The UK must take the lead on multilateral nuclear disarmament

The crucial preparatory work ahead of the 2020 review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) drew to a close at the end of last week. 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT, which came into force in 1970, and it is the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty by the five recognised nuclear weapon states to the aim of disarmament.

Some 189 countries are signed up to it, and – as a recent report from the House of Lords’ international relations committee recognises – despite real concerns in the 20th century about significant proliferation of nuclear weapons, only one non-nuclear signatory — North Korea — has developed a deliverable nuclear weapon since the NPT came into force. Pakistan, India and Israel currently remain outside the Treaty.

Yet despite some progress in the past, today we seem as far away as ever from further advances on multilateral nuclear disarmament. We are seeing an erosion of the very conditions that are conducive to successful international negotiations: stability in the world order and a belief in the rules-based system are vital to underpinning the confidence and trust between nations, which are themselves essential prerequisites for any meaningful disarmament discussions.

Instead, we have seen the rise of unpredictable dictators, with attendant concerns about instability and the risk of miscalculation; rogue states, such as North Korea, looking to further their nuclear ambitions; and fears of terrorist groups getting their hand on nuclear material.  

In contrast to the 1990s, when the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives on so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons saw a reduction by both the US and Russia in the deployment of short-range nuclear weapons, we are now once again hearing talk of using ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. The US has withdrawn from the bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty amid suspicion that Russia is violating the treaty.

Regrettably, we have also seen the Trump administration take a unilateral decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, or, to give it its proper name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It may not have been perfect, but Iran appeared to be complying and it was a tool to work with. Such decisions undermine not only the negotiation of future such treaties, but also the principles of international co-operation and collective action.

It is against this background that we face the challenge of how to reinvigorate the process of multilateral nuclear disarmament. And that requires leadership. While the UK is no longer a superpower, it is still one of the largest economies in the world, with sophisticated military capabilities. It still commands credibility and respect for its diplomatic initiatives. We need to be out there, supporting the international rules-based system, creating the space for dialogue and strengthening the United Nations in upholding the values of the UN Charter – peace, justice and universal human rights.

More specifically, the UK’s upcoming chairmanship of the P5 group of the permanent members of the UN Security Council provides a genuine leadership opportunity in the run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference. The UK really needs to step up to the mark and take the initiative in kick-starting progress on multilateral nuclear disarmament.  

After the disappointing failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, we need to look back to the 64-point action plan that was agreed unanimously at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and try to rebuild the confidence and the will to make progress.

We could start by measures to improve transparency and accountability, and the UK could also bring to the table its particular expertise in the process of verification and monitoring. We could also seek to revive talks about a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which would seek to establish an internationally verifiable ban on producing weapons grade fissile material.

None of this will be easy, but after the impasse of 2015, the UK should rise to the challenge and make every effort to ensure positive outcomes from the 2020 NPT Review Conference. Anything less would be a failure.

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