Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 213-219)



  Q213 Chairman: Good afternoon. Before we begin, can I ask members of the public to switch off their mobile phones or put them on silent?

  Minister, it is good to see you again. You have been before our Committee in several guises on several different subjects, and we are pleased to see you once again. Your colleague, Mrs Leslie, has been before us on previous occasions, but I do not know whether this is Mr. Arkwright's first appearance.

  Paul Arkwright: No. I gave evidence to the Iran inquiry.

  Q214  Chairman: Of course. So you will know the procedures and how we are all very friendly.

  Can we begin by referring directly to the context of the document that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has just published—"Lifting the Nuclear Shadow: creating the conditions for abolishing nuclear weapons"? Is this a change of approach by the Government or is it just a reaffirmation of our existing national security strategy policy?

  Bill Rammell: I think it is a reinforcement of our existing strategy. In terms of nuclear weapons, we have a very good track record. We are the most forward-leaning of the existing nuclear weapons states. We have reduced the explosive capability of our own arsenal by 75% since the height of the cold war. But we also want greater momentum internationally, and we want concerted action on the part of the P5. We want to tackle proliferation—in many senses, this is the most serious threat that we face internationally. We are coming to a critical period in the run-up to the review conference next year, and we want, bluntly, to engage the public in the most critical challenge that we face.

  It is probably fair to say that there is nothing new in the document. We have probably set out in greater detail what we are doing in the document. I think it is right that we use it as a tool, one, to engage with people, but two, to generate increased momentum internationally.

  Q215  Chairman: So this is written for a public audience, not a specialist audience? In defence White Papers over the years, you had a series of essays, and Michael Quinlan, who came before us a few months ago, was one of the authors. Is this the popular version of what used to be an essay?

  Bill Rammell: It is certainly not a populist version.

  Chairman: I did not say populist.

  Bill Rammell: It is an attempt to do a number of things. One is to genuinely engage the public. Two, it has, as I say, a level of detail in it that we have not committed to before, and I think for the specialist audience that would be important. It is also a tool in international diplomacy, registering and underlining our commitment, which can, in some way, increase the momentum towards disarmament.

  Q216  Chairman: Our existing approach, set out in the national security strategy, is referred to as a rules-based approach to international affairs. How successful has that been?

  Bill Rammell: It has had some considerable success, but the scale of the threat and the challenge is enormous. Just a few years before the establishment of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968, President Kennedy had said that by the 1970s we would have in excess of 20 nuclear weapon states—that was not the reality. In that sense, the NPT has worked. We need stronger verification mechanisms and greater universality, but it has worked. If you look at the chemical weapons convention, you will see that we are making progress towards the eradication of stockpiles, and there are similar moves under the biological and toxins weapons convention.

  Given where we started, again going back to the NPT, our track record, and that of the US—50% down on its arsenals from the height of the cold war—progress has been made. But bluntly, given the scale and the seriousness of the challenge, we must do more, and that is why we want a re-invigorated NPT to come out next year, a comprehensive test ban treaty and an urgent start to negotiations on fissile material cut-off.

  Q217  Chairman: But even if you have a treaty and people sign up to it, there has always been a problem about whether they comply with it. We have the debate at the moment about Iran; we had the issue with the North Koreans in the past; and—it will be controversial to say this, in some quarters—the Iraq question, including its clear attempts to develop nuclear weapons in at least one period. How do we ensure compliance with that treaty?

  Bill Rammell: Are you talking specifically about the NPT?

  Chairman: You referred to the NPT.

  Bill Rammell: Specifically on the NPT, in the review conference next year, we must generate political commitment to re-invigorate the bargain that is at the heart of the NPT—so, while the nuclear weapons states continue to make real progress on multilateral disarmament, we rein in rogue states that are seeking to get around the treaty. We need a stronger International Atomic Energy Agency and a number of different initiatives to try to get greater adherence.

  But the blunt reality is, yes, you can establish an international treaty, have sanctions—which is part of the debate that we are looking at—and have activity at the level of the UN Security Council to focus on states of concern, but you still run the risk that some people will try to get around it, and that is what we have to ward against.

  Q218  Chairman: We will have some more detailed questions on the NPT later, and I will just keep in the general area for now. Is there a case for saying that we should not categorise weapons into specific boxes, and that there should instead be a more holistic view on disarmament and arms control? Otherwise, you end up in a place where you deal with certain areas, but some systems fall between the gaps, or there are people who are interested in one category of controls when the real threat to them is something that only a few states have developed.

  Bill Rammell: That point has not been put to me in that way before. You do need separate regimes to focus on each of the threats, and there must be a dialogue on an international level to ensure that there is no means of slipping between the categories. But if you want real focus on the issues, you have to look at them in their own right.

  Although there are ongoing, significant challenges, the track record of the NPT is relatively good. If you look at chemical weapons, leading up to the 2012 deadline, you see that real progress is being made there. So I think that merit of a rules-based approach, but one that focuses specifically on the different types of disarmament that is needed, is the right one.

  Q219  Ms Stuart: Forgive me, but I have not had the time to actually read this document. Given your opening comments about trying to take the debate further, and given that the people with whom we have to do that are the Chinese, the Russians and the Indians, who, in a sense, do not publish, it just struck me, flicking through the document, that it mentions Albert Einstein, two former American Presidents, one former American vice-president and a former Secretary-General of the UN. If I was Chinese, or from any of those countries, and saw this document, I would feel pretty much left out of the debate, other than being told what to do.

  Bill Rammell: That is certainly not the intention. If you reflect on the whole of the document, you see that that is certainly not what we are arguing. If you look, for example, at the strategic arms reduction treaty, you will see that there have been significant reductions in nuclear capability by both the United States and the Russians, which should be very welcome. We will come to talk about the comprehensive test ban treaty, and I think that it is very welcome that President Obama has committed to ratifying that. I had some interesting discussions in Beijing two weeks ago, and you may find that there is a similar response from the Chinese. So it is certainly not that we are on our own and we know best. Bluntly, to make the desperately needed further progress, it is going to take agreement right across the board.

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