Skip to main content

Disarmament Sub-Committee (Report)

Volume 529: debated on Monday 28 June 1954

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

At the end of Questions—

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now answer Questions Nos. 38 and 43.

The Sub-Committee of the United Nations Disarmament Commission held 19 meetings in London between 13th May and 22nd June. Its report is in the Library. Her Majesty's Government sought a comprehensive agreement providing for the total prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, together with major reductions in armed forces and other armaments, the whole to be carried out under effective international control.

The establishment of such effective international control is an essential condition of any disarmament plan. The control organ must be given rights and powers adequate to enable it to detect evasions. It must also be able to take immediate action to stop the continuance of such evasions. If its authority is challenged by the Government of the country concerned, there must be a rapid procedure, not subject to the veto, for enforcement. Above all, if there is to be any reality in the prohibitions or reductions, the officers of the control organ must be in position, equipped with adequate facilities, at the moment when the prohibitions and reductions begin to take effect.

In accordance with these views, we sought to achieve agreement in the Sub-Committee. I would draw the attention of the House particularly to the Anglo-French proposals tabled on 11th June. These were new proposals for the phasing of a world disarmament programme.

We suggested that during the first phase, a preliminary phase, the control organ should be established and put in position. During the second phase, half the agreed reductions in conventional armaments and the prohibition on the manufacture of nuclear weapons would take effect. During the third phase, the remainder of the reductions in conventional armaments, and the total elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, would take effect. The timing of the three phases would be regulated by the international control organ itself.

Of course, conditions precedent to such a plan are, first, agreement on the weapons to be prohibited and the extent of the reductions in other weapons, and, second, agreement upon the functions and powers of the international control organ. We sought to discuss these matters, and certain papers were tabled.

The Anglo-French proposals were an attempt to meet in important respects Soviet objections to previous plans. The attitude of the Soviet Government, however, remained quite rigid throughout. The Soviet representative took the line that it was a waste of time to discuss detailed proposals unless we first accepted the Soviet proposal that there should be an immediate and unsupervised prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons. This was to be followed by agreement on the total prohibition of nuclear weapons and on reductions by one-third in the armed forces and armaments of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the prohibition and reductions to come into effect simultaneously with the establishment of an international control organ.

It was clear that by the word "establishment" the Soviet representative meant the commencement of a process of negotiating the functions and powers of the control organ. He also made it quite clear that he was not prepared for the control organ to be established and to be in position capable of functioning before the prohibitions and reductions came into effect.

That is a position with regard to disarmament which we cannot accept. We earnestly seek disarmament but it must be under a properly supervised and enforced system in which States can be confident that other States are also carrying out their obligations.

I do not think our discussions were a waste of time. We had a full and frank exchange of views. We must now continue the discussions in the Disarmament Commission. Hard though the task may be, we must never give up our attempts to achieve a disarmament plan acceptable to both sides.

In expressing the great disappointment that many of us feel at the failure of the conference to achieve agreement, may I ask whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not agree that the discussions appear to indicate no fundamental difference in principle between the views of the Russian Government and those of the Western Governments but rather on the important question of machinery? Will not the Minister of State undertake that, as soon as the international atmosphere improves—if there be political settlements in the Far East—every attempt will be made by Her Majesty's Government to bring about further meetings and efforts by this important Sub-Committee in the direction of securing a disarmament agreement?

We will certainly carry on, both in the Disarmament Commission and in the General Assembly, and, if need be, by further meetings of this Sub-Committee. It is true that both sides profess to want the total prohibition of nuclear weapons, but there is a fundamental difference on the very important point of the practical arrangements of safeguarding such prohibition in production.

While I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the principles which, apparently, he laid down are principles which would be approved of by the whole House, would he not say that this controversy as to the application of the principle is one which might well be discussed between the heads of the big three States? Quite obviously, no reduction in tension in the world will be achieved until we can get some sort of scheme for reducing the weight of armaments.

There is so much technical detail about this matter and the discussions take such a very long time that I am not sure that the question of machinery is very suitable for discussion between heads of States. It cannot be done without going into a great deal of detail. I assure the hon. Member, however, that we certainly will not give up the task of trying to narrow the difference.

In view of the many tendentious things that have been said, can the Minister of State assure us that he and his advisers are satisfied that the abolition of the weapons of mass destruction is technically practicable? May we take it that the proposals which he put forward in the Sub-Committee were firm proposals by Her Majesty's Government, which they would be willing to write into an international treaty as soon as the Russians agreed?

I quite agree that the last seven years have made the enforcement of such a prohibition very much more difficult than it would have been had the Baruch plan been accepted in 1946. Her Majesty's Government certainly stand by these proposals and are willing to have them written into any treaty that can be agreed upon.

Has the position of disarmament altered fundamentally since the late Mr. Ernest Bevin said in the House some years ago that if the Russians lifted their little finger there could be disarmament at once?

It depends how large is one's little finger. I thank that they would have to be prepared to sacrifice sufficient of their national sovereignty to permit the servants of the international control organ to have freedom in the Soviet Union.

Was consideration given to the specific idea that further experimental explosions of atomic weapons should be prevented by multilateral agreement? Since in any case these cannot be kept secret, does it not make enforcement uniquely possible? Is this not worth considering in isolation?

That is a matter of detail which I should be very glad to discuss some time. It is not at all certain that if big explosions were prohibited it would not be possible in other ways, which might be even more dangerous, to conduct such experiments.

Is it not possible to put on the agenda of the Disarmament Commission the problem of further experiments with hydrogen and other types of bombs, in view of their consequences throughout the world? Would it not be possible to invite all members of the Commission to each explosive test that each nation carried out so that they would all see what they were discussing?

It is difficult to gather everything that the Minister of State said in the course of a quickly-read statement such as we have had this afternoon; but is it clear that the Disarmament Sub-Committee made no effort to separate nuclear weapons from what we regard as conventional weapons? Has there been any discussion of those weapons separately from conventional weapons?

Certainly, so far as control and supervision are concerned, they are very different problems. The point of principle with us, and I think with our predecessors, is that any disarmament plan must be a comprehensive one dealing with both the prohibition of certain weapons—and we are prepared to list them—and reductions in conventional weapons.

Will the Minister have the report printed as a White Paper, so that we may take it away and study it?

I will consider that. The difficulty is that the verbatim notes are extremely long, and it would be a question of making an abridged precis.