The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is universally recognized as a vital component of international security. It has successfully prevented the spread of nuclear weapons to most countries for over 50 years, and it legally commits its 191 member countries to pursue total nuclear disarmament. It complements additional measures such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the various nuclear-weapon-free zones, and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As the United Kingdom told an NPT meeting in 2017, the NPT “is vitally important for the UK and for the international community as a whole. The NPT has played an unparalleled role in curtailing the nuclear arms race and it continues to play a role in keeping the world safe. It is at the centre of international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, to create a nuclear weapon free world, and to enable access to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”
But the UK has now taken steps which dangerously undermine this crucial treaty. In its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the UK government announced that it will increase the maximum size of its nuclear arsenal and reduce the information it provides about it. Having consistently committed itself over the past decade to reducing its stockpile to a maximum of 180 warheads by the mid 2020s, the UK has now raised this limit to 260, an increase of over 40%. At the same time, the UK will no longer release operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers.
These decisions undermine the NPT in five specific ways:
1. Contravening disarmament obligations
Article 6 of the NPT obliges all its members to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. There has long been controversy surrounding this article, particularly over the slow pace of progress, since the article imposes no schedule or time limit. Nonetheless, the obligation to disarmament is absolute: the International Court of Justice found unanimously in 1996 that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” And the UK, along with the other four countries that the NPT recognizes as “nuclear-weapon states” (China, France, Russia and the United States), made in 2000 and reaffirmed in 2010 an “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination” of its nuclear arsenal.
The UK clearly is not complying with the letter of the law: they boycotted recent negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is an “effective measure relating to nuclear disarmament.” And they have not pursued any other negotiations in good faith towards this end.
But like other nuclear-weapon states, the UK has consistently touted reductions in the size of its nuclear arsenal as evidence of its compliance with this obligation. For example, the UK told an NPT conference in 2019 that the UK “has a strong track record in fulfilling our [Article 6 disarmament] commitments. Since our Cold War peak we have reduced the size of our nuclear forces by well over 50%. The number of operationally available warheads is now no more than 120 and we will reduce our overall nuclear warhead stockpile to no more than 180 by the mid-2020s.”
So by its own standard, the UK is now violating its disarmament obligations. Like other nuclear-weapon states, the UK has argued that slow or intermittent progress on reducing the number of nuclear weapons is still in compliance with Article 6; it is clear, however, that increasing the size of one’s nuclear arsenal cannot be anything but non-compliance. The UK once told an NPT conference that it wants a world without nuclear weapons “but we need to proceed to it carefully”. With this latest decision, it is proceeding in the opposite direction.
2. Behaving irresponsibly and raising risks of nuclear conflict
Members of the NPT have long recognized that transparency and open communication are key requirements both for implementing the treaty and for reducing the risks of nuclear weapons being used. As the UK put it to its NPT partners, “dialogue and transparency will be critical in promoting the confidence required to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict” and “our transparency about our arsenal and declaratory policy all contribute to the UK being a responsible nuclear-weapon state”.
Now the UK has decided it will provide less information and less transparency about its arsenal. By the UK’s own argument, this will diminish the confidence required to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, and make further progress on nuclear disarmament more difficult. The decision is – according to the UK’s own standard – evidence of irresponsible behaviour by a nuclear-weapon state.
3. Providing cover for bad behaviour by other nuclear-weapon states
The UK has argued that its decision to increase its arsenal is both justified by national security concerns and legal under the NPT. In doing so, it has opened the way for other nuclear-weapon states to take similar steps. Before this move, China was the only NPT nuclear-weapon state believed to be quantitatively increasing its nuclear arsenal. By arguing that Article 6 of the NPT does not prevent a nuclear-weapon state from increasing its nuclear arsenal to meet its perceived national security requirements, the UK has essentially granted a licence to other nuclear-weapon states to increase their stockpiles arbitrarily. If this argument were to be generally accepted, it would constitute a grave and substantial weakening of the NPT.
4. Corroding trust among NPT partners
The NPT is not just a piece of paper; it is a living, evolving community of nations dedicated to fulfilling the aims of the treaty for national and collective security. Over the half-century of the treaty’s existence, its members have worked together to interpret and implement its provisions effectively. These agreements are recorded in the outcome documents of the NPT’s review conferences, held every five years. The most recent of these, the “action plan” adopted by the 2010 review conference, contains a number of relatively specific and detailed steps to make progress on nuclear disarmament. The UK has consistently reiterated its support for this action plan; in 2018 it said “we support the fullest implementation of all its recommendations and we call on all States Parties to continue working towards that end”.
But the UK’s decisions to increase its nuclear arsenal and reduce transparency are in direct contradiction of several of the recommendations. Action 1 commits members “to pursue policies that are fully compatible with the Treaty and the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons”; Action 2 requires members to apply “the principles of irreversibility, verifiability and transparency in relation to the implementation of their treaty obligations; and Action 3 commits the nuclear-weapon states “to undertake further efforts to reduce … all types of nuclear weapons”. Action 5 requires the nuclear-weapon states “to accelerate concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament”, including by engaging to “further enhance transparency and increase mutual confidence”.
These agreed actions were the result of difficult negotiations, involving concessions and compromises from all sides, as well as resourcefulness, persistence, and dedication to the mission of the NPT. By unilaterally discarding them, the UK has gravely damaged trust among the NPT membership – not just with those countries with differing priorities and political orientations to its own, but also with its own allies, many of which worked hard to bridge gaps and broker the agreements. The UK has now made it much harder to reach agreement at the forthcoming NPT review conference, even as a deteriorating global security environment demands a united and strong NPT community more than ever.
5. Inciting proliferation of nuclear weapons
The UK has attempted to justify its decision by arguing that the international security environment requires a larger nuclear arsenal in order to maintain “credible deterrence”. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, defending the decision, told the media that the UK needs nuclear weapons because they are “the ultimate guarantee, the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states”.
By arguing in this way – characterizing nuclear weapons as a guarantee against security threats, and claiming that an increased threat requires more nuclear weapons, regardless of treaty commitments – the UK is in effect encouraging other countries to consider acquiring nuclear weapons themselves, either disregarding their NPT obligations, or withdrawing from the treaty entirely. Nothing could be more damaging to the NPT! As the UK itself told its NPT partners in 2017, “we must uphold and strengthen the NPT because of, not despite, the complex security challenges that we all face”.
Photo: Roberto Catarinicchia on Unsplash