Not surprisingly, the debate about nuclear weapons in Britain is dominated by Trident and whether or not it should be replaced. The £100 billion – or more – price tag on a replacement focuses many minds on the opportunity cost. In some quarters its Cold War origins raise concerns that it doesn’t meet current security needs, while others fear that scrapping Trident would lead to loss of national status. Either way, the debate will run and run, strongly featuring in the 2015 general election, and then on to the parliamentary decision on replacement in 2016.
But quite a different debate is taking place worldwide. The overwhelming majority of states don’t possess nuclear weapons and their concern is to secure the disarmament of the eight – possibly nine – states that do. For these states, nuclear weapons are a potentially existential threat, wielded by others, generally for political and status purposes. All of these states are signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, pledging not to develop nuclear weapons. Of course the other side of the NPT coin is that states with nuclear weapons have pledged to disarm. And frustration with the failure of nuclear weapons states to meet this commitment is now boiling over.
This week sees a further attempt by the nuclear ‘have-nots’ to bring the ‘haves’ to book as the Norwegian Government hosts a conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. Whilst everyone knows that nuclear use would be disastrous, the specific impact of a detonation – economically, developmentally and environmentally – whether intentional or accidental, has been under-researched. This is certainly true of those states which hold the arsenals. But recent work by experts on the climate consequences of a ‘small’ exchange shows that a billion could die from starvation resulting from crop failure. Other experts demonstrate the lack of preparedness and existing capacity to respond to this type of disaster.
Clearly no-one is advocating a return to the ‘Protect and Survive’ head in the sand mentality of governments in the 1980s, duping us in to thinking that nuclear war could be survivable. But what the information shared at the Oslo conference reinforces is the need to outlaw these weapons altogether. They are just too dangerous, to humanity and to the planet itself. Yet whilst the 130 countries which have sent delegates to the conference recognise this, together with many civil society organisations and – significantly – the International Red Cross movement, sadly our own government does not. Together with the other NPT-defined nuclear weapons states, the British government declined the invitation to Oslo – even though Defence Secretary Hammond was observing UK army exercises in Norway at the same time. Of all those countries possessing nuclear weapons, only India and Pakistan have participated.
Our government routinely confirms its commitment to the goal of multilateral disarmament and to working within the NPT framework. As this conference sits squarely within those definitions, it is hard to see why it failed to participate. As we head towards the NPT conference in Geneva next month, hard questions should be asked by our parliamentarians.
This blog was first published on Politics Home on 6th March 2013