Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

 Submission by World Court Project UK

  World Court Project UK is part of an international citizens' network which worked for the 8 July 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal status of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. Since then it has worked to raise awareness of this Opinion and its implications in the UK and internationally, and to have it implemented.

  1.  This submission will concern itself only with the Committee's request for views on the effectiveness of the current rules-based international system in curbing current weapons proliferation.

  2.  Since the end of the Cold War the public's fear of nuclear weapons has diminished and they only feature on the political agenda sporadically. But nuclear weapons have not gone away. Arsenals have been slimmed down but there are still about 26,000 of them, enough to destroy all the cities of the earth many times over. In many ways the situation has become more dangerous and urgent since the end of the Cold War. This is because:

    —  nuclear weapons are no longer a last resort. The nuclear-armed states now see them as a way of responding to and even pre-empting chemical, biological and other vaguely defined threats or attacks,

    —   the nuclear club is growing. First there was the U.S. By 1968 Russia, U.K., France and China had joined. Then came Israel, India, Pakistan and possibly North Korea. Now additional states could decide to go nuclear and terrorists groups may well have nuclear ambitions.

  3.  World Court Project UK believes that the only rational way forward is the global abolition of nuclear weapons under the law. We are not alone in this. It has long been the policy of all three political parties and several senior statesmen, across the political spectrum, have recently reinvigorated the call for global abolition.

  4.  We already have a framework for abolition. In 1996 the ICJ provided legal advice on nuclear weapons for the UN General Assembly. This made it quite clear that:

    —  the threat or use of nuclear weapons, would, as a general rule, violate International Humanitarian Law—the customs and treaties accepted by states as a way of limiting the suffering of war, especially to civilians. We argue that because of their enormous and unpredictable explosive, heat, and radiation effects no one launching a nuclear strike could reliably foresee whether it would be lawful or not. As the ICJ stated, nuclear weapons cannot be contained in space or time,

    —  there is a "Good Faith" obligation to achieve the global abolition of nuclear weapons. The ICJ concluded that:

    "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."

  5.  This obligation is closely linked with the basic illegality of nuclear weapons and their threat or use. A binding global framework for a nuclear weapon-free world would put nuclear weapons beyond the bounds of legality once and for all.

  6.  Since 1968 nearly every state has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This defined the five states, the U.S. France, China, Russia and the U.K., which had nuclear weapons at that time as the "Nuclear-Weapon States". Almost all the other states—the Non-Nuclear Weapon States—have also signed up to the Treaty. The only important exceptions are Israel, Pakistan and India which do have nuclear weapons but have not entered the NPT, and North Korea which left the Treaty but could rejoin as a result of current negotiations.

  7.  The NPT has three equally important aims which reinforce each other.

    —  preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons,

    —  controlling the use of materials such as plutonium and uranium for nuclear power to ensure that they are not used for nuclear weapons manufacture,

    —  the global abolition of nuclear weapons.

  8.  The 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the NPT adopted the Statement of Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament which included the "determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon states of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons… ."

  9.  The 2000 Review Conference built on the Principles and Objectives and reinforced the ICJ Opinion. All 187 NPT states agreed on 13 Practical Steps. These showed how Article VI of the NPT should be interpreted and applied. The Thirteen Steps included verified reductions, further efforts by the Nuclear-Weapon States to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally, removing nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, and reducing their importance in security policies. This would minimise the risk that nuclear weapons would ever be used, and prepare the way for their total elimination. These steps must be irreversible. There must be no going back on them. Above all, the 13 Practical Steps included an "unequivocal undertaking" by the Nuclear-Weapon States "to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament …"

  10.  The Chair's Paper at the end of the 2007 NPT Preparatory Committee recorded that most states were concerned that thousands of nuclear weapons were still deployed. They called for full implementation of the 13 Practical Steps. Failure to comply with Article VI of the NPT could undermine both non-proliferation and disarmament.

  11.  The Court's strong statement of the Good Faith obligation is based on NPT Article VI:

    "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."

