Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the outcome of the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading to Their Total Elimination.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. I thank all noble Lords who will contribute their considerable expertise this evening. Many noble Lords taking part in this debate will have spoken in the debate in 2013 that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, introduced, which was really the last substantial debate that we had on the issue generally.
What has changed since 2013? Certainly not my views. I still see nuclear weapons as an immense danger to the future of the planet. But the nuclear landscape has changed significantly, and there is a growing consensus that luck is running out—because we have been lucky that there has been no catastrophic accident, and no accidental launch. In the words of former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now the CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the,
“margin for error in avoiding disaster is getting thinner because of the introduction of new, smaller weapons, the broadening of circumstances in which their use is being contemplated, and a lack of high-level communications between major nuclear weapons powers”.
He said that the chance of nuclear use was,
“higher than it’s been since the Cuban missile crisis”.
His words are, rightly, chilling.
That increased threat was one of the factors that led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is about to become international law. It was voted for by 122 countries, with one against, and some abstentions—of course, all nuclear weapon states abstained. The treaty, widely known as the ban treaty, will become international law when 50 states have signed and ratified it. The ban treaty prohibits states parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, so it is pretty comprehensive. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, known as ICAN, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for its work on the ban treaty.
The treaty results from the frustration of the vast majority of countries of the world with the few nuclear weapon states, which have completely failed to honour Article 6 of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Noble Lords will know that Article 6 requires that nuclear weapons states make meaningful steps towards nuclear disarmament. In return, other countries agreed not to develop nuclear weapons. It is 50 years since that agreement was signed and, although there have been steps to limit the number of nuclear weapons, there has not been the disarmament envisaged by Article 6.
In this very House, 50 years ago, Lord Chalfont, the then Minister, said that,
“we regard the Non-Proliferation Treaty as an essential first step in achieving the ending of the nuclear arms race and making progress towards general and complete disarmament”.—[Official Report, 18/6/1968; col. 514.]
So, 50 years on, my first question to the Minister is whether multilateral nuclear disarmament is still a UK Government aspiration. It seems to me that our Governments always say that it is an aspiration, but then always say that “now is not the time”.
An example of this would be when the UN convened the open-ended working group to try and kick-start the process, stuck ever since 1996, of the UN Conference on Disarmament. The UK boycotted that opportunity—but why? I asked that question in March 2016, and this is the reply:
“The UK is not attending the Open Ended Working Group … on nuclear disarmament in Geneva …The Government believes that productive results can only be ensured through a consensus-based approach that takes into account the wider global security environment”.
But how can consensus ever be reached when those with nuclear weapons will not even attend meetings to debate the issues?
The UK boycotted the first two international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. Why? Does closing our eyes to the reality of a nuclear war really change those realities? Of course it does not. The president of the International Red Cross said at the conclusion of those conferences that,
“if a nuclear conflict happened today, there is no humanitarian assistance capacity that could adequately respond to such a catastrophe”.
Of course, beside the appalling immediate deaths, the world would face the much wider threat of a prolonged nuclear winter.
Nuclear weapons are now the only weapons of mass destruction that are not subject to a categorical ban. Chemical and biological weapons are rightly banned, but nuclear weapons, the most apocalyptic WMDs, remain legally acceptable. Now the ban treaty fills a major gap in international law and will change that.
The treaty was adopted, in July last year, before the increased dangers posed by President Trump’s new nuclear posture, which Senator Ed Markey says,
“isn’t deterrence—it’s an invitation for America’s adversaries to expand and diversify their nuclear arsenals too”.
The accuracy of his quote is echoed in the Chinese PLA Daily, which responded to the new American posture by saying that China needs more nuclear warheads to deter the US threat. Just this month the news is bad. Russia is reported to be deploying nuclear weapons on the borders of Poland and Lithuania. The US Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said that Pakistan is developing new types of nuclear weapons, including short-range tactical ones, which will bring more risks to the region. All of this has led atomic scientists to move the Doomsday Clock forward to two minutes to midnight. The situation is extremely urgent.
In the light of that, the UK must become a much more positive influence for progress, just as it did on climate change when we were the first country to introduce a climate change Act with mandatory targets. This example was crucial to getting the final Paris accords. I am asking the UK Government to stop boycotting global efforts to even discuss this massive issue and take an active part. I am sure that other noble Lords will mention some of the positive moves that can be built on: the Iran deal—held to be a success despite President Trump’s attempts to sabotage it—and the resumption of the NPT review cycle, with a preparatory committee this May hopefully leading to a reinvigorated NPT.
I ask that the UK should play a constructive part in the forthcoming UN high-level conference on nuclear disarmament. This conference could make all the difference. It could set the scene for immediate steps in changing policy, such as no first use and de-alerting, before moving the agenda on to longer-term issues of a phased programme to reduce nuclear stockpiles. Will the Minister confirm that the UK will take part in the conference, to be held in New York in May? We have plenty to offer. The UK has done some valuable work on verification; Aldermaston could be a global centre of excellence in nuclear disarmament. We also owe participation to our NATO partners. Having asked them to oppose the ban treaty process, it is now time for nuclear weapon states to provide something in return: a commitment that we are willing to engage with serious nuclear disarmament initiatives.
There is a clear choice. Although this serious subject is not really the time for a joke, this one does illustrate the stupidity of the situation we have got ourselves into. There are two aliens, and the first one says, “The dominant life forms on planet Earth have developed satellite-based nuclear weapons”. The second alien asks, “Are they an emerging intelligence”? The first alien says, “I don’t think so; they have them aimed at themselves”. We have the nuclear weapons aimed at ourselves as mankind. It is time that we made a choice to start on the road to disarmament. It will be a long and difficult road, but we have to start talking. We have to attend the UN high-level conference in New York and I hope that the Minister will have a positive message about that for this House this evening.
My Lords, the disinvention of knowledge is just as difficult as the abolition of sin or crime, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—who are, happily, both speaking in this debate—would attest. Nuclear knowledge cannot be just wished away. Indeed, it gives much benefit to men and women in invaluable nuclear medical applications and in its use for the nuclear generation of clean power. By comparison, the dangers presented by nuclear weaponry need little elaboration, save to note a fundamental point. It is manifest that, since World War II, their possession by some stops their use by others.
