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Trident: weapon of mass destruction

This is the second of a pair of articles looking at what Trident is, what it is said to be for and what some of its supporters candidly think of its uses. The first (see link below) asked if Trident was any use for defence? This second part shows how, beyond the big powers’ nuclear club, the rest of the world is now moving towards making nuclear weapons as illegal as other weapons of mass destruction, thereby making investment in them a very poor bet. Rachel Lever writes.

Could Britain join the UN revolt that aims to outlaw nuclear weapons?

US Defence Secretary, Ash Carter said that having nukes is “what makes Britain great”, allowing it to play “that outsized role on the global stage that it does because of its moral standing and its historical standing”. But why can’t Britain be both great and moral by using its leadership role to work for a nuclear free world? What could we achieve by stepping out from the nuclear club and allying ourselves instead with the rest of the world?

As Britain debates whether to keep Trident, the non-nuclear countries are now organising to ban such weapons.

If they succeed, ending the two-tier legal system – a sort of nuclear apartheid – that has allowed a small minority of dominant powers to create vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the nuclear weapons age could be on its way down the rubbish chute of history.

Scrapping Trident would align us with the non-nuclear countries fighting for an all-out ban. Retaining Trident would commmit us to block global disarmament, and would gamble scarce cash on weapons that might become illegal.

No Trident Replacement

No Trident Replacement

How did this begin?

Nearly 50 years ago, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) declared that ‘the dangers from such weapons arise from their very existence’. This should have meant a legally binding ban in all circumstances on all countries, with no exceptions. However, the nuclear powers wrote the rules of the NPT to suit themselves, so its main purpose was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

In return, the existing nuclear countries said that they would ‘in good faith’ take the ‘earliest possible effective measures’ towards ‘complete’ nuclear disarmament. There were no inspections, no timeline and no sanctions to ensure compliance.

Though clearly in breach of their legal undertaking, signatories have felt free to renew, upgrade and add to their stocks – and they think they still can do that, investing heavily in modernising their nuclear hardware to last many decades to come.

In 1996, the International Criminal Court ruled that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to international law’, meaning it was still legal to own nuclear weapons as long as no-one used them or threatened to use them. Quite ironic considering that the implied threat of use is central to the theory of ‘deterrence’.

In contrast, mere ownership of non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological devices was rightly forbidden on pain of sanctions, whether or not they were used.

As the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) says, this all underscores the inability of the current legal regime.

No To Trident campaigners

No To Trident campaigners

However, things are changing. Now, in an unprecedented revolt of the UN’s underdogs, the non-nuclear states have got together to challenge and change the NPT deal. They are working towards making it illegal for all nations – without exception – to possess nuclear weapons, paving the way for their complete elimination. In a clear sign of this change, UN leaders have said: “There are no right hands for the wrong weapon.”

And the non-nuclear states are already taking steps towards these goals. In Vienna in December 2014, they launched a ‘Humanitarian Initiative’ pledge for nations to sign – as a bridge to fill the ‘legal gap’ – stigmatising nuclear weapons and preparing for a new treaty that will legally ban them. 124 nations signed.

A year later, Mexico brought a resolution to the UN General Assembly for it to adopt this pledge and to set up a special Working Group to establish legal norms that will be the basis of a new treaty.

139 nations (out of 168 present) voted for this motion. Britain, together with its nuclear colleagues, voted against, declaring that the motion was ‘divisive’ and would undermine the NPT. India and Pakistan also voted against the motion for a working group. Both are armed against each other, but managed to get together to issue a joint statement disparaging the disarmament move.

Kofi Annan, opening the new UN Working Group, said it should “break through the paralysis which has characterised and stymied the debate on nuclear disarmament in recent decades”.

Brazil (which dismantled its own bomb 20 years ago) said the treaty would be “open to all and blockable by none”. Mexico questioned whether the doctrine of “nuclear deterrence” is compatible with international law.

In Britain, it gives us a dual campaigning point: do NOT renew Trident – and DO sign the humanitarian pledge, support the working group and UNGA resolution. In the light of this groundswell for abolition, extending Trident for another 50 years from now looks like an act of criminal insanity.

We live in increasingly dangerous and bloody times. Huge instability will be one effect of climate change, making nuclear material more and more unsafe. Having a debate and a vote could be the impetus for Britain to take a historic lead and play out its ‘outsized role’ on the global stage.

Multilateralism v Unilateralism 

One other policy cherished by the UN and enshrined in the NPT has worked to prevent disarmament. Instead of encouraging states to disarm, break away from the club and blaze a trail for others, we are told (in the words of the old CND song) that we must “all go together when we go”. No nation may take a first step.

Advocates for a nuclear Britain have always said that without our bomb, we’d be abandoning Britain’s world leadership role by opting out. But the 139 countries (and counting) pressing for a new treaty would be very glad of our company if we opted in with them.

The vision of agreed, negotiated, controlled multilateral disarmament has always been counterposed to any unilateral move that could kick-start a real change. What if one country going it alone could be seen not as a negation of multilateral agreement, but as its spark?

If Britain, in the context of the abolitionist UN Working Group, now scrapped Trident, we could unblock a wider multinational process. As the Washington Post recently concluded: “The reality is that the British nuclear arsenal will have greater global significance if it is dismantled rather than renewed”, while outspoken British Major-General Patrick Cordingley said that if a Security Council member gives up nuclear weapons, it would “send an enormous message” that we were serious about disarmament.

Maybe that is because one exemplary action is worth 50 years of hot air.

Link to previous HOT article here.

What can you do?

Trident plus coach 2 copyMarch in London on 27 February 2016. 
With Hastings Against War or Hastings & Rye Labour Party* or as an individual. Coach travel available. To book a place contact alan.mathison@unitetheunion.org

HAW website.

Urge your MP to vote against Trident renewal

* Hastings & Rye Labour Party wants to scrap Trident. Let’s hope that many others support this position, and support UN moves towards new international law to ban nuclear weapons everywhere.

Posted 11:16 Wednesday, Feb 24, 2016 In: Campaigns

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