Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-35)



  Q20 Andrew Mackinlay: Are both of you satisfied with what South Africa had developed? Has the security of that been accounted for? More difficult is the intellectual property surrounding its programme. You said how Khan sold stuff, which is obviously a major thing. What happened to the people who were developing the programme in South Africa? What happened to their information and the things themselves?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: South Africa deserves a great deal of credit in two regards. First, its co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, when it disabled its facilities, was so thorough that the IAEA was able to conclude that, yes, everything had been disposed of. In terms of the intellectual property, there were cases when people involved with the South African programme then got involved with the A. Q. Khan network.

  The second way that I would compliment South Africa is that it took judicial action against those individuals who got caught up in the Khan network, and imposed penalties more severe than any other country imposed on people involved in the Khan network. They were also very transparent in all this, with regard to bringing all the evidence forward to the world. In this case, other countries could take a model from South Africa.

  Q21 Chairman: Can I go back to the Pakistan and India question? What arrangements are there for a hotline, consultation or crisis management between India and Pakistan, so that we do not get the potential world—or nuclear—war between them that we had a few years ago?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: Pakistan and India have had several agreements over the years to try to create such crisis management mechanisms—to create hotlines and to have procedures for the pre-notification of missile tests and force deployments. But it is fair to say that these have not all been implemented to the degree to which they were first proposed. The case of 2002, when the two came so close to the possibility of a nuclear exchange that certain embassies in New Delhi sent staff home, out of the country, indicates that there is still much more to be done. I am sorry; I do not have a very detailed answer.

  Chairman: If you have any information, perhaps you could send us a note on it.[2] Clearly, it is a relevant issue for future stability, not just for that region—there are wider implications.

  Q22 Mr. Horam: As you know, some experts whom we have heard evidence from question the value of arms control treaties and disarmament and the whole multilateral rules-based approach led by international institutions. They say that adversarial regimes will ignore all that anyway and that benevolent regimes are not a threat. Do you see any value in that criticism?

  Professor Chalmers: I think that there is a point, but it can be taken too far. As I explained in my submission, there is clearly a relationship between international politics on the one hand and arms control on the other. To come back to the first question that was asked by the Chairman, it is not possible in current circumstances to envisage the abolition of nuclear weapons. There is a co-dependent relationship between politics and arms control. However, it is not the case that arms control cannot help that political process or aid the reduction of tensions between states that have a relationship that is somewhere between total amity and total hostility.

  I think that that characterises a number of the relationships in today's world, so arms control can play a role in increasing trust, but if you put too much weight on it and do not address some of the fundamental underlying political issues, there is a severe limit to how far you can go. India and Pakistan are a good example of that. If you want to tackle the India-Pakistan nuclear issue, you have to tackle the issue of Kashmir and Pakistan's perception that it is a state under threat of dismemberment by India, however justified or not that perception might be.

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I would add that a rules-based system is important for establishing norms. Even with states that we might call adversarial or rule-breakers, it constrains some of their abilities, and when they break rules, there are consequences. However, any rules-based approach needs to be supplemented by practical measures, such as those led by the United States in the proliferation security initiative—the PSI—to improve the capabilities of respective nations to be able to interdict shipments of illicit weapons when the rules have broken down. I would not put all my emphasis on the rules, but neither would I put it all on practical measures. A multi-layered approach is the best way forward.

  Q23 Mr. Horam: So you both think that the present approach is correct? You would certainly use that approach as part of your advance on this topic, but does the present approach have real weaknesses? Are there things about it that you would like to improve?

  Professor Chalmers: There have been weaknesses. There was an opportunity lost at the end of the cold war, when the political dynamic between the US and the Soviet Union ended. There was a dramatic transformation in the relationship between NATO and the then Warsaw pact conventional forces in Europe, but there was not a similar transformation in relation to nuclear weapons. Now, 18 years after the end of the cold war, one of the things that is quite remarkable is that the US and Russia still have thousands of nuclear weapons on five or 10 minute-alert to destroy the silos and cities of the other, as if nothing has changed politically. There is a disconnect between the military side and the political side.

  We are now in a phase in which relationships with Russia have taken a turn for the worse, but they are not back to cold war times. I think that we would be in a better position politically with Russia today if we had taken the opportunity in the '90s to push much further with dismantling the nuclear infrastructure—not ending it, but getting it down to levels more suitable to a relationship between countries that are not the sort of ideological adversaries that they had been since 1917.

  Q24 Mr. Horam: Do you think that it was feasible to do so, given that old enmities were still quite strong? It is hard to expect people to change so rapidly and see possibilities quite so quickly, is it not?

