Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)



  Q280  Mr. Illsley: On what Ming said, the article about Obama seeking to cut nuclear warheads has been referred to. Thursday's press carried the headline "Russia ready to shelve missiles plan in conciliatory gesture to Obama". There is no reduction, but a commitment not to deploy more. The point is that there seems to be a consensus breaking out. In the light of what Ming said and with the Americans and others signing up to the initiatives, does our decision on Trident look a little premature? I am not arguing that we should or should not have Trident, but that our decision to renew years before we needed to was a bit premature.

  Bill Rammell: I desperately hope that the multilateral process works and that we can get to the stage of a world free from nuclear weapons. If we had not taken a decision on Trident, we would have been deciding on unilateral disarmament if the multilateral process does not work. If in 13 or 14 years the multilateral process had not worked, we would have been left with an ineffective and inoperable nuclear deterrent.

  Q281  Sir John Stanley: Minister, when you refer to the multilateral process, will you confirm that you are saying that Government policy is that British nuclear weapons will be put on the table in that process only if every other nuclear weapon-holding state—including the French, Americans, Israelis, North Koreans and Iranians—also puts its nuclear weapons on the table at the same time?

  Bill Rammell: Mariot, do you want to pick up on the context for that?

  Sir John Stanley: I would like a ministerial answer to my question.

  Bill Rammell: Okay, I will restate for you what I have said previously. Such negotiations will be detailed and challenging and it is difficult to prescribe in advance how the process will work. However, if there was genuine multilateral progress on disarmament, we would consider putting our nuclear weapons into the mix as part of the negotiations. In advance of such circumstances, it is difficult to go beyond that.

  Q282  Sir John Stanley: I am sorry Minister, you have not answered my question. Are you saying that British nuclear weapons go on the table when, and only when, every other nuclear weapon-holding state puts its weapons on the table?

  Bill Rammell: Multilateral progress and negotiations that will get to the situation where we can eradicate nuclear weapons will require action on all fronts.

  Q283  Sir John Stanley: By all fronts do you mean all other nuclear weapon-holding states?

  Bill Rammell: Yes.

  Chairman: Can we move on to some questions on ballistic missile defence?

  Q284  Sir John Stanley: Minister, I think that you will agree that as far as we and Europe are concerned, the most important arms control agreement was the intermediate nuclear forces agreement in the 1980s, which led to the removal of thousands of nuclear weapons from European soil. You will be aware that the Russians have threatened that if the European component of ballistic missile defence goes ahead, they will repudiate that agreement. You will also be aware that the European deployment constitutes only a very limited protection against Iranian ballistic missiles. There will be 10 interceptors in Poland. I was briefed at the Missile Defence Agency in Washington last week that each warhead requires two interceptors. It was repeatedly stressed that ballistic missile defence represented a net and not a shield. Given those circumstances, why are the British Government so committed to the European component of ballistic missile defence, which they have already made clear through their commitment to carry out the crucial radar upgrading at RAF Fylingdales, when the European deployment will have only a very limited additional defence capability against Iran but could leave Europeans hugely worse off in terms of nuclear weapons deployed against European soil by the Russians?

  Bill Rammell: First, we need to be clear, as you have underlined, that there are 10 interceptors compared with an arsenal the size of Russia's—the Americans have repeatedly made it clear that is not where it is directed. Secondly, the evidence in 2007 was that the number of non-US ballistic missile launches was 100, which was 30% more than the previous year. There is genuine concern about the spread of capacity in terms of ballistic missiles. I think that the solution to this, to ensure that ballistic missile defence can genuinely help us in defence terms and that it does not lead to the kind of escalation that you are talking about, is the kind of arrangements with the Russians that Miche"le Flournoy, the Under-Secretary of Policy at the Pentagon, talked of in terms of US-Russia co-operation. Already there has been a more accommodating response—for want of a better phrase—from the Russians to the comments and views that the Obama Administration have been setting out. There clearly needs to be intense dialogue and discussion, but if we could end up in a situation where there was co-operation between the US and Russians on this issue that would be a positive outcome for both those countries and also for us in Europe.

