Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Contents


The risk of the use of nuclear weapons has increased, in the context of rising inter-state competition, a more multipolar world, and the development of new capabilities and technologies. There are serious tensions between some of the nine nuclear possessor states—the five states the legitimacy of whose possession of nuclear weapons was recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States), the three states which never signed the NPT (India, Israel and Pakistan) and North Korea, which signed the NPT but nevertheless developed such weapons. Irresponsible rhetoric, combined with a lack of communication between nuclear possessor states, creates serious risks of nuclear use due to misinterpretation and miscalculation. The benign circumstances which subsisted for nearly 25 years after the end of the Cold War, during which the risk of the use of nuclear weapons ceased to be a priority challenge to the international community, have ended.

We conclude that the nuclear possessor states should commit to the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and do all they can to reduce global tensions, support nuclear non-proliferation, and pursue nuclear disarmament. Dialogue between the nuclear possessor states is also essential. In particular, notwithstanding current tensions, the Government and NATO should be prepared to talk to Russia about nuclear strategic stability.

The maintenance of the existing international nuclear regime is of critical importance to long-term efforts to reduce the risks inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons. At the core of the regime is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has three pillars—non-proliferation, the peaceful uses of nuclear technology and disarmament. Since its entry into force in 1970 only one of its non-nuclear signatories—North Korea—has developed a deliverable nuclear weapon. The next Review Conference of the NPT will be held in 2020, marking 50 years since the treaty entered into force, and will be an opportunity to take stock of progress towards its goals.

The NPT has had important successes that should be lauded, including limiting the number of nuclear possessor states and enabling the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. However, while reductions in nuclear stockpiles since the 1980s should be welcomed, it is clear that—largely as a result of the worsening security environment—global progress towards disarmament has stalled. The programmes of some nuclear possessor states go well beyond what can properly be described as modernisation, introducing new capabilities, particularly in the field of so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which could potentially increase nuclear risk. The lack of progress in the disarmament pillar of the NPT has led to considerable dissatisfaction, and contributed to the decision of some Non-Nuclear Weapon States to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

In advance of the 2020 NPT Review Conference we urge the Government to seek to reduce tensions between Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States. While we accept that UK will remain opposed to the Ban Treaty, its proponents have legitimate concerns about the pace of disarmament and nuclear risk, and the Government should adopt a less aggressive tone towards the treaty and its supporters. We also call on the Government to continue to support work towards the forthcoming UN conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East, and encourage Israel to participate.We are concerned that global nuclear non-proliferation efforts have been undermined by the US’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. This is against the interests of the UK. We welcome the Government’s robust defence of the deal, and its co-operation with European partners to find ways to preserve it. North Korea’s nuclear programme is also a serious concern, and we welcome efforts to seek a diplomatic solution.

The entry into force of treaties concerning nuclear testing and fissile material would contribute to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda. While the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty has still not yet entered into force, its negotiation has contributed to de facto moratoriums on testing. We strongly welcome the UK’s support for the treaty and its ongoing efforts to secure further ratifications. The negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty would also contribute to global efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, and we urge the Government to consider every option to make progress in this regard.

We are dangerously close to a world without arms control agreements, which would increase the risk of nuclear use. We accept that Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but urge the Government to use ongoing discussions in NATO to promote either a revival of the treaty or, at least, to avoid the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. We also call on the Government to make clear to the US Administration the value of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for Euro–Atlantic security, and advocate its extension.

The 2020 NPT Review Conference represents an opportunity for states to reaffirm their support for the non-proliferation agenda, and for the Nuclear Weapon States to show a demonstrable commitment to disarmament. In support of the treaty on its 50th anniversary, we recommend that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs should represent the UK at this conference. The UK’s upcoming chairmanship of the P5 group provides an opportunity for the Government to encourage its fellow Nuclear Weapon States to engage constructively with Non-Nuclear Weapon States to strengthen the NPT regime. It is also an opportunity to increase transparency and dialogue both between the P5, and with nuclear possessor states outside the NPT, to reduce the risk of nuclear use through misunderstanding and miscalculation.

The NPT has made, and continues to make, an essential contribution to international peace and security. The UK can help to strengthen a rules-based international order by demonstrating vision and leadership in addressing the challenges we have identified.

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