Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

  The government's White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent, is an inadequate and pedestrian response to the enormous security challenges facing Britain and the world today. It lacks any vision of how Britain can help take steps to shape the future security context, passively clinging to old arguments and justifications. It recognises neither the opportunities that are presented by new thinking on nuclear weapons in the post-cold war framework, nor the threats that are posed—and indeed exacerbated—by continuing its nuclear policy in the same old way. The White Paper also misrepresents both Britain's obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the position of the International Court of Justice on the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons. These points are explored in greater detail below.

1.   How the government fails to take steps to shape the future security context

  The government argues that it is necessary to retain nuclear weapons for the purpose of "Insuring against an Uncertain Future". The White Paper outlines an appalling string of possibilities, including: the re-emergence of a major nuclear threat; the emergence of more nuclear states; the possibility of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism; wider instability owing to weak and failing states; resource crises over energy and water; problems due to population growth, rapid economic development and climate change. Rather than looking to find ways to solve these problems, the government concludes that it is therefore necessary to go ahead with a new nuclear weapons system. But this decision will do nothing to reduce the risk of these terrible things happening. On the contrary it is a policy that will increase the risk it claims to wish to prevent, promoting a new nuclear arms race, and reinforcing the notion that building more weapons of mass destruction provides security. Many people have come to the view that a new approach is necessary. Many from across the party spectrum in Britain, who have strongly supported nuclear weapons in the past, have concluded that they are no longer relevant. This is also the case internationally. One of the most significant recent statements on this issue comes from the US, from Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state 1973-77, George Shultz, former US secretary of state 1982-89, William Perry, former US defence secretary 1994-97, and Sam Nunn, former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They note the current proliferation dangers and argue that "the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era". But they do not use this as an argument for the US developing new nuclear systems. Rather they argue that:

    "Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historic opportunity. US leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage—to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world."1

  They argue that there is an urgent need for a rekindling of the vision of Reagan and Gorbachev for a nuclear weapons free world, and for a consensus on practical steps to bring this about. Indeed, they outline several concrete proposals to work towards achieving the twin goals of disarmament and non-proliferation. This is clearly a path that can be pursued to help shape the future security context, rather than contributing to an escalation of nuclear tension and proliferation and then waiting for an inevitable nuclear conflict. But we do not get any inkling of this type of vision from our own government, in spite of its professed commitment to its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We hear from the Prime Minister, in his foreword to the White Paper, that "None of the present recognised nuclear weapons States intends to renounce nuclear weapons, in the absence of an agreement to disarm multilaterally". There seems to be no comprehension that Britain could itself takes steps to promote such a development. CND and others have pressed the government to support Hans Blix's proposal for a global summit on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, but this has not received a positive response. Proposals that Britain should give its support to the draft Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban nuclear weapons, lodged at the UN, are also turned down on the basis that this would cut across our NPT commitments. The logic is hard to follow. It appears that the government does not want to shape a different future, to find a way to promote a disarmament process, of which a decision not to replace Trident could be part. Through its short-sighted actions, the government is contributing to nuclear escalation and eventual nuclear war.


    —  To initiate a Global Summit on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

    —  To support the draft Nuclear Weapons Convention, lodged at the United Nations.

2.   How the government contributes to proliferation

  When the government makes its "Responses to Counter-Arguments", it fails to address one of the most compelling arguments against Trident replacement—that it will encourage nuclear proliferation. This point was made last year by Kofi Annan, who linked the failure to disarm with the danger of nuclear proliferation: "the more that those states that already have [nuclear weapons] increase their arsenals, or insist that such weapons are essential to their national security, the more other states feel that they too must have them for their security".2 This point has also been made by Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat, "If some nations—including the most powerful militarily—say that they need nuclear weapons for their security, then such security cannot be denied to other countries which really feel insecure. Proliferation of nuclear weapons is the logical consequence of this nuclear policy."3

  The failure of the nuclear weapons states to comply with their obligations under the NPT—taken together with an apparent orientation towards nuclear use by some of these states—has the real potential to create a tendency towards proliferation. This also exposes the nonsense of the deterrence argument, the logic of which is that all states need nuclear weapons to protect themselves. Kissinger et al also draw attention to the problems caused by the failure of the nuclear weapons states to take steps to comply with their treaty obligations:

    "The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) envisioned the end of all nuclear weapons. It provides (a) that states that did not possess nuclear weapons as of 1967 agree not to obtain them, and (b) that states that do possess them agree to divest themselves of these weapons over time. Every president of both parties since Richard Nixon has reaffirmed these treaty obligations, but non-nuclear weapons states have grown increasingly sceptical of the sincerity of the nuclear powers."4

  It is vital that sincere initiatives are taken, by the nuclear weapons states, towards disarmament, otherwise non-nuclear weapons states may conclude that there is no reason for them to stick to their side of the NPT bargain.


    —  To take a decision not to replace Trident and instead genuinely to pursue global disarmament initiatives.