I say this with a little background. We in this place rightly are enjoined not to clutter up our speeches with otiose or redundant declarations. However, in the interests of transparency, I think it would be wrong not at least to note that in the 16 years up to 2015 I served as an adviser and then non-executive director of Lockheed Martin. In parallel, I declare my current holding of some of the common stock of that company in the United States.
As further background, it has always been good to learn from our service men and women as well as from those civilians in the western nuclear defence industry whom I have met who think deeply about the morality and practicality of what they do. They have families to lose, after all. While they may not keep the thoughts of St Thomas Aquinas exactly by their bed every night, they do without exception, at least in my experience, seem to have the concept of just war principles front of mind—that any war must be, like any weapon, properly considered and undertaken for a good purpose, just as this brave country took exactly that sort of decision back in 1939, but also that the outcome to be aimed for is peace. That is the underlying strength of our present position and our attitude towards regrettably having to have nuclear weapons.
In saying that, it is no virtue-signalling on behalf of Christianity in mentioning St Thomas Aquinas, as the Hindu epic Mahabharata of the pre-Christian era, with its description of five brother rulers thrashing out exactly what was a just war, so clearly demonstrates. Trying to work out what is right and the balance between protection, defence and attack is an eternal and vital concern, and no more strongly than in the matter of nuclear deterrence and multilateral disarmament. I am hopeful that one day we will get going on this much more rapidly around the world, but between now and then there are all sorts of difficulties to be dealt with.
As neither knowledge nor stocks of nuclear weaponry can be wished away, the first task is to stabilise and then to stop proliferation. Declarations of hope and interest at the United Nations will not achieve this by itself or by themselves. I have noticed rather few calls to eliminate nuclear weapons from Russia, China, India, Pakistan or indeed from Israel, let alone from what can understandably and reasonably be called the rogue state of North Korea, and we have certainly not heard much cheeping about this from terrorist groups such as IS or Daesh or al-Qaeda.
Proliferation risk is at a dangerously high level and other state players such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have nuclear status high on their agenda and wish list. They are on their way, I believe. While one authority with very deep background in this area told me recently, “Look towards any Sunni state and you look at states mulling nuclear weaponry as a desirable possession in the longer term”, I think that, if they start, they will go shopping in Pakistan to get the necessary material. Yet, more cheerily, de-escalation happily has worked, with the UK, the US and France leading NATO-wide efforts post the Cold War, none the less leaving present day Russia with a superiority in numbers, if not in efficiency and effectiveness, of nuclear warheads.
To continue this process of measured nuclear disarmament is, as I know the noble Baroness recognises, grinding, difficult and long-term work. It can be achieved only by the current possession, however, of the very weaponry that we wish to abolish in the end. That is a practical paradox but a real one, which is why I support the replacement of our current fleet of deterrent-carrying Vanguard boats by their Dreadnought successors in close co-operation with the US, and admire the efforts of France. These three countries have together declared that they will never sign or ratify this undoubtedly well-meaning but hopelessly unrealistic treaty. The UN division list, as it were, on 7 July last year when a division was called shows countries, with some dubious virtue-signalling, for sure seeking to ban nuclear weapons but via a treaty that does not enjoy the support of, or engage, any state actually possessing the weapon. So this will not by itself reduce nuclear arsenals.
The UN treaty is extremely well-meaning naivety on extremely high stilts, and it will not contribute to international safety nor to the development of practical international law, let alone persuade any rogue state or terrorist organisation to come to the negotiating table tomorrow afternoon. Only realism will do that—the realism that was demonstrated to me clearly in an open and unchaperoned conversation with a chief petty officer in one of our Vanguard-class Trident-carrying boats during a visit on board. Mercifully for this poor sailor, the particular boomer I was on board was moored at the dockside of Faslane rather than being “out and under” on patrol. This chief petty officer of many years’ experience demonstrated the process to be followed, with multiple verifications that might lead to him using the trigger in his hand if ordered so to do. He has used it on a number of occasions during demonstration and shake-down operations to launch unarmed Trident test missiles on test. We talked—no one was listening; the commanding officer was not there—about the reality of war, and he talked a bit about his feelings. He was a human being like us and, like us, he had a family to hold in front of his eyes as he discussed his duty. I asked him what he felt, and very bluntly—he had a straightforward and appealing personality—he said, “Well, they know we have got the weapon, and if we have to, we will use it. It stops them”. Just so.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly my work with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on securing this valuable debate.
Whether we like it or not, there is a growing consensus about the increased risk of nuclear weapons use, including by accident or miscalculation. In January, when the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved to two minutes to midnight, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said:
“In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the … threats of nuclear war … making the world security situation … as dangerous as it has been since World War II”.
Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more, not less, usable because of nations’ plans for their nuclear arsenals. Earlier this month, the US released a new Nuclear Posture Review, which reflects several worrying trends: new, smaller yield nukes for “more optionality” for deterrence purposes, of which a New York Times editorial said “this logic is insane”; an expanded role for nuclear weapons in national security strategy; and expanded circumstances when nuclear weapons might be used. Unlike his predecessor’s review, this President’s review does not mention a role for diplomacy, arms control or means to address the threats it generates. It does not consider the effect of proposed policies on strategic stability, proliferation or the impact if other nuclear armed states adopt similar policies—and they are doing so. The US is not alone in going down this path. But they are our closest ally and, unlike Germany, we have been silent. Previously, we were encouraging.
In June 2015, on the “The Andrew Marr Show”, Philip Hammond, then Secretary of State for Defence, was asked whether he would back plans to station such weapons here in the UK. He said, “We would look at the case” for doing so. For those of us who live in the Euro-Atlantic space, where over 90% of the world’s nuclear arms are deployed some minutes from use, these risks are compounded by heightened tensions between NATO and Russia, dangerous rhetoric and brinkmanship from nuclear-armed states, and the growing risk of cyber threats to nuclear command and control systems, which we grossly underestimate.
