Weapons of Mass Destruction

– in Westminster Hall at 3:33 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North 3:33 pm, 22nd March 2005

In some ways, this debate should be considered in the context of two previous Westminster Hall debates. The first took place on 18 January 2000, when we looked ahead to the new millennium and the issue of weapons of mass destruction. We need to consider how we have moved forward in the past five years. The second debate, which took place on 8 March 2005, was secured by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. We examined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review. I mention that if only to try to minimise the repetition of points made by me and by others in that debate, for which the same Minister was present.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

And the same Deputy Speaker.

I also want to concentrate on the relevant section of the United Nations Secretary-General's high-level panel report, "A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility", to which the Secretary-General responded yesterday.

I said in the debate on 18 January 2000 that I felt insufficient media attention was given to this subject, although it has received considerably more subsequently. Initially, that was in part due to the all-party group on global security and non-proliferation, which was established that same week.

The Foreign Affairs Committee, in a report that year on weapons of mass destruction, said:

"Media interest in nuclear weapons and arms control treaties was boosted in March 2000 when Michael Douglas, UN Goodwill Ambassador, urged Members of Parliament to encourage the Prime Minister to take a leading role in preserving arms control regimes."

It said also that while the British and international media coverage had "eye-catching headlines", it gave serious coverage to the issue, which was followed up in a further meeting that we had with the then UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala.

More permanently, the issue has also featured highly as a result of the terrible events of 9/11. Although they did not involve WMD, they bought to our attention the threat of WMD and terrorism. It is a matter of common consent that they are a major problem and one about which our worries have increased since 2000.

As I have said before, it is important that we use careful definitions in relation to WMD and terrorism, particularly as they can be used as a pretext for war. As many people have said, the term "WMD" contains the danger that, although it is a useful phrase, it blurs the difference between the threats posed by different forms of weapon. The radiological weapon, or dirty bomb, is sometimes included in this area. As the high-level panel's report says, it should perhaps be described as a weapon of mass disruption in that it would probably cause comparatively few fatalities, but could lead to a large part of a city being uninhabitable for a while.

The vast majority of chemical and biological threats would also not cause mass fatalities. A lot of loose talk is used in relation to lethal materials such as ricin, which have not been put into a weaponised form that could be used to kill a large number of people at the same time. Similarly, it should be remembered that the worst case analysis of an anthrax attack on Washington was based on a highly sophisticated weaponised version of that agent being used.

However, one cannot rule out the possibility of serious biological attacks if, for example, someone wished to cause indiscriminate death on a large scale and distributed a virus in a hub airport. There is also the possible danger, as the report indicates, of biotechnology or genetic manipulation enabling things of a much more serious nature to occur. In general, it is true of nuclear weapons that we can say, as the report does, that any use would be catastrophic.

On terrorism, it is perhaps important to define the terms we use, because while all terrorism is heinous—the high-level panel correctly condemns all forms of terrorism—it is probably true that the majority of political terrorists would not find it in their own interest to cause massive fatalities. However, they might find that something such as a dirty bomb would be in their interests.

It is only the absolutist, unconditional, apocalyptic groups of the type that the Prime Minister described shortly after the events of 9/11 that would want to kill very large numbers of people. We think primarily of al-Qaeda, but we should not think just of Islamic fundamentalism, as can be seen from the examples of the Aum sect or Timothy McVeigh. We should also recognise that we cannot rule out the possibility that political terrorist groups can become absolutist terrorist groups, be it through fanaticism or frustration.

If we are to reduce chemical and biological terrorist risks, we need to get far better control of the stocks that exist, particularly in the former Soviet Union. As the high-level panel says, we need to apply the chemical weapons convention and set about trying to destroy all chemical weapons by the target date of 2012. We also need to seek to establish, through negotiation, a biological and toxic weapons convention with proper verification.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

I recently asked the Foreign Secretary in a written question if he would

"list each multilateral negotiating forum in which United Kingdom nuclear weapons are under discussion pursuant to . . . Article 6 of the . . . non proliferation treaty."

