Letter urges Boris Johnson to recognise UK’s nuclear disarmament obligations

HMS Victorious nuclear subThirty-one organisations, including the United Reformed Church, wrote to Boris Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, on 16 April 2018 to urge the