Across Europe, there is an ongoing collapse of the suite of arms control treaties that for decades have provided stability. There are no ideas on how to arrest that collapse and no intent to pursue alternatives. With allegations of cheating on both sides, no one has any idea how to defend the INF treaty, secure the extension of New START, or repair the collapse of the CFE regime. Now we are heading to another crisis in the NPT review cycle. Last year, frustration over the lack of advancement in the disarmament pillar of the NPT caused the agreement of the first international treaty banning nuclear weapons. Some 122 countries negotiated a treaty that will prohibit nuclear weapons, just as the international community prohibited biological and chemical weapons. Who thinks that the world is less safe because these weapons are banned?
However, before the treaty was even negotiated, our Government made it clear that they would have nothing to do with it. Consistently over the years, the Government have declared opposition to this idea. Every ministerial statement says the same—so much so that I could paraphrase the Minister’s speaking notes. The component elements of the justification for opposition are that the treaty does not deliver any progress on disarmament, does not take account of the international security environment, which apparently compels the retention of nuclear weapons, or address the threats to international peace and security posed by nuclear proliferation, and will cause divisions in the international community over its opposition to the DPRK’s behaviour.
Positively, sometimes the Government repeat that they are committed to progress on global nuclear disarmament and tirelessly work with partners to press for key steps, including the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the successful negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty. So it is no surprise that, in response to the treaty, the UK, France and the US issued a joint statement in the usual terms. The treaty, it said,
“does not address the security concerns that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary”,
“cannot result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon and will not enhance ... international peace and security”,
and, in particular, it is a threat to the unity of purpose essential in the face of growing threats from the DPRK’s proliferation efforts.
Let us look at the elements of this position. What exactly are the “security concerns” that make it necessary for us to rely on nuclear deterrence? This is all set out in the SDSR 2015, a document that in January in the other place the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said “remains sound”. The relevant paragraph states that we need nuclear deterrence because there is,
“a risk that states might use their nuclear capability to threaten us, try to constrain our decision making in a crisis or sponsor nuclear terrorism”.
So it is clear that the reason we have nuclear weapons is to prevent the eight other nuclear armed states, two of which are our allies, threatening or using their nukes against us—not for some vague security concerns or to deter proliferation, as all statements to date imply. We do not have nuclear weapons to deter proliferation. In fact, we have a positive approach to non-proliferation, with an unqualified negative security assurance that the UK,
“will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against any Non-Nuclear Weapons State party to the … NPT”.
Within months of the agreement of the ban treaty and the ludicrous statement in response, the North Korea fears were dispelled. Three United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing the toughest sanctions yet on North Korea were passed, with no division, and in January in Vancouver the Foreign Secretary claimed that,
“the world is not being intimidated or divided by the threat from North Korea ... actually … there was an unprecedented measure of global consensus about what to do”.
So, at least the Minister can spare us that DPRK nonsense when she responds.
Ironically, today the biggest threat to international peace and security through proliferation comes not from the ban treaty but from the extant threat by President Trump to the Iran deal. That is the Government’s position too, as both Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister have made clear—Boris Johnson most recently in Brussels in January.
I am suggesting not that the UK signs up to the ban treaty or that the treaty does not have flaws—I accept that it does—but that the reasons given for not engaging the international community do not stand up to any level of scrutiny, and nor do our repeated statements in support of our alleged commitment to global disarmament. In truth, we are not even doing the minimum that we claim we are.
As far as the entry into force of the CTBT is concerned, only eight states matter. Theresa May has met with the Heads of State or Government of five of them. Can the Minister confirm that when the Prime Minister met Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping and Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, she raised the issue of entry into force of the CTBT? I am happy to await a written response, as I do not expect it to be available immediately. Regarding our ambition for a fissile material cut-off treaty, only Pakistan matters. Did David Cameron ever raise this issue when he met Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif? Likewise, I will wait for a letter.
In this environment, the challenges that we face need to be addressed by nuclear-armed states working together in a responsible way, yet when there are meetings among the P5, there are no meaningful discussions about disarmament or even risk reduction. In fact, the only issues on which the P5 seem to be in agreement is their disdain for the ban treaty and calls for further disarmament, and the alleged but bogus risks that they—the treaty and disarmament—pose to global security.
First, we need to reduce polarisation and live up to our existing commitments and responsibility by engaging in—and encouraging other nuclear weapon states to engage in—UN discussions on disarmament in good faith. We need to focus on the NPT review conference, because if there is further failure on this issue in 2020 due to a lack of progress in disarmament, we may damage the future of that treaty irreparably. With 2020 only two years away, the UK needs to do more and push others to do more to demonstrate progress in meeting its NPT disarmament responsibilities and pledges—including, for a start, those in the 2010 NPT action plan.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller on asking this very important question.
I speak in a personal capacity about the greatest threat to mankind and the planet: nuclear war. I believe that there are no safe hands for these weapons of mass destruction—not even ours. Global warming is a very major threat, but the threat of any detonation of nuclear weapons is even greater. Yet, despite the lead the UK has shown on the issue of global warming, we are not showing the same leadership on getting rid of nuclear weapons. Of all weapons of mass destruction, only nuclear weapons will kill not just one generation, but kill and maim future generations, resulting in the starvation of 2 billion people, even when used on a small, regional basis, as my noble friend said. It has also been made clear by the Red Cross and the Red Crescent that no medical response to a nuclear detonation would be anywhere near adequate.
It should hardly be necessary to restate that it is illegal to possess such weapons, let alone use them, but that is what the new UN ban treaty seeks to do. In my contribution, therefore, I urge the UK Government to demonstrate by their actions their commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons, which they frequently express to Parliament and at the United Nations. Although the UK is a signatory to the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, very little progress has been made for five decades on the incremental reduction of nuclear weapons to which the treaty commits us. It is time we did something about that. Indeed, it seems that weapons are proliferating rather than reducing. It saddens me, therefore, that the UK Government refused to sign the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—negotiated by the UN last July—and still seem not to have made up their mind as to whether they will attend the UN high-level conference on nuclear disarmament in May. If not this way, which way?
The new ban treaty lays out a process leading to multilateral disarmament. The conference to discuss urgent next steps will be held in a climate of increasing possibility of a nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States, or India and Pakistan, or Russia and NATO. There is no better time for world leaders to come together to take nuclear war off the table. The principal aim of the conference is to make progress on effective measures for nuclear risk reduction and disarmament. Membership of the NPT already commits us to that, so we really must take part. If we do not, we will increasingly be seen as out of step with the international community and rejecting the opportunity for global leadership that it presents.