3.   How the government misrepresents Britain's obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

  The White Paper describes Britain as a "recognised" nuclear weapons state as if this is some kind of legally accepted status. Actually, the term "nuclear weapons states" is just the way the NPT defined those states that had tested nuclear weapons before 1967, for the purposes of the Treaty. This is part of an ongoing attempt to reinterpret the NPT to suggest that the nuclear weapons states are somehow legally entitled by that Treaty to possess nuclear weapons. In November 2003, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon stated: "Under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, China and Russia are legally entitled to possess nuclear weapons".5 This is nonsense. In fact, what that the nuclear weapons states are actually legally obliged to do, under the NPT, is work towards the elimination of their nuclear weapons.

  Article VI of the NPT states:

    "Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

  This requirement was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, with the addition of the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals".

  Yet the White Paper states that "The UK's retention of a nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with our international legal obligations." However, recent legal opinion makes it clear that a replacement of Trident would not be acceptable under the NPT. In 2005, Peacerights sought a legal opinion from Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin on "The Maintenance and Possible Replacement of the Trident Nuclear Missile System". In their opinion, the replacement of Trident is likely to constitute a breach of Article VI of the NPT:

    "Enhancing nuclear weapons systems, possibly without going through parliamentary processes, is, in our view, not conducive to entering into negotiations for disarmament as required by the NPT, article VI and evinces no intention to `bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects'. It is difficult to see how unilateral (or bilateral) action that pre-empts any possibility of an outcome of disarmament can be defined as pursuing negotiations in good faith and to bring them to a conclusion and is, in our view, thereby in violation of the NPT, article VI obligation".

  Singh and Chinkin further hold the opinion that such a breach would be a material breach of the treaty:

    "The linkage between the principles of non-proliferation and the obligation to negotiate towards disarmament shown by the negotiation history...indicate that Article VI is a provision `essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.' The non-nuclear weapon states required commitments from the nuclear weapon states as part of their willingness to accept non-nuclear status under the NPT and failure to comply with article VI thus, in our view, constitutes material breach."6

  The final sentence quoted further indicates the significance of compliance with the disarmament requirements of the NPT. As explained in the previous section, for the nuclear weapons states to do otherwise will have a negative impact on the compliance of non-nuclear weapons states with the non-proliferation requirements of the NPT.


    —  To comply with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and begin negotiations in good faith towards disarmament, starting with a decision not to replace Trident.

4.   How the government misrepresents the position of the International Court of Justice on the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons

  The White Paper's comments on the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice misrepresent the Court's position. The White Paper states that the ICJ "delivered an Advisory Opinion which confirmed that the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons is subject to the laws of armed conflict, and rejected the argument that such use would necessarily be unlawful." In fact, the Court stated that "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be generally contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law."7

  Within the team of judges there was some difference of view over the implications of the right to self-defence enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Nevertheless, 10 of the 14 judges came to the conclusion that the existing body of international law governing the conduct of armed conflict would make the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons illegal. The Court gave "no opinion" on whether the use of nuclear weapons might be legal in a situation of extreme self-defence where the existence of the state was threatened. The judges differed in their views on this, in a scenario, for example, where a state is under attack from weapons of mass destruction. Three judges considered nuclear weapons to be unlawful regardless of Article 51, because a state so defending itself would be in open violation of the cardinal principles of international law, causing "immeasurable suffering" to civilian populations.

  The White Paper states, "The threshold for the legitimate use of nuclear weapons is clearly a high one. We would only consider using nuclear weapons in self-defence (including the defence of our NATO allies), and even then only in extreme circumstances." But it is clear from the ICJ opinion that the threshold for lawfulness, if such a concept is even feasible, is much higher than any suggested within the White Paper. The government must be absolutely clear about this, for statements, such as that by Geoff Hoon when Defence Secretary in the run up to the war on Iraq, on the possible use of nuclear weapons, was clearly referring to a use of nuclear weapons which would be illegal. In recent years the government appears to have abandoned its commitment to "negative security assurances"—not to use nuclear weapons against countries without them—and this commitment must now be restored.

  The White Paper also ignores the ruling which the ICJ also made at the same time, which states:

    "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control."


    —  To acknowledge that under virtually—if not all—circumstances, the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons is illegal.

    —  To reaffirm Britain's commitment to "negative security assurances".

    —  To reject any "first use" or "pre-emptive use" policy for nuclear weapons.

    —  To comply with the ICJ ruling on negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.

NOTES  1  Kissinger, Henry A, Shultz, George P, Perry, William J, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons." The Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2007.

  2  Kofi Annan speaking at the UN 60th anniversary event, London, January 2006.

  3  Joseph Rotblat, Science and Nuclear Weapons: Where do we go from here? The Blackaby Papers, no 5, Dec 2004, p 7.

  4  Kissinger et al, op cit.

  5  Geoff Hoon, House of Commons, 20 November 2003.

  6  Peacrights, The Maintenance and Possible Replacement of the Trident Missile System, joint opinion, Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin, 19 December 2005.

  7  International Court of Justice, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, 8 July 1996.

12 January 2007

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 7 March 2007