The House of Commons Defence Committee has just unveiled its report into the breakdown of the landmark Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (1) This is a crucial matter, vital to peace in Europe and beyond, so it was disappointing to find this report a most unedifying read. Indeed it pretty much turns the Committee into a cheer leader for President Trump – far from the actual role designated to it which is essentially scrutiny and accountability. The parliament website describes it thus: ‘The Defence Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration, and policy of the Ministry of Defence and its associated public bodies.’
Why then are we treated to this disappointing and unbalanced report which fails both to address the reality of a US President who is abandoning the international rules-based system, and to consider what this means for Britain – particularly in light of the so-called special relationship? It sweeps aside any US responsibility for the breakdown of the INF treaty, despite Trump initiating US withdrawal, stating in its summary that ‘if the Treaty fails, the sole responsibility for its failure will lie with Russia’.
Trump’s withdrawal from the universally applauded Iran nuclear deal was perhaps the clearest sign of his dangerous new approach to international legal norms, but the report doesn’t deem it relevant even to mention it. There isn’t a single reference to Trump’s unpicking of the Iran deal on any of the report’s 47 pages.
It also fails to point out how US withdrawal from the INF treaty will effectively legalise the activities for which Russia stands accused by President Trump, and removes the framework through which they could be investigated and resolved. The truth is, both Russia and the US had concerns about each other’s compliance with the treaty, but how will these concerns be addressed when the treaty is gone?
This failure of critical thought by the Defence Committee is all the more disappointing because the Committee has, in the past, played a valuable and objective role in scrutinising government actions. In 2006, when the Blair government was trying to press ahead with Trident replacement without a full public and parliamentary debate, it was the Defence Committee – chaired by James Arbuthnot MP – which initiated a series of inquiries into Britain’s nuclear weapons that were probably the most in-depth and serious to date. CND participated in all of them, and in June 2006 we welcomed the fact that its first report included the abolition of Britain’s nuclear weapons system as one of the options that should be considered. The report also gave thorough consideration to the issues of status, independence and current and future threats, and highlighted the failure of the government at that point to facilitate a full debate. It also strongly criticised the Ministry of Defence for its refusal to participate in the inquiry.
Today’s Defence Committee is a pale shadow of its former self. A robust democracy demands a high standard of objectivity and independence – at both national and international levels – from its parliamentary select committees. Today the Defence Committee was been found seriously wanting.
- Russia responsible for end of INF Treaty says Defence Committee
Defence Committee Report – 4 April 2019