Nuclear threats, common security and disarmament

A reflection on the 35th anniversary of New Zealand’s nuclear weapons ban, and what we can do now to prevent nuclear war and achieve global nuclear abolition.

by Alyn Ware*

If you have been following the conflict in Ukraine, you will no doubt have noticed that not only has Russia been undertaking a horrific ‘military operation’ (war) attacking homes and killing civilians, but also that Russian President Putin has threatened nuclear war if NATO, the USA or any other country uses military force to try to stop him take over Ukraine.

Russia is not the only one to blame for nuclear threats in Europe. The USA and other NATO countries have also played a role, with the modernization, development and deployment of nuclear weapons on submarines and in a number of NATO countries under options of first-use, coupled with an expansion of NATO closer and closer to Russia.

Collectively, Russia, the USA and NATO have over 12,000 nuclear weapons, most of them at least 10 times more destructive than the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII. If a nuclear war breaks out in Europe, the consequences would be catastrophic and unprecedented. It could result in the deaths of billions (yes – billions) of people and possibly the end of civilization as we know it.

Europe is not the only region in which the threat of nuclear war is Increasing. There are also heightened tensions involving nuclear threats between North Korea and the USA, China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan and in the Middle East.

New Zealand peace organizations and the government have been very active in the past on nuclear disarmament, including by banning nuclear weapons through New Zealand’s ground-breaking Nuclear-Free legislation adopted 35 years ago on June 8, 1987. The rejection by New Zealand of nuclear deterrence was a powerful stand against the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction in the 1980s. But what can we do now?

Below is a short background on New Zealand’s nuclear weapons ban, plus ways in which we New Zealanders and our government can reduce the current risk of nuclear war and advance global nuclear abolition in the new global environment.


Surfboard rider attempting to block a nuclear-armed warship from entering Auckland Harbour, 1982


New Zealand, from nuclear ally to anti-nuclear leader

New Zealand was a willing player in the nuclear arms race from the birth of the nuclear age in 1945 up until the mid-1980s. In 1945 most New Zealanders celebrated the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which we believed at the time to have been instrumental in ending World War II. Our country then joined a nuclear alliance with the United States, supported nuclear tests in the Pacific (with our military participating in some of them) and hosted port visits of nuclear armed ships from our allies, in particular the United States, to demonstrate New Zealand’s adherence to nuclear deterrence.

Then in 1984, a newly elected Labour government under the leadership of David Lange changed the course of New Zealand’s future by adopting a policy of banning nuclear weapons in our country, and enshrining this in law, which was adopted on June 8, 1987.

One of the civil society organizations that led the campaign for New Zealand to ban nuclear weapons was the New Zealand Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Committee established by Larry Ross. The committee encouraged New Zealanders to establish their homes, workplaces and cities as nuclear-weapon-free zones. By the time of the 1984 election, over 2/3rds of New Zealand’s city councils were persuaded to do so, sending a strong signal to the incoming government that a ban on nuclear weapons had strong support from around the country and from across the political spectrum.

Another organization that campaigned for the government to adopt an anti-nuclear policy was The Peace FoundationTe Ropu Rongomau o Aotearoa. The Foundation, which was established in 1975, organized a number of events in the early 1980s to educate public about the risks of nuclear weapons and the importance of abolishing them. One pivotal event, organized in cooperation with the New Zealand section of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), was the 1983 New Zealand tour by paediatrician Helen Caldicott, who spoke to audiences of thousands in the main centres, as well as on prime time TV. Helen’s visit stimulated many more doctors to join IPPNW – membership grew to around 30% of the population – and the further spread of neighbourhood and city-wide peace groups around the country.

The anti-nuclear movement grew to around 300 such groups following Helen’s visit, most of them cooperating on the nuclear weapons free campaign through Peace Movement Aotearoa – a peace research, action, education and campaign coordination network established in 1981.

The campaign also lobbied members of parliament, from all parties, to stand up in parliament for a nuclear-free New Zealand. This led to private members bills in parliament from opposition parties, one of which helped triggered the snap election of 1984. The conservative (National) government held a majority in parliament of one seat, and was about to lose a vote in parliament on an opposition bill to make New Zealand nuclear-free, due to the announced support for the bill by National MP Marilyn Waring. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, a strong supporter of nuclear deterrence who once remarked that the failure of the USA in Vietnam was partly due to their ‘unwillingness to use the ultimate weapon’, called the snap election primarily to avoid this loss in parliament – and then he lost the election.

