The Lords UK nuclear inquiry and constructive engagement with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
By Elizabeth Minor
Last week, the UK government published its official response to the House of Lords International Relations Committee inquiry on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and nuclear disarmament, held in the context of the NPT’s upcoming Review Conference in 2020.
Examining the current global picture of nuclear risk, what the committee highlighted as the “deteriorating state of nuclear diplomacy,” and the current functioning of the NPT and other agreements, the inquiry also looked at the place of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). It heard evidence from some of the individuals centrally involved in the TPNW initiative, including ICAN’s Beatrice Fihn, and Austrian Ambassador Alexander Kmentt.
Though in their report the Lords noted that they “understand and accept” the UK government’s ongoing opposition to the TPNW, they also – significantly – recognised the legitimacy of other states’ “dissatisfaction” with the status quo on nuclear disarmament, and recommended that the UK government “adopt a less aggressive tone about this treaty and seek opportunities to work with its supporters” towards the aim of nuclear disarmament. The report also welcomed the possibility of “more openness” from the UK on the “possible humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.”
These conclusions and recommendations and important to building a path towards changes in UK policy in favour of the global abolition of nuclear weapons, in two ways:
Firstly, the TPNW initiative was grounded in an effort to change the global discourse between states in international forums regarding nuclear weapons. The Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons sought to shift international discussions away from nuclear weapons’ asserted security value, and onto the facts and evidence about their catastrophic humanitarian impacts and long-term consequences for people and the environment. Such an examination of the evidence can only lead to the conclusion that these weapons must be prohibited and eliminated as soon as possible. The states that negotiated the TPNW drew this conclusion, and the treaty was the result.
If we are to shift the nuclear weapons policies of nuclear-armed states such as the UK towards these weapons’ abolition, this shift in how nuclear weapons and their legitimacy are considered will also be needed in our national policy discourses. A recommendation of more openness from the UK government about humanitarian impacts, from a committee of the legislative establishment, is therefore significant.
Secondly, the TPNW, and engagement with it, can provide another tool in itself towards generating this narrative and policy shift. The UK government has so far orientated itself extremely negatively towards the TPNW, taking up a position of criticism and non-engagement. The government has stated that the UK will never sign, and accused TPNW proponents of undertaking a divisive and disruptive initiative – despite the government’s frequently stated commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons.
The TPNW is now part of the international framework addressing nuclear disarmament. It is a step that, alongside others, contributes towards creating the global conditions for disarmament, through reinforcing and developing nuclear taboos, and strengthening states’ legal commitments to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons for all. It also provides a multilateral framework through which nuclear-armed states can choose to eliminate their nuclear weapons.
The recommendation from the Lords committee that the government adopt a less aggressive tone towards the TPNW and engage with its supporters is significant in that it encourages engagement with the treaty as a fact on the international landscape, and with the facts and basis on which the treaty was negotiated – both of which can contribute towards changes in policy and narrative.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government’s official response to the Lords report did not respond entirely enthusiastically to these recommendations. The response reiterated some of the government’s criticisms of the TPNW, and expressed the hope that treaty “proponents will minimise disruption to the NPT.” The accusation that the TPNW and states leading the initiative might undermine or disrupt the NPT has been raised by the nuclear-armed states and their supporters since the start of the TPNW initiative, with no discernible basis in policy or legal fact. Though continuing to re-state its negativity towards the TPNW, the government response also nevertheless emphasises that it would engage with all states on “NPT related issues,” including multilateral disarmament.
In relation to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the government stated that it shared “deep concern” at “the humanitarian consequences which could result from the use of nuclear weapons” (emphasis in original) – as if these consequences were somehow only a possibility (“which could”), and seemingly implying that the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons could never entail their “use” (or indeed any accidental detonation, which is also a distinct possibility) – though surely this would undermine the whole logic of the “credible, continuous and effective minimum nuclear deterrent” the response proposes the UK should have.
In our evidence to the committee, Article 36 called on the government to adopt a less confrontational tone and respond positively to the TPNW, notwithstanding its current policy. We recommended that it adopt an approach of constructive engagement, including by observing meetings and contributing expertise on issues such as verification, even if it will not be joining the TPNW soon. The evidence on the current global risks of a nuclear detonation and the catastrophic consequences that would result provide a compelling picture of the urgent need for action on nuclear disarmament.
Engagement with these facts, and acknowledgement of their legitimacy as the basis for the agreement of the TPNW, are key to advancing nuclear disarmament. In recommending that the government adopt a less aggressive response to the TPNW, and display greater openness to the facts underpinning the treaty’s agreement, the Lords were suggesting important steps towards this. Though the government did not choose to fully receive these suggestions, they are an important entry into the UK political discourse on nuclear weapons. Our full paper to the committee can be read here.
Image: UK parliament. Photo: Eric Huybrechts https://www.flickr.com/photos/15979685@N08/15610785779/