Why the UK should go to Vienna

October 27, 2014

Last week at the United Nations, the UK government announced: “We do not… share the view that nuclear weapons per se are inherently unacceptable”. The previous day, 155 countries stated they are “deeply concerned about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons”, condemning unreservedly the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

The UK is badly out of step with the majority of countries in the world. As one of the few countries with nuclear weapons, the UK has a special responsibility to understand the risks and consequences of its own weapons. By refusing to participate in the conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons held by the governments of Norway and Mexico, the UK gave the impression that it doesn’t care about the catastrophic effects its weapons could have on environment, climate, health, social order, human development and global economy.

If fired at cities, as threatened under current ‘deterrence’ doctrines, the nuclear weapons on just one of Britain’s four Trident submarines could cause the direct deaths of more than ten million people with a combination of blast, fire and fallout. With more firepower than all the weapons used in WWII, the resulting soot in the atmosphere would disrupt the global climate and agricultural production, causing widespread famine.

Even if we never use them, having nuclear weapons puts us at risk of accident and self-inflicted disaster.  Since 1979, there have been 16 submarine collisions, 266 submarine fires and numerous safety problems and accidents at nuclear weapons facilities. Nuclear warheads are still regularly transported for hundreds of miles along British roads; 70 individual safety incidents involving these convoys were recorded by the Ministry of Defence between 2007 and 2012.

When Britain signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, we agreed to negotiate “in good faith” the abolition of all nuclear weapons – this surely includes engaging in fact-based discussions with dozens of other nations about the impacts of nuclear weapons? The Marshall Islands’ legal case accuses the UK of failing to act on multilateral disarmament – by boycotting the humanitarian impacts conferences the British government is confirming that view.

Furthermore, as Ireland’s statement to the UN last week points out, “The risks associated with nuclear weapons, about which new research has emerged, particularly in the UK and US, put front and centre all Governments’ duty of care to their citizens, which in turn exists alongside their obligations under Article VI of the Treaty”.

Ambassador Kmentt of Austria visited London earlier this year to encourage British participation at the third Conference on the humanitarian impacts, taking place in Vienna this December. He said: “This may be an uncomfortable topic for nuclear weapon states but they should participate in the debate. The need to prevent a humanitarian disaster ever occurring should unite us in urgent action to move beyond nuclear weapons”.

Looking at nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens is a stark reminder to all countries of the urgency of both disarmament and non-proliferation. By participating in good faith at the Vienna Conference, the UK could further help to stigmatize nuclear weapons and could play a crucial role in leading the way for other nuclear armed states to engage in the humanitarian initiative. The UK describes itself as a leader in multilateral nuclear disarmament, but what has it done recently? The most important multilateral process at this time, with the vast majority of UN member states participating, reflects the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The UK risks being left behind, wasting scarce resources on another Trident nuclear weapons system while the rest of the world moves forward to ban these inhumane and dangerous leftovers from the Cold War.

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