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Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 21 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

My Lords, the Government have been clear that they will not sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We do not believe that this treaty will bring us closer to a world without such weapons. The Government believe that the best way to achieve our collective goal of a world without nuclear weapons is through gradual multilateral disarmament, negotiated using a step-by-step approach. We must take account of the international security environment and work under the framework of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Nevertheless, as of tomorrow the TPNW will be no less a reality for the UK than for countries that support it. It will be no less a reality for states that possess nuclear weapons than for those that do not. The UN Secretary-General has described this new treaty as

“a further pillar of the disarmament regime”

and therefore fully compatible with the NPT. I ask the Minister, since the new treaty and its underlying humanitarian motivations will loom large over any future discussion of our non-proliferation responsibilities, what preparations are being made by the Government to engage with it constructively? Will they commit to attend, as an observer state, the first meeting of states party to the treaty, as Sweden and Switzerland are doing?

My Lords, I hear what the right reverend Prelate says but, to be clear, the United Kingdom will not support, sign or ratify the TPNW. The reasons are very clear to us: it fails to offer a realistic path to global nuclear disarmament and, importantly, risks undermining the effective non-proliferation and disarmament architecture that we already have in place, in particular the work that has already been achieved with key partners on the NPT.

I declare my interest as in the register. I am compelled to repeat the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. Given the global importance of this treaty, will the Government consider sending in an observer capacity a delegation when the treaty parties convene later this year, whether in person or virtually? Clearly, in observer status the Government might learn something of interest.

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we are fully aware of the challenges that currently confront us on the global stage and the importance of ensuring that we see non-proliferation. There are major challenges with this treaty, including the fact that it does not look at the existing security architecture, including our obligations to NATO. It does not look at how we deal with the threats from nations such as the DPRK. My Answer was very clear about what our belief is on the treaty. If parties to that treaty engage with us bilaterally, of course, we will continue to engage with them on wide range of matters.

The Minister is being characteristically courteous but does he not agree that every Member of this House, not least the right reverend Prelate, has a responsibility not to deceive themselves that this treaty could be an effective mechanism for achieving our shared goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons? Indeed, suggesting that it is undermines that very goal.

My Lords, I have to disagree with the noble Lord. I accept that the treaty the right reverend Prelate talks about has noble intent but there are existing mechanisms, treaties and obligations that have ensured the decline in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Indeed, with the treaties that we are part of and the partnerships that we have forged, since the end of the Cold War we have seen a 50% reduction in our own arsenal. While respecting the right reverend Prelate—and, of course, all noble Lords in this House—on this occasion I do not hold the same view.

I welcome my noble friend’s confirmation that it has never been the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to have the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons but to seek a world free from all nuclear weapons. This is stated in the national security strategy, set out in pillar 2 of the non-proliferation treaty and stated in the first resolution of the UN General Assembly, held 75 years ago this weekend across the road in the Methodist Central Hall. How could my noble friend use this anniversary to advance our declared ambition of the complete elimination of all these weapons of mass destruction before it is too late?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend, who speaks with a great deal of insight and expertise in this area, that we remain very much committed. Our commitment to our obligations and our adherence to the rules-based system of international law and the treaties that we are part of will ensure the very objective he seeks and I seek as well.

My Lords, one of the key aspects of non-proliferation in recent years has been the JCPOA. The UK has been involved in this but under President Trump the US pulled out. What are her Majesty’s Government doing about talking to President Biden about re-engaging in the JCPOA?

My Lords, we look forward to fruitful discussions with the United States on a range of issues and look forward to working with it on this important priority as well.

Following on from that question, only this week Her Majesty’s Government stated as part of the E3 that they are deeply concerned by Iran’s announcement that is producing uranium metal. There is no credible civilian use for uranium. Will my noble friend the Minister take the earliest opportunity to discuss with his new counterpart in the Biden Administration how to strengthen any deals with Iran to ensure the disbanding of its nuclear programme in its entirety and, at the same time, stop its destabilising behaviour in the region?

I assure my noble friend that on both his points we will be engaging constructively with the United States and other allies in this respect.

My Lords, Iran has incrementally violated the JCPOA. It would be delusional to return to it and to drop sanctions. Iran has achieved uranium enrichment levels of 20%. What are the Government doing to ensure that Iran halts this dangerous escalation?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that Iran’s continued non-compliance with its nuclear commitments is deeply concerning and seriously undermines the non-proliferation benefits of the agreement. Iran faces a stark choice—to continue on its current path and face growing isolation or to come back to the negotiating table. We hope it will choose the latter course.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that any advance that has been made in any of the conventions on nuclear weapons so far has been achieved in the context of firm undertaking by nuclear powers, including us, to steadily reduce the number of nuclear weapons at their disposal? There seems to be quite a lot of room for doubt about the commitment of some nuclear powers at the moment. Is it not a priority for the British Government to get together with the new Administration in the United States, and indeed with the French, to discuss how we should be carrying the new situation forward?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we will continue to engage with the US and with the P5 process. As he will be aware, we led on that last year. We will work very constructively with the French, who lead on the P5 this year.

My Lords, for the purposes of investment, this treaty puts nuclear weapons clearly in the category of controversial weapons. Does the Minister agree that investment in such weapons by responsible and ethical pension funds and other investors will quickly become completely unacceptable?

My Lords, the nuclear industry and its wider energy benefits are also part of the debate. We remain very committed to a minimum but credible independent nuclear deterrent.

My Lords, are the Government aware of the European Leadership Network’s call for a sustained, open-ended and regular panel on strategic nuclear risk reduction?

My Lords, if I may, I will respond to the noble Lord in writing once I understand the full context of his question. However, as I have already articulated, we are working with key P5 partners—including the key European partner in this respect, the French.