The UK should not wait for other states to take action: surely we should make our own decisions about something as important as this. The non-nuclear countries have shown the way by agreeing the resolution last summer, and many have now signed and ratified it. But without the participation of the nine nuclear countries, the threat—not just of intentional detonation, but of accidental detonation too—remains acute. The presence of nuclear convoys on our roads brings the latter very close to home.
The treaty calls for progress to be made on a global agreement, which would include the nuclear-armed states and provide a phased and verified process for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. Verification is an area where the UK has considerable expertise to offer, so we should take part in discussions about how this can be done. Such processes have been very successful in reducing the use of chemical and biological weapons, and it is essential that the global community learns from that success in relation to nuclear weapons too. Chemical and biological weapons were banned first and then eliminated, so making them illegal was the essential first step.
Parliamentarians and civil society organisations have called on world leaders to commit to attending the conference at the highest possible level. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which includes the Parliaments of France, Russia, the UK, the USA and 52 other members, adopted declarations in 2016 and 2017 calling on member Governments to reduce nuclear threats, adopt no-first-use policies and support UN negotiations, including on the nuclear ban treaty and at the 2018 UN high-level conference. Even though we might be leaving the European Union, we are being told that we will still be in Europe, so there is no reason why we cannot continue to play an active role in this organisation and to support its demands.
Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute and UN representative for the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, said recently:
“Nine nations continue to hold the world at risk of nuclear annihilation. Although 120 non-nuclear weapons states have negotiated a treaty to ban the weapons, the states with the weapons remain deadlocked in inertia. It is time for leaders to come together … to discuss measures to reduce nuclear threats”.
So will our Prime Minister attend? Frankly, I would not trust the Foreign Secretary to make a positive contribution, but the Prime Minister might. If not now, when?
While millions starve, over $100 billion per year is spent globally on nuclear weapons, including many millions of pounds by the UK. Personally, I believe that this is a terrible waste because I do not believe that the deterrence principle makes us any safer. On the contrary, possession of these weapons makes us a potential target, as it clearly does for the United States. Certainly the people of Scotland think so, which is why they are overwhelmingly against the location of these weapons on their soil. The money could be better spent to create jobs, support renewable energy, protect the climate and clean air, maintain our conventional defence forces and implement the sustainable development goals.
The ban treaty also has something important to say about the ongoing humanitarian legacy of past nuclear weapons use and testing, and obliges states to provide medical rehabilitation and socioeconomic assistance to those affected by nuclear weapons and to make affected environments clean and safe again. The UK has nuclear test veterans, so I ask the Minister: what are the UK Government doing for them and what contribution are they making to assist victims in other parts of the world? Taking the first steps to engage with the ban treaty by attending the conference is not only compatible with our membership of NATO, the NPT and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, it is a vital step towards fulfilling our legal obligations in relation to nuclear disarmament.
Given the aggressive stance of the current holder of the office of US President, it is time for us, one of the United States’s oldest friends, to show that jaw-jaw is better than war-war by participating in the high-level conference, even as an observer. Even if the other nuclear states refuse to take part, the presence of the UK would prove what the Government have recently been claiming—that even after Brexit, the UK will remain an outward-facing country, engaged with the rest of the world and taking a leading role in efforts for peace. I challenge the Government to prove their claim by attending the conference.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for bringing this timely and important debate. One of my predecessors, H A Wilson, Bishop of Chelmsford from 1929 to 1950, only ever made one speech in the House of Lords. Prelates nowadays tend to have more to say. This may or may not be a good development.
Shortly after the Second World War a Motion was before this House on the subject of nuclear weapons. Drawing on Christian just war theory, he rose and spoke about how the use of nuclear weapons broke one of the few conventions that civilisation had succeeded in setting up to mitigate the brutalities of war. In his memoirs he recalls how the speech was received:
“Nobody took the slightest notice. I sat down in dead silence and I was conscious that all the noble Lords considered that I had made an ass of myself. Well, probably I had, but the ass’s burden no longer included an uneasy conscience”.
I speak with a similar conviction and perhaps a similar dread. I want to say simply that nuclear weapons are immoral, that they are a lethal extravagance, and that we must find another way. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, spoke about sin and that we cannot go back to Eden. He is quite right—but, my dear brother, there is also repentance. What he said about nuclear weapons could also be said of chemical weapons, yet we have succeeded in ridding the world of those to a certain extent. I am sure that rogue people will always do rogue things, but we have made progress, and similar progress can be made with nuclear weapons.
The truth is that these weapons of mass destruction are also weapons of mass deception. They provide the illusion of security while actually making the world less secure than ever. North Korea now joins the nuclear club. Who will be next, and do we really feel safe with Donald Trump’s finger upon the button? Will we ever be told the truth about their cost, their unusability, their increasing detectability, their vulnerability to cyberattack, and the near misses and accidents that have happened over the years? The fact is that there are military people today who acknowledge their redundancy in the face of the security threats and military needs of a much changed world—or simply that, if we do have all these billions to spend on something we claim we will never use, how about a few more hospitals instead?
The world needs to find another way and to do this the world needs to work together. Obviously, nuclear disarmament cannot be left just to nuclear states, but we do not join in the conversation. The impact of nuclear weapons—their threat, their cost and, God forbid, their use—affects everyone. The most hopeful sign of this happening is the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It confirms that the long-standing obligation to negotiate disarmament is an obligation under international law, and it is because of the failure of nuclear armed states to make multilateral progress that the United Nations is now rightly taking on a more substantive role.
The very first UN General Assembly took place in 1946 just across the green from here in Central Hall, Westminster. Its first resolution focused on,
“the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”.
As I have said, since then some progress has been made. The UK has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Chemical and biological weapons have been banned, and so have cluster bombs. A few years ago we all patted ourselves on the back when we banned them. The moral arguments about nuclear weapons are just as compelling, if not more so, for to use a nuclear weapon is suicide as well as genocide.
