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The UK Defies Nuclear Treaties and Strengthens Atomic Arsenal

By Jamshed Baruah

Photo: A Trident missile launched from a submerged ballistic missile submarine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

GENEVA (IDN) — Within three months of the UK's complete withdrawal from all institutions of the European Union and from the European Atomic Energy Community on January 31, 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has decided to increase by 40 per cent to 260 the country's nuclear arsenal to "continue to be the leading European Ally within NATO". Disarmament activists and experts as well as world parliamentarians have criticized the decision. [2021-03-22|33] ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | SWEDISH | THAI

The danger emanating from nuclear weapons is underlined by the fact that a single atomic warhead could kill thousands of people with lasting and devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences. Most of the atomic weapons are many times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world's armed states possess a combined total of nearly 13,500 nuclear warheads; more than 90 per cent belong to Russia and the United States. Approximately 9,500 warheads are in military service, with the rest awaiting dismantlement.

The UK's nuclear program, known as Trident, established in 1980, now costs the country around $2.8 billion a year to operate. The 111-page 'Integrated Defense Review', presented on March 16 states that the UK is dropping a self-imposed restriction on its nuclear arsenal to increase to 260, discarding the previous limit of 225 warheads as well as the current reduction target of 180 by the mid-2020s.

As it is, the UK is currently engaged in a costly and lengthy project to build new nuclear-capable submarines, which it bases off the coast of Scotland, despite Scottish resistance to the bomb. In 2019 alone, the United Kingdom spent $8.9 billion on its nuclear weapons.

Besides, the decision comes at a point in time when most of the world's countries have declared that nuclear weapons are illegal. In doing so, the United Kingdom is moving in the wrong direction to increase its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

Also, this decision flies in the face of UK commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to disarm, as well as the prohibitions in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on possessing, developing and producing nuclear weapons.

Beatrice Fihn, ICAN Executive Director, has carped the UK plan to increase its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the middle of a pandemic as "irresponsible, dangerous" and violating international law. "While the British people are struggling to cope with the pandemic, an economic crisis, violence against women, and racism, the government choses to increase insecurity and threats in the world. This is toxic masculinity on display."

Fihn, head of the 2017 Nobel laureate International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), added: "While the majority of the world's nations are leading the way to a safer future without nuclear weapons by joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the United Kingdom is pushing for a dangerous new nuclear arms race."

Meanwhile, the majority of the public stands behind the members of parliament and cities, including Manchester and Oxford, that are calling on the UK to join the TPNW. "UK policy should follow the will of the people and international law and reject nuclear weapons for good."

"The UK’s shocking expansion of its nuclear weapons capability comes without an explanation of how this is in the national or global interest. It is tone-deaf to the lack of domestic consent for such a move where Scotland's First Minister and Government are unambiguously committed to the TPNW, cities including Manchester, Edinburgh, Oxford, Brighton and Hove, Norwich and Leeds, have signed up to support the Treaty's implementation and the majority of the UK public think that Britain should sign up to the TPNW."

Ben Donaldson, Head of Campaigns for ICAN Partner Organisation UNA-UK, said: "This decision is imbibed in a toxic combination of militarism and hubris. We need the UK Government to invest in measures to combat climate change and pandemics, not trigger a dangerous new nuclear arms race."

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is a part of the ICAN, also condemned the UK's decision. This grassroots organization successfully campaigned for a global ban on nuclear weapons at the United Nations. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in January 2021.

Meanwhile, Oliver Meier, from the University of Hamburg's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH), also joined criticism of the UK for dramatically shifting its nuclear strategy while potentially putting it at odds with both NATO and the US.

"The United Kingdom has committed to — under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty — reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons," Meier commented to the German international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle. "There's also an obligation to work towards a goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world that is hard to reconcile with this decision," he added.

The 'Integrated Defense Review' warns that the UK could use nuclear weapons if other countries use "weapons of mass destruction" against it. Such weapons include "emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact" to chemical, biological weapons or other nuclear weapons.

According to some defence insiders, "emerging technologies" comprise cyberattacks, though the report doesn’t explicitly say that. However, Tom Plant, a director at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told CNBC: "I would not interpret it to include cyber-attacks in isolation, no."

He added that the "understanding of what constitutes emerging tech in government is not evenly distributed — cyber is definitely not 'emerging,' it's pretty substantially emerged." Either way, Plant believes that the change in language is significant.

In his view, the language is an indication that there is the potential in the future for blends of technologies and behaviours to collaborate that create emergent risks — "which perhaps would not arise through the developments of any one technology in isolation" — that are incredibly hard to predict and that "there is at least the possibility that one or more of these as-yet-unknown emergent challenges might rival WMD in the threat they pose," Plant said.

The UK announcement has generated concern around the world, as evidenced by a statement the UK Abdicates its Global Responsibility in Nuclear Weapons Surge released on March 19 by Gareth Evans, Chair of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network and a former Foreign Minister of Australia.

In the statement, Mr Evans notes that the policy move by the UK, amongst other things, is "in clear breach of its treaty obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue nuclear disarmament, and will undermine any prospect for consensus at the forthcoming NPT Review Conference."

He also notes that the move is a "clear breach of its moral obligation to help eliminate the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever devised, whose use in a nuclear war would be an existential threat to life on this planet as we know it".

Mr Evans accentuates that it is time for the world's nuclear-armed states to "recognise anew the force of the Reagan/Gorbachev declaration of 1985 that a 'nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought', and to embark upon a serious program of nuclear risk reduction, including reducing weapons deployments, taking them off high alert, committing to No First Use, and—above all—reducing stockpile numbers."

Both Mr Evans and Baroness Sue Miller in the UK House of Lords and Co-President of the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) are endorsers of the Appeal for a Nuclear Weapons Free World. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 March 2021]

Photo: A Trident missile launched from a submerged ballistic missile submarine. Source: Wikimedia Commons-.

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