The UK and the NPT: Rhetoric, Simulations and Reality

Tim Street | ICAN-UK | May 2010

Issue:Global militarisation

The importance of distinguishing between nuclear weapon state's rhetoric- and the reality of what they've actually accomplished- has been a recurring theme for disarmament activists at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT), held at the United Nations in New York during May. There are long-standing benchmarks by which we may assess progress towards disarmament and the goal of a nuclear weapons free world. These benchmarks allow us to clearly assess what the UK has brought to the negotiating table- and what it continues to withhold, in defiance of international law, public opinion (the majority of whom wish to see Trident scrapped) and the many states calling for nuclear abolition now.[i]


For example, at the NPT conference, civil society activists and several non-nuclear weapon states have repeatedly emphasised that nuclear weapons states are, under Article VI of the NPT, legally obliged to:


'pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control'.[ii]


As unanimously affirmed by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 advisory opinion on the illegality of nuclear weapons, this means that NPT members must not only 'pursue' negotiations for disarmament- they must achieve that goal.[iii] Thus, by its continued deployment of nuclear weapons, Britain has, for decades, failed to comply with its NPT obligations. Furthermore, by planning to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system and breathe new life into the arms race, the government would not only waste tens of billions of pounds, but defy international law.[iv] The UK is acutely conscious of such perceived failings and has recently tried to fend off growing demands for disarmament by presenting itself as a paragon of nuclear virtue.


For example, UK Ambassador for Arms Control and Disarmament John Duncan's statement at the NPT cited 'UK progress towards the “13 practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI”'.[v] As Rebecca Johnson observed, such recitations (similar in style to those of China, France, Russia and the US) are simply inadequate as they refer to 'reductions and closures of nuclear facilities undertaken in response to the end of the cold war twenty years ago'.[vi] It is also important to recognise, as Ireland did in an open committee meeting, that 'reductions in nuclear not necessarily equate to a commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons'. Thus, whilst nuclear weapons reductions are welcome, they 'may be undertaken for a wide variety of reasons', including 'financial considerations, safety and security, preventing weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, environmental reasons and so on'.[vii]


The UK has also made much of the joint research project it has undertaken with Norway, to verify the dismantlement of nuclear weapons.[viii] Such simulations to achieve best practice are laudable and help prepare the UK for the strong verification and trust-building measures that will be necessitated by a global nuclear weapons abolition treaty. But they remain simulations, whereas the threat to international security posed by Trident- and its replacement- are all too real. Such concerns were reflected by Norway itself, when it argued, on Day 9 of the NPT, that states parties must 'establish a new international nuclear agenda with an action plan for nuclear disarmament with clear benchmarks and deadlines holding us all accountable'.[ix]


The realisation of nuclear weapons state's commitments under the NPT to disarm and lift the nuclear shadow could indeed be achieved through a legally-binding, verifiable and time-bound treaty which will- irreversibly- abolish nuclear weapons. With this in mind, in addition to strong support from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the nations supporting a Nuclear Weapons Convention have increasingly made themselves known at the 2010 NPT. They include, in no particular order- and to name but a few- Indonesia, Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Austria, New Zealand, Senegal, Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Costa Rica, Lebanon, Colombia and Malaysia. The reason why these countries and civil society groups from around the world back a Nuclear Weapons Convention is because they realise the need to, as Mexican Ambassador Claude Heller puts it, 'prohibit these weapons with a timeframe that provides certainty to the international community'.[x]


Certainty is, indeed, a rare commodity in international affairs. If agreements are to succeed, trust and confidence must be built, in order to construct relationships based on mutual interests and collective security. Multilateral mechanisms such as the treaties outlawing anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, biological weapons and chemical weapons should thus be held up as the truly 'special' relationships between states. Such successful examples of states legislating for security in a combined effort to make the world a safer place for all, requires us to ask- why should it not also be possible to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons, the most destructive weapons ever invented?


One answer is that many among the powerful elites who control nuclear arsenals feel threatened by the prospect of having to kick their nuclear weapon addiction. President Obama can say he wants a world free of nuclear weapons, and agree nuclear arms reductions with Russia, but what lessons will Iran, North Korea and other weaker states draw from his recent call for $80 billion to upgrade the US's nuclear arms complex (described as the largest funding request since the Cold War) and the planned investment, over the next decade, of 'well over $100 billion in nuclear delivery systems'?[xi] As Paul Rogers has noted, such a 'fearful embrace of intense security measures' is undertaken 'in pursuit of the illusion of control'.[xii] An illusion also because nuclear weapons create insecurity and steal resources from spending on health, education and green energy.


The addiction will therefore remain until the nuclear weapons states realise they must relinquish their drive for global power and control. The alternative is stark. If the majority of the 184 non-nuclear weapon states at the NPT, who want the review conference to agree to a legally-binding timeframe for disarmament, do not see sufficient progress, the current window of opportunity for nuclear abolition may not only close, but a new era of nuclear proliferation and terror may be opened.


Tim Street is UK Co-ordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.


For more information:


[i]    Julian Glover, 'Voters want Britain to scrap all nuclear weapons, ICM poll shows', The Guardian,
[ii]    'Treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons', Federation of American Scientists,
[iii]    'Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons', The Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy,
[iv]    Greenpeace UK, 'Trident replacement may be illegal under international law',
[v]    'UK statement to the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference', UK FCO,
[vi]    Rebecca Johnson, 'NPT conference: half time glass half full', Open Democracy,
[vii]    The Acronym Institute, 'Day 9 at NPT',
[viii]    John Duncan, 'Arms Control Blog', UK FCO,
[ix]    Tim Wright, 'If students can do it, why not the diplomats?', International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War,
[x]    The Acronym Institute, 'Day 9 at NPT',
[xi]    Phil Stewart, 'Obama wants $80 billion to upgrade nuclear arms complex', Reuters, and 'The New START Treaty- Maintaining a Strong Nuclear Deterrent', White House,
[xii]    Paul Rogers, 'A world on the margin', Open Democracy,


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