An opportunity to change the narrative on Nuclear Weapons
Since the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force in 2021, it is a matter of fact that Nuclear Weapons are now prohibited and illegal under International Law. Liberal Democrats, as law-abiding internationalists must recognise that fact and behave and act accordingly. We have an opportunity to change the narrative on these weapons of mass-destruction.
Multilateralist, respecting international law and learning from history
International security has become a distinctly hot topic since Putin`s very aggressive “Special Military Operation” was launched against Ukraine just over a year ago. Clearly most people recognise it for what it was, an invasion of another sovereign country, by a despot of questionable sanity, with a very large army under his control.
Of specific relevance for this article, however, is the debate prompted (I was going to say `sparked` but decided that was, perhaps, an inappropriate verb!) by Putin having “moved the goalposts of the conditions under which Russia would launch a first nuclear strike.”(Chatham House)[i]
That Chatham House paper of September 2022, points out that Putin`s “deliberately ambiguous and dangerous” threats have significantly moved Russian nuclear doctrine from its oft-stated position that “Russia would only use nuclear weapons first should the existence of the state be threatened, rather than its ‘territorial integrity’.” `Territorial integrity` now includes annexed Ukrainian land!
The problem with this, for people of a Liberal persuasion, is that there has been a sort of `equal and opposite knee-jerk reaction` to crank up the level of rhetoric and nuclear weapon state of readiness on all who oppose Putin`s brand of madness. This is, of course, perfectly understandable, but highly dangerous, in that it also cranks up the risks to the world and everyone in it.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist has reset the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight, “largely but not exclusively due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine“.
The Nobel Peace-prize-winning organisation, ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), have said, quite clearly, in an article published in January this year that “This year’s Clock announcement must not be followed by the usual hand wringing, resignation and excuses, but with urgent action to avoid nuclear war. ICAN has a roadmap for ridding the world of nuclear weapons in four steps: prohibition, stigmatisation, negotiation, elimination.” [ii]
And it is in this context that we have put forward an amendment to the Nuclear Weapons motion to be debated at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in York very shortly.
Dealing with Nuclear Anxiety
ICAN point out that, as the nuclear threat grows, it is very normal for people to experience nuclear war anxiety as a result. “The existence of nuclear weapons entails an existential threat to our world and everything we hold dear, which in many ways can be regarded as a greater threat than people’s possible individual fear of their own death.”
The KILL ZONE I was fifteen in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. Both my home, my school and our family business were within 3.7 miles of Waddington RAF station which was the home of the Vulcan bombers which carried the British nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
The 100% kill zone of a `modest` 1 megaton bomb is said to be at least 6 kilometres – just over 3.7 miles. The KILL ZONE is shown relative to the Waddington RAF base in the attached Google Earth screen shot and, as is apparent, the family business, home and my school are clearly within the deadly target area!
So, it seems quite likely, then, that my views of nuclear weapons were somewhat influenced by this proximity with death. I recall noting that just after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote “Mankind is faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense”.
We have relied on luck for too long.
We may, in fact, need some UNCOMMON sense if we are to avoid an accident (perhaps “incident” would be a more appropriate word?) that obliterates humans and much other life from the Earth.
It is now well known that, in the midst of the Cuban Crisis, Vasily Arkhipov, Chief of Staff of a Soviet Flotilla of four diesel submarines, who was one of three keyholders for the nuclear weapons on the submarine B59, saved the world from Armageddon. The submarines were out of touch with Moscow. The sub`s captain and the other keyholder were going to activate their missiles. Arkhipov refused to use his key and, thereby, prevented the apocalypse.
Twenty-one years later, in September 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, which had strayed into their air space. Three weeks after that the Soviet early warning system raised the alarm that five missiles from the US were headed their way. Duty Officer Lt Col Stanislav Petrov disobeyed orders and chose to ignore what proved to be a false alarm – and Petrov also, saved the world from Armageddon. But we have relied on luck too often for comfort now.
Addressing the morality of Nuclear Weapons
His Excellency Josiah Bainimarama, the Prime Minister of Fiji, speaking in 2022[iii], pointed out that on a planet with a Global Food Crisis; and a runaway Climate Crisis; and still suffering from a rampant zoonotic pandemic, nuclear weapons “…do not feed us, do not clothe us, nor do they keep out the rising seas!”
As a Liberal, I believe weapons of mass destruction are wrong and immoral and have always said so. Indeed, much of the position of our Lib Dem policy is predicated on this moral argument, but caution and a degree of political pragmatism have kept the Party from following this philosophy to its conclusion and has tended to follow the maxim of deterrence. However, we need to ask `what is actually being deterred by such a policy?`
As we all discovered in February last year, nuclear weapons cannot prevent conflict among states, but they do heighten the risk of miscalculation that could end life on earth. Already Vladimir Putin has miscalculated Ukraine`s resolve and the West`s determination to support an heroic Ukrainian President determined to stand firm in the face of aggression.