In the coming years, this conversation is going to take place on a wider stage, but our Government, along with other nuclear states, have met the call for wider involvement with the United Nations in disarmament with obstruction, veto and boycott. As supporters of international law, how can this be right? Even if the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is correct and people like me are well intentioned and naive, that does not stop us sitting down to talk with people about it. Yet we do not do that.
The question before us is simple: when a majority of the world’s countries are working within the UN framework to achieve non-proliferation and the ultimate goal of multilateral disarmament, why will we not even engage with the process? If we are so convinced that nuclear weapons are so helpful to keeping peace in the world, what have we to fear from discussion with those who think differently? Why cannot we even, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, send an observer? Or is it the case, as I suspect, that in our hearts we know that we can never use these bombs and therefore to own them and to perpetuate the myth of deterrence is a moral failure?
If it is right to say that cluster bombs should not be manufactured or used and that they are immoral, but nuclear weapons could, in certain circumstances, be used, then, in my predecessor’s words, we are breaking the conventions which have, through our understanding of just war that teaches that any force must be proportionate, discriminate, able to achieve its aims of peace and a last resort, mitigated the terrible brutalities of war, then he is also right that we put ourselves in a very weak position to lecture others. But our presence at the table is requested. There is to be a United Nations high-level conference on disarmament in May. My simple question to the Minister is: will we be there and, if not, why not?
Mark Twain famously said that it was not the bits of the Bible that he did not understand that caused him a problem but the bits that he did. Here is a saying of Jesus that is easy to understand: “Peace I give you, but not as the world gives peace”. I speak for many churches and many people of faith in this nation when I ask our Government simply to take part in the process.
My Lords, I first declare that I have been closely involved with the UK deterrent for some decades. Indeed, for four years I was directly responsible to the Prime Minister for the safety and operational effectiveness of the UK deterrent. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for raising this topic, because it is important.
First, I make clear my view that this UN nuclear ban treaty was a mistake and will if anything make us less safe because it will take our eyes off the areas where we should be concentrating to try to control and to restrict nuclear weapon ownership, types of devices and numbers. As has been mentioned already, it is virtue-signalling on a grand scale—something that seems to have caught on in this snowflake and social media age. While it makes the people virtue-signalling feel rather good, generally I am afraid it achieves nothing.
Shortly after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the strategist Bernard Brodie stated:
“Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them”.
I agree with that. We spend extraordinary resources on weapons that we hope will never be used, but one of the ironies of nuclear deterrence is that its effectiveness depends upon actual willingness to use nuclear weapons. I do not intend to go into that deep justification, but I will make it absolutely clear that if any nation thinks that in the final analysis of the destruction of, for example, our capital cities, we would not use nuclear weapons, they are deluding themselves. One should make that clear.
Although I disapprove of the UN treaty, I am strongly of the view that the leaders and nuclear strategists of the nuclear powers need to start focusing on what is without a doubt the greatest existential threat facing all our nations and indeed the globe. They have taken their eyes off the ball. Even if the US nuclear posture review has pushed deterrence up the agenda—although, as my noble friend stated, there are some very worrying proposals within it—I believe that there is a real risk of an inadvertent nuclear exchange. There are multiple ways of misreading or misjudging the other side’s behaviour, or miscalculating during a crisis, especially in “hybrid” scenarios of the type beloved by President Putin. Such a possibility of a nuclear exchange with Russia, starting by accident, no matter how remote it might be at present, would have such a catastrophic result that we should work hard now to ensure that it can never happen.
Part of my concern is because of Putin’s so-called “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, which is bonkers. In that, he would use a nuclear weapon at a sub-strategic level, based on his calculation that NATO could not credibly respond with strategic-level nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are not war-fighting weapons—I find the whole prospect of that horrifying. That is a very dangerous assumption and the prospects of controlling escalation and terminating a conflict according to any pre-planned scenario which he or NATO might think they have are disturbingly small. All sides would have great difficulty in limiting, managing or ending a conflict on their preferred terms.
All our leaders in the nuclear weapons states must understand the value of dialogue and signalling for conflict avoidance and management. Diplomacy and investment in coherent signalling are cheap compared to the costs of conflict. Russia and NATO should make sustained efforts to communicate their positions to each other and be able to use well-established communication channels to manage any emerging crisis. It is no good trying to cut those links; we need more and better links.
I had hoped that Presidents Trump and Putin, the great “deal makers”, might reach some accord. There was, I thought, a golden opportunity to lessen tension by establishing lines of communication and to avoid misunderstandings. Indeed, reinvigorating the web of agreements and understandings between their two nations and NATO about nuclear weapons could help defuse potential escalation in time of crisis. Additionally, the START negotiations could move forward again, because, despite the achievements of SALT I and II and START I and II, we are still in a world where Russia and the US each have about 7,000 nuclear warheads in their arsenals. The Russians also have 4,000 short-range nuclear weapons, and the US fields about 200 in Europe. These are particularly destabilising, not least in their vulnerability to terrorist attack and capture, since many of the Russian weapons are held in remote storage areas. A major reduction in warhead holdings and systems would make the world safer.
We in the UK can be proud of having taken a lead in reducing our warheads to about 200 and only one system—the bare minimum to establish a credible deterrent. If the two Presidents could reach some agreement on ways of reducing tension, it would enhance global security. It would be a great coup, for example, if the US and Russian strategic nuclear forces went from a condition of instant notice to fire, which I find quite extraordinary in the world that we are in at the moment, down to a reduced readiness to fire, as we have done in the UK. The issue of alert state and readiness to fire is particularly important in the case of land-based ICBMs and bombers, as they are vulnerable to first strike. This means there is only a limited time to react to a suspected attack before they are destroyed—in the US and Russian case, it is about 15 minutes. In times of severely strained relations between the US and what was then the Soviet Union in the past, on a number of occasions missile launches were almost made on incorrect information—that is a chilling thought. Such calming measures, combined with success in a new START III, would be a substantial achievement by these two “Marmite” leaders. We would inhabit a safer world and feel bound to acknowledge, at least in this one area of endeavour, that perhaps they have some statesmanship.
Reduction in number of warheads, removal of whole types of systems and better links and understanding of the need for more dialogue will all make us safer and put no country’s interest at risk. The risks, should things accidently go wrong and we do not make some progress, are too dreadful to contemplate. Bearing in mind the worrying proposals in the US nuclear posture review, has our Prime Minister discussed in any depth with the US President ways forward on this nuclear issue?
