Strengthening the Pacific’s nukes-free zone

The US regularly deploys B-52H Stratofortress bombers to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and Tindal Air Base in Australia’s Northern Territory.

A challenge for leaders in Rarotonga

In August 1985, the Pacific Islands Forum held its annual summit in Cook Islands and adopted the Treaty of Rarotonga for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ). Created at the height of the 1980s Cold War arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, the Treaty was one of the first significant, collective achievements of the Forum.

This month, Cook Islands will again host the Forum in Rarotonga, and a range of nuclear threats are on the regional agenda. As war rages in Europe and the Middle East, Japan discharges treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific, and major powers modernise their nuclear arsenals, will leaders act again in Rarotonga to strengthen SPNFZ?

The Treaty of Rarotonga bans the use, testing and possession of nuclear weapons within the borders of the zone. SPNFZ signatories pledge they will not develop nuclear weapons. Beyond this, the Treaty also sought binding guarantees from the five major nuclear weapon states: Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States.

Three protocols of the 1985 Treaty prohibit the use or threat of use of any nuclear devices against Parties to the Treaty, and ban nuclear weapons testing within the Zone. Another protocol calls on the three states with territories in the zone (France, United Kingdom and the United States) to apply the Treaty to their territories. 

Russia and China signed and ratified these protocols in 1986, soon after the Treaty entered into force. France, the US and Britain waited a decade, only signing in March 1996 after the end of 30 years of French nuclear testing. London and Paris soon ratified the Treaty. The US is now the only major nuclear weapons state that has still not signed the protocols.

Fearing Chinese influence, the US is ramping up its rhetoric about commitment to the Pacific Islands. Last year, the communique of the inaugural US-Pacific summit expressed Washington’s support for SPNFZ, rhetoric undercut by ongoing Senate inaction. At this year’s second summit, hosted by President Joe Biden in September, island states pushed for sharper language. The final communique records that “States Parties to the Rarotonga Treaty…encouraged the United States to ratify the Treaty’s protocols, as soon as possible.”

Challenging nuclear arsenals

Under Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nuclear weapons states are obliged to commence comprehensive nuclear disarmament negotiations. But the NPT process is broken and there are not even talks about talks! Australia’s decision to purchase nuclear submarines under the AUKUS partnership has also raised concerns about nuclear proliferation in some neighbouring states.

Many non-nuclear states are showing their support for the abolition of nuclear weapons through the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in January 2021. Eleven Pacific Islands Forum member states and territories have now ratified or acceded to the TPNW (Aotearoa-New Zealand, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Vanuatu). 

Kiribati and Kazakhstan—both sites of Cold War nuclear testing—have been developing mechanisms to implement TPNW provisions requiring states to commit to assistance for nuclear survivors. This support is of vital importance to the civilian and military personnel who staffed the ten nuclear testing sites across Oceania, as well as neighbouring island communities affected by nuclear fallout.

They are especially important for Ma’ohi communities that have suffered health and environmental damage from 193 French nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. On 28 September, the Assembly of French Polynesia adopted a resolution “relating to support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”, recognising the nuclear ban treaty as a “new norm of international law.” France, as with other nuclear weapons states, has refused to sign TPNW, but the unanimous resolution from Ma’ohi politicians sends a strong message to Paris. 

Creating SPNFZ

After years of campaigning by Pacific churches, trade unions and the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement, Forum leaders finally agreed to develop a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty at the 1984 Forum in Tuvalu. In Funafuti, leaders established a working group to draft the final text of a SPNFZ Treaty, for their approval the following year in Rarotonga.

Cabinet papers released decades later show that, as Chair of the working group, Australia lobbied hard to water down the treaty to protect US strategic interests. Canberra successfully pushed back against proposals from Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea that would have banned the deployment of nuclear-armed warships and the testing of nuclear missiles within the zone. 

Emeritus Professor Michael Hamel-Green, author of a history of the SPNFZ negotiations, explains that “the SPNFZ Treaty’s negotiated solution to the nuclear ships issue was a compromise formula, where individual states could make their own decision on allowing or disallowing such visits and transit in territorial waters.” In 1987, New Zealand followed Vanuatu to ban nuclear vessels from its waters.

