Nuclear Weapons (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:41 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 5:41 pm, 16th July 2019

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register of interests, particularly my vice-chairmanship of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I shall do my best to conclude my remarks within the newly imposed time limit. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, on his excellent introductory speech and an excellent report. I extend my congratulations to his committee, its excellent staff and special adviser. On my recent, varied travels many international colleagues who work in this space have been—deservedly—complimentary about this report.

I will use my time to highlight key priorities for the UK, looking ahead to the 2020 review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which will also mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty itself. As the report highlights, the NPT regime is coming under increasing threat. There are several reasons for this, including: lack of progress on disarmament; increasing risk of nuclear weapons use, proliferation, and terrorism; and deepening divisions among the international community on the role of nuclear deterrence, the vision of nuclear disarmament, and the steps required to prevent nuclear weapons use. Two of the most significant drivers contributing to this negative political context are: the growing divide between the recognised nuclear weapon states under the NPT and the non-nuclear weapon states —as the noble Lord and the evidence heard by the committee made clear, the ban treaty is a direct result of these divisions—and the mounting frustration felt by many countries; and the deteriorated political relationship among the nuclear weapon states.

The fast-approaching 2020 RevCon is an important milestone and an opportunity to sustain, reaffirm and demonstrate the vital contribution of the NPT to reducing global dangers and advancing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. If there is a continuing perceived lack of progress to reach the disarmament goal set out in Article VI of the NPT, we may—not at this RevCon, perhaps—reach the point where that failure damages the future of the treaty itself. With 2020 just over a year away, the UK should be alert to that possibility and should do more—and encourage others to do more—to demonstrate concrete progress in meeting the NPT disarmament commitment and pledges, including, for a start, those set out in the 2010 NPT action plan.

The following are the priorities I would recommend in the short time I have. First, looking to 2020, we should all be aware that if the INF treaty collapses and the US and Russia allow the current political tension to undermine the possibility of extending the new START—which must be agreed before February 2021—and the negotiation of its successor, the US and Russia will return to an unregulated nuclear arms competition that has not been seen since the early days of the Cold War. This will have a serious impact on the NPT. Leaders should recall that, in the past, each time a new US-Soviet or US-Russia nuclear arms control agreement was signed, the parties immediately started negotiations for the next one. Today, nine years after the approval of the new START, there is no agreed process or agenda for next steps on nuclear disarmament and risk reduction between Russia and the United States, which, between them, still possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

At the same time, we are witnessing a collapse of the arms control architecture that we have relied on for the past several decades. The INF treaty is under threat, the CFE is not being implemented, the CTBT has not entered into force, and there is no consensus to even commence negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is also in danger of collapse. I understand that, during the preparation of an EU statement at the NPT PrepCom, the UK unsuccessfully attempted to block a reference to the importance of agreement on the extension of the new START. I am sure that noble Lords would be horrified if the motivation for this was driven by a desire not to damage a post-Brexit UK-US relationship. Can the Minister reassure the House that that was not the case? If not, can she explain the Government’s reasoning for this resistance and confirm that the Government are encouraging the extension of a new START in all possible diplomatic forums? Without it, we have no strategic arms control at all.

Secondly, and related to the above, is the importance of risk reduction as an issue for discussion and action among the P5. While nuclear arms control is dormant, US-Russian relations are severely strained, raising concerns about nuclear risk. Dangerous military incidents have occurred and official statements emphasising nuclear capabilities have implied the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used, reviving fears of possible military conflict that could potentially lead to nuclear escalation between Russia and the US. Such a collapse would occur in the context of the recent US nuclear posture review, which expands, not restricts, the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy; concerns about Russia’s nuclear doctrine and the new weapons it is developing, as well as its hybrid warfare activity; and worsening tensions between the West and Russia. Risk reduction has, therefore, gained traction among countries in the past year as an important means of demonstrating the responsibilities of nuclear armed states.

The P5, including the UK, should use the remaining time before the RevCon to agree upon actions that will be taken to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use. These could include leaders of the nuclear armed states making a new declaration reconfirming their common view:

“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

Ideally, this should be led by the US and Russia and done in conjunction with other nuclear weapon states, but in the absence of such leadership the UK could act alone. Is it willing to do so? The UK should lead an effort to develop a Europe-wide—including Russia—understanding of the risks to stability inherent in the emergence of new technology. Pending improved US-Russia relations, European countries need to prepare and advocate practical proposals about how to include these new technologies and weapons systems into the existing arms control, confidence-building instruments or to develop new ones dedicated to these technologies and systems; they are terrifying. I note that the UK response to this report, which I welcome, admits for the first time that the Government recognise the possibility of cybersecurity threats to nuclear deterrence.