Senate debates

Thursday, 18 March 2010


Treaties Committee; Report: Government Response

4:03 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I wish to speak briefly on the government response to the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which Senator Faulkner has just tabled. The report was tabled a short time after I began my term here. It was just being wound up when I was appointed to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. This committee does enormously valuable work. It is a very valuable addition to the committees that we have here. The report was on the proposed Russian uranium deal which was on the verge of being signed at the time of the change of government. It was just as well that that deal was put on hold, because the JSCOT report worked very hard in scrutinising the expert evidence that was presented to the committee.

The committee has been resoundingly insulted by the government in the response that the minister has just tabled. John Carlson, the Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office was quite conspicuous in his spruiking of safeguards as the answer to every concern raised by the committee, while failing to tell the committee that there had been no inspections of Russian nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency since 2001. So how does the world know, as ASNO and the government so firmly believe with such enormous faith, that all is well in the Russian nuclear programs?

The government has issued a glib and dismissive response to the JSCOT report. To say that Russia is desperate for nuclear fuel and will therefore behave is not an argument that carries much weight or allays many of the concerns of the committee or, indeed, of the international community. That the government says that Australia has no scope to implement the suggestion that the IAEA actually do some inspections begs the questions: what exactly is our delegation doing in Vienna; how can we share the extraordinary confidence expressed at every turn by the government in the IAEA inspections when we cannot call upon them to actually do anything; and what opportunities are provided by being a member state of the IAEA if we have no voice in these fora?

There is no opportunity or leverage whatsoever to make suggestions or interventions regarding the appropriateness of safeguards activities in the countries to which we are considering selling uranium. Instead, we get these dismissive government responses saying, ‘Everything’s fine.’ The fact is that the people who wrote that government response do not know that everything is fine; rather, they are taking the word of people who do not know themselves. To say that no other countries are arguing for the general application of IAEA safeguards inspections in nuclear weapons states is to ignore the concerns that have been expressed quite regularly at Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meetings and other fora by non-nuclear weapons states about the highly discriminatory nature of this treaty and the asymmetrical obligations and degrees of inspection that they are subject to in contrast to the cone of silence under which the nuclear weapons states—and none more so than Russia—conduct their business.

It is just blatantly false to say that Russia is complying with its disarmament obligations under the NPT. Russia is doing no such thing. Russia has an arsenal of more than 14,000 nuclear weapons with an explosive yield equivalent to 200,000 Hiroshima sized weapons. The reduction in the number of weapons held by Russia is no comfort since, in Vladimir Putin’s words, Russia plans to make its arsenal ‘more compact but more effective’.

So reading about the Australian government’s belief that Russia is upholding its obligations under article 6 of the NPT would be funny if it were not so serious. The joint standing committee noted that there is no imperative for early ratification of the Howard-Putin agreement and advises reconsideration of the agreement after the 2010 NPT review conference. That is coming up in a matter of five weeks or so. A legal opinion from Professor Donald Rothwell, Professor of International Law at the Australian National University College of Law, states that Australia has an international obligation to pursue work in good faith towards the objective of nuclear disarmament consistent with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Professor Rothwell states quite correctly that this obligation is heightened in the case of Australia’s interaction with a nuclear state that is a party to the NPT such as Russia and in relationships where parties are mutually engaged in matters related to nuclear disarmament, including nuclear energy and proliferation.

Some quite reasonable and sensible suggestions were made during the course of the inquiry, including: to renegotiate the key terms of the treaty if it is to proceed and not just rubber-stamp and wave it through; to allow for higher monitoring, verification and safeguard standards than are currently envisaged under either the proposed treaty or the International Atomic Energy Agency additional protocol—measures that were introduced in 1997 to strengthen the inspection authority of the IAEA; and to insert conditionality clauses into the treaty on the rule of law, democracy and human rights and a termination clause on nuclear disarmament, allowing Australia to terminate the treaty, inter alia, in the event that Russia does not make progress towards its disarmament obligations, which it clearly has failed to do thus far.

This is a flawed treaty and it will weaken Australia’s policy and practice on nuclear safeguards. It will compromise our efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons and will make Australia complicit in serious failures of the Russian state, where the rule of law, democratic values and human rights are, quite simply, not being observed.

This government response is being taken by the Australian Greens as a dismissal of the findings of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and essentially paving the way to do what the mining industry has been demanding since Prime Minister Howard was in government—that we open the floodgates to sales of uranium to Russia. It is quite transparently preparing the ground for exactly that kind of move. While they might be popping champagne at the Minerals Council of Australia and in the offices of BHP and Rio Tinto tonight, we strongly believe that this is a move that the Australian public, the Australian government and probably the people of Russia will regret. This is an absolutely retrograde move. JSCOT very, very rarely tables a report on a treaty proposed by the Australian government with such strong language. It is extremely rare for the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties to recommend that treaty action not proceed. I do not know of many times that that has occurred in the history of the committee. For the government to wait around for 12 or 18 months and then issue this trite, dismissive and factually incorrect statement in response is nothing more than what we might have read in a press release from BHP or Rio Tinto. JSCOT deserves more respect than that for the hard work that has been done on a cross-party basis. The people under the footprint of the mining industry where this material is excavated deserve better than that. Quite frankly, this is a move that the Australian people and the Australian government will regret.