms control is another blow to New Zealand's leadership on these issues.

Established in 1987, this dedicated position was last held by Georgina te Heuheu, who retired in December 2011.

According to the Cabinet Office, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully now "incorporates the responsibilities formerly included" in the disarmament portfolio.

The move to disestablish the disarmament minister is inconsistent with the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act of 1987, which promotes and encourages our "active and effective contribution to the essential process of disarmament and international arms control".

Section 18 of this law established the public advisory committee on disarmament and arms control, chaired by the disarmament and arms control minister.

The dedicated ministerial portfolio for disarmament and arms control helped facilitate high-level engagement, bolstered diplomatic outreach, and enabled productive and collaborative relations with civil society.

Notable achievements include the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty and 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, as well as the World Court advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons and New Zealand's work against nuclear weapons testing such as the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

New Zealand's last disarmament minister did not limit her contributions to delivering statements at high-level meetings, but ventured out on exhausting field visits to see how to improve the lives of communities threatened by uncleared landmines and cluster munition remnants.

Mrs te Heuheu's engagement was backed up by financial commitments to mine clearance and victim assistance initiatives.

All this was done with multi- tasking ministers, without a dedicated ministry, and for very little cost.

Every minister for disarmament and arms control has managed other portfolio responsibilities at the same time, enabling them to often combine disarmament priorities with other topics, such as trade, and maximise opportunities.

IT IS not yet clear how Mr McCully will build on the legacy he has inherited. His first public statement on arms focused on North Korea's missile plans. This indicates that New Zealand may place more emphasis on non-proliferation or stopping non-nuclear nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, but is this where our expertise lies?

Disarmament leadership requires staying at the forefront of initiatives to abolish nuclear weapons. Leadership also requires that we seize opportunities to tackle any number of problematic weapons that cause disproportionate harm to civilians.

We should be asking hard questions about the acceptability of using explosive weapons in populated areas after seeing the Syrian Government relentlessly shell residents of Homs.

The use of white phosphorus in Gaza and other recent conflicts highlights the need to revisit international rules regulating incendiary weapons.

The use of certain toxic chemicals other than riot-control agents for law enforcement by some states should be queried.

The Government should demonstrate its commitment to this portfolio by adequately resourcing our diplomats and by reinstating the minister for disarmament and arms control.

Mary Wareham and Angela Woodward are members of the public advisory committee on disarmament and arms control, but this article was written in their personal capacities.

The Dominion Post