  Professor Chalmers: Well, counterfactual history is a wonderful thing, but I think that the explanation for the relative lack of progress, although there clearly was some progress, had to do partly with the mindset of those involved in nuclear weapons. One got to the stage, in the early years of the George W. Bush Administration, where things went further backwards and the Administration argued that it was no longer necessary to verify US-Russian strategic treaties, because of the high level of trust. That sounds a bit dubious nowadays. If there had been a push forward with the comprehensive test ban treaty, a verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty and strategic reductions by the US and Russia, I think that we would be in a better position. It would have made some difference to the Russian mindset. We are now seeing the Russians, increasingly and very regrettably, deploying a nuclear card in international rhetoric in a way that deeply concerns other Europeans.

  Q25 Mr. Hamilton: I am well aware of the provisions of the non-proliferation treaty regarding the nations that had nuclear weapons when it was signed, but can either of you comment on the view that we—Great Britain and other nuclear nations—would have a little bit more moral authority in persuading Iran and others who are trying to develop their own independent nuclear weapons facilities if we were not attempting, as the United Kingdom is, to renew the delivery vehicles for our own independent nuclear deterrent?

  Professor Chalmers: That is a very good question. Clearly, there is an inevitable double standard at the heart of the non-proliferation regime. The NPT seeks to address that in article VI and the commitment of the five recognised nuclear weapon states to pursue the goal of ultimate disarmament, but it does not specify what should be done in the meantime. That meantime could be a long one.

  In the case of the UK nuclear force in particular, although I think that this applies to all five, the nature of the nuclear weapons systems is such that they do not last forever. Submarines wear out, in the case that you refer to. A decision never to replace those submarines no matter what happens to disarmament negotiation would effectively be a decision to give up that capability at some stage in the future, which is not something asked for in the NPT. What it means for the UK and other nuclear weapon states is that they have a responsibility, if they do have to maintain their delivery systems in the way that the UK has, to do so in such a way that they are not seen to be increasing their capability qualitatively or quantitatively.

  That is what the UK Government did, to their credit, in the White Paper. One can argue whether they could have done more, but that was basically what they did. Much more so than other nuclear weapon states, the UK went out of its way to explain to non-nuclear weapon states and others why it was going down that route and why, if it becomes possible—if nuclear disarmament makes progress over the next 20 years—it might not be necessary to continue the programme, but we are not there yet.

  Q26 Mr. Hamilton: Do you know, Mr. Fitzpatrick?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I do not think that there is any lack of moral authority in calling on states to adhere to their commitments. Iran signed up to the NPT not to pursue nuclear weapons. The evidence suggests that it did have a nuclear weapons development programme. If one believes the US intelligence agencies, Iran had such a weapons development programme until 2003 and then put it on hold. Whether or not Iran resumed that programme—maybe it did not resume it—apparently it had such a programme, in addition to Iran's violations of its safeguards agreement over 18 years in 14 different ways. There is no reason not to call it to account for that programme. In answer to Mr. Horam's question about the weaknesses of the present system, if the issue is the weaknesses of the NPT, then the weakness is in enforcing the NPT, and bringing countries to account for their violations is one of the major weaknesses.

  Q27 Mr. Hamilton: When we were in Iran a year ago, we asked that very question. You will not be surprised to learn that the response we got from people was that it was quite un-Islamic to weaponise this technology—their religion would not allow it. Anyway, in their own self-interest, they recognised that, had they got those weapons, they would be open to immediate destruction by anybody they cared to point them at, without Iran even firing them, so why would they develop them? It is complete nonsense to suggest that they would. I am not suggesting that I believe every word of that argument, but it is plausible, is it not?

  Iranians look to the UK and they say, as some of our interlocutors did indeed say, "Well, you are just extending the life of your own nuclear weapons." We recognise that that extension is allowable within the NPT, but do you not think that that shows a bit of a double standard?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: With regard to the religious prohibition, as I understand it, the fatwa against the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was issued by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in 2005. One might ask the Iranians this question: if there was a religious prohibition that preceded that, why would they develop these plans and designs for nuclear weapons, missiles and nuclear test facilities and so forth? Previous Iranian leaders are on record talking about nuclear weapons development. I do not underplay the utility of having such a religious prohibition; I think that it establishes an important norm. However, fatwas can change. They could say that the circumstances are different. Therefore, I think that holding Iran to the requirements of the Security Council and new international law to suspend the programmes that create concern is a reasonable approach to take.

