Recent comments by Liberal Democrat politicians in the Guardian newspaper have raised important questions about the government’s deliberations on whether or not to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear-armed submarine programme.

Two significant points were made: 1) that the acquisition of Trident was based on assumptions about the world that are no longer relevant today; and 2) that the cost of replacing Trident need to be weighed against other priorities for the armed forces (and, many would add, for society as a whole). Taken together these points constitute a powerful, rational argument against renewing Trident.

The argument fell short, however, of acknowledging that the UK’s nuclear deterrent should be scrapped because it does not play a useful role in protecting Britain and instead perpetuates a world in which nuclear weapons are considered to be the ultimate guarantor of security. The unacceptability of nuclear weapons is even more relevant and more strongly felt today than it was when they were first used.

Former Minister for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey questioned the wisdom of spending “between £25bn and £30bn building four vast new submarines whose sole purpose will be to patrol the high seas 24/7 waggling our nuclear bomb at – er – no one in particular.” On the other hand, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander told us: “I am not a unilateralist, I don’t think that we should not have a deterrent.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these Liberal Democrat comments, though, is that they represent an opening up of space to ask critical questions about the UK’s nuclear deterrent. For too long these questions have been marginalised, both within politics and within civil society.

This questioning of Trident renewal has not gone unnoticed around the world, in particular amongst those working towards negotiations for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the UK’s national debate on Trident renewal would look very different against the backdrop of international discussions on a treaty to make these weapons illegal. Efforts to get negotiations started on a ban treaty are being bolstered by the growing focus on the human suffering that any use of nuclear weapons would cause.

The UK acknowledged these catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons when it joined with other states parties in approving the outcome of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. There is also evidence to suggest awareness on the part of the UK government that its nuclear weapons are incompatible with international humanitarian law. When the UK signed the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, it issued a reservation indicating that the provisions of this protocol did not apply to the use of nuclear weapons. This includes provisions that are highly pertinent to nuclear weapons, including the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks as well as the obligation to ensure when developing and acquiring weapons that these weapons would not violate international humanitarian law.

The UK has an opportunity to take some concrete action in relation to this recognition of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The Norwegian government has invited the UK and all governments around the world to participate in a conference in Oslo on 4-5 March to consider the humanitarian impact of a nuclear detonation. The UK should confirm its participation in this important conference and demonstrate its basic responsibility towards British citizens by sharing information on the potential humanitarian impact of a nuclear detonation in the UK and the preparedness and response plans that it has in place. The international Red Cross movement, for its part, has noted that there could in fact be no effective response to a nuclear detonation and it is for this reason that the 2011 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement passed a resolution calling on all governments to negotiate an instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

As financial constraints and military imperatives begin to open up the debate around the UK’s status as a nuclear-armed state, the international debate around nuclear disarmament is being prised open by a focus on the actual humanitarian consequences these weapons cause and the possibility of a new process to develop a treaty banning them.

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