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Weapons Of Mass Destruction: Elimination
23 January 2001
Volume 621

2.53 p.m.

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that more urgent action should be taken to reduce the danger that a war using nuclear or other means of mass destruction might render earth uninhabitable by mammals.

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My Lords, the Government share the concern of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney about the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Our efforts are devoted to the removal of that threat. We have led the way not just in terms of nuclear disarmament but in international efforts to eradicate all weapons of mass destruction and to address the causes of international conflict.

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My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the Government have recently committed themselves publicly to securing the end of nuclear weapons. The problem is that that commitment has not been followed up by action. Do the Government have it in mind to take action along the lines suggested, for example, by the noble and gallant Lord, the Field Marshal, not many months ago in Canberra? He has also raised the matter in the House, but has not yet received an affirmative answer.

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My Lords, I cannot agree with my noble friend that the Government have not taken action. We have made it crystal clear that our goal is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom is already leading by example. The Government announced significant reductions in Britain's nuclear forces in the Strategic: Defence Review. We have only a single weapons system, Trident, the smallest arsenal of any of the five nuclear weapons states, and we have set the international standard in transparency.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that the danger referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that nuclear weapons could,

"render earth uninhabitable by mammals",
is the basic reason that it is highly unlikely that such weapons will ever be used by, or against, people who have them? That is why they have kept the peace for 50 years, and it is questionable whether we want to eliminate them. If they were eliminated, that might result in wars that would not otherwise take place.

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My Lords, we are all familiar with the theory of deterrence. We surely do not wish to conclude that to eliminate all nuclear weapons would be a bad thing; that, I do not think, could be possible. Some people have doubts about being able to verify the control of nuclear weapons, but we believe that there are ways of doing so. Our Atomic Weapons Research Establishment is examining ways of improving systems of inspection. Our aim remains the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

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My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that in 1995 there was an agreement to begin negotiations for a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials and that that call was renewed last year at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference? While I appreciate that the Government have worked very hard on that matter—that is generally appreciated—will my noble friend say what progress has been made?

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My Lords, we have been deeply frustrated by the lack of progress in Geneva at the Conference on Disarmament. That conference's failure to start negotiations on a cut-off treaty for fissile material thus far has certainly not been for want of effort and flexibility on our part. If there is no progress in the coming year, there will be increasing support for reform of the working practices of the Conference on Disarmament. We will have to be ready to look seriously at any ideas that might help to move the situation forward. As your Lordships may well be aware, the conference resumed yesterday in Geneva. The incoming Canadian chair has been trying to broker a compromise agenda during the break, and we of course support his efforts.

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My Lords, has the Minister noted the comments of the new American Secretary of State, General Colin Powell? His comments were to the effect that a new strategic framework is required as a context within which to rethink the whole question of nuclear deterrence and the development of anti-ballistic missile defences.

What contribution have the British Government made to that new framework of thinking so far, or are we content to leave it all to the Americans?

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My Lords, we look forward to working very closely with the new American Administration. We have always said that we were sympathetic to the concerns of the United States. It would be premature to say how the United States will deal with the various problems that have been outlined. In fact, President Bush made it clear that he is perhaps committed to a national missile defence system as one element of his approach to tackling these problems. However, that Administration have also made it clear, even in the short time that they have been in office, that they have no firm views at this stage on a specific system. They emphasised—this is very important and most welcome—the importance of consulting the allies and the Russians before coming to decisions. We are very much involved with that, and we shall work closely with the Bush Administration. Our defence interests are, and always will be, closely linked with those of the United States.

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My Lords, further to the point that the Minister made about our relations with Russia, can she also say whether the still-open offer to reconsider disarmament under the Start 2 and Start 3 treaties, which together would bring a huge reduction in nuclear weapons held by Russia and, on the other side, the United States, is being pursued by Her Majesty's Government? Are we making representations to both sides to go ahead with that approach?

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My Lords, as noble Lords are well aware, the Start process is a question for the Americans and the Russians. We have always made it clear that one of our important priorities is that there should be further cuts in the arsenals of the Americans and the Russians. We shall do everything that we can to work to that end.