My Lords, opening the Munich security conference this weekend its chairman, Wolfgang Ischinger, formerly ambassador to the US and later the UK, said that he was worried. He said:
“I think the global security situation is more unstable today than it has been at any time since the demise of the Soviet Union”.
The report prepared for the conference was entitled To the Brink—and Back? Note the question mark. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord West, and his contribution I feel even more unstable than I did before. He talked about the instability of the current situation and the risks that Putin was prepared to take in the belief that the West would not retaliate, and he painted a picture that underlines everything that Wolfgang Ischinger was worried about at the conference.
The noble Lord, Lord West, also referred to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My mind goes back to the black and white Pathé news reports I saw in my local Odeon when I was a boy. The burgeoning mushroom clouds from those two cities brought us initially a sense of relief that the war would finally be over. Then the full horror emerged as we saw in later newsreels the death, devastation and destruction on the ground. Later, in 1949, after the Iron Curtain had divided Europe, we learned that our former glorious ally, Russia, had succeeded in testing its own atom bomb in Kazakhstan. At meetings of the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, we have a brave but deformed survivor of those tests, Karipbek Kuyukov, who carries his disabilities with great grace.
Britain was not far behind. Operation Grapple, between 1957 and 1959, saw the development of the British atom and hydrogen bombs at Christmas Island and elsewhere in Australia, and some of my contemporaries as national servicemen—21,000 of them, some dressed in no more than khaki desert fatigues—were there to turn their backs to the explosions as they occurred. A study undertaken by Sue Rabbitt Roff, a social scientist at the University of Dundee, in 1999 found that of 2,261 children born to veterans of those tests 39% were born with serious medical conditions.
In October 1962 we saw more newsreels, of Russian merchant vessels heading towards Cuba with canisters containing nuclear missiles on their decks. Air reconnaissance showed that launch sites were being constructed on the island of Cuba itself. President Kennedy said in an address to the nation on television that they had identified missiles capable of striking Washington and indeed any other city in the south-east of the United States, the Caribbean or Mexico. He declared:
“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union”.
For 13 days we held our breath. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to concerns for family. I had been married for just over a year, I was starting out on my career as a lawyer; indeed, I had even stood as a Liberal candidate in the local elections. The whole world that I was hoping to build seemed to be in the gravest danger. Then Khrushchev ordered the merchant fleet to turn back and commanded his submarines, which carried nuclear-tipped torpedoes, to return to base. So did the doctrine of deterrence prevent war? Yes, on this occasion, I think it probably did, but it required stable and rational leaders on both sides who weighed the risks, considered the consequences and took realistic decisions. Contrast that with the world today.
Noble Lords have talked about Iran. At Munich on Saturday, President Netanyahu warned Iran not to test Israel’s resolve. His country—a nuclear power, of course—would not allow Iran,
“to put a noose of terror around our neck ... we will act if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies … but against Iran itself”.
He compared the Iranian nuclear deal with the US with the Munich attempt to appease Hitler: sanctions relief, he said, had,
“unleashed a dangerous Iranian tiger”.
While in Munich at the weekend, the US National Security Advisor, General McMaster, warned of Moscow’s campaign to divide the West through subterfuge. What did the leader of the West, President Trump, have to say about it? He tweeted a rebuke to General McMaster:
“General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!”.
That is the so-called leader of the western world. Mr President, you are no Jack Kennedy. Meanwhile, in North Korea, President Kim Jong-un declares:
“The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat … This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment. These weapons will be used only if our society is threatened”.
Trump’s response was to claim that his nuclear button,
“is a much bigger & more powerful one than his”.
This is the context in which we are discussing the ban treaty. In an uncertain and unstable world, we have uncertain and unstable leaders. The risks of an accidental or deliberate detonation of a nuclear weapon have increased. The noble Lord, Lord West, referred to the accidental detonation of these weapons. The possession and deployment of nuclear weapons can result in misjudgments and the escalation of crises, as the Cuba crisis demonstrated.
It is deplorable that this Government refused even to attend the discussions which proceeded the ban treaty. Britain has been prepared to join treaties to ban chemical and biological weapons, as many noble Lords have said. We agree that the possession of such weapons, and cluster bombs, is a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court. Each of those treaties formulated a sequence for the destruction of the weapons concerned: first, the negotiation of a prohibition treaty; then accession to the treaty; the removal of such weapons from operational positions; and a commitment verifiably to destroy stockpiles within a limited period. Perhaps the Minister will claim that the United Kingdom is committed to multilateral disarmament. But it has to start somewhere so let us make a start and commit to joining the treaty as soon as possible. The first step is for this country to be present at the table at the high-level conference in May. Why should the UK not be present, at least with observer status?
To the brink—and back? Mr Ischinger said at the conclusion of this weekend’s conference that after all the rancorous debate he had heard, the question mark remains.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for introducing this debate. She has a formidable reputation for consistency over many years, and not just in this country. I can say from direct experience how highly she is regarded internationally, particularly in Europe.
We are a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That is an immense privilege and we need to make sure that we are playing a lead role in fulfilling the spirit of the purposes of the UN Security Council. At the time of the negotiation of the non-proliferation treaty, as a nuclear power we were under considerable scrutiny. I am convinced that that treaty was only achieved partly because of the undertaking by the nuclear powers that they would work seriously and deliberately to tackle the issue of the existence of their own nuclear arsenals, and to reduce and eventually eliminate them. That was a solemn undertaking; the world is looking to us again to act in the spirit of that undertaking.
In the 1970s I moved from being Minister for the Navy, where of course I had responsibility for nuclear submarines, to become the Minister for Overseas Development. Friends used to ask me how I put the two things together. I said that I found no inconsistency whatever, because it seemed to me that in any logical and sane defence and security policy, disarmament was a critical element. They were not separate issues but went together. Of course, now we understand even better that there is another issue: the battle for hearts and minds. The world is desperately unstable. My noble friend Lord West reminded us firmly of this. It is unstable, but we shall ultimately build stability and security only when rationality prevails in the international community and we are winning sufficient numbers of hearts and minds. We are therefore being watched in everything we do as to what we are really about, particularly in areas where we have more significance, such as nuclear issues.