Stickers for nuclear weapons-free homes, workplaces and cities. Kate Dewes with a map of declared nuclear-weapon-free homes in Christchurch. Larry Ross presenting map of nuclear-weapon-free cities to Helen Clark MP.

Non-violent, direct anti-nuclear action

New Zealanders also took direct non-violent action against the nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships that were visiting New Zealand, particularly US naval ships visiting under the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand United States) military alliance. Organised by the Peace Squadron – individuals in small boats, on surfboards and in kayaks, sailed in front of incoming nuclear warships to symbolically block their entry.

At the same time, New Zealanders continued protesting the nuclear tests being undertaken by the French government in Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia), including by sailing peace boats/yachts to Moruroa, the primary atoll where the nuclear tests were being undertaken. In the early 1970s, the peace voyages of the Vega, Fri, Spirit of Peace and Bon Joel captured global attention and helped move France to end the atmospheric tests.

Following the end of atmospheric testing, the French continued with an underground nuclear testing program. This was opposed by Pacific countries but mostly ignored in the rest of the world until July 1985, when the world woke up to the nuclear tests due to the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, the flag ship of Greenpeace and the lead ship for the 1985 Peace Flotilla to Moruroa. The French action against Greenpeace, undertaken by French secret agents in Auckland harbour, was intended to weaken the anti-nuclear movement in the Pacific, but it had the opposite effect. It helped galvanise  anti-nuclear commitment in New Zealand and the Pacific, paving the way for New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy to be enshrined in law in 1987, and strengthening the resolve of the countries of the Pacific to establish the region as a nuclear weapon free zone, adopting the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty in 1986.

United States opposition and the World Court case

When the Lange government announced the nuclear ban policy on assuming government in 1984, the United States launched a campaign of opposition, propaganda and intimidation against New Zealand that they thought would succeed in changing the government’s mind – as the US had done successfully with the Australian Labour government in 1983.

The United States argued that New Zealand had an obligation under the ANZUS Treaty to accept port visits of nuclear warships. When the Lange government disagreed, the US launched a campaign to isolate New Zealand in the Western diplomatic circles, ran misinformation campaigns including one asserting that Soviet submarines were taking over the Pacific as a result of New Zealand’s policy, applied economic pressure through a trade boycott, attempted to undermine the government through a false loan offer for Maori housing, threatened to suspend military cooperation and in the end suspended the ANZUS military alliance with New Zealand when New Zealand refused to fold to the pressure.

The US assertion that the ANZUS alliance required New Zealand to accept nuclear deterrence stimulated peace movement leaders from New Zealand, including members of the Peace Foundation and the International Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), to establish the World Court Project on Nuclear Weapons and International Law. This initiative succeeded in moving the International Court of Justice to consider the issue of nuclear weapons, and to affirm in 1996 that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally illegal and that there is a universal obligation to work for their elimination.

The New Zealand Attorney General greets civil society supporters prior to giving New Zealand’s oral statement
to the International Court of Justice in the 1995 nuclear weapons case.

The New Zealand Nuclear-Free Zone legislation – a global model

June 8 this year is the 35th anniversary of the New Zealand Nuclear-Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act. This legislation not only prohibits nuclear weapons in New Zealand, it also prohibits ‘agents of the crown’ (government officials, members of the military and public servants) from aiding or abetting the production, deployment, testing, threat or use of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world.

The legislation also establishes a Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control (still the only one in the world) and a public advisory committee on disarmament and arms control (PACDAC) to advise the government on disarmament policy. Peace Foundation members have often served on this committee, and the government has on a number of occasions adopted and implemented recommendations from the committee.

One example is the proposal from PACDAC for New Zealand to launch an international initiative on ‘de-alerting’ of nuclear weapons, i.e. to move the nuclear-armed states (especially Russia and the USA) to step back from their ‘launch-on-warning’ policies and their readiness to fire nuclear weapons within minutes. New Zealand has implemented this recommendation by establishing a De-alerting Group of countries that takes action at the United Nations as well as in direct meetings with the nuclear-armed states.

Under the 1987 legislation PACDAC is also empowered to promote peace and disarmament education, including through the allocation of funding. Two funds – the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust (PADET) and the Disarmament Education United Nations Implementation Fund (DEUNIF) are now administered by PACDAC, and have helped many education projects around the country.

In 2013, the Nuclear-Free Act was recognized by the United Nations and the World Future Council as one of the most significant disarmament policies in the world – winning second prize (the Silver Award) in the prestigious Future Policy Awards which were bestowed at the UN in New York.

The Peace Foundation organizes a human peace sign in the Auckland Domain in June 2017 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation.