  12.  There have been claims that Article VI was only a vague commitment to negotiation. The ICJ firmly rejected this view. It said that negotiations must be pursued in Good Faith and brought to a conclusion. Just negotiating is not enough. There must be a result—global nuclear disarmament. The fulfillment of this obligation is a Convention, or a series of interlocking instruments, banning the development, possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. The Court's Opinion implies that the obligation applies to all states, not just the NPT ones and would therefore necessarily involve India, Pakistan and Israel.

  13.  Furthermore, the Court's Opinion firmly rejected the claim that nuclear disarmament is legally dependent on "complete and general disarmament". The final paragraph treats of nuclear disarmament and nuclear disarmament only. We recognize that there is certainly a contingent connection between general and nuclear disarmament. Both processes reinforce each other. However, if we had to wait for a general disarmament treaty before negotiating nuclear abolition, nuclear weapons would be with us for generations.

  14.  There is no substance in the claim sometimes made by Nuclear Weapons States that the NPT "recognises" the nuclear weapons status of the nuclear-armed states. It only notes the fact that they do, indeed, possess them, but that is only a temporary situation which must be brought to an end.

  15.  The "Good Faith" obligation is the heart of the matter. In our view this means negotiating sincerely and flexibly to achieve the desired result—global nuclear disarmament. The objective must be pursued consistently with political will. It means considering proposals from the other side, and re-examining one's own position. The conclusion should be reached within a reasonable time-frame and the parties must avoid policies which contradict the very purpose of the negotiations.


  In its National Security Strategy the UK Government refers to "the effectiveness of the current rules-based international system in curbing current weapons proliferation." The forgoing reflects our understanding of what such a system entails.

  The Strategy lays considerable emphasis on counter-proliferation, but the references to disarmament do not go far enough. We recognise the value of pursuing negotiations towards a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but can find little reference to irreversible steps to be taken by the UK towards a reduction in the salience of its nuclear weapons.

  However, we welcome the statement in the Security Strategy that "In the run up to the 2010 NPT review conference, we will lead the international effort to accelerate disarmament among possessor states, in pursuit of our objective of a negotiated elimination of all nuclear weapons. We have offered to host a technical conference for the five NPT Nuclear Weapons States on the verification of nuclear disarmament." However, as far as detail is concerned, it mentions only the offer to host a technical conference for the five NPT Nuclear Weapons States on the verification of nuclear disarmament. Valuable as this is, it is only one of the international initiatives that the UK could provide.

  The UK Government should:

    (a) emphasise that the global abolition of nuclear weapons is a legally binding obligation on all states and avoid any suggestion that the treaty confers the right on any state to possess nuclear weapons. It should also make it quite clear that the negotiation of their abolition is legally independent of complete and general disarmament,

    (b) ask itself whether it is complying with its Good Faith obligations by retaining the option to retain its policy of nuclear deterrence for the next generation by replacing Trident and upgrading work at Aldermaston and Faslane to achieve this,

    (c) unilaterally carry out irreversible measures which would make nuclear deterrence less relevant in its security policy. Examples include taking Trident off continuous patrol, separating warheads from their delivery systems and renouncing the policy of nuclear first-use by NATO,

    (d) take account of the urgent need to achieve global abolition. Although the NPT does not refer to a time-bound framework, Good Faith requires implementation of the disarmament obligation within a reasonable period; and the Treaty was signed forty years ago,

    (e) devote considerable resources to taking a lead, at the highest level, in starting negotiations for the global abolition of nuclear weapons in order to comply with the obligations of the NPT as confirmed by the ICJ,

    (f) clarify, in detail, the claim constantly made by ministers that negotiations for a Convention would undermine the NPT. This seems to contradict the statement in the Security Strategy that UK "will lead the international effort to accelerate disarmament among possessor states, in pursuit of our objective of a negotiated elimination of all nuclear weapons",

    (g) provide a more comprehensive account of what "achieving a positive outcome from the 2010 NPT Review Conference" (as referred to in the Security Strategy) would actually comprise,

We believe that these recommendations are ultimately consistent with the government's declared policies.

September 2008

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