  I do not think that Iran would change based on what the United Kingdom does with its own nuclear policy; Iran's pursuit has nothing to do with the United Kingdom.

  Professor Chalmers: I would just like to add briefly to what Mark said, which I agree with. I think that the audience for steps towards nuclear disarmament by the existing nuclear weapons states is more the broader international community of the vast majority of NPT members who are in good standing and are not developing nuclear weapons, to show them that we are in compliance with the treaty and that it is Iran that is not in compliance, rather than to influence Iran's decision making directly.

  Q28 Sir John Stanley: Professor Chalmers, a few moments ago you made a very important but little publicly known point about the extraordinary anomaly—in my view, a grossly irresponsible anomaly—whereby on the one hand we have ended the cold war and on the other hand we have literally thousands of US and Russian nuclear weapons pointed at each other on hairline warning times, measured in minutes. Are you aware of the important work and contribution that has been made by a former Senator, Sam Nunn, in this field? I am sure that you are. Would you like to give the Committee your views on his proposals to extend significantly the warning times at which both American and Russian nuclear weapons are held?

  Professor Chalmers: Yes, I would be delighted to do so. I think that that is a very important area, and one in which quite significant progress could be made rather rapidly. The dangers created by having very short alert times—a situation in which US and Russian forces could be used within 10 minutes of an order being given—mean that there are real dangers, for example, from cyber-attack. One of the things that states do to disrupt other states' nuclear weapons programmes is seek to subvert their communications systems, but that is something that terrorists and hackers could do, given the increasing dependence of states on information technology in relation to these systems. What Sam Nunn and his group of distinguished elder statesmen and associated experts in the United States have proposed is that the US and Russia take their nuclear forces off that hair-trigger alert.

  There are various technical ways that one can think about doing that. One could certainly take the vast majority of systems off that sort of alert. In that respect, I think that submarines are more stabilising, because even if there is, for example, intelligence that your own country has been attacked by nuclear weapons, you can take the time to find out whether that is actually, clearly, the case before a retaliatory strike is authorised. However, you need to have the procedures in place for your submarine or missile field commanders or for your bombers to ensure that time is available.

  The other point I would make is about a world in which countries, including the US and Russia, say that they want to move forward on nuclear disarmament, but have so little confidence in the process that they maintain such a large number on very high levels of alert. There is a certain contradiction there, which suggests that they have little faith in the process. However, you can make a lot of progress relatively quickly in the process of de-alerting, whereas the process of disarmament, in terms of verifiably destroying warheads, will inevitably take much longer. One of the things that Sam Nunn, people at the Hoover Institute and others have talked about is that this is a first step towards that longer-term goal.

  Whether it is wise to take all forces off some degree of alert is debatable. Some de-alerting proposals can increase vulnerabilities. That is a live debate in the case of the UK, but you can go an awfully long way down that road without creating extra vulnerabilities.

  Q29 Sir John Stanley: Can I turn to a couple of other areas? First, in the well publicised dirty war threat, one of the most worrying nuclear proliferation possibilities is clearly that the huge arsenal of fissile material within the former Soviet Union could get into non-state—terrorist—hands. Indeed, members of the Committee visited the location, which I shall not name, of a civil nuclear reactor being used for research purposes, where the external security was patently and seriously inadequate. The internal security was better, but there was no question but that the external security was seriously inadequate. Against that background, what is your assessment of the contribution that the Global Partnership has made, since the agreement was made at the G8 meeting in 2002, to improving the security of WMD materials in general—it applies to chemical as well as nuclear—held inside the former Soviet Union?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I am not in a position to give a detailed answer, but I think it is clear that much more remains to be done. The efforts that a number of nations have taken, both within the Global Partnership and bilaterally with Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union, have made some real strides in securing the most insecure areas. The weapons themselves and the fissile material that could be used for nuclear weapons should be the top priority. The material that could be used in dirty bombs also needs to be secured, but it will not create a threat to mankind in the same way. The threat of dirty bombs is more economical and psychological: they are not weapons of mass killing.

  Q30 Sir John Stanley: I note your evidence. All I can say is that all the information I had, including that contained in the useful BBC documentary, which dealt with a purely fictitious scenario and demonstrated the consequences of the detonation of two dirty bombs in London, suggested that apart from the catastrophic economic consequences, the loss of life, both immediate and in the long term, through radiation, would have been substantially greater than occurred in the 9/11 attack or in the terrorist attacks in London.