Part of that miscalculation was based upon the fact that western powers did not step up to the plate after Russia had invaded and annexed the Crimea. And, clearly, Putin believed a quick win was possible with a speedy push along the main roads and the quick capitulation of Kyiv. But that was not to be.
The Nuclear Weapons motion – `Establishment View`
It is to be expected that we Liberal Democrats should respond to this security threat within Europe, being the good, international, Party we are. However, I fear that the motion drawn up by the parliamentary defence team errs too much on the side of an ultra-cautious approach to defence policy, probably not wishing to rock the middle-of-the-road approach thought to be necessary in order not to frighten off the soft conservative vote.
There is too much reliance on the status quo and too much acceptance of the notion of `deterrence` referred to above. As the ICAN team suggests, `deterrence` is built on fear and though it may have worked in a way when there was an equilibrium between `blocs` in what was known as the `Cold War` it has clearly not deterred Putin from International aggression.
And Putin`s threats to use nuclear weapons are being delivered in order to stop Western non-nuclear support for Ukraine, in fear of what could happen if they overstep a line in the sand. The trouble, as always, is that the `line in the sand` is deliberately vague and ambiguous.
We, Liberal Democrats, need to be able and willing to be part of the solution – but blandly supporting the status quo is not going to move the needle at all. It is not going to shift the Doomsday Clock by one second, never mind one minute! The evidence over my lifetime – 75plus years spent entirely in the Nuclear Age – is that downward shifts in numbers of nuclear weapons have only come about during negotiations; and those negotiations have often been spurred on by a response to a crisis of the scale of the Cuban missile crisis sixty years ago!
We need a change of direction…perhaps this Crisis will become the opportunity for movement.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
You may well hear from those opposing our amendment that the UN Treaty is “Unilateralist”, but as the research briefing in the House of Commons Library tells us, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons[iv], in fact, “is the first multilateral, legally binding, instrument for nuclear disarmament to have been negotiated in 20 years.”
As we identify in the amendment, the treaty tells us this in its own words. So, the paragraph we have quoted, which is to be inserted in the “Conference notes” section of the motion, includes the following sentence…
Signatories should immediately remove them from operational status, and destroy them as soon as possible, but not later than a deadline to be determined by the first meeting of States Parties
“Not later than a deadline to be determined by the first meeting of State Parties” – in other words the final stage will be multilateral. And my contention is that the seriousness of such negotiations will be highlighted by the fact that at least one Nuclear Power has decided to sign the Treaty.
Choosing a Direction of Travel
This is all about choosing a direction of travel. Sadly, the Lib Dem motion on the Agenda for York is static in this regard and is what ICAN calls a “wringing of hands”. I believe we Liberals can and should do better. Through our well-established Liberal values, we need to say, loud and clear, that WE are ready to move the process of nuclear disarmament forward.
The amendment also specifies that signing the Treaty should happen in the lifetime of the next Parliament after the forthcoming General Election. It is pretty clear that the current Tory Government would not be open to such a move and any possible iteration of a future Tory government is also highly unlikely to think this is a good idea.
However, I think we can be reasonably confident that the General Election is going to have a significant effect upon the political makeup of Parliament. I do not think that is in doubt.
I want us to be in the vanguard of change – Liberals always have been, because we do not have the baggage of vested interests to weigh us down. And we have a set of values which we need to proclaim rather than hiding them from view in order to not rock the boat!
Let`s move together with the United Nations
UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres said recently that…
“As a global family, we can no longer allow the cloud of nuclear conflict to shadow our work to spur development, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and end the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to lift this cloud for good.”
Achieving global nuclear disarmament is one of the oldest goals of the UN and was the General Assembly`s first resolution of 1946. The UN Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons has been signed by 86 countries and 66 countries have already ratified it. This change, if we make it at the Conference in York, will be the fulfilment of truly Liberal Values consistent with those stated in the preamble to the constitution, namely…
The universal liberal values of internationalism, human rights, the pursuit of peace, and the rule of law, as well as our commitment to each generation having the responsibility to protect the planet, its ecosystem and all its peoples.
So, I hope that those of you reading this who want to move more swiftly to getting rid of Nuclear Weapons will register for the Conference, even if you can only get to the online version – and cast your votes in favour of the amendment to support the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons!
Directly elected member of the Federal Policy Committee and Chair of the Green Liberal Democrats
[i] “Ambiguous nuclear threats heighten catastrophic risks”, Article, www.chathamhouse.org September 2022
[ii] “Dealing with Nuclear War Anxiety”, Article, ICAN website, https://www.icanw.org, January 2023
[iii] High level address to the First meeting of the UNTPNW States Parties, June 2022, https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1s/k1sbslstum accessed March 2023
[iv] “Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons”, Research Briefing, HoC Library, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/ 13th June 2022
So very well put. Once again I am greatly impressed by your rhetoric and by the thoughts and beliefs behind it. (Melton for PM !!!)
Thank you kindly!