The UK has made little progress on its disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty since the welcomed, but modest, reductions announced in 2010. Rather than working in “good faith” for a world free of nuclear weapons, Britain has failed to participate in multiple initiatives and international fora aimed at making multilateral progress on disarmament, and has failed to follow either UN guidance or a 2019 cross-party report recommending the adoption of a more constructive approach to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has kept the number of states with nuclear weapons in single figures. At its heart is a bargain: 183 non-nuclear states are prohibited from developing nuclear weapons; in exchange, the five recognised nuclear-armed (N5) states (China, France, Russia, US and UK) are committed to taking steps towards multilateral disarmament.
With the N5 not holding up their side of the bargain, the NPT regime looks in jeopardy. Tensions over disarmament contributed to a failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference to agree an outcome. Preparatory meetings ahead of the 2020 Review Conference show extreme concern, not just around N5 intentions to modernise existing systems, but over the re-emergence of a nuclear arms race and a seeming lack of interest in even discussing disarmament.
In 2016, the UK decided to replace its nuclear missile system for an estimated £160 billion plus. In 2018 the UK struck a further blow to the NPT when a Government minister ‘welcomed’ the US’s controversial Nuclear Posture Review, which could make use of a nuclear weapon more likely.
The UK has repeatedly failed to even participate in significant international disarmament discussions, most notably, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), negotiated by 122 states in 2017. Instead, Britain attacked the process from the outside, at times literally: in March 2017, the UK ambassador joined his US counterpart in protesting the initiative by standing outside the negotiating room while the Pope and Hiroshima survivors addressed delegates on the need for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Britain’s approach is at odds with UN guidance on the issue. At an event in parliament in 2018 hosted by UNA-UK, the UN High Representative on Disarmament Affairs warned nuclear states of the TPNW: “don’t ignore it, don’t attack it.” In May 2018, the UN Secretary-General put responsibility for preserving the non-proliferation regime firmly with those who possess nuclear weapons. And in 2019 a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians recommended that the UK " adopt a less aggressive tone about this treaty and seek opportunities to work with its supporters".
Despite this, the UK is still failing to make progress towards its international obligation to disarm and continues to attack the TPNW in public statements rather than follow UN and parliamentary advice. To support nuclear security and reduce nuclear risk, the UK must do much more to uphold its international commitments including through engaging constructively with the TPNW.
Photo: US Government/US nuclear weapons test in Nevada in 1951