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Minister for Foreign Affairs comments on anti-nuclear strategy

ELLEN FANNING: Now, to Australia's ambitious anti-nuclear strategy. The Prime Minister yesterday announced he wanted to free the world of nuclear weapons and would lead an international campaign to do so. He also declared that he'd dispatch Senate Gareth Evans to The Hague, next week, to appear before the International Court of Justice in a case about nuclear weapons. Mr Keating says Australia will argue that the courts should not make a decision about the legality of nuclear weapons but, if it chooses to do so, then it should rule that those weapons are illegal.

Well, Gareth Evans, QC, joins us on the line, now, from Louisville, Kentucky, where later today he is to accept an award for his contribution to international affairs. Senator Evans is speaking, now, to our Canberra correspondent, David Pembroke.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Gareth Evans, a world without nuclear weapons - the Prime Minister thinks it's a possibility; do you agree with him?

GARETH EVANS: Yes, I do. I've been thinking of writing about this for some time. In fact, the latest edition of my book, published earlier this year, addresses this question head on. I'd been influenced by, in fact, Professor Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference people that have just won the Nobel Prize, into believing that now this is not only a desirable objective but actually an achievable one, so I'm absolutely wholeheartedly behind what Paul Keating has now decided we should pursue. It's something that I've been believing is on the agenda, sensibly, for some time.

DAVID PEMBROKE: What changed your opinion, given that you have always pursued what have seemed to have been pragmatic and achievable foreign policy outcomes?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I can only do things that are achievable, yes, but it's a question of the time frame within which they are achievable, and sometimes the strategy and the tactics are different from each other. I believe that the world has changed since the end of the Cold War and that the basic strategic environment is different; that the real threat, so far as nuclear weapons is concerned, is that of proliferation. The only way in which we're going to be able to get the proliferators or potential proliferators to play ball and the whole force of the international community to be lined up against them, is if the nuclear weapons states play their part in the equation and, for the first time, get really serious about elimination, not just put it off to the never-never. That's the big problem and that's the solution to it.

As to the feasibility and achievability of it, what I think has changed my mind more than anything else, is the success of the chemical weapons negotiations which we were centrally involved in, which established a verification regime for an industry and for a technology which is infinitely harder to verify, when you think about it, than is the case with the nuclear industry, because the chemical weapons industry gets mixed up with the mainstream commercial chemical industry, whereas nuclear technology is infinitely more confined in its scope and infinitely more detectable. So this is an achievable objective from a principle point of view and from a practical point of view. Whether from a political point of view, of course, we can get the support of the major weapons powers to go down this path remains to be seen, but that's what this campaign is going to be all about.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Well, step one in the campaign: You'll be attending the International Court of Justice, next week, to argue against nuclear weapons. What are you hoping to achieve from that particular part of the strategy?

GARETH EVANS: Well, it remains to be seen whether the International Court will even address the substantive issue. There are some good reasons for it not giving an advisory opinion at this stage at all on the question of legality or illegality, the good reason being, essentially, that there's real doubt about what the legal situation is as distinct from what the moral one is, and any decision the court makes that nuclear weapons are, at least to some extent, legal as to possession or use, would of course weigh very badly, I believe, politically, in the long campaign ahead. To get them actually eliminated would give a new lease of life to the proliferators and potential proliferators around the place who would say: Now, well, here's ample justification for it. Unless we were totally confident that the court was going to come down with a finding of illegality, it's a very risky strategy to be in.

But it's not our case. It's a case that was initiated by the UN General Assembly, by the World Health Organisation. It is off and running, so what we're going to do is put a submission in two parts. Now, the Solicitor-General, Gavan Griffith, will begin by arguing that it may be better overall and there's plenty of legal reasons why the court shouldn't make a finding at all. But then I will move to the second part of the argument and say: If the court is minded to address the substantive issues here, then it should make a finding of illegality. And I'll be developing quite a complex argument to that effect. We'll be the first country, in fact, to be making any kind of an argument at all to the court and, particularly given our track record before the court, what we say will, I think, have some impact. So it's going to be a very important day, next Monday.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Prior to that hearing, do you have any feeling to which way it may go?