  Q285  Sir John Stanley: Yes, but is it not the case that the Russians have so far been wholly unimpressed and unconvinced? You may say "entirely irrationally" and I would agree with you, but the public posture is that they do not believe the Americans when they are told that the situation does not represent any degradation of their nuclear capability. Given that is the case, surely it can make no sense for those of us in Europe to have a fractional improvement in our defences against Iran at the expense of a very major reduction of our security against Russia?

  Bill Rammell: I genuinely do not believe that is what it should come to. If you look at the dialogue that has taken place between the US and Russia and the Russia-NATO dialogue, there have been detailed discussions about how you might reassure Russia on this front—maybe, for example, in terms of federating Russian sensors into the overall ballistic missile defence structure. That might be a way forward.

  I do not want to overstate things, as I think Barack Obama has enormous hopes—probably too great—resting on his shoulders, but the fact of his election has injected possibilities and new ways forward in a number of different areas. Already, based on what he and his appointees have been saying and the response from Russia, I think the prospects are greater of reaching a situation where those concerns on the part of Russia can be addressed and we can still go forward with a system that would give us some greater defence.

  Q286  Sir John Stanley: May I turn to the key element behind ballistic missile defence? As you rightly pointed out, the key issue is the huge proliferation of ballistic missile technology. At the start of your evidence you rightly said that our worst expectations about nuclear proliferation had not occurred, but I think you will agree that our very worst expectations about ballistic missile technology have occurred and we now have 20-plus states with operational ballistic missiles. What is the Government's policy to try to halt the proliferation of ballistic missiles, all of which are potentially able to take conventional, biological, chemical or nuclear warheads? What are the Government going to do to try to reverse the incredibly dangerous large-scale proliferation of ballistic missiles throughout the world? As there is also a terrorist dimension, what are the British Government doing to try to enhance the security given to existing ballistic missile holdings?

  Bill Rammell: One response is what we have just been talking about, in terms of ballistic missile defence. We also need to work through the relevant international forums, whether it is the missile technology co-operation group—a co-operative arrangement whereby states declare what they are doing and that it can be verified—or another initiative. We need to do more on that front. The issue is about competing priorities, however, and the NPT is an absolute priority, but we need to do more on conventional weapons and I am sure that we will come on to that. It remains a priority for us, but I cannot say that we have automatic solutions on every front to deal with the threats and challenges. One strong reason why we have argued as we have on missile defence, however, is that, potentially, it does give us a defence.

  Q287  Sir John Stanley: Would you not agree that the proliferation of ballistic missile technology is one of the major cancers in terms of proliferation? Would you also agree that, at the moment, no significant international structures have any prospect of introducing an element of control? Should not that be given far higher priority not only by the British Government but by other Governments? Unless that is gripped, 30-plus countries may have ballistic missiles at their disposal—alongside the serious risk that, sooner or later, some could fall into the hands of terrorist parties.

  Bill Rammell: First, the missile control regime, of which we are strong supporters, provides a way forward, but arguably it needs strengthening and we are looking into that. The defensive system that we have discussed is also part of the solution, but there is some merit in what you say. We are focused on a range of threats and challenges, and that is a significant one. By telling you that the missile technology control regime needs strengthening, I accept your point that we need to do more in that area.

  Q288  Mr. Moss: Minister, may I take you back to your answer to an earlier question, about the international dimension of civil nuclear power? Will you outline to the Committee the operation of the Government's proposed nuclear fuel bond and tell us how it would complement other proposals in the field?

  Bill Rammell: We have stopped calling it a bond, because there was—

  Mr. Moss: A financial implication?

  Bill Rammell: Yes, we felt that there was a financial implication. The commitment to nuclear fuel assurance is absolutely firm, however. It is an attempt to produce a creative response to the worldwide civil nuclear renaissance, and it is about guaranteeing the sourcing and disposal of nuclear fuel, which will bluntly undermine one of the reasons why states seek proliferation. We remain absolutely committed to that, we will take a proposal to the IAEA board of governors later this year, we have engaged with other countries on it, and we will shortly—on 17 and 18 March—host a conference on a range of multinational initiatives to deal with the nuclear fuel cycle. Through the European Union, we are also committed to the nuclear fuel bank, under IAEA auspices, which would create a real fuel bank that countries would be able to access if they experienced fuel shortages for reasons other than proliferation.

