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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:06 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Deputy Speaker (Lords), Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee 6:06 pm, 16th July 2019

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Howell for his excellent introduction to this debate. I thank the clerks and our researcher for this technical, detailed report.

Our committee’s report makes it very clear that we are living through a time of worldwide disruption and change. The global balance of power is shifting and fragmenting. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is under pressure, and the evidence we took showed that the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is a factor in international relations in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War. Arms control agreements are collapsing. Clear proof of that is given by the highly regrettable announcement by the US of its unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, which after all was multilaterally negotiated with Iran and unanimously adopted through United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231. Consequent developments in the Straits of Hormuz should be enough to make all of us deeply concerned about security, not only in the region but more widely.

I welcome the E3 statement on the JCPOA, published on Sunday and updated today, which reaffirms the commitments of the UK, France and Germany to the agreement. What is the Government’s current assessment of, and response to, the escalating tensions between the US and Iran? What efforts has the UK made to discourage Iran from continuing to exceed the JCPOA agreed limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium and from restarting its nuclear programme? The landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers is facing one of its toughest tests since it came into effect in 2015.

My generation grew up during the Cold War. We were keenly aware of the risk of the use of nuclear weapons. I still remember clearly the development of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 and its impact on the view of civil society, and on our view, as schoolchildren, about the risk of nuclear war. The confrontation between the US and Soviet Russia followed the US discovery of Soviet deployment of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in Cuba with a range that could hit most of continental USA.

The minimal attention paid by the media and civil society to the risk of nuclear conflagration over the past few decades could be considered proof of the success of the negotiation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 1970. That treaty approaches its 50th anniversary next year. More countries have adhered to the NPT than to any other arms limitation or disarmament agreement —a testament to the treaty’s significance. It has its successes: it has near-universal membership; it has established an international norm against new states acquiring nuclear weapons; and there has been a considerable reduction in nuclear stockpiles since the 1980s.

Significantly, however, we were given evidence that the programmes of many nuclear possessor states go well beyond what can properly be described as modernisation to introducing new capabilities and potentially increasing nuclear risk. We were particularly concerned about new developments in the field of tactical nuclear weapons. We note, at paragraph 197 of our report, that the UK’s nuclear modernisation programme, though not without its critics, focuses on the renewal of its existing capabilities for a minimum credible deterrent. We recommend that the Government encourage other nuclear-armed states to exercise restraint in their modernisation programmes and avoid expanding their nuclear capabilities. How do the Government propose to respond to our recommendation in practical terms in their dealings with nuclear possessor states?

Despite our concerns about the misuse of modernisation programmes, the treaty remains a critical part of international security. As has been mentioned, it is often seen to be based on a central bargain of three pillars: that non-nuclear weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons but that, in exchange, the NPT nuclear weapon states agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals. I therefore welcome the Government’s response to paragraph 96 of our report, where they now clarify that they remain,

“committed to implementing all three pillars”.

We conclude in our report that there is a danger that misunderstanding, miscalculation or mistakes could lead to the use of nuclear weapons, and that steps to manage and reduce this risk should be of the highest priority for the Government. Dr Rebecca Johnson, one of our inquiry’s witnesses, has subsequently written that the 2019 PrepCom for the 2020 RevCon seemed to proceed better than expected. She said:

“By comparison with 2018, British positions were more open and constructive, probably influenced by the report from the House of Lords International Relations Committee”.

The PrepCom seemed to show some slow forward movement in its discussions on nuclear risk, de-alerting, and the gendered underpinnings of nuclear weapons policies and practices. It adopted the necessary procedural requirements, including the nomination of Argentina’s Rafael Grossi as president of next year’s RevCon. It was a privilege to hear him give evidence to our committee.

However, the PrepCom still failed to agree substantive recommendations on the major issues of heightened nuclear risks and proliferation it had been discussing for two weeks. What is the Minister’s assessment of the reasons for that failure? How do the Government plan to resolve those issues before next year’s RevCon? Will they use their chairing of the P5 process to that end? What will be their priorities for seeking an agreement? The noble Lord, Lord Browne, should be congratulated not only on his speech tonight but on being the progenitor of the P5 process.

Preparations for a successful 2020 RevCon are vital for our future security. It is not just our diplomatic reputation that is at stake but our global security. It is important that there should be greater public awareness of the significance of those issues. I hope that our committee’s report has made some contribution to that. Complacency about nuclear risk is the greatest risk to our global safety. There is an old saying: “a watched pot never boils”. It is time for everyone internationally, parliaments, Governments, media and civil society to watch the nuclear pot with increased care. It cannot be allowed to boil.