My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, answering on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, stated:

"None." —[Hansard, 10 March 2005; Vol. 431 c.2002W.]

Does my hon. Friend Mr. Savidge agree that that puts the United Kingdom in breach of its obligations under article 6 of the NPT? It states:

"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament".

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

With my hon. Friend's permission, I would rather leave it to the Minister to say what the Government's position is on that.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

I am sorry, but I am short of time.

The greatest immediate threat is from nuclear weapons. The high-level panel indicated that there is a real possibility of terrorists producing a simple gun-type nuclear device, whereby the combination of two amounts of highly enriched uranium could produce a bomb roughly similar to that which the South African Government produced during the apartheid era. The panel suggests that the use of such a weapon in a major city could lead to the deaths of anything from tens of thousands of people to more than 1 million.

One need only imagine the scenario of, say, a suicide bomber in a van in London taking out the whole of Westminster, Whitehall and Buckingham palace. If they chose the state opening, for instance, they would destroy not only the buildings, but the people, which would decapitate the state. One can picture similar scenarios in different capitals. An attack in Washington during the State of the Union address could take out the Executive, the Congress and the judiciary. One can repeat that example for various capitals, whether of dictatorships or democracies. Such an attack could devastate a country and cause panic worldwide. Modern capitals cannot ban vehicles from their centre, so it is therefore in the common interest of all countries, of whatever type, that we co-operate to reduce that threat.

It is important that we reduce proliferation both of nuclear materials and among states and non-state actors. The high-level panel report indicates that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has enjoyed considerable success, with only eight definite nuclear weapons states—with the possible addition of North Korea—over 40 years, as compared with the much higher number that most experts predicted beforehand.

However, the "atoms for peace" strategy, as Eisenhower put it, has had problems. Civil nuclear energy and military production were assumed to be completely separate, but we now know that they can have considerable dual use. We must therefore beware of the fact that the nuclear power industry produces not only materials that terrorists could use, but targets that they could attack.

The report also indicates that as many as 40 of the 60 states that now have nuclear power are suspected of being able to produce nuclear weapons fairly rapidly. It warns of the risk of a cascade of proliferation. We must therefore recognise the basic risks in the nuclear power industry. However, on the assumption that it will continue to expand, we must certainly try to reduce reprocessing and enrichment, ensure the use of low-enriched uranium rather than highly-enriched uranium, enforce the additional protocol and increase security in the ways discussed at the International Atomic Energy Agency conference that the Government hosted in London last week.

We must also have the utmost control. It is not satisfactory that Sellafield cannot account for significant quantities of weapons-grade material, not only because of the risk of material that is not being properly checked being passed to terrorists: how can we answer if a country such as Iran claims that it cannot account for significant amounts of such material? Will we find that acceptable?

I repeat the appeal that Senator Sam Nunn made when he spoke at the conference and here in Parliament: when the UK is to try to persuade the G8 to deal with the problems of climate change and global poverty, we should also insist that we fulfil the promises made at the G8 meeting in Canada to give proper financial support to the threat reduction programme of decommissioning. That is vital in and of itself, but it is important also because not fulfilling past pledges gives little meaning to the commitments that we make at future G8 meetings. Furthermore, the four issues of poverty, climate, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism are crucially interlinked as we try to build a safer world.

The report makes many other constructive suggestions, which I shall not go into because of time and because some were covered in our debate on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but I repeat the one major claim made on the nuclear weapons states. We should not abandon the 13 steps that were agreed at the NPT review conference in 2000 and we should give evidence of good faith as to our commitments, including those under article 6, as my hon. Friend Llew Smith indicated.

The report comments on the A. Q. Khan threat of black market distribution of such materials and suggests that the proliferation security initiative deserves support in that respect. The only caution that one should offer is to be wary of precipitate military action, because that can obviously be dangerous, in which context it is correct that the world community is thinking of diplomacy to address the difficult situations with Iran and North Korea.

