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The search for a modern disarmament strategy

5 December 2000

Matt Robson, Speech Notes

Removing the shackles: The search for a modern disarmament strategy

It is a pleasure to be here at Te Papa Tongarewa today, in the company of Ambassador Tsutomu Ishiguri, to formally announce that New Zealand will host a United Nations Asia-Pacific Regional Disarmament Conference in Wellington, from 26 to 30 March next year. The conference will take place right here, at Te Papa.

The United Nations will invite around 35 overseas disarmament specialists to the conference. And there will participation by New Zealand's own specialists in this field.

New Zealand is unique around the world in having a separate portfolio, at Cabinet level, for disarmament and arms control. It is well established, and it has solid multi-party support. Labour appointed the first Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control after winning the 1984 general election. National continued the portfolio during the 1990s. Now the Alliance supplies the Minister.

Why does there need to be a disarmament and arms control portfolio?

Basically, it is to ensure that there is the right allocation of State resources to this very important area of foreign relations. Resources of finance, and resources of skilled, professional expertise.

The conduct of foreign relations is more than diplomacy and trade. The Government puts a lot of resources into building a climate of security, internationally, in which New Zealand and New Zealanders can flourish. Paradoxical though it may sound, this includes both defence and disarmament.

Traditionally in New Zealand, when it came to weighing defence against disarmament, defence usually weighed much heavier in the balance. But not always.

The disarmament policy of the fourth Labour Government, which refused to allow nuclear warships into our ports, had the effect of collapsing New Zealand's most important security treaty - ANZUS. We became a better, prouder nation.

The National Government couldn't turn the clock back - it would have been electoral suicide for them to do so - but they did try to reduce the impact of disarmament policy on the traditional Anglo-American orientation of New Zealand's defence and security arrangements.

During the 1990s, Ministers came to treat disarmament and arms control as something of a boutique operation. Public interest in disarmament and arms control initiatives waned.

The result is that diplomatic achievements such as the overwhelming support that has just been won in the United Nations General Assembly for the Brazil's and New Zealand's resolution on a Southern Hemisphere Nuclear Weapon Free Zone are right off the radar screen. A press release on this during November attracted almost no news media interest at all.

I'll repeat the news, for the record. In the General Assembly on 20 November, that resolution attracted 159 votes in favour, and was opposed only by Britain, the United States, France and Monaco. Five countries abstained.

On the other hand, the news media give considerable prominence to the views of visiting Americans who come to New Zealand and tell us that we should be spending more on money defence.

There is an underlying conflict here. There were historical reasons for the traditional Anglo-American orientation of New Zealand's defence and security arrangements, but as a select committee inquiry found last year, those times are well and truly past.

New Zealand politicians and the public all know this. A lot of useful work was done during the last Parliament by the multi-party Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, with its inquiries into New Zealand's Place in the World, New Zealand's Role in Asia Pacific Security, and Defence Beyond 2000.

One thing that the select committee did was to develop a cross-party consensus, based on public submissions, in favour of a comprehensive security policy for New Zealand.

It is one of my tasks during my current term as Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control and Associate Minister with responsibility for Overseas Development Cooperation to advocate a better balance in the allocation of resources for the conduct of foreign relations. I am talking about resources of finance and specialist staff resources, and how those resources are deployed across the areas of diplomacy and trade, development aid, disarmament and defence.

New Zealand is still remarkably timid in its approach. There was a wide public debate in the news media on replacement of the F-16 aircraft at the beginning of this year. That debate made it abundantly clear that although New Zealand has an air combat force, nobody has any credible ideas about how it could ever be used in combat. Are we just going to fly the Skyhawks on training missions until they eventually fall apart?

There is a very heavy opportunity cost in maintaining obsolescent defence capabilities. New Zealand has made good progress internationally on matters as diverse as the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, and landmines. Can we not go further?

Should we ask the hard questions of ourselves? Is our aging air combat force a credible force element in combat? Can we afford such a force at all? Do we need it?

Is continuing to maintain the air combat force, which costs over $200 million a year to operate, contributing to the Alliance Labour Coalition's key defence and other priorities?

Think about it for a moment. $200 million a year could easily support the personnel and operating costs of 500 additional teachers, and 500 additional medical professionals, and 500 additional police, and 500 additional social workers.

As Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, I am determined to widen the scope of New Zealand's disarmament and arms control policies.

I welcome the opportunity to do this the United Nations context. I am sure that there are ways that New Zealand could contribute more cost-effectively than we do at present to the comprehensive security of the peoples of the Pacific region.

It is standard United Nations practice to announce the themes of the conference about one month before the meeting, and I shall not jump the gun now. But I am looking forward to a conference next March, where New Zealand will be able to bring a fresh Pacific perspective to the main current global disarmament issues. People should see then that New Zealand can make a difference.

The traditional approach, which leg-ironed our concept of national security to great-power defence interests, and denied New Zealand's niche political role internationally, is out of date.

I am advocating a reallocation of resources and a reprioritisation of tasking in the broad area of foreign relations, to achieve a better balance between our economic, trade, developmental, environmental, social and cultural objectives.

Disarmament and arms control have an important part to play in all this, because security is more than defence.

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