|ISSUE 53 WINTER 2006-07
|mince pies and missiles
General Lee Butler who commanded all US nuclear forces and drew up the US plan for a possible nuclear attack on Iraq in 1991.
In his memoirs, Colin Powell explained how, in 1991, Dick Cheney ordered him, despite his objections, to prepare a plan for using nuclear weapons on Iraq. Powell regarded the plans as disastrous and unusable and had them burned.
The meeting was chaired by Baroness Shirley Williams who unfortunately started by saying she hadn’t made up her mind on the issue yet. She was going to listen to the debate called by the Government before deciding how to vote in March. The Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, has ‘boldly’ come out for a reduction of 50% of the warheads, to counter the government’s proposed sop of a 20% reduction, and the Parliamentary debate will be heavily disciplined. (Possibly the prospect of killing half the previous number of people seems like an advance…) She believes that bargaining about the size of the reduction could help to encourage reductions elsewhere. She would promote such confidence-building measures as taking all nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. However, Professor Ken Booth from the Department of International Relations at the University of Aberystwyth, stressed that the debate has to be about abolition or renewal – not any half-way houses about the size of cuts. Agreeing to renew the Trident missile system, even with a reduced number of warheads, is going to send a terrible message to the rest of the world.
We were left in no doubt that this impact on the world makes this one of the most significant debates for years. This is largely due to the gradual erosion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as Professor Louise Doswald-Beck, Director of the University Centre of International Humanitarian Law, explained. It was very clear under Article 6 of the 1968 Treaty, reaffirmed at subsequent review conferences, that nuclear states were committed to proceeding to total nuclear disarmament. It was on that basis that the non nuclear powers accepted the retention of the status quo. The renewal of Trident will send a clear signal to non-nuclear states that the UK has no intention of abiding by Article 6. Legally other states can then argue that this is a material breach of the Treaty which entitles them to declare that the Treaty is suspended. Under international law they will no longer be bound by their obligation not to develop nuclear weapons.
Britain's 'independent deterrent'
Under international humanitarian law all states have agreed that the potential use of any weapon is subject to the general rules of armed conflict. The two main cardinal ones binding on governments are that the weapon should not cause more destruction and death than is militarily necessary, and that it is prohibited to launch an indiscriminate attack. Though there is no actual treaty to say that the use of nuclear weapons is unlawful, she believes that these weapons are unlawful under the rules of international humanitarian law, and that the threat to do something unlawful is by itself unlawful.
In discussion Professor Doswald-Beck raised the possibility that another state could take the UK to court over this violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The very discussion of when nuclear weapons might be used could also be seen as incitement to a crime against humanity under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and ministers should be made aware of their liabilities in this regard.
Professor Booth stressed that the renewal of Trident would be a strategic blunder. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has said there are three dozen countries able to develop nuclear weapons: some are ‘a turn of the screwdriver’ away from doing so. In an increasingly uncertain world we should be seeking a balance of risks not trying to ratchet them up. Nuclear weapons depend on making war thinkable. The ultimate insurance against war is through politics - the building of institutions, law and norms to prevent war.
John Vidal, the Environmental correspondent of the Guardian, spoke of the real threat to the world, climate change. He estimates that 80% of the wars during the last 25 years have been about resources, especially oil. An estimate made by some researchers of the cost of renewing and running Trident over the next 30 years is nearly £70 billion (disputed by the ‘other side’). Used wisely instead this could solve the UK’s climate change problems. He believes that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (some FCO officials were present) are looking for a new role for the UK and have chosen the environment. He suggested getting senior military figures to come out against Trident, and that a study on the costs and the alternative uses for the money should be commissioned, as well as a legal opinion.
The question of morality, which had been strangely absent, was raised from the audience, but Professor Booth stressed that arguing on moral grounds didn’t help because others felt just as strongly about their opposite moral stance. He felt people were less willing to be changed from their ethical viewpoint but might be persuaded through political and factual arguments. It was important to try to see how others might feel: a challenge for us all. There were no mince pies, owing to a change in venue, but plenty of food for thought – and action in the New Year.