UK parliament votes to keep nuclear weapons as momentum gathers for ban treaty

July 19, 2016

By Elizabeth Minor, Researcher at ICAN partner Article 36 (article first published on their website here).

On 18 July, a majority of MPs voted for the continuation of the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons, endorsing the replacement of the four submarines that the UK uses to continuously convey weapons of mass destruction around the oceans – with the potential to cause catastrophic loss of life and health, destruction, and a devastating range of environmental and humanitarian harm by accident or design.

The intention, for its supporters, is to extend the UK’s use of nuclear weapons in national policy for a generation. However, with global momentum coming to a head for a new international treaty to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, this is far from assured.

Over the past six years, global concern at the severe and insurmountablehumanitarian impacts of the detonation of any nuclear weapon has grown. The emergence of new evidence and the greater visibility of the character and consequences of nuclear weapon use, with the state-led Humanitarian Initiative of international conferences to discuss this aspect of these weapons, has galvanised calls from the majority of the world’s states for renewed action to abolish this most destructive of all weapons technologies.

With over 120 states having pledged to take action to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear weapons based on their catastrophic humanitarian consequences, talks are this year under way at the UN to identify the international legal and other measures that need to be taken for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Support for a treaty to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, with or without the participation of the nuclear-armed states (which would fill a gap in the current legal regime) is gathering. A mandate to start negotiations on such a treaty is expected to be agreed at the UN in October.

ICAN campaigner action at embassies in Geneva during the OEWG (© ICAN

ICAN campaigner action at embassies in Geneva during UN disarmament talks in May.

The UK cannot simply ignore these developments. Even if the UK does not initially join a ban treaty, its negotiation and agreement will have practical impacts on the UK’s nuclear weapons programme by curbing investment in companies manufacturing nuclear weapon systems, and will make it clear that countries that keep nuclear weapons are on the wrong side of the law. It will no longer be possible to claim, as the Prime Minister inferred in last night’s debate, that the UK’s naming as a nuclear-armed state in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty somehow conveys legitimacy on its possession of nuclear weapons – such possession will be enshrined as equally illegitimate for all states. The pressure of this international stigma will make it progressively harder for the UK to retain such unacceptable weapons.

Voting for the renewal of Trident whilst global momentum is coming to a head for a prohibition on nuclear weapons seriously contradicts the UK government’s rhetoric of commitment to a nuclear weapon free world. The majority of the world’s countries want to take action to prohibit nuclear weapons because of their horrific humanitarian effects – impacts that the UK must face up to and not just dismiss. In the context of such international concern, the fact that the Prime Minister during the debate indicated her willingness to indiscriminately incinerate 100,000 civilians at the touch of a button is particularly jarring.

With 471 MPs voting in favour of the UK’s nuclear weapons and 116 against, a significant minority spoke against renewing the UK’s weapons of mass destruction. A number drew attention to the forthcoming ban treaty, highlighting the UK’s non-participation in current UN talks and its rejection of the Humanitarian Initiative. MPs also drew contrasts between the UK’s stated commitment to the protection of civilians in armed conflict and its possession of indiscriminate weapons, and noted the successes of other international processes to ban and eliminate unacceptable weapons in which the UK has had a role.

Setsuko classmates banner

A banner with the names of the 351 classmates of Setsuko Thurlow who were killed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima 

Members also highlighted the impacts on people and the environment of nuclear weapons as clear reasons not to continue with their possession, and also gave their views on these weapons’ inherent immorality. Chris Law MP recounted the experiences of Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, suggesting that the Prime Minister should consider the “horror, shock, pain and loss, and the complete devastation, of a nuclear strike” that only survivors can describe. “That in itself,” he remarked, “Should be the complete reason why we do not replace Trident.”

With countries around the world uniting around this position, the UK is placing itself firmly on the wrong side of history.

Main photo: Doctors and nurses from ICAN partner Medact staged a die-in outside parliament for the vote on Trident.

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