  I said earlier that there are about 12 different initiatives. I do not have the sense that they are contradictory or competing with each other, but we work actively at ensuring that all those approaches can work. In our view, the nuclear fuel assurance still has real merit and that is why I shall be taking it to the IAEA board.

  Q289  Mr. Moss: Is it incompatible with any of the other proposals that you mentioned? I thought you said earlier that there were 13.

  Bill Rammell: There are 12. I thought that I said 12 earlier.

  Q290  Mr. Moss: Okay. Is there a risk with the proliferation of all the different proposals that we will sign up globally to a key component?

  Bill Rammell: No. You face difficulty in international relations in a number of areas. We are dealing with sovereign states, all of which have their own views and their own determination to find ways forward. That sometimes means that different initiatives come forward from different states or groups of states. I do not perceive at the moment that there is a contradiction between those approaches, but we certainly need to watch the position carefully to ensure that that is not the case.

  Chairman: Let us be brief on this one, and then we must move to other areas.

  Andrew Mackinlay: You have not heard from me much.

  Chairman: No, and that is good.

  Bill Rammell: I should like to hear from a fellow Essex MP.

  Q291  Andrew Mackinlay: On what used to be called the enrichment bond, it would be done commercially, but nation states would have an interest in the commercial aspects because it could mean enormous wealth and power. The Russian Federation first canvassed the idea, so perhaps copyright should go to it. Surely the idea is that, geographically around the world, there would be four or five centres of excellence. If not, what is in your mind's eye? Clearly, everyone could sign up and say that it was a good idea, but the $64,000 or more question concerns where the places are located. There would be potential for enormous wealth generation for the states in which either that facility or facilities are located. There is also a powerful, logical case for it to be in four places around the globe.

  Bill Rammell: The difference between our nuclear fuel assurance and the nuclear fuel bank is, first, that the first element of guarantee within the nuclear fuel assurance is the market, and the market actually has a good track record of delivering. The second difference is a guarantee on the part of the signed-up states whereby in extremis that support would be provided. I am not ducking the question, but it is also the case that we are working on the detail of the matter through discussion. It will be part of the discussion that takes place at the conference in London in a few weeks' time to take the proposal to the IAEA board. The issue is about getting the maximum number of countries signed up to the principle, so the content and the detail will evolve.

  Q292  Chairman: May we now move briefly to the other areas of WMD? In an earlier answer, you touched on the relative importance of chemical and biological weapons, but can I ask you specifically about the chemical weapons convention? There are 184 signatories to the convention, but only 177 national authorities and 126 state parties have informed the central organisation of what they are doing legislatively and only 82 have introduced the key legislation in their national Parliaments, so clearly there is a long way to go to make it universal. What are the Government doing to strengthen the chemical weapons convention and ensure that other countries fully implement it?

  Bill Rammell: First, we are one of the strongest supporters of the chemical weapons convention and, through all forums and particularly bilaterally, we are urging states to sign up. The recent support from and signing by Iraq, given the history, was a very positive step forward.

  In terms of the commitment to eradicate chemical weapons stockpiles by the 2012 deadline, we have been doing a lot financially to support states in achieving that. For example, specifically, with Russia we have committed about £23 million to help develop the necessary facilities for destroying chemical weapons stockpiles. We also, across the board, advise and help states with the legislative requirements necessary for them to comply with the convention.

  Q293  Chairman: You have referred to the 2012 deadline—in just three years' time—but it is quite clear that both the United States and Russia are not going to comply with that timetable. What are we doing to deal with that problem?

  Bill Rammell: There is a risk of self-fulfilling prophecies. Our intention remains that every state should get there by 2012. In respect of the United States and Russia, there is commitment and there has been considerable progress. Russia has reduced by about 25%; I cannot recall the exact figure for the US, but certainly it has made significant progress—there is the sheer quantity for both countries, in terms of the volume. There are difficult issues to overcome in both those countries. For example, setting up chemical weapons destruction facilities in what are both democracies, given the environmental concerns, is a challenge that needs to be overcome. Nevertheless, our strong view remains that we need to get there, and we shall provide whatever support we can—as I said, with Russia we have used £23 million to try and help. I do not want to get into the realms of what happens if in 2012 the deadline has not been achieved, but the end game has to be the eradication of all the stockpiles.

