New Zealand and other members of the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone have a responsibility to speak out against Australian uranium sales to India, write Daryl Kimball and William Potter.
The global effort to prevent the spread of the world's most deadly weapons depends on compliance with legally binding rules and political obligations to limit the sale of nuclear material and technology that can be used to make nuclear bombs.
When states seek exceptions to these rules and obligations or simply ignore them - whether for political or economic purposes - the job of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons becomes more difficult and the world becomes a more dangerous place.
Along with New Zealand, Australia has for many years been a leader in establishing more robust barriers against nuclear proliferation, including negotiation of the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty.
This major nonproliferation achievement was, among other things, intended to prevent nuclear trade by members of the zone with states that did not accept comprehensive or "full- scope" safeguards on their nuclear facilities.
But with the Australian Labor Party's narrow 206 to 185 vote on the sale of uranium to India, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Australia may become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
India remains outside the global nonproliferation mainstream - one of only three countries not to have signed the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
India has also refused to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, continuing to produce plutonium for weapons.
Uranium sales to India would clearly be illegal under a strict interpretation of the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, until and unless India agrees to robust international inspections of all of its nuclear sites.
This is not the case today, because India allows only limited inspections over certain civilian nuclear plants and keeps its nuclear weapons research and production facilities off limits.
Official records show that former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told the Australian parliament unambiguously in 1996 that the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty bans Australian uranium exports to non-NPT states like India that do not allow full- scope safeguards.
New Zealand and other members of the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone have a responsibility to speak up.
Not only would it be illegal for Australia to sell uranium to India, but it would be imprudent from the standpoint of nonproliferation and national security, because it would undermine a range of other measures that are important for maintaining future stability and security in Asia.
The first casualty would be the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone itself.
If Australia were to ignore its legally binding treaty obligations, it would be unrealistic to assume that other members would be more circumspect.
Non-compliance by Australia also would seriously damage nuclear weapon-free zones as a disarmament and nonproliferation approach more generally at a time when they constitute one of the few nonproliferation success stories.
In addition, Australian disavowal of its treaty obligations could encourage members of the African and Central Asian zones that contain nuclear export restrictions to follow suit.
The proposed change in Australian policy also impacts negatively on nuclear stability in South Asia.
If New Delhi can import sufficient quantities of uranium for its civil nuclear programme from Australia and other suppliers, this will ease constraints on uranium availability in India and could enable it to use more domestic uranium for its nuclear weapons programme.
This possibility has alarmed Pakistan, which has vowed not to fall behind in a regional nuclear arms race.
Pakistan has accelerated efforts to increase its capacity to produce enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons and has blocked the start of negotiations on a global treaty to ban the production of nuclear material for weapons purposes.
A decision by Australia to sell uranium to India would exacerbate these trends.
Australia cannot cherry- pick its nonproliferation commitments. Instead, Australia's leaders must respect the letter and intent of the law and refrain from selling uranium to India and its allies and partners must help it understand the pitfalls of selling uranium to India.
*Daryl Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, DC. Dr William C Potter is director of the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in California.
- The Press