Humanitarian Initiative raised by MPs at Trident Debate

January 22, 2015

At a debate on Trident Renewal in the House of Commons on 20th January 2015, called by the Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and The Green Party, a number of MPs used the opportunity to raise the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons.

Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

Angus Roberston MP (SNP), Joan Ruddock MP (Labour) and Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour) all referred to their own participation at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, held in December 2014 and attended by 157 countries including the UK.

“The issue of Trident replacement comes at a time when the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are being taken seriously by the international community”, said Angus Robertson. “The overwhelming majority of countries attended the international conference on the subject hosted by the Austrian Government… which had a huge impact, forcing attendees to confront the calamity of what would actually happen should there be a planned or unintended nuclear explosion. The UK and other countries need to give a commitment that they will take this issue seriously”. He went on to ask, “Will the Government ensure that the issues raised at the Vienna conference are discussed at the meeting of the P5 nuclear weapons states in February?”

“It is instructive to inquire how other countries and institutions view the nuclear weapon states”, said Joan Ruddock, who quoted the International Red Cross & Red Crescent’s statement to the Vienna Conference: “Even though only a few states currently possess nuclear weapons, they are a concern to all states… They can only bring us to a catastrophic and irreversible scenario that no one wishes and to which no one can respond in any meaningful way”. Citing the Austrian Government’s pledge issued at the end of the Conference, in which they promised “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition… of nuclear weapons”, Joan Ruddock said that “renewal of Trident flies in the face of such international action and it must not be allowed to do so”.

Jeremy Corbyn said he hoped the findings of the Vienna Conference would give Members pause for thought before talking “glibly” about nuclear deterrence: “If anyone anywhere in the world uses a nuclear weapon of any size, millions die and there is an environmental catastrophe, a global recession, a food shortage and a nuclear winter. It would mean the destruction of an awful lot of things that we hold very dear”.

Sir Nick Harvey MP (LibDem) also referred to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, “which I think are singularly under-perceived in this country and many others, although that is changing fast. The participation of many Governments at conferences—the first in Oslo, the second in Mexico, and the most recent in Vienna—is bringing a far greater degree of awareness around the globe of the impact of using nuclear weapons”. He went on to say that “very few signatories to [the NPT] treaty can have imagined that by 2015 so little progress would have been made. Things are stirring and changing, and the British Government need to wake up to that”.

Global consequences of use of UK nuclear weapons

Angus Brendan MacNeil MP (SNP) reminded the House of the 1980s, “when nuclear annihilation was seriously talked about and people did seem to comprehend the awful, frightening and terrifying possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. Over time, people have perhaps become more blasé and this has crept into our discourse, so there is a not as much understanding of the insanity of nuclear weapons as there used to be”. Nick Harvey said he thinks people in this country underestimate the consequences of using our nuclear weapons:  “if we were to unleash the payload of one of our submarines, the consequences would be global and felt for at least a decade, and at least a billion people would be at risk of dying. The more widely that is understood, the more inconceivable it is that any sane person could ever push the button, and the more widely that is understood, the less deterrent effect the possession of this great paraphernalia comes to have”. Joan Ruddock pointed to recent research which shows that “a larger nuclear exchange, including that involving UK weapons, would result in a true nuclear winter, making agriculture impossible… climate effects lasting more than a decade and up to 2 billion people dying of starvation”. Angus Robertson said, “I have yet to hear a supporter of Trident convincingly explain in what circumstances they would be prepared to justify the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children and the causing of massive environmental damage to the world for generations to come. Those are the consequences of using nuclear weapons, and surely if one has them, one has to be prepared to use them”. Caroline Lucas (Green Party) said, “it is short-sighted and dangerous for Britain to rely on a weapon of mass destruction that, if launched, would put our own survival at risk”.

Issues of risk around nuclear weapons

Mike Weir MP (SNP) and Pete Wishart (SNP) both referred to the dangers of the road convoys which regularly bring nuclear weapons through the city of Glasgow – “lorries carrying all sorts of parts to service and keep this genocidal arsenal roll happily along the roads of Scotland almost unnoticed and untroubled with their death-maintaining cargo”.

Citing some of the near-misses involving US nuclear weapons described in Eric Schlosser’s book Command and Control, Joan Ruddock said “The results are terrifying and would be unbelievable if they had not come directly from official military sources”. She suggested that if the Minister “were to read the research on nuclear winters and the report of the accidents that have been recently published, he would realise that there is no safety in the possession of nuclear weapons, even if they are not used in anger”.

UK’s role in global multilateral disarmament initiatives

A number of MPs referred to the UK’s role in the international community, such as Angus Robertson, who called for “moral and diplomatic leadership in global multilateral disarmament initiatives such as a global nuclear abolition treaty”: “It is high time the Government stated their support for a new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons that would complement our disarmament commitment under article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty… It is time that the Government recognised that the success of past international bans on weapons of mass destruction such as landmines, cluster munitions and chemical and biological weapons must be applied to nuclear weapons.” Joan Ruddock said, “when the British Government, of whatever persuasion, say they want to rid the world of nuclear weapons and when they signed the non-proliferation treaty committing themselves to do just that, I also expect that they mean it. As one of only nine nuclear-armed states, the UK cannot escape its duty to progress disarmament talks”. Furthermore, she questioned, “why do we have such moral certitude over the banning of chemical and biological weapons, land mines and cluster bombs but not nuclear weapons?” Nick Harvey said, “the rest of the world is becoming increasingly irate about the complacency of those who continue to have these weapons while saying to everybody else, “You’ve got not right to them, but we’re all right, Jack. We’re going to have them.” That situation is not sustainable for much longer”.

Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid Cymru) said, “The UK Government should be adhering to their legal obligations, including their responsibilities as a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. They should be showing diplomatic leadership and helping to guide multilateral disarmament initiatives, such as paving the way for a global nuclear abolition treaty”. Katy Clarke (Labour) added, “All the arguments advanced by those who believe that it is essential for Britain to have nuclear weapons are equally valid in respect of every country in the world. We need to act politically in order to put nuclear disarmament at the top of the agenda. We need to turn up at discussions, as the British Government often do not. Deciding not to proceed with Trident, and to use the money in other ways, would be a hugely important step symbolically, and would have a huge impact throughout the world.”

Paul Flynn MP (Labour) said that what the world needs from the UK is positive humanitarian intervention not Trident nuclear weapons. “We are clinging to this virility symbol as a gesture of our old national pride when it is not relevant. The whole point of multilateral disarmament is to reduce the number of nations with nuclear weapons… By possessing them we are encouraging other nations to acquire them”. Jeremy Corbyn: “There are millions around the world who do not see nuclear weapons as their peace and their security. They see such weapons, first, as an enormous expenditure and, secondly, as an enormous threat to this world”. Pete Wishart: ”By committing ourselves to Trident renewal we are indulging in a unilateral nuclear rearmament”.

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