Church of England Synod fringe event on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Photo: Mike Gilbert/Christian CND)
Church of England Synod fringe event on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Photo: Mike Gilbert/Christian CND)

On 7th July 2018, the first anniversary of the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Article 36’s Elizabeth Minor spoke at a fringe event to the Church of England’s General Synod, which was considering a motion welcoming the treaty, and calling on the UK government to respond positively.

In a significant development in the UK this resolution was passed on the 8th July, highlighting the indiscriminate and destructive nature of nuclear weapons, the “clear signal” the TPNW sends that “a majority of UN Member States [consider] nuclear weapons are both dangerous and unnecessary,” and calling on the government to reiterate its commitments to nuclear disarmament under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and it strategy to meet them.

In a short briefing paper produced for the fringe event, Article 36 discusses pathways for the UK government to engage constructively with the TPNW – and sets out the imperative to do so, given that the treaty is now a part of the international non-proliferation and disarmament regime, and other states will be working under its framework.

A birthday cake for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with ICAN's Nobel Peace Prize (Photo: Elizabeth Minor)
A birthday cake for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize (Photo: Elizabeth Minor)

The UK government has stated that it does not intend to join the TPNW. However, though parliament recently voted to continue the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, the UK, like all other UN member states, has committed to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, and has a legal obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to negotiate for disarmament. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons offers a clear pathway towards disarmament, and provides the international framework through which the UK’s and all other states’ stockpiles can be destroyed. Joining the treaty should therefore be the UK’s eventual goal.

Notwithstanding the government’s current position, it is clear that the TPNW is firmly rooted in and is now an integral part of the international nuclear non-proliferation disarmament regime. The majority of the world’s countries will be working under its framework to achieve non-proliferation and disarmament goals.

At a time of great international tensions, where certain states openly challenge multilateralism and a rules-based international system, the UK government has a choice: to engage constructively with signatories and parties to the TPNW and foster a culture of dialogue and compliance, or to see its influence over disarmament policymaking diminish. Worse, the government could risk undermining initiatives under the TPNW that serve our common goals. As a strong supporter of international law (the government’s 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review identifies “strengthening the rules-based international order and its institutions” as a priority), the UK has an interest in ensuring the treaty makes an effective contribution.

A positive response by the government to the TPNW could include:

  • Fostering a dialogue with countries and organisations working on the TPNW, on how the treaty can make an effective contribution to disarmament
  • Investigating how the UK could engage constructively with the treaty and other states’ work under it. This could be done within a broader examination of the UK’s international nuclear policy – in the context of rising nuclear tensions, and concerning developments such as the US’s new nuclear policy

Points on which the UK government could constructively engage with the TPNW directly include:

  • Attending meetings of the TPNW as an observer: the government should have an accurate picture of the work that is proceeding – particularly to avoid wasting diplomatic effort on inaccurate notions, such as that this treaty poses a threat to the NPT, which was a common misconception during the TPNW negotiations
  • Verification: during the negotiation of the TPNW, specific verification plans were left for future agreement when states with stockpiles joined the treaty. Given its work on this issue, the government should seek to contribute its expertise to any discussions, in order to ensure that the highest standards are maintained – even if it is not party to the treaty
  • Addressing nuclear harm: the treaty provides an opportunity for a renewed focus from the international community to address the legacies of nuclear testing, and to support sustainable development in affected countries. Past treaties with similar provisions have helped to strengthen good practice and raise standards of assistance for individuals and communities affected. The UK should seek to provide expert input and funding to these discussions and processes, given our history of conducting nuclear tests in other countries

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons does not represent a challenge to alliances such as NATO or to the UK’s international standing – rather, it seeks to address the narrow issue of the unacceptability of nuclear weapons, as technologies that no country should ask their militaries to be willing to use when commanded. UK soldiers are not asked to use chemical or biological weapons because of the unacceptable harm they inflict – but the harm that would be caused by a nuclear weapon is of a completely different magnitude.

The global Red Cross and Red Crescent movement has called on all states to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,10 as have UN institutions. The UK will find itself increasingly out of step with the international community if it continues to reject engagement with the treaty – but could provide global leadership if it does respond positively.

Download the briefing paper

Briefing paper: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the UK

Briefing paper

July 2018