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Multilateral Disarmament

Volume 777: debated on Monday 28 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to oppose the proposed United Nations resolution on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament; and, if so, what alternative measures they consider could lead to progress being made on multilateral disarmament negotiations.

My Lords, the UK voted against this resolution on 27 October as we do not believe that the negotiations it mandates will lead to progress on global nuclear disarmament. We are committed to a world without nuclear weapons, in line with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but the best way to achieve this goal is through gradual multilateral disarmament, negotiated using a step-by-step approach and within existing international frameworks.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister reiterating this country’s commitment to multilateral disarmament, but does he share the frustration of the UN Secretary-General, who said that:

“The UN disarmament machinery is locked in chronic stalemate”?

Although, as the Minister says, Article VI of the NPT is supposed to ensure progress, in fact some nuclear weapons states such as India, Israel and Pakistan have not even signed the treaty while others, including the UK, US, Russia and France, oppose the current resolution the Minister is talking about—and all this is happening at a time when the world as a whole is going to spend $1 trillion on the modernisation of nuclear weapons. How will it be possible to open the dialogue that would lead to what the Minister asserts we hope will happen?

The noble Baroness points to a number of obstacles which I do not for a moment wish to dispute. But in the end the only way to achieve global nuclear disarmament is by creating the conditions whereby nuclear weapons are no longer necessary, and the precursor to that has to be achieving consensus among and between nuclear states. We remain determined to continue to work with partners across the international community to make progress on multilateral disarmament, and that in turn depends on building trust and confidence between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states. The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of a number of initiatives to achieve that.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Government will agree to nothing in this field which is not both balanced and verifiable?

My noble friend makes two very important points. The UK is currently working with Norway on the verifiability of disarmament to achieve what my noble friend wishes to see in the long term. But a balanced treaty, if we arrive at that point, is obviously a necessary condition.

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that this resolution is not very helpful at all? As he says, there are other areas that we need to focus on such as: reactivating some of the existing agreements; trying to take weapons off immediate readiness for release, which our nation does not do but some countries still do; getting rid of short-range missiles; holding a debate about ballistic missile defence; and finding methods of talking immediately with the Russians and others about de-escalation where necessary.

The noble Lord makes some very good points. Among the actions that the UK has recently been taking is work with Norway on disarmament verification, as my noble friend Lord Trefgarne referred to. We initiated the P5 process in 2009 to bring together nuclear weapons states to build the trust and confidence that I referred to. We proposed a programme of work at the conference on disarmament held in Geneva in February this year with the aim of reinvigorating the conference’s work—in fact, that was eventually blocked but we made a good attempt at it—and we continue to press for the entry into force of a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. So there is work that we are trying to push along.

My Lords, are the Government giving any thought to globalising and generalising some of the constraints in the agreement between Iran and the P5+1, thus building a basis on which that agreement could extend far longer than the 15 years it will currently last?

I completely take the noble Lord’s point. It is early days to be thinking in those terms, although he is right to do so. It is encouraging that the November IAEA report to the board of governors confirmed that Iran remains compliant with the nuclear-related measures set out in the joint comprehensive plan of action. We welcome the findings of the DG’s report. We praised the IAEA for its progress and continued work on that very challenging task, but no doubt lessons and messages will emerge from that strand of work.

My Lords, the noble Earl has talked about the need to move towards multilateral disarmament, but there are stocks of fissile material in various parts of the globe. How confident is he that those stocks, which could be turned into nuclear weapons, are sufficiently secure to avoid them falling into the hands of aspirant nuclear powers or, worse still, non-state actors that might wish to possess such materials?

My Lords, that is clearly a constant concern and the noble Lord is right to raise it. Against that background, the UK continues to push for the early start of negotiations, without preconditions, on a fissile material cut-off treaty in the Conference on Disarmament. We supported a Canadian-backed resolution at the United Nations first committee on that topic, in October. In this country we have a voluntary moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. We have not produced fissile material for nuclear weapons since 1995.

My Lords, in 1968 the UK signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and, as the noble Earl said, a lot of progress has been made since then. President Reagan met with President Gorbachev in Helsinki in 1986, and that resulted in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. What encouragement will the Government give to President-elect Trump to talk to his friend President Putin to kick-start multilateral talks on further reduction, in time for the 50th anniversary of the NPT in 2018?

I hope the noble Baroness will be glad to know that at the appropriate time we will convey to President-elect Trump the importance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We should not underestimate the role it has played for almost five decades in helping to limit proliferation and provide a framework for disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nearly all United Nations member states are signed up to it—that is a tremendously important point in its favour. That treaty should form the basis on which we make progress in this area.