Day 15 at NPT: Taking Stock, NPT and UK

Posted by Rebecca Johnson

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference President Libran Cabactulan (Philippines) held his 14th plenary late on Wednesday 19th May to “take stock”. The three Committee chairs all reported that negotiations were proceeding on the basis of the draft reports issued last Friday, and that they planned to have revised drafts available Thursday if possible.  A revised Draft action plan from Subsidiary Body 1 (practical disarmament) chaired by Alexander Marschik (Austria) was circulated.  This “includes concrete steps towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons” and is available at:

Ambassador Cabactulan concluded by noting that the Chairs’ texts had been “generally well received” and urged the Committees to “continue their serious work and seek consensus”.  He set them the target of adopting revised reports by 6.00 pm Friday, and said that the next plenary would be Monday May 24th (which happens also to be International Women’s Day for Disarmament).

UK statement

A week after the UK got its first coalition government in over half a century, Britain’s Ambassador John Duncan finally got to deliver the UK plenary statement, which mainly consisted of a box summarising “the UK’s progress to date” on the 13 practical steps agreed and adopted by the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which look pretty impressive until you remember that the previous government had made an unequivocal undertaking to build three or four nuclear submarines to carry some 50 (ish) US Trident missiles topped with up to 160 nuclearwarheads (each of which would be some 8 times bigger than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, at about 100 kilotons) so that Britain would be sure still to be a nuclear-armed state in noncompliance with the nuclear-weapon states’ NPT obligations for the next fifty years.

Though the majority of Labour Party members had long been opposed to this expensive and dangerous nonsense, the recent party leadership (notably T. Blair, G. Brown, P. Mandelson) were so traumatised by electoral defeats in the 1980s which they conveniently blamed on the advocacy of nuclear disarmament in the cold war, that they failed to notice in 2007 that the cold war had ended. So just as the US’s cold war policymakers Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn were concluding that relying on nuclear weapons for deterrence was “becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective”, the Labour leadership committed the UK to spending somewhere between 20-76 billion on a cold war nuclear system that will not protect us and has no strategic rationale or militarily useful purpose. (The huge disparity in these projected costs represents calculations in 2007 from Labour and Liberal Democrat documents respectively Greenpeace crunched the numbers and came up with a Trident renewal price tag of 98 billion.)

When Nick Clegg challenged the Trident replacement decision in the first two leadership debates and stated the LibDems’ opposition to spending gazillions on the Trident status symbol, his poll numbers went up significantly. While there was a mixture of reasons for his increased popularity after the debates, it is at least reasonable to draw the conclusion from this poll data and the election of a Scottish parliamentary majority and government in May 2007) that opposing nuclear weapons nowadays is an electoral advantage, not liability.

The cold war is over, the security environment is very different now, and in the UK there’s a new government that may be able to look at security and defence with fresher eyes.  The concluded Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has now been published.

On the NPT, this states, “We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money.   Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives. We will immediately play a strong role in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and press for continued progress on multilateral disarmament.”

Elsewhere (and with a minor rearrangement of words), the Agreement says: “We have commenced a Strategic Defence and Security Review, commissioned and overseen by the National Security Council, with strong Treasury involvement. We will also develop and publish a new National Security Strategy.”

Though the Conservatives have generally been thought to be the knee-jerk pro-nuclear party, they also see themselves as close to the UK armed forces. And senior military figures are less interested in nuclear weapons – which they regard as unusable – than in getting budget increases for equipping the armed forces and developing a strategy for extricating Britain from the Afghanistan war without provoking political collapse or losing military face.  So sense and international law might yet prevail and as Nixon decided to go to China, Britain might yet become the first nuclear weapon state to comply fully with its NPT obligations.

And finally, not yet there with TNW…

Meanwhile, I am still chasing up on tactical nuclear weapons, trying to make sure that I get an accurate report on a heated debate over this that occurred between Russia and Germany in Subsidiary Body 1, which was closed to civil society for reasons that go back into the mists of NPT time…   but little by little we have been prising the doors open, with the help of forward-thinking national and UN diplomats.  However, it has been deemed that some governments’ deliberations (notably practical disarmament, the Middle East, and institutional reform and withdrawal) are too sensitive for our non-governmental ears (despite [or perhaps because of?] the fact that we have been the originators, purveyors and encouragers of most if not all the ideas under discussion).  So as I wasn’t able to see and hear this exchange personally I am dependent on the perceptions of others, and want therefore to make sure that I speak to all concerned.  I’m nearly there, and hope to bring the delayed blog on TNW out later today.

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