GARETH EVANS: Honestly, I don't. I think the court is quite likely to be divided on this one. There's a number of its members from their previous track record on other cases that demonstrated a real sensitivity to issues of this kind, and are likely to find for it. On the other hand, the nuclear weapons states are going to be very edgy indeed. Some of their representatives - although, of course, they're supposed to be firm and impartial in their assessment of legal issues - they're going to be, I think, fairly reluctant to drive a coach and horses through what's hitherto been understood to be the legal situation.

It's a pretty adventurous argument we'll be mounting. Essentially, it is that there's been a fundamental change in customary international law in very recent times. I don't think you could credibly argue that nuclear weapons have always been illegal, but what I think you can credibly argue is that, as a result of fundamental the change of world opinion that's been evident since the end of the Cold War; the way in which that's been reflected in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference outcome; the way in which it's been reflected in the momentum, now, for a comprehensive test ban; the way it's been reflected in the international reaction to the French tests - all of that, I think, we can argue signals a basic change in the customary law that's now applicable. But whether the court will buy that-we'll just have to wait and see.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Well, yesterday, Jacques Chirac accused Australia's leaders of being followers and not leaders. Given the perception that the Government has been following public opinion in this country, is there some validity to what he said?

GARETH EVANS: I don't know what Jacques Chirac was all about. He's trying to have it both ways. The nub and substance of what he was saying is that Australia is out there leading the international attack against France on these weapons, and I think that was a splendid demonstration to all those cynics and sceptics in the media and elsewhere at home that think we've been limp or wimpish on the subject that, in fact, we have been out there. And he knows perfectly well that I've been spending most of the last few weeks here, in New York, and in the non-aligned summit in Cartagena, working very actively on a nuclear non-proliferation resolution and an anti-testing resolution.

There's no question but that Australia has had a consistent position on these issues all along. We did start out our reaction in an initially muted fashion because we wanted to see, as we said at the time, what effect persuasion would have but as distinct from just extreme protest. When it became clear as a result of the delegation to France that they weren't going to be responsive on these issues, then we moved into full pressure mode with results that you've seen.

As a result of that, we've got the French commitment now to a zero-threshold Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and, now, we've got France signing up with United States and Britain, as well, to the Treaty of Rarotonga which were two very important policy aims, and that's all been a result of the pressure that's built up. There's been a systematic approach by the Government from day one and this is just a sort of an urban myth like crocodiles in the sewers, I think, that's grown up about the nature of the Government's response. We've been absolutely consistent from the outset.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Today, Senator Evans, you're in Louisville, Kentucky, to collect an award which was once won by the former Soviet Leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. What is the award and what did you win it for?

GARETH EVANS: This is the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, is the rather elaborate title. Yes, Mikhail Gorbachev won it a few years ago; Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister, for her role as Chairman of the Sustainable Development World Commission. There's a number of really quite distinguished scholars - Samuel Huntington, Robert Keohane, Richard Neustadt - they've all won it over the years, so I do find myself in very exotic company which is a great honour for, I think, Australia.

What I won it for is for The blue book: cooperating for peace which I launched at the General Assembly of the UN a couple of years ago, and for a subsequent article which was published in the American Journal of Foreign Policy. It's worth $US150,000. I'm not, of course, spending any of that money on myself. It will go on scholarships or maybe even a media prize, things of that kind, to try and improve the creativity and new thinking about these questions of peace, disarmament and world governance. So anything I can do as a result of this to give extra weight and profile to these issues, I'll be very happy to do it.

DAVID PEMBROKE: The media prize sounds like a good idea. Congratulations, and thanks very much for speaking to A.M. this morning.

GARETH EVANS: Thank you, David.

ELLEN FANNING: Australia's Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, on the line there from the United States, and he was speaking this morning with our David Pembroke.