Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-134)


16 JANUARY 2007

  Q120  Mr Hancock: If there was a definitive clause in the White Paper which said, "Under no circumstances would the United Kingdom use a nuclear weapon as a first strike device", would any of you then suggest that it was right to maintain it as a deterrent? Is there any proof that we have breached any of the non-proliferation treaties that we have signed up for? I do not believe we have. We have not assisted any country in manufacturing a nuclear weapon. Thirdly, under what circumstances would it be conceivable, in your view, for Britain to retain a nuclear deterrent?

  Mr Kent: In my view, I think the British nuclear deterrent is quite unacceptable, for all sorts of reasons. I do not think it gives us any security.

  Q121  Mr Jenkin: So these legal arguments are completely irrelevant?

  Mr Kent: No, they are highly relevant.

  Q122  Mr Jenkin: But your position does not rest on the legal argument.

  Mr Kent: We are talking about two things. One is British nuclear weapons and the other is the obligation to negotiate.

  Q123  Mr Hancock: We have not breached any treaty, have we, because we have not assisted any country—unless you have evidence to the contrary—to develop a nuclear weapon of their own?

  Ms McDonald: I think we have to look at how we collaborate with the United States over nuclear weapons, and that was done by undermining the commitments already made by both countries to the NPT, by setting up the Mutual Defence Agreement in 1958 to change that; so I think we have reneged on our commitment not to work with another government on nuclear weapons. The other thing about this is that it comes back to this idea of an insurance policy. An insurance policy must be recommended for all, everyone, not just for a few, and so to pursue that insurance analogy would be to accept that every country was entitled to have it. There are big problems by not giving the recognition and the weight that is due to the NPT and to the countries who have tried to maintain it, the countries who have set up the 13 steps, the whole NPT meetings that there have been over the last ten years. Being an initiator and supporter of disarmament negotiations, it seems to me, would give a very big signal to the rest of the world of Britain's intentions, and those are the intentions we wish to foster. Of course it would take quite a long time to disarm the present nuclear system anyway, and taking them off patrol would be the first step. These things are all staged, but I would like to go back, since you ask questions about the law. The ICJ 1996 judgment came out of previous law, and I am not a lawyer, but the previous law, the Geneva Convention and all the other laws that they looked at to come to their conclusion, was to do with not threatening or killing non-combatants, and the whole point about nuclear weapons (perhaps we just take it for granted) but which needs to be said so many times in the public domain, is that it kills everybody and for a long time afterwards with the radiation effects as well and you would only need four to completely obliterate what is presently a `rogue state'. So it is a very dangerous game that is being played out, and it is getting more dangerous and, with the more complicated computer controls and the size of the chips getting smaller and smaller, the potential for mistake or accident, apart from all the other accidents, for example on the M6, with nuclear weapons outside Preston, people are very well aware if they know about it, but it is not common knowledge, and one of the things that the Government, and certainly this Committee, perhaps can help do is to educate the public more about what nuclear weapons mean.

  Chairman: I am grateful to you because you have brought us back to the legality issue which I want to concentrate for the moment on through Bernard Jenkin, then Mr Ainslie, I will call on you, then John Smith, then Linda Gilroy. We were getting a little away from it.

  Mr Jenkin: I want to make one last point. To quote from the Rabinder Singh and Professor Chinkin Opinion, which has been obtained for CND, paragraph 74: "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 6 and evinces no intention to `bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament' in all its aspects." I would submit that that is a political opinion. That is not a legal opinion, that is a political judgment, and it is perfectly arguable for the Government to say that the best way of bringing to a conclusion disarmament negotiations is for us to maintain a minimum deterrent so that we have a chip on the table to negotiate with. The point is that this is not a legal question; it is a political question.

  Q124  Chairman: Mr Ainslie, would you like to comment.

  Mr Ainslie: The point I was going to make was to reinforce Di's thing about the legal and moral issues. The two are not separate; the legal thing is based on the same fundamental point. The ICJ Opinion includes Judge Weeramantry's long dissenting Opinion. That is going through how different cultures, different religions are all pointing to the same conclusion that say the threat of the use of nuclear weapons is illegal. It is not just using the legal arguments, it is also using the moral arguments, and it is there in the ICJ Opinion itself.

  Q125  Chairman: Except the ICJ Opinion does not actually say that upgrading a nuclear weapons system is in breach of the obligation to negotiate—

  Mr Ainslie: When I am saying "Opinion", the Opinion includes all the dissenting opinions.

  Ms Jones: May I make a couple of remarks about this. One is that the NPT, although it is a treaty, is a very weak instrument, and, of course, it was politically constructed at a very specific time.

  Q126  Chairman: As treaties tend to be.

