Reckless development on a dangerous status quo: new US nuclear policy and UK govt silence
Watch Article 36’s Elizabeth Minor discuss the issues on BBC World News on 4 February 2018 below
Released on 2 February, the new US “nuclear posture review” (NPR) from the Trump administration – the policy on its arsenal and strategies for the use of nuclear weapons – argues for the US to be more able and willing to use these weapons of mass destruction.
The NPR proposes the development of two new types of nuclear weapons as part of the US’s ongoing “modernisation” programme to renew its arsenal. These are a “low-yield” warhead for its submarine-launched ballistic missiles – which would in fact be a weapon of a similar size to those used in the atomic bombings of Japan, to horrific and long term effect – and the reintroduction of submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles. The policy also expands the circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used in response to non-nuclear attacks.
This is an unacceptable approach to weapons of mass destruction that the majority of the world’s countries have now declared illegal through the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
However, it also represents only a reckless development on an already dangerous status quo, in which a minority of states still consider nuclear weapons to be legitimate tools of statecraft, and maintain their use as an option – with the potential to cause catastrophic loss of life and health, destruction, and a devastating range of environmental and humanitarian harm either by accident or design.
The new US nuclear policy contradicts commitments it has made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including its promise along with other nuclear-armed states under the 2010 Action Plan to engage with a view to decreasing the importance of nuclear weapons in its security policies. The US is therefore undermining this important international framework through its new policy, and its nuclear-armed or reliant allies also risk doing so if they do not reject these alarming developments.
The UK government has continually and recently expressed its commitment to working for the entry in to force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – a step which the new NPR rejects. The UK has also stated that it plays “a leading role” in the Preparatory Committee meetings for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that will take place in 2020, and that it will engage with a range of states on non proliferation and disarmament within this framework. The next Preparatory Committee meeting will be in April this year in Geneva.
The UK government should articulate how it will act on these responsibilities and priorities with its ally, in light of the new NPR. So far, in response to a parliamentary question on what communication the UK government has had with the US on the policy during its development, it has only said that the US “sought views” from allies.
While the UK is ready to condemn dangerous escalation in Northeast Asia with North Korea’s “illegal” nuclear weapons programme (with the implication that some nuclear weapons programmes such as the UK’s are legitimate – despite international obligations to negotiate to fully disarm), it appears less ready to take concrete steps towards realising the frequently reiterated goal of a world without nuclear weapons.
Responsible governments across the world with a sincere commitment to disarmament must engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It provides a path forward to strengthen the stigma against the possession of nuclear weapons and so create the conditions for their elimination, as well as providing a framework to do so.
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