In the working group, Australia opposed the inclusion of a ban on the stationing of nuclear weapons within the zone. During the negotiations, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu voiced strong concerns that the lack of regulation of port visits by nuclear-armed vessels could lead to a form of de facto stationing. They argued for time limits on the “duration and pattern of port visits” and a “prior warning” requirement for nuclear ship visits. The Report of the Treaty Working Group noted that “Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea asked that their continuing interest in the duration of ship visits be recorded. PNG also suggested that ship visits be made subject to a requirement for prior warning.” However, Australia, as Chair of the negotiations, rejected the PNG/Vanuatu proposal.

Nuclear capable aircraft

Decades on, this historic debate is all the more important, as Australia plans to host more US and UK nuclear-capable submarines and planes in its territory under the AUKUS partnership.

Gearing up for conflict with China, the US also regularly deploys B-52H Stratofortress bombers to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and Tindal Air Base in Australia’s Northern Territory. Tindal is jointly operated by the Royal Australian Air Force and US Air Force (USAF), and Washington is planning further expansion at the base to allow for a B-52H bomber task force on permanent rotation.

Of the 87 B-52H bombers currently operated by the USAF, 46 are nuclear-capable, with the ability to carry up to 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Given the US maintains a “neither confirm nor deny” policy on nuclear weapons, can Australia guarantee that nuclear-tipped missiles won’t be stationed on planes at Tindal for lengthy periods, in breach of SPNFZ?

Professor Hamel-Green argues: “If there exists a situation where nuclear-armed US vessels or aircraft are present at bases in Australia for some 90-100% of the time, without any possibility of verifying whether there are nuclear weapons on board, then there exists a violation of both the spirit and letter of the SPNFZ treaty.” 

He suggests that “the actual implementation of SPNFZ certainly warrants further tightening up, to prevent de facto stationing by nuclear-armed states.”

Then Australian PM Bob Hawke signing the Treaty.
6 August 1985, Rarotonga – signing of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty
by Fiji, the Cook Islands and Australia. Left to right seated: former Fiji Prime Minister,
the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, former Cook Islands Prime Minister, the late Sir Tom
Davis, and former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Strengthening SPNFZ

As Cook Islands again hosts the Forum in Rarotonga between 6-10 November, will Forum leaders act to improve the Treaty of Rarotonga?

Church and community advocates have proposed many ways SPNFZ can be strengthened in the 21st Century. Firstly, a number of Forum member countries—RMI, FSM, Palau, French Polynesia and New Caledonia—have not yet signed the Treaty. Ratification of the three SPNFZ protocols by the US Senate could open the way to review and extend the treaty to the US Compact states north of the Equator, clearly matching the aspirations of South Pacific countries at the time it was drafted in the 1980s.

Large ocean states could also clarify the meaning of “innocent passage” through EEZs under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“Even if a complete ban on nuclear weapons transit in territorial waters were not to be imposed directly through an amended SPNFZ treaty, sovereign states would have the right under UNCLOS to regulate such transit in a number of ways,” Hamel-Green said. “These include prior notification of transit, restriction of transiting vessels to defined sea lanes, prohibition of military exercises, restriction in mode of transit (e.g., submarines must surface), and limits on numbers of transiting vessels.”

The Forum could also improve co-ordination with other Southern Hemisphere nuclear-weapon-free zones – Tlatelolco (Latin America), Pelindaba (Africa) and Bangkok (ASEAN). Latin America has a co-ordination centre for its zone in Mexico City, and has proposed an international secretariat for the Southern Hemisphere. The Forum could join other regions to promote practical co-operation, exchanging information and data relevant to treaty verification, and organising regular inter-governmental consultations.

Under Article 9 of the Treaty, Pacific countries are supposed to report to the Forum Secretary General on any significant event within their jurisdiction affecting the implementation of the Treaty. But regional agencies could seek amendment of the SPNFZ verification and control system to include a specialist agency and allow referral to the UN Security Council and General Assembly in the case of violations. They could also establish a regular reporting system, covering all relevant developments and nuclear activities in the region. 

The signing of the Treaty of Rarotonga on Hiroshima Day, 6 August 1985, was a turning point in the regional campaign for a world without nuclear weapons. Will this year’s Forum in Rarotonga take a similar bold step forward towards a nuclear-free and independent Pacific?