  Ms Jones: As treaties tend to be. It is also a treaty without a treaty body where states are under no obligation to report on their performance. Some of the questions that we have raised previously in this debate about can we show whether Britain has progressed towards negotiating good faith towards nuclear disarmament are not actually set against any standards to which all states are required to respond, both nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons; so maybe it would be a useful thing if we were to try and measure this progress that the UK is apparently making towards disarmament. The other thing is a mixture of politics and semantics. When you say "enhancing a nuclear weapon therefore cannot be seen as a violation of the treaty", because the treaty is loosely worded and because we use words like "enhancement" or "replacement", the image that is given here is of somebody who is just popping out to get a new car which has got the latest refinements in it, and that argument is so disingenuous. What we are going to have to do is to get rid of one nuclear weapons system and replace it with another. It is a new generation of nuclear weapons. Whatever the language they use, it will be able to do its job more efficiently, it will be better targeted, it will have a higher efficiency, it will be apparently safer, we understand, which seems to be a contradiction in terms of nuclear weapons. The net result is the same. We will have a "better" weapons system for the indiscriminate use against civilians, which is a fundamental prohibition under any form of international law. So we can use the semantics, we can use the arguments, but basically this needs testing in some legal form, and we know the only way of testing the legality of nuclear weapons would be post facto, and I certainly do not want to see an International Criminal Court addressing the issue of whether it was unlawful for us to use nuclear weapons because I think we might not be in a position to make reasoned and legal judgments, and so we have to look at the law in advance acknowledging the political context in which that law has been constructed.

  Linda Gilroy: The whole tenor of the way in which we have been discussing this issue and the most recent debate about the legalities has been very pessimistic, perhaps understandably so given the pressure that the NTP is under, but I wonder if at this stage in our proceedings you would want to express any positive views towards what the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been able to achieve, and may yet still be able to achieve, given that countries in the beginning were so pessimistic about the possibility of it succeeding that there was difficulty in them signing up, that there was a 25-year time limit on it so that people could have a get-out clause and in 1995 it was renewed, and that perhaps we should have just a little bit of trust that Britain, having reached a minimum deterrent status, should not at this stage express a unilateral commitment to disarm against the background of the debate we are having; and that is very important to the way in which we look at the legal issues that Bernard Jenkin has been putting before you.

  Q127  Chairman: That is a long question. Can you try to make it a snappy answer?

  Mr Kent: I think, certainly, the NPT has probably prevented other countries from developing nuclear weapons. That is very positive. It is under great threat. The Americans have just signed a treaty negotiating nuclear technology with India, though India has never signed the NPT and it has now got nuclear weapons. So there are grave threats going on to the NPT but its positive achievements, I think, have to be acknowledged.

  Q128  Linda Gilroy: It has been far more successful than most people thought it could be at the time that this was all started.

  Mr Kent: Indeed, so.

  Q129  Chairman: Can I ask you one final question about legality. Accepting your view for the purposes of this argument that Britain is in breach of its duties already to negotiate and to disarm generally and accepting your view that there is a different issue about the life extension of Trident, if this decision by the Government were limited to the replacement of the submarines, the platform from which these weapons are fired, is that any reason to suggest that that decision itself would be illegal?

  Mr Ainslie: I can answer this probably in terms of the timescale that we are talking about here. We are extending our nuclear capability for a long time into the future, and that is really sending this message.

  Chairman: That is a different issue, sending messages and all of that. Is it illegal to replace a submarine?

  Mr Hancock: There are two things, not the missile, the weapons.

  Q130  Chairman: What is the answer?

  Mr Kent: I would think probably not, but the legality requires the negotiations. That is where the issue is.

  Q131  Chairman: And that is a different issue, but replacing the submarines as such is not illegal?

  Mr Kent: I am not a lawyer, but I would think that a case could be made that it was not illegal, just the submarine.

  Q132  John Smith: You are all experienced campaigners. The White Paper has now been published. The Government has clearly declared its preference. Are you winning the argument? Are you winning the hearts and minds of people following publication of this White Paper or are you disappointed in the level of public interest and support. I must tell you that, as far as I understand it, this is the first formal public hearing since the White Paper was published and the attendance is very sparse.

  Mr Kent: I am disappointed and encouraged. We have been through a period where nobody was interested at all in these matters. I spoke in Hexham on Saturday to 250 people, in Dorchester to 250 people. There is an interest. I have never been asked to write for the Yorkshire Post before and I am doing a feature article. There is a growing interest in this issue. We are nothing like "Make Poverty History" of two years ago, nothing like it, but there is a serious interest growing.

  Q133  John Smith: And the CND of the 1980s?

  Mr Kent: Not quite, no, not yet.

  Mr Ainslie: I think in terms of the Scottish perspective, I always wear two hats. I am involved with the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament but there is another group, which is Scotland for Peace, which is a joint initiative involved with trade unions, and that joint group has taken this issue on and there have been three debates in the Scottish Parliament.

  Q134  Chairman: As I understand it, this session has been live on Sky, so we have reached an audience of billions. If there are no further questions, may I say thank you very much indeed to the witnesses and to the Committee for becoming genuinely engaged in what has become a very interesting issue.

  Mr Kent: Can we thank you for the opportunity.

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