Nuclear Disarmament — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office) 3:48 pm, 24th January 2013

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, for a provocative and quite brilliant contribution today. It makes me wish I had heard all his contributions over the previous 25 years or so. I offer him my best wishes for the future.

There was a time when the ambition to make progress in disarmament was considered a sign of naivety in international affairs. I am pleased to say, as this excellent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has demonstrated, that this is no longer true and that the commitment to multilateral disarmament is shared by those of all parties and no party.

This is as true internationally as it is of the debate in Britain. To quote President Obama, the ambition,

"to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons", has in the past few years come to enjoy support from American Administrations, both Republican and Democrat, Presidents of the Soviet Union and of Russia and the Global Zero campaign's advocates, who include a roll call of distinguished figures from dozens of countries.

It is worth reminding ourselves why multilateral disarmament is so vital to the world's safety and security. First, the end of the Cold War marked the expiry of Cold War security doctrines that relied so heavily on nuclear weapons, in particular the American-Soviet deterrence doctrines. Deterrence of course remains crucial, but relying excessively on nuclear weapons to do the deterring is not only more hazardous, but less effective in a world where the threats we face are changing in character, where states still threaten but, increasingly, not only states threaten.

Secondly, the international community's commitment to multilateral disarmament is the corollary of its determination to prevent nuclear proliferation. Maintaining minimally sufficient arsenals, inside an international legal framework that has verified constraints on nuclear weapons, is the only way to combine national security needs with a minimisation of the risks of proliferation. Reversing our reliance on nuclear weapons globally is integral to preventing their proliferation into dangerous hands. However, there is a moral pressure point here, too. If we demand that states without nuclear weapons commit to never having them, possessor states have a duty and self-interest to take the necessary steps towards co-ordinated disarmament. It is the bargain at the heart of the non-proliferation treaty, and as concerns about North Korea, Iran and nuclear terrorism increase, its logic becomes more, not less, compelling.

Over the past 25 years, I am proud to say that Britain has been a leader both in its own unilateral actions and internationally. We have eliminated two complete weapons systems. We are the only possessor country to have a deterrent based on just one system. We have reduced the number of warheads by 75% since the end of the Cold War, so that we now have less than 1% of the global stockpile. We have led the way on nuclear security through our global threat reduction programme, which has helped nearly 20 beneficiary countries so far. We are world leaders in innovation in the development of proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel cycles and in proposals such as a generalisable nuclear fuel guarantee. I pay tribute to this Government for continuing our leadership on reducing dependence on nuclear weapons with their decision to reduce the number of operational warheads and reducing our overall stockpile.

That is a strong moral lead, and it puts the UK in a position to be a demandeur with our allies and beyond, and to make real and continuing progress in multilateral disarmament. As Malcolm Rifkind said last year at the Munich Security Conference, momentum is everything. 2009-10 was, as many speakers have said, in many respects a period of optimism. There was the innovation of the nuclear security summit cycle; a new START treaty and the NPT Review Conference in 2010. However, that momentum has now stalled. Optimism about further progress in US-Russia disarmament discussions is hard to find. Progress on the outcomes of the 2010 NPT conference has been limited at best. The attention of the possessor states is rightly focused on the dangers posed by Iran, North Korea and others, but the price has been a further detachment between the twin goals of non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament. Meanwhile, there is the continuing backdrop of China, India and Pakistan focusing more on expanding and modernising their nuclear weapons capacity than seeking to limit it.

It is not our responsibility alone to prioritise regaining this momentum, but it is our responsibility. With the start of the second term of President Obama's Administration, we have a chance to try to restore American focus on this issue, too.

What needs to be done? I think the challenges lie in four different areas, and I ask for the Minister's view on the Government's plans in each. First, we need to restore energy to building the architecture of treaties and regimes that breed confidence, and that attempt to bring as many states as possible into the net of international legal obligations around nuclear weapons, nuclear material and nuclear security.

Specifically, we have slightly less than two years to show concrete progress on the range of commitments under the NPT Treaty before the 2014 PrepCom meeting. What are the UK's priorities? The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty still awaits the signatories of eight countries that hold nuclear technology. Key to this is the United States. President Obama has said that he will pursue ratification with the Senate. Can the Minister reassure us that we are using our relationship with the White House and State Department to ensure that he lives up to this commitment?

I also ask the Minister for her assessment of the prospects of two other initiatives. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned, the postponement of the Helsinki conference for a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons suggests bleak prospects, but I hope that she can provide some silver lining. What are the prospects for the elusive fissile material cut-off treaty? They should have improved since President Obama reversed the Americans' long-standing problem with verification methods. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out, Pakistan is a stumbling block here. Will the Minister say what pressure is being brought to bear on the Pakistani Government?

Secondly, we need to continue momentum in measures to increase nuclear security. This is crucial to confidence-building, perhaps more than anything else, and is key to unlocking progress on both the non-proliferation and the disarmament fronts. The nuclear security summits cycle has been one of the best developments in recent years. The summits have led to important first steps in areas such as safe disposal of highly enriched uranium. Britain has led the way in this area-in research work, in international assistance to other states, and in transparency by opening up to review missions from the IAEA. Will the Minister confirm that the UK is on course to meet its commitments for the next nuclear security summit in Holland and outline its agenda for that summit?

Thirdly, we need to build on the real achievements of the START treaty signed in 2010 by Russia and the USA in significantly reducing the numbers of deployed strategic warheads and missile launchers, and in achieving some progress on monitoring and inspections. That treaty looked for a while as though it would be the prelude to further milestones on US-Russia co-operation on disarmament. As many speakers have said, sadly, that has not materialised. What does the Minister think is a realistic ambition for phase 2 of the START process? How can the UK play a supporting role in helping to bring that about?

There is one area in particular where I believe there exists widespread support for a major breakthrough; namely, the goal of NATO and Russia removing all tactical nuclear weapons from combat bases on the European continent. Attachments to legacies of the Cold War with little or no credible deterrence capability drains valuable resources from an alliance facing up to new kinds of threats, such as those potentially in north Africa. The Global Zero Commission, which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, along with Malcolm Rifkind, David Miliband and others, has supported so vigorously, has called for the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe to be the next disarmament priority. Do the Government share that view?