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UN talks on multilateral disarmament: you can run but cannot hide

As debate in the UK is pre-occupied with renewal of Trident there is an apparent lack of awareness that the world of non-proliferation and disarmament is changing around us.

Steve Hucklesby
16 July 2016
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Nato summit in Warsaw, Poland, where Cameron announced MP vote on replacing ageing Trident submarines on July 18. Dominic Lipinski / Press Association. All rights reserved.The UK has consistently opposed discussion at the United Nations on possible routes toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.  This has been described as ‘scandalous’ by some and for good reason.  In recent years the UK has strongly resisted any discussion of multilateral disarmament in forums outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.  At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the UK was instrumental in voting down the proposal of the United Nations Secretary General for an international conference on his five-point plan for multilateral disarmament.  The UK has opposed the establishment of two UN Open-Ended Working Groups on multilateral disarmament – these have subsequently taken place anyway.  The UK government is currently boycotting UN talks that will deliver proposals on multilateral disarmament to the UN General Assembly this year.

Under the NPT, the UK is committed to ‘negotiation in good faith’.  Yet these recent talks among UN member states do not even amount to ‘negotiation’ at this stage. These are discussions, no more, and they are necessary as the path to zero nuclear weapons is not yet clear.  The elimination of nuclear weapons will take time and effort to achieve.  It will require some of the brightest and most experienced diplomatic minds to work out how best to make progress.  All the more reason then for the UK to join with others in mapping the route to zero and the likely stages on the journey.

The UK’s status as a nuclear weapons power

The UK Government’s reticence can be partly explained in that the UK is one of only five states to have a temporary status as a recognised nuclear weapons power under the NPT.  In the past the Government has perceived that the UK gains status as a nation by holding and maintaining nuclear weapons.  The leasing of Trident missiles from the United States is a unique arrangement that is viewed as cementing the UK’s special relationship on security matters – although it also says something about the balance in this relationship.  In addressing the fallout of ‘Brexit’ on international relations, further commitment to spending on Trident was hailed by Theresa May as demonstrating that the UK remains engaged in world affairs. 

The current reframing of the debate

But international perspectives on nuclear weapons are changing fast.  There is a growing appreciation that the unequal status of nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear weapon states in the NPT cannot be maintained indefinitely.  The humanitarian agenda around nuclear weapons is re-framing the debate.  Inevitably, the UK will find even exploratory discussion of the path to zero challenging as any clarity here will potentially diminish, or even reverse, the diplomatic value of Trident.  The likely introduction of a treaty banning nuclear weapons, supported by a majority of states, will further stigmatise the UK’s nuclear arsenal.  A relatively active civil society in Britain and respect for international humanitarian law causes the UK Government to be a little more exposed to such pressure than most other nuclear-armed states.

If the UK continues to attempt to block discussion in the UN, this discussion will nevertheless take place without us.  The message is clear - you can run but you cannot hide. 

A distinctive UK contribution to the non-proliferation regime

There is another way.  The UK occupies a unique position.  Among the recognised nuclear powers, the UK is the only state that considers itself bound by the International Court of Justice.  The nation enjoys strong relationships with Commonwealth states, many of whom are located in Nuclear Weapons Free Zones.  This uniqueness provides the UK with an unparalleled capacity to engage the international community in defining paths to zero while simultaneously addressing the concerns of nuclear weapons states and their allies around strategic stability.  The UK could, with a little difficulty, pursue this mission even if Parliament decides to build new Trident successor submarines.  At the eye-watering cost of £41 billion, these submarines would remain a colossal waste of money.  But they should not prevent us from delivering on the stated commitment of successive UK Government administrations to multilateral disarmament.    

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