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 was yet to actually join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the shift in its voting position to “abstain” after five years of “no” is seen by campaigners as a sign of progress given the former Coalition government repeatedly sided with the United States against it.
The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said through a spokesperson that Australia had “a long and proud commitment to the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime” and that the government supported the new treaty’s “ambition of a world without nuclear weapons”.
The previous Coalition government was firmly against the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a relatively new international agreement that imposes a blanket ban on developing, testing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons – or helping other countries to carry out such activities.
Australia voted against opening negotiations on the proposed new treaty in late 2016 and did not participate in those talks in 2017. Since 2018 it has voted against annual resolutions at the UN general assembly and first committee that called on all countries to join the agreement “at the earliest possible date”.
That changed early on Saturday morning when Australia shifted its voting position to abstain. Indonesia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Ireland were among countries to co-sponsor this year’s supportive UN resolution.
Australia traditionally argued the treaty would not work because none of the nuclear weapons states had joined and because it “ignores the realities of the global security environment”.
It also argued joining would breach the US alliance obligations, with Australia relying on American nuclear forces to deter any nuclear attack on Australia.
But the treaty has gained momentum because of increasing dissatisfaction among activists and non-nuclear states about the outlook for disarmament, given that nuclear weapons states such as the US, Russia and China are in the process of modernising their arsenals.
The treaty currently has 91 signatories, 68 of which have formally ratified it, and it entered into force last year.
The Nobel peace prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) had been urging Australia to vote in favour of the UN resolution on Saturday – or at least abstain in order to “end five years of opposition to the TPNW under the previous government”.
Three in four members of the Labor caucus – including Anthony Albanese – have signed an Ican pledge that commits parliamentarians “to work for the signature and ratification of this landmark treaty by our respective countries”.
Labor’s 2021 national platform committed the party to signing and ratifying the treaty “after taking account” of several factors, including the need for an effective verification and enforcement architecture and work to achieve universal support.
These conditions suggest the barriers to actually signing may still be high. But Gem Romuld, the Australia director of Ican, said the government was “heading in the right direction” and engaging positively with the treaty.
Romuld said it “would be completely self-defeating to wait for all nuclear-armed states to get on board” before Australia joined.
“Indeed, no disarmament treaty has achieved universal support and Australia has joined all the other disarmament treaties, even where our ally – the US – has not yet signed on, such as the landmine ban treaty,” Romuld said.
In 2017 the US, the UK and France declared that they “do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party” to the new treaty, and the Trump administration actively lobbied 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 threats underline the danger that nuclear weapons pose to us all”.