We should also not forget that there are worse dangers than nuclear terrorism, such as regional nuclear war. Only two or three years ago, India and Pakistan faced terrible risks. There was an acute danger at that time, and we should give our fullest support to the leaderships of both countries, including the past and present Government of India, in their work in the peace process. I am sure that they would say that a number of other countries, especially the US and the UK, played a crucial, positive role in helping to defuse that dangerous situation. However, we must face the fact that if there is more proliferation, further risks of regional war may increase.

There is also the risk of accidental nuclear war. It is surely insane that, this long after the end of the cold war, there are thousands of nuclear weapons, exceeding any possible rational defence or deterrence requirement of any country involved. It is even more insane that so many weapons are on hair-trigger alert. The United Kingdom has set an example by de-alerting, and we should urge other nuclear weapons states to follow it.

I stress the views in the report of the high-level panel, but one cannot ignore the fact that there are different views in the world today. There are influential voices in the United States—neo-conservatives and other hawks—who, in their most extreme version, take a view of US national sovereignty that opposes international treaties, arms control and the United Nations. Such commentators take the view that military might rather than common security should be the basis of defence and that aggression should take preference over diplomacy. Also, they talk of pre-emptive and preventative war. The Project for the New American Century talks of seeking US military dominance throughout the century. There are also plans for new nuclear weapons, and the military-industrial complex seems to be even more powerful than when General Eisenhower coined the phrase.

Such voices give frighteningly different visions from that espoused by George Bush senior of a new world order. Indeed, I would suggest that such views are very different from the mainstream tradition of both the Democratic and Republican parties. If such counsels prevail, we will surely increase rather than reduce the risks we face, and we may even face the risk of global nuclear war, whether before or after the end of the century, which could endanger humanity as a whole.

In a world where nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented, and if we are to have a more secure future, we need to strengthen the United Nations and international treaties and progressively to develop a fair system of international governance and law whereby conflict can be resolved without resort to war. That might seem an impossibly distant vision for a human race whose entire history and culture have been dominated by war, but it shows the scale of the challenge we face.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 3:50 pm, 22nd March 2005

My hon. Friend Mr. Savidge raises an important subject, in which I know he has a long-term interest. As he said, he took part in the debate on similar matters that occurred here two weeks ago. We all agree that weapons of mass destruction pose one of the biggest threats to the security of the United Kingdom and its interests, at home and abroad.

My hon. Friend referred to the recommendations of the UN high-level panel. That is a body which has our support and we are already acting on many of its recommendations. I shall also deal at this stage with his point about Sellafield. He made a point that I do not suppose he would want to press too seriously, comparing the situation in Sellafield with that in Iran. UK civil nuclear facilities, unlike those in Iran, are fully open to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, so there can be no doubt about our willingness to co-operate fully and answer any questions that the international community may have, although I note his point.

The main threat is the use of WMD by states and terrorists against the UK or against British economic interests.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

On the question of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, going back to a previous job held by the Minister and a far more important one, editor of Tribune, I know that he was a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, if he was not a member. With that in mind, does he agree that there are no circumstances that justify the use of nuclear weapons? While I am on my feet, I ask him to answer the question that my hon. Friend Mr. Savidge refused to answer on the non-proliferation treaty.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I shall have to come back to my hon. Friend on the point about the non-proliferation treaty; I shall drop him a note about that. As he said, I was an undistinguished editor of Tribune and it is extremely difficult to foresee any circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used. That, I think, given my current incarnation, is about as far as I can go.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

My question was not whether the Minister could foresee any circumstances. I asked whether he accepts that under no circumstances could the use of nuclear weapons be justified. This is a Government position and I assume, as the Minister is part of the Government, that he has no problems answering that particular question.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I know what my hon. Friend is attempting to do: he wants somehow to separate me from the rest of my Government colleagues, and I decline, if he will forgive me, to go any further down that road.

I spoke about how the main threat is the use of WMD by states and terrorists against the UK or against British economic and strategic interests overseas. We are addressing the production and trafficking of WMD-related material by states, companies and individuals, and working to guard against less obvious risks such as the use of higher education courses in the UK and elsewhere by individuals seeking to acquire technology for proliferation purposes.