  Q294  Chairman: Is there not also a problem in the United States with the presidential veto, and the presidential record in the past? Is that likely to change with the new Administration?

  Bill Rammell: My instinct is that the Obama Administration will be very strong supporters of the chemical weapons convention.

  Q295  Chairman: So, the difficulties that we had with the US under the Bush Administration are likely to be removed?

  Bill Rammell: With the caveat that support in Congress is required, as well as in the presidency.

  Q296  Chairman: Presumably—hopefully—our diplomats in Washington are doing all they can to influence the US, not just the Administration, but also the key players in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

  Bill Rammell: Certainly.

  Chairman: Good. Now let us touch on the biological and toxin issues.

  Q297  Sir John Stanley: As we know, biological weapons are infinitely more difficult to detect than chemical weapons, which are usually stockpiled, and they have the capacity to cause loss of life on a hugely greater scale than chemical weapons, yet we have a verification regime for the chemical weapons convention but, sadly, none as yet for the biological weapons convention.

  We did of course spend seven years negotiating a verification protocol. Sadly, that was torpedoed by the Bush Administration and their arms control Minister, Mr. John Bolton, with whom the Committee had a number of interesting and vigorous exchanges, so we still have no verification regime for this critically important arms control convention. What are the British Government doing to try to establish a verification regime? Should we be going down the route of inspections or of the Canadian alternative of accountability regimes?

  Bill Rammell: Both have a role to play. In terms of the decisions taken, we have are long-standing supporters of a verification regime. As I said at the beginning about our treaty-based approach, we would want both universality and effective verification regimes.

  In terms of the proposals that were put forward, the United States took the view that it did. It was not only the US—China, Libya, India and Pakistan also objected to that approach. Our view remains that in the longer run—or in the short run if we could achieve it—we need a verification tool. However, we should not underestimate the difficulty that because of the dual-use nature of virtually all the know-how, materials and equipment used in biological weapons, getting a verification regime and compliance measures in place is fraught with real intellectual, scientific and political difficulties. Nevertheless, that is what we have to remain focussed on.

  The 2011 review will give us an opportunity to make further progress. The fact that since the last review, seven additional states have become party to the convention is progress, as is the fact that the implementation support unit has been created, which gives us further impetus. However, this is a difficult and challenging area—and I am being absolutely straight with you—to establish the kind of verification regime that we want.

  Q298  Sir John Stanley: I understand all the difficulties, but I am asking whether the British Government have a policy as opposed to just generalities? Do they have a proposal? What are they rooting for? What type of verification regime are they going for? Do they still want to try to go for inspection, or do they want to go for some of the alternatives that have been offered, such as the Canadian alternative based on accountability?

  Bill Rammell: Certainly we are in favour of inspection, and we promote that. You asked me specifically what we are doing to try to push this agenda forward. We are supporting financially legislative analysis and assistance to states that do not have comprehensive national implementing measures in place to help them comply with the regime as well.

  Inspection has a key role to play. I have set out for you the challenges and the difficulties, which are real but, nevertheless, there is still a determination to find a way through. I hope and believe that we can do that in the foreseeable future. Certainly moving forward to the next review in 2011 has to be a priority.

  Q299  Sir John Stanley: Are the British Government considering adding to the arrows in their quiver a policy of name and shame? Should the UK not be doing more to highlight those countries that we believe are holding biological weapons stocks, or researching to try to achieve a biological weapons capability? Should not such countries be pilloried publicly?

  Bill Rammell: Part of me is instinctively attracted to that proposition. However, given the difficulties and political challenges, ultimately with this kind of issue, if you want states to move with you, you have to provide the right framework to achieve that. I am open to debate, but I am not sure that that approach would get us there sooner than the routes we are pursuing at the moment.

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