Nuclear disarmament and conflict resolution/common security

Nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence policies do not arise in a vacuum or by chance. Countries which have produced nuclear weapons, or are under extended nuclear deterrence ‘protection’, do so by choice. They have threats to their security which they believe can be met by nuclear deterrence. In order to move them to end this reliance on nuclear weapons and abolish nuclear weapons, we have to convince them that they can achieve their security in other ways – in particular through diplomacy, conflict resolution, common security and international law.

New Zealand has demonstrated a number of times that international conflicts and serious threats to security can be resolved this way, including conflicts relating to nuclear weapons. When the French government bombed the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985 and then barred our exports to Europe in retaliation for New Zealand convicting two of their agents involved in the bombing, we successfully resolved the dispute through the UN mediation service. And on the wider issue of French nuclear testing in the Pacific, we lodged cases in the International Court of Justice, which helped move France to end the nuclear tests and close down the test site.

Many peace and disarmament organizations have highlighted that diplomacy, conflict resolution and common security mechanisms should have been used to prevent the Ukraine/Russia conflict escalating to war, which has increased the threat of nuclear war. (See Abolition 2000 Member organizations oppose Russian invasion of Ukraine). And many continue to promote a common security framework to help resolve, not only the Ukraine conflict but other serious conflicts around the world, some involving nuclear-armed countries.

Common security builds security between nations through international law, diplomacy and conflict resolution. It is based on the notion that national security cannot be achieved or sustained by threatening or reducing the security of other nations, but only by ensuring that the security of all nations is advanced and that conflicts between them are resolved in ways that meet the needs of all. The application of common security to today’s critical issues is explored in the recent report Common Security 2022 released by the Olof Palme International Centre. Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, is one of the expert commissioners that prepared the report.

Helen Caldicott, who galvanized the New Zealand Peace Movement in 1983, was invited back to New Zealand
in 2016 to give a keynote address on nuclear disarmament and an end to war.

The importance of peace education

The introduction and implementation of peace education into New Zealand schools, and a strong priority on peace education in the community, is one of the reasons why New Zealand’s nuclear weapons ban has cross-party support, and why New Zealand has shifted from being a militaristic country to one of the most peaceful in the world. New Zealand now ranks 2nd on the Global Peace Index.

Since 1980, the Peace Foundation has been running peace and disarmament education programmes in schools. These found support from the government in 1987 by the adoption of Ministry of Education Peace Studies Guidelines for Schools, followed by government funding for such programmes. The programmes help students to develop skills, knowledge and attitudes to resolve conflicts in their lives and support peace and conflict resolution in wider society.

See Peace education and common security: Positive peace from schools to the world, Alyn Ware Right Livelihood Lecture, Zurich, May 13, 2022.

What else can New Zealand do today to prevent nuclear war and advance nuclear abolition?

There are a number of opportunities for New Zealand to advance nuclear risk reduction and disarmament in key international forums this year.

  • Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Time to export our nuclear-free policy.

In late June the States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will meet for the first conference of the treaty. None of the nuclear armed or allied states are members, so the meeting won’t have any direct impact on them. However, building on the experience of our nuclear ban,  NZ could encourage other States parties to adopt similar measures, including to ban transit of nuclear weapons, end public investments in the nuclear weapons industry and establish a Minister for Disarmament. It’s time to export our nuclear-free policy.

  • Non-Proliferation Treaty

In August this year, States parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – which includes the major nuclear armed states and their allies – will meet at the United Nations for 4 weeks to discuss nuclear risk reduction, non-proliferation and disarmament. This is an excellent opportunity for New Zealand and other non-nuclear countries to engage with the nuclear-armed countries and allies, to convince them to take important nuclear risk reduction and disarmament measures including no-first-use, commencing negotiations on a framework to eliminate nuclear weapons, and adopting a commitment to achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons globally no later than the 100th anniversary of the United Nations. For background and more comprehensive recommendations, see NWC Reset: Frameworks for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World, a civil society paper for the 10th NPT Review Conference.

What can you/we do?

There are a number of things we can do help end the nuclear threat and advance nuclear abolition.



*  Alyn Ware is the International Representative for the New Zealand Peace Foundation (Te Ropu Rongomau o Aotearoa), United Nations Association of New Zealand Special Officer on Peace and International Security, and International Representative of Aotearoa Lawyers for Peace (the NZ affiliate of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms). Alyn is also Global Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, and Director of the Basel Peace Office. He is one of two New Zealanders (the other being Rt Hon David Lange) to receive the Right Livelihood Award (‘Alternate Nobel Peace Prize’) for his leadership in peace education and nuclear abolition.