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Nuclear Weapons: Elimination

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 17 June 1998

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2.56 p.m.

Whether they will now urge the nuclear states to take serious steps towards the elimination of nuclear weapons in order to avoid further proliferation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, all states are aware of our commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. The five nuclear weapon states have all signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. We and the French have ratified it, and we continue to urge others to follow our lead. The five are committed to enter into negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty as the next step towards our goal.

We have to stop nuclear proliferation to attain our ultimate goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was an important step in the right direction. By testing, India and Pakistan have moved the other way.

We condemn these tests and urge both countries to sign unconditionally and move to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; enter negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty and accede to the non-proliferation treaty.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend for reaffirming our manifesto undertaking on the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Does she agree that, to take further the Government's action, it would be useful if they were to encourage other members of the Security Council to envisage the same goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons so that we can begin to make real progress in the matter?

My Lords, all five nuclear weapon states are also permanent members of the Security Council. They are committed to nuclear disarmament; to a comprehensive ban on testing; and to combating the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Developments over the past few years have shown us that real progress is more likely to result from detailed negotiations for specific agreements than from work on an all-encompassing plan. We regard negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty as the next step in the process. Nationally and on behalf of the European Union, we have formally urged all parties to the non-proliferation treaty to press for the re-establishment in the Conference on Disarmament of an ad hoc committee on the fissile material cut-off treaty.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we and the other declared nuclear weapons states had not only taken seriously the report of the Canberra Commission, which was published nearly two years ago and which made a clear and unequivocal commitment to the eventual total elimination of nuclear weapons, but had also taken the immediate practical steps which the commission recommended to demonstrate that, the unfortunate recent proliferation in the Indian sub-continent might not have occurred?

My Lords, that is a hypothetical question. The reasons for what happened recently in India and Pakistan are not that straightforward. We have had an opportunity to discuss that in your Lordships' House in the past couple of weeks and many of your Lordships acknowledged that regional matters are among the reasons why those countries felt it necessary, unfortunately and much to our dismay, to take the steps that they did.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report in today's newspapers that China, one of the countries originally possessing nuclear weapons, may be in the process of supplying very sophisticated systems, notably, "telemetry" systems, to both Iran and Libya so that those two countries can develop nuclear weapons? Is it not an underlying fact that, sadly, the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world is relatively likely over the next generation? Should not the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the fissile material treaty be looked at again in order to consider how, in the real world, such proliferation can be avoided?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting point. What I have said about the nuclear weapons states' actions and positions on the nuclear test ban treaty covers China also. However, it is not all bad news, as the noble Lord's question seemed to imply. South Africa, the Ukraine, Belorussia and Kazakhstan have all given up their nuclear arsenals, and Argentina and Brazil have shown a far more enlightened approach in this respect. We have to be cautious and extremely vigilant.

I note what the noble Lord said about China. I have no knowledge of the specific point which the noble Lord raised in respect of a newspaper report today. I have not seen such a report. However, I must point out to the House that it is not all bad news and that some parts of the world are moving voluntarily towards not proceeding with their nuclear weapons development programmes.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that speedy success in the present negotiations would help to discourage others who may now be on the periphery of developing nuclear weapons from doing so?

My Lords, we do everything that we can. The House knows that this is a central theme of the Government's policy. It was a central theme in our manifesto commitments. Through whatever means we can—through the United Nations, the European Union and G8—the Government are taking what steps they can to urge those who have not signed up to these important treaties to do so.

My Lords, further to what my noble friend has said, does she agree that the two treaties that she has mentioned are not the ultimate objective, but the next step, because until then there will be individual instances of proliferation? You cannot stop an avalanche one rock at a time.

My Lords, we must be clear about the ultimate objective, and I hope that I have made it clear. Indeed, I believe that the Government's election manifesto made it clear. I also hope that I have made it clear to the House that the Government have a strategy on this issue, which is not necessarily one of going for an entire comprehensive all-in-one position. The Government are proceeding with consideration of the current discussions in Geneva on fissile material. I hope that I have made it absolutely clear to the House that that is the strategy that we are pursuing.

My Lords, on 1st June, the Minister informed the House that five members of the Security Council were meeting in Geneva that week to discuss the implications of the nuclear testing by India and Pakistan. What was the outcome of that discussion? Perhaps I may remind the Minister that she also mentioned then that the G8 Foreign Ministers were also meeting in London to discuss the dialogue with India and Pakistan. What further developments have there been in that respect?

My Lords, the United Nations Security Council has encouraged all states to prevent the export of equipment, materials or technology that could assist programmes in India and Pakistan in relation to nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles capable of delivering such weapons. The Group of 8 has condemned the tests and agreed to work for postponement in consideration of loans not needed to meet basic human needs from the World Bank and other international financial institutions. The House may like to know that the General Affairs Council declarations of 25th May and 8th June set out the steps that the EU wishes to see India and Pakistan take to halt their arms race and to reduce tension. European member states have agreed to work for a deferral of consideration of loans from international financial institutions.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is not a matter of whether we are in favour of a comprehensive approach or a pragmatic approach, but that the pragmatic approach, if successful, is the evidence of the commitment to the comprehensive approach? If we are to achieve progress in the world as a whole, there is a credibility problem. Unless the major nuclear powers, including ourselves, can demonstrate all the time that we are, above all, committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons, it will be difficult to gain convincing support across the world because we shall be telling people to do as we say rather than as we do.

My Lords, I agree that it is important that we demonstrate that we are serious about our aim of nuclear disarmament. I think that we have demonstrated that by decommissioning our free-fall bomb, as we did at the end of March this year. I do not think that there is any doubt in this House or elsewhere about the commitment to nuclear disarmament of Her Majesty's Government. In trying to attain that goal, we must have a strategy. I hope that I have been clear in setting out for the House the Government's steps towards successfully achieving that strategy.