  I turn to the non-proliferation treaty. This Committee is here, above all, to examine the policy of the British Government. I ask you both to say, first, what realistic objectives might be achievable for the British Government from the non-proliferation treaty; and, beyond that, what objectives would you like to see achieved, but might not be so easily achievable? It is important to separate out what is within the realm of realistic possibilities, as opposed to hopes for the future.

  Professor Chalmers: Perhaps I can start. For a few years, the UK Government have been rather a lone voice in their position on taking article VI of the NPT seriously. However, given the statements of Senator Obama and, to be fair, his Republican rival, the United States will be taking the issue much more seriously in the run-up to the 2010 review. That is reinforced by the work of Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Bill Perry to create an emerging bipartisan consensus in the US that there needs to be a much more active policy in that area, if the NPT is to be strengthened and some of the dangers that we have been talking about are to be averted. That is creating an expectation of progress, which it will be difficult in the short term for western Governments to fulfil, for lots of different reasons. As Nunn and Kissinger and their colleagues have emphasised, it is therefore important to have shorter term progress on several different fronts. I put the comprehensive test ban treaty high on the list—No. 1. I have already commented on that: there is a real chance of significant progress in perhaps not immediate entry into force, but in reducing the number of hold-outs to one or two countries within the next couple of years.

  Secondly, there is potential for real progress in US-Russia discussions. There are lots of different formulae out there. There is now a recognition by both Russia and the incoming US Administration that the verification provisions of the strategic arms reduction treaty should be extended beyond the end of 2009. Barack Obama has committed himself to a more or less immediate reduction in strategic warheads to the lower limit of the strategic offensive reductions treaty of 1,700, and an agreement between the US and Russia to come down to something significantly below that is possible over the next couple of years. Areas in relation to de-alerting could be involved.

  The third area in relation to disarmament where some progress could be made, although perhaps on a longer time scale, is finding ways in which to develop transparency and verification measures between the five recognised nuclear weapons states. It is something that the UK Government have argued for, for which the French President has argued for and for which President-elect Obama has also argued. The western members of the P5 have argued for progress in that area and, indeed, as Russia is already part of transparency measures in START, there may be ways in which that could be extended to the P5 more generally. That will be hard, but if we are going to get into a situation where we are talking about nuclear disarmament by existing nuclear weapons states beyond the two former superpowers, you first need a baseline from which to work and a high degree of confidence that you know how much fissile material and how many warheads states produce. That will be difficult to achieve.

  The caveat to that relates particularly to China, but it might also relate to other small nuclear weapons states: precisely because they have relatively small arsenals, they may be more reluctant than others to reveal where they are and how big they are. Nevertheless, it is an area where I think progress can be made.

  All of this is important, but there is also a real risk in relation to Iran, which we have to be very aware of. If Iran gets into a situation of weaponisation, the political climate for progress in these other areas will be put at risk.

  Q31 Sir John Stanley: Thank you. Mr. Fitzpatrick, do you want to add to that?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I think these steps on disarmament are important in and of themselves, but they are also very important as a way of leveraging to get more in the area of non-proliferation. It would be ideal if the non-nuclear weapons states were ready to adopt stronger measures in the non-proliferation area as a kind of quid pro quo for these disarmament steps, but it is going to be very difficult to get that because at the NPT review conference everything is done by consensus. At the last one, Iran was one of the three countries that really prevented consensus. Iran might even be the chairman of the next conference—it is in line for it.

  I think there are some ways that the non-proliferation steps can be improved. One of these would be strengthening the withdrawal clause, so that we do not have another situation like North Korea, where a country violates, pulls out and still retains the capabilities it acquired while it was supposedly a member. I would not have too high expectations for the review conference, but some practical steps like this are something that the UK Government could pursue.

  Chairman: Thank you. I am very conscious of time and that we have another witness waiting. We are not going to be able to ask all the questions that we had hoped to ask. I am going to get a quick question in about India from Eric Illsley and then I am going to go to John Horam for questions about the UK Government.

  Q32 Mr. Illsley: One of the issues in non-proliferation at the moment that is quite controversial is the US-India deal. Some people support it and say that it brings India within the international regime and we can check what India is doing; other people oppose it on the basis that it is a bit hypocritical to be trying to persuade India to come into the NPT at the same time as doing deals with it and "rewarding" it for obtaining a nuclear weapon. Do you have a view on that? Do you think that the US-India deal strengthens or weakens the NPT regime?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I think the deal weakens the NPT regime for a number of reasons. I would be happy to provide some further evidence in written form.

