In March this year, the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, along with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Richard Marles, unveiled a $368-billion-dollar plan detailing Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines over the next thirty years (Office of the Prime Minister 2023). The plan is part of AUKUS, a trilateral security coalition formed by the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia (White House 2021). Weeks after the plan was unveiled, over 100 Australian scholars expressed their concern over AUKUS and urged the Albanese government to rethink its commitment to developing nuclear-powered submarine capabilities (Open Letter 2023).

The letter outlines some obvious issues: the exorbitant cost of nuclear-powered submarines, heightened risk and instability for the Indo-Pacific region, and the rollback of non-nuclear-proliferation efforts. The letter also underscores that the government has failed to explain how AUKUS will specifically translate into a safer Australia and that it distracts from addressing the climate crisis, which represents a significantly more relevant and tangible threat for Australians and the rest of the world.

Several other issues remain unaddressed in the letter.

Firstly, AUKUS represents not only a security and economic calamity but also a threat to feminist peace in Australia and the Indo-Pacific region in general.

By fostering militarisation and embracing nuclear power, AUKUS is a giant step backward in the struggle to advance feminist, antimilitarist disarmament.

Further, the rationale for AUKUS rests on unsound claims that developing a larger arsenal of longer-range weapons will “make us safer.” In their book, the Director of WILPF’s Reaching Critical Will program, Ray Acheson, writes that “the association of weapons with power is one of the foremost obstacles to disarmament […] this association is gendered” (Acheson 2021:26). The mission for disarmament is thus part of the core feminist mission to undo patriarchy.

In fact, AUKUS is the first time a provision from the 1968 non-nuclear proliferation treaty has been used to transfer nuclear technology from a nuclear weapons state to a non-nuclear weapons state (Doherty and Hurst 2023). This sets a precedent for removing nuclear fuel from international oversight and safeguards, threatening the stability of the current nuclear regime. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an international non-profit organization that won the 2017 Nobel peace prize, condemned Australia’s decision to buy and build nuclear-powered submarines, explaining it is a major risk and a potential precursor for Australia to acquire nuclear weapons in the future (Doherty and Hurst 2023).

Secondly, AUKUS will lead to more radioactive waste on Australian land, which has historically had racist and colonialist implications for Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal populations.

Australia has had a long history of being used as a nuclear testing site and, therefore, as a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

Between 1952 and 1963, the British government, with the agreement and support of the Australian government, carried out two major trials and several other “minor” trials (National Archives of Australia 2023). Overall, the United Kingdom carried out 45 tests in Australia on Indigenous territory. These tests had deeply negative consequences for Indigenous communities. “Islanders were removed from their villages, stopped from using traditional fishing areas and eating traditional foods because of ongoing contamination” (Acheson 2021:34). Moreover, Aboriginal people were stopped from accessing their lands and ancient travel routes. In a statement to the negotiations of the nuclear weapons ban, thirty-five Indigenous groups described how governments and colonial forces poisoned their soil, food, river, and oceans, believing they were “worthless” (Acheson 2021: 35).

AUKUS is the continuation of nuclear waste buildup in Australia. Although the nuclear reactors used to power AUKUS submarines will not be built in Australia, the government has committed to managing all of the radioactive waste generated by the submarines (Doherty and Hurst 2023).

The government has not yet announced how and where radioactive waste will be disposed of. Nonetheless, it is crucial to acknowledge the racist and colonialist past of nuclear waste in Australia, as well as the implications it will have on the health and well-being of underprivileged populations.

Finally, the decision to invest almost $400 billion dollars to buy and develop nuclear submarines is financially irresponsible and fundamentally unethical. According to an analysis by The Guardian, in the next ten years, the Australian government will spend $58 billion dollars on the AUKUS submarines. As a reference, for $48 billion dollars, the Australian government could increase rent assistance by 30%, pay early childhood educators 20% more, raise carer payments to $88 a day (Hurst and Borger 2023). These figures are deeply concerning at a time when global military spending is at an all-time high, while the climate crisis continues to go unaddressed. A 2022 report by the Transnational Institute found that wealthy nations, including Australia, spend 30 times more on their militaries than climate action. As a result, AUKUS is a false solution that diverts resources away from the more important and urgent issues that affect ordinary Australians in their everyday lives.

For years, WILPF has debunked the myth that militarisation creates a safer world, showing that more weapons and arms invariably lead to more violence, instability, and gender inequality (WILPF 2023).

WILPF Australia calls on feminists and Australians to voice their opposition to AUKUS and create awareness of the risks it poses to gender justice, racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice.

To learn more, the WILPF International Secretariat suggests the following materials (WILPF 2023):

Listen Think & Resist: What about WPS and Disarmament?to and learn more about the intersection between the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda and disarmament.

Read Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy by Ray Acheson, and explore how dismantling nuclear weapons and challenging patriarchal structures go hand in hand.

Watch How gender relates to arms control and disarmament and dive into the gender (im)balance in arms control and disarmament, as well as the relevance of gender as an analytical perspective in international security discussions.

Watch Patriarchal Structures in Disarmament and investigate the rhetoric and power structures that underpin the disarmament discourse.

For well over 100 years, people of marginalised genders in Australia have been leading the call for peace. We will continue to work for feminist peace, but we can’t do it without your help