50 Briefing Paper by Harry for Menzies

Canberra, 12 November 1960


Irish Draft Resolution on Transfer of Nuclear Weapons

The Irish have tabled a draft resolution in the United Nations General Assembly—

  1. calling on powers producing nuclear weapons to refrain from relinquishing control to any nation not possessing them.1
  2. calling on powers not possessing such weapons to refrain from manufacturing or attempting to acquire them.
  1. The United Kingdom supports this resolution, which contains the substance of the United Kingdom proposal for a declaratory resolution put forward in August but dropped because of the unfavourable response it received.
  2. Australia has a general interest in seeing that Western Defence arrangement are not weakened, especially vis-à-vis Communist China. The Australian attitude on the dissemination of nuclear weapons, as expressed in the brief to our delegation on the Irish item last year, was as follows:
    1. we were opposed to any extension, beyond the then three, of the number of powers capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons;
    2. we could correspondingly support the banning of uncontrolled transfer of ownership of nuclear weapons by the present nuclear powers to other countries;
    3. at the same time, we could not accept any prohibition against arrangement for the stationing of nuclear weapons in other countries with the supplier retaining control. Such a prohibition would cut across the arrangements made by the USA in support of its NATO allies. We were also concerned to keep open the possibility of nuclear weapons being stationed in Australia under similar arrangements, should this ever prove necessary for our defence.

    (These views derived from your statements2 of 19 and 20 September 1957, when you said that manufacture of nuclear weapons should be confined if possible to the three Great Powers, but you did not exclude the possibility of future 'procurement' by Australia.)

    The above considerations still apply, and it would seem therefore that Australia should support the aims of the Irish resolution only if the 'key-to-the-cupboard'3 arrangements, and their possible applicability to Australia, are not impaired. Defence have expressed some concern over the phrase 'and from otherwise attempting to acquire them' at the end of paragraph (3) since this wording is general enough to be interpreted as excluding the stationing of nuclear weapons and missiles abroad with the supplier retaining control.

  3. In addition the resolution appears to be contrary to the Australian Defence principle4 that Disarmament commitments should not be entered into without prior assurance of effective verification, inspection and control. The United Kingdom argues that in this field inspection and control is not feasible and that to insist on it only serves 'to bring the law into contempt'.
  4. As we informed the United Kingdom in a commentary on their Aide Memoire of 24th August, 19605

    'It may be that this principle does not operate fully in the particular case of an undertaking not to transfer or manufacture nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, to allow an exception to the Western principle in this case, even given the probable impossibility of effective control, might be exploited by the Soviet Union as a precedent and place the West at a disadvantage in future disarmament negotiations. In the first place it might be taken as indicating a willingness to pronounce on the feasibility or otherwise of control over a particular disarmament measure without the benefit of prior technical study; and secondly, it might be taken as committing us to the position that whenever it was felt (or known as a result of joint study) that control was impossible, it would be appropriate to enter into a declaratory undertaking'.

  5. If effective control and inspection of a ban on the transfer of nuclear weapons are not possible, insistence on these prerequisites will not help us to prevent China from acquiring either weapons or knowledge. Western support of a declaratory resolution might even afford Russia the opportunity of making a similar declaration and thus bolster Russian resistance (which UK claims to exist) to Chinese demands. However, account should be taken of the fact that Communist China would not in any way be bound by the resolution.
  6. United States, Canada, France and Italy are all expected to abstain from voting. These countries have objections to entering a disarmament commitment without guarantees of effective verification, inspection and control. They also, in varying degrees, share our doubts about the effect of the Irish resolution on the 'key to the cupboard' arrangements.
  7. Our delegation is at present instructed to 'oppose any draft resolution which would have the effect of prohibiting the stationing of nuclear weapons in other countries with the supplier retaining control—e.g. United States “key to the cupboard” arrangements in the United Kingdom and Europe in support of NATO'. It would seem preferable for them to join the United States and Canada in abstaining on the text as it now stands.
  8. It is therefore recommended that, unless amendments are adopted which the United States accept as ensuring that the applicability of the 'key to the cupboard' arrangements is not impaired, the Australian delegation should abstain from voting. A draft telegram to the Delegation in New York is attached.

[NAA: A1838, 919/14/1 part 1]