  In a way we are crying over spilt milk—the deal is done. The Nuclear Suppliers Group ratified it and it is going forward. The question is how can we make butter out of the spilt milk? The best outcome would be if India took seriously the commitment it made when the deal was first agreed in principle between President Bush and President Singh. India undertook to seriously pursue a fissile material cut-off treaty to stop the production of more fissile material. Perhaps it will be hard to get such a treaty in Geneva, where it has been languishing for the last 10 years, but India could take steps unilaterally to stop the production of more material if it decided that it had enough for its deterrence capabilities. That would help to persuade Pakistan to stop. This is the area where diplomacy might be best applied to try to persuade India to make this a non-proliferation plus.

  Mr. Illsley: We would welcome further material on that.[3]

  Chairman: One quick question on ballistic missile defence from John Stanley, and then we will go to John Horam.

  Q33 Sir John Stanley: I should be very grateful if you could help me on an angle of American policy that totally bemuses me. Perhaps the next Administration will make it a change of policy and I will understand the rationale. What I find almost incomprehensible, having looked at this area quite closely over many years, is why, for the sake of a minimal degree of ballistic missile defence in Europe—absolutely minimal in terms the scale of the deployment—supposedly against the Iranians, it is judged worth while to cause such an enormous amount of ruction with the Russians. I simply do not understand the logic of the policy. Can you help me please?

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: I used to have to defend that policy when I represented the US Government. I do not represent them any more, so I respectfully decline to try to defend it. I share your sentiments, sir.

  Professor Chalmers: My judgment is that the US decision to have a third interceptor site was taken in relation to the possibility of a missile threat—perhaps overstated—from Iran or countries in that region, not from Russia. The decision to site the interceptor and radar in eastern Europe, in countries that are new members of NATO, was taken largely because those countries, for reasons that have nothing to do with Iran, were prepared to take those sites when other members of NATO were not. Once the decision that they were to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic had been announced, it became an issue in relations with Russia. It then became very difficult for the US, in terms of its relations with new members of NATO, to withdraw. That is where we are now.

  The US is exploring two proposals which may produce some way through this unfortunate situation. The first is to have some facility for Russian verification of what is happening at these sites, perhaps with personnel on the ground or remote verification. That is helpful. Secondly, the US can and indeed should make it clear that it would not activate the interceptors in Poland until there was clear evidence that Iran had the capability—that it had tested ballistic missiles capable of reaching western Europe, which of course it does not have now. It would be better if we did not have to think about such measures, but I think that the politics of the situation within NATO and relations between the US and its east European allies would make it very hard for it to stop the programme altogether, rather than freeze it in the way Secretary Gates and others have suggested.

  Chairman: Thank you. We may revisit this question early next year.

  Q34  Mr. Horam: As the Chairman has said, our focus is fundamentally on whether the UK Government are doing all they can to make progress. In so far as you are aware of the institutional arrangements inside Government to handle the NPT and so forth—in the Cabinet Office, which is co-ordinating it, and in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has a minor role—do you have any comments on whether those arrangements are satisfactory?

  Professor Chalmers: The only comment I would make—reiterating what I said earlier—is that for some time now the UK has been well ahead of the US and France in the seriousness with which it has addressed its disarmament obligations. We may now be moving into a period in which the US is much more active in that area, which means the UK has an opportunity to be more active in a way which does not leave it isolated.

  Q35  Mr. Horam: How can it do that?

  Professor Chalmers: As you know, the UK has floated some interesting proposals for the UK to be more of a disarmament laboratory. Some of those proposals require resources, work and people to think through the ideas. A good example, which has a lot of potential, is that to be serious about nuclear disarmament we have to find ways of verifying warhead dismantlement. We do not have proven ways right now. There are all sorts of sensitivities, because you do not want people without knowledge of warhead technology finding out what those technologies are. If the UK were to put some resources into testing methods of warhead dismantlement, perhaps in co-operation with other nuclear weapon states—there would be various options—that could be a real, practical contribution to the process.

  Mr. Fitzpatrick: In comparison with the way in which many other countries arrange their institutions to deal with non-proliferation and disarmament issues, the UK has the best that I have seen. In comparison with my own country, where the arrangements have been dysfunctional at times, they seem to be functioning well here.

  Chairman: Thank you, gentlemen, for a very useful session. We are grateful to you. We might pursue several matters in writing, but this evidence session was certainly extremely valuable and we are pleased to have had it. We will now pause for two minutes before beginning the next section of this session with the new witness, who has been patiently listening to us.

2   Note by witness: For further information see Asia-Pacific Review, Vol 15, Issue 1, May 2008 Back

3   Note by witness: For further information see Asia Pacific Review, Volume 15, Issue 1 May 2008, pp 76-85. Back

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