Limiting the threat posed by WMD requires coherent policies to detect, deter, check and roll back programmes for the development of WMD and related delivery systems in countries of concern such as North Korea and Iran. We are deeply concerned about North Korea's decision to suspend participation in the six-party talks and its claim of an enhanced nuclear capability. We urge North Korea to re-engage and support the efforts of the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to that end.

We also have serious concerns about Iran's nuclear programme. Following our agreement with Iran, we—along with colleagues from France, Germany and the European Union—are engaged in discussions with Iranian officials. We want a long-term agreement that will provide objective guarantees that Iran's nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. The steering committee established under the agreement is meeting tomorrow to review progress.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

Can my hon. Friend tell us whether there is any truth in the reports in the press last week that Iran suggested a joint project with the United States so that the US could be reassured about its programme?

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am not aware of any.

Given such clear threats, we must strengthen international co-operation against the proliferation and the use of WMD. We must at all costs maintain an effective multilateral regime. As I said when we debated this subject two weeks ago, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty remains the cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation. It is a strong treaty, with the widest membership of any arms control treaty, and it retains the wholehearted support of the UK and the vast majority of the international community.

However, recent events have shown that a number of states continue to pursue clandestine nuclear weapons programmes and that there are individuals willing to assist them by providing sensitive materials and technology. The treaty must, therefore, be strengthened.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have only a few minutes left and I am unlikely to get to the end of my speech. I shall happily have a discussion with him after the proceedings are over.

We have no wish to reopen the treaty, but we need stronger measures to address non-compliance. We also want to build support for new measures to combat the spread of sensitive technology. We want to ensure that sensitive nuclear items are not exported to states that may use them for weapons purposes or allow them to fall into terrorist hands.

We are working with partners to make the necessary amendments to the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines. We are also working to put into effect the principles set out in the written statement to the House of 25 February 2004 from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, which said that states that fail to comply with their IAEA safeguards obligations should forfeit access to enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology.

As regards biological and chemical weapons, we continue to work towards universal adherence to the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention, in particular to include states such as Egypt, Syria and Israel. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Geneva protocol against the use of chemical and biological warfare and the 30th anniversary of the biological and toxin weapons convention. The UK will chair this year's annual meetings, where we will be discussing such issues as codes of conduct for scientists. As president of the G8, we will follow up on a range of earlier suggestions on tackling biological threats.

A stronger international framework is essential, but not sufficient in itself, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North will agree, to meet the proliferation threat. We want greater practical engagement in counter-proliferation by other states and regional groups. We played a major role in the formulation and unanimous adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1540, adopted on 28 April 2004, which was the first to address the threat posed by WMD proliferation. It obliges all countries to introduce robust legislation to tackle the threat. We welcome work done by the UN Secretary-General's high-level panel.

We are also committed to supporting the G8's global partnership and the proliferation security initiative. We contribute £36.5 million to the global partnership, which deals with dismantling nuclear submarines; safe and secure storage of over 20,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies; the safe destruction of Russia's chemical weapons stocks; and new employment opportunities for former nuclear scientists and engineers in the former Soviet Union. Over a 10-year period, we expect to invest about $750 million.

The UK strongly supports the May 2003 proliferation security initiative to prevent trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and related technology by states and terrorist groups or criminal networks. Export control is only as strong as its weakest link. We must ensure that multilateral export control regimes are effective and that progressive proposals are not unreasonably held back by one or two states. We must also keep such controls proportionate and simple to administer. In addition to those international efforts, we must act effectively at home.

The first line of defence is an effective outreach programme to alert industry and academic institutions to the possibility that UK technology could help proliferators and to raise awareness of export legislation. The Export Control Act 2002 includes a range of measures aimed at preventing WMD technology from falling into the wrong hands. We should never underestimate the potential threat posed by WMD, but the Government believe that such threats can be minimised through effective multilateralism and concerted domestic efforts. Counter-proliferation will remain a key priority for us and we shall continue to take the lead in promoting a strong international response.