I have worked most of my life in the international context but I cannot share with colleagues too closely the dismay I see that we have moved from being seen as a country to be respected to being seen, too often, as part of the problem. We have to do something about this. We also have to recognise that the relationship between the nuclear powers and the non-nuclear states is not good at the moment. There is a lot of mistrust, which is of course related to the issue I just mentioned. How does security come through hearts and minds if we have distrust, uncertainty and misgivings across a wide section of the world? That will not help to create security and stability.
We need to work at improving relationships between the nuclear powers and the non-nuclear powers. The Government may not like a situation in which the NPT and the high-level conference are happening. Perhaps they would far prefer this to be discussed under the NPT processes—but the NPT itself will unravel unless common ground can be built using processes such as the high-level conference. We must recognise that non-nuclear states are setting up these additional processes only because of the failure of the UK and other P5 states to honour their Article 6 commitments.
Looking at the bigger picture, the UK needs to understand that for the “Global Britain” mantra to be meaningful, and for the UK to continue to have global influence post Brexit, Britain must be mindful of its global reputation. This kind of high-handed and insular approach to disarmament does significant damage to that reputation and reduces the UK in the eyes of non-nuclear states. Most of the world’s population and their Governments are fed up and tired of a situation in which certain arrogant powers assume that it is their job to manage the world. They want to be treated as meaningful partners, and that demands our presence at occasions such as this conference.
What should we specifically be doing? I would like to suggest several things. We should take unmistakable action to improve diplomatic relations between nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states by participating in negotiations and stimulating dialogue. We should work energetically to restore the health of the NPT regime, including initiating inclusive processes to work on the 2010 64-point action plan and publishing an annual report on the UK’s contribution to its implementation. We should breathe life into the P5 process talks between nuclear weapon states, including strengthening their agenda and increasing their transparency. We should review the prominence given to nuclear weapons in the UK’s security doctrines, in close consultation with Parliament and civil society. We should use the opportunity of this 2018 UN high-level conference on nuclear disarmament to build bridges with non-nuclear weapon states, and we should do it by having senior members of the Government present at the conference.
None of us would like to be where we are. I have always been a multilateralist because the issue is how we get from where we are to where we want to be, and that will necessarily involve international collaboration and agreements. I thank the noble Baroness for having introduced this debate. The nightmare that is there if we ignore it is too awful to contemplate.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating this debate. She reminded us that, on 7 July last year, 122 countries at the UN headquarters in New York endorsed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the ban treaty, as noble Lords have called it. The eight officially recognised nuclear weapons states, plus the unofficially recognised Israel, boycotted the process. I reiterate what my noble friends Lord Browne and Lord Judd said: the ban treaty is born out of perceived frustration by many states at the lack of progress in recent years on nuclear disarmament through the non-proliferation treaty, which was the only multilateral treaty that contained a binding commitment to nuclear disarmament through a gradual process based on good faith.
As my noble friend Lord Judd reminded us, it was a Labour Government who signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1968. In its 2017 manifesto, Labour committed to support the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent while advocating greater UK leadership in creating stronger multilateral efforts with the global community and the United Nations in order to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. Only four countries are not a party to the NPT treaty—North Korea left the NPT, and India, Israel and Pakistan never joined it—but it commits 185 states never to develop nuclear weapons. The UK, the USA, China, Russia and France already had nuclear weapons by 1968. Since 1970, there have been review conferences every five years to pursue an incremental approach to nuclear disarmament, which noble Lords pointed out, through Article VI of the treaty. The NPT has of course come under stress in recent years, most notably at the last quinquennial NPT review in 2015. That ended without a consensus on what actions should be taken over the next five years to pursue the goal of nuclear disarmament, the first time that this has happened since 1970.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, stated, the ban treaty’s main provisions are that member states are banned from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, reminded us, though, the first major inadequacy of the ban treaty is that even though two-thirds of UN member states endorsed it, there was no involvement of the major players in nuclear deterrence. The legal provision banning the stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of a member state has implications for NATO countries such as Germany, Italy and Turkey, which have US nuclear weapons on their soil. As we have heard in this debate, polarisation between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states could be magnified by the ban treaty. As noble Lords have made clear, we should see this as a wake-up call for the countries that possess nuclear weapons to act.
The United Kingdom has been seen as one of the more progressive nuclear states, leading the way in advocating diplomatic, technological and financial policies to pursue nuclear disarmament, and it has led the way in multilateral approaches to pursue that agenda. Labour has historically been more progressive in finding solutions to nuclear disarmament and continues to be so today. Under Gordon Brown’s premiership, Labour offered a “grand global bargain” that would reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles among nuclear weapons states and vowed to cut the number of Trident submarines from four to three. The Brown Government maintained the UK’s position as the most progressive nuclear weapons state in 2008 by setting up the P5 process, the first forum between the P5 set up specifically to discuss matters surrounding nuclear disarmament, and we also had the UK-Norway initiative. Unfortunately, that process has been reduced in importance by the current Government.
This is the crux of the debate. All noble Lords have asked: where are the initiatives by this Government to maintain the commitments and pathways set out in the NPT? There do not seem to be any. As my noble friend Lord West said, the key to this process has to be a much stronger level of communication and dialogue. That is the way forward. I want to hear from the Minister tonight exactly how the Government are going to engage, particularly with the US President’s reviews that have been announced. How are we going to engage and communicate across the P5? How do we reinvigorate the process so that we avoid the threats that we have heard identified in this debate? How do we reduce tensions and the threat that nuclear weapons pose?
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions.
Let me state at the outset that the Government are committed to a world free from nuclear weapons. It is the Government’s view that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty remains central to achieving this. It has been at the heart of global non-proliferation and disarmament efforts for nearly 50 years and it remains the only legally binding treaty on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament to receive global acceptance.
Perhaps most crucially, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has worked. By offering reciprocal guarantees to all its signatories, it has succeeded in significantly limiting the global proliferation of nuclear weapons. As many of your Lordships will be aware, it has underpinned the massive reduction in nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, and it has allowed all countries to benefit from the peaceful use of nuclear technology. It has been successful because it is built on foundations of consensus, and because it delivers tangible benefits to all its signatories. As security threats evolve and test our resolve and our values, we should cherish the far-sightedness that the treaty embodies.
I listened with care and respect to the views expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. I perhaps cannot share his analysis, but we both seek the ultimate objective of a world where nuclear weapons are redundant. Where we differ is on the journey to that destination.
I submit that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or the “ban treaty” as it is shorthanded into, stands in stark contrast to the proven effectiveness of the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty. First, rather than building the necessary trust and consensus between states, it is seeking quick fixes. Secondly, the ban treaty offers no solutions to the complex security environment that we all face, nor to the technical challenges of verifying nuclear disarmament. Thirdly, its attempt to create a rival legal framework for disarmament is flawed. Its safeguard standards are inadequate and its restrictions on nuclear test explosions lack the rigour of those imposed by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
My noble friend Lord Patten made the important distinction between a laudable aspiration—no one would dispute that that is what the ban treaty embodies—and a system which actively contributes to a multilateral disarmament objective. That is the problem: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons fails to offer a realistic path to disarmament and risks undermining the effective non-proliferation and disarmament architecture that we already have in place. The noble Lord, Lord West, identified those flaws with authority.
As a result, the United Kingdom Government do not intend to become party to this treaty and we do not recognise that its prohibitions represent an emerging rule of customary law. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that, as we speak, the ban treaty has received, from the original 122 countries involved, 56 signatories and only five ratifications.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about the UK’s commitment to disarmament. Your Lordships should be in no doubt that this Government remain committed to full multilateral nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control. It is our firm belief that the best way to achieve this is through verified, step-by-step, gradual multilateral disarmament. I detected from the contributions that several of your Lordships do not disagree with those objectives.
It is important to note some essential steps along this path. The Government believe that they include: first, the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; secondly, starting and successfully concluding negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty in the conference on disarmament; and, thirdly, the global adoption of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
There is no doubt that disarmament is more difficult in the current security environment. The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, spoke with authority about that. Alongside our allies, we face challenges that are growing in number, scale and complexity. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, acknowledged that challenge, as did the noble Lord, Lord Judd. These challenges include a more aggressive Russia and a more capable North Korea. That is why this Government will retain our independent and credible minimum nuclear deterrent for as long as the global security situation makes it necessary. This is not just essential for our own security; it is also essential for NATO’s security.
Yet even in this challenging context, progress on disarmament is still possible. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord West, made a number of interesting points in this respect. Allow me to give an example of one strand of the Government’s work that is moving us closer to the realising the goals of the non-proliferation treaty. Establishing an effective nuclear disarmament verification regime will be essential if we are to realise that long-term goal of multilateral nuclear disarmament. States need to be confident that a nuclear armed state will have its warheads dismantled in a way that makes us safer, rather than in a way the spreads nuclear know-how and inadvertently increases the risk of nuclear proliferation. Establishing effective disarmament verification has been a priority for successive British Governments.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, by reminding him and other noble Lords that the United Kingdom started working with Norway on disarmament verification over 10 years ago. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who was the Secretary of State for Defence that time. The United Kingdom-Norway initiative was the first ever technical project between a nuclear and non-nuclear weapons state in this field. This Government have built on that work. In 2015, we established the quad initiative with the United States, Norway and Sweden, which undertook the first ever multilateral disarmament verification exercise, at RAF Honington in October last year. Since 2015, we have played a leading role in the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, including co-chairing its working groups on verification objectives and verifying nuclear weapon declarations. We have co-sponsored the founding of a United Nations group of government experts on verification, and recently hosted a conference to prepare the first formal meeting of the group in May this year. So this Government are, indeed, talking.
These examples of practical and effective co-operation improve trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, and take us closer to the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. To be fair, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, acknowledged that there had been progress over the piece on these issues.
I turn to some specific contributions raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, asked about matters raised by the Prime Minister in recent meetings with different powers. He also raised the issue of cyber threats in relation to nuclear weaponry. I shall make inquiries, and shall write to the noble Lord with any relevant information that I receive.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Walmsley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, all asked about the UK’s view of the proposed high-level conference on nuclear disarmament in May this year. The conference is sponsored by the Non-Aligned Movement, which seems divided among itself about what the conference should focus on. We believe that it is unlikely to lead to effective progress towards global nuclear disarmament. If the conference is held, which is still unclear, we shall consider our approach closer to the time.
The noble Lord, Lord West, raised the issue of the United States nuclear posture review, and the United Kingdom’s attitude to it. The United Kingdom welcomes that nuclear posture review and the continued US commitment to European security and to a world without nuclear weapons.
Nuclear disarmament requires leadership from all nuclear states so, finally, allow me to recall our own strong track record. In January 2015, we announced that we had fulfilled commitments we made in the 2010 strategic defence and security review to reduce the number of deployed warheads on each of our Vanguard class submarines from 48 to 40, and the number of operational warheads to no more than 120. We remain committed to reducing our total stockpile of nuclear warheads to no more than 180 by the mid-2020s. I suggest to noble Lords that that shows leadership by example, and I think it very important, as a number of noble Lords rightly indicated, that the nuclear powers globally are prepared to give such leadership.
This Government assess that the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons represents a significant backward step. It threatens the consensus and progress achieved by the non-proliferation treaty. It undermines the necessary safeguards established by that treaty. For these reasons, it would take us further from multilateral nuclear disarmament, rather than closer to it. That is why this Government will never recognise that its prohibitions represent an emerging rule of customary law. This Government remain committed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and its goal of multilateral nuclear disarmament. We shall continue to work with all international partners to build trust and confidence between states, to prevent proliferation, and to take tangible steps toward a safer and more stable world, in which countries with nuclear weapons ultimately feel able to relinquish them. That is the objective to which this country and this Government are committed. As I suggested, this Government are prepared to lead by example.
This has been a useful debate and I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the Motion. It enabled us to make a useful exploration of where we are and what the issues are. We can draw comfort from what I said in response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford: we may disagree with one another on the analysis of where we are at the moment and what we do or do not do, but we seem to be united in the ultimate objective that we want to achieve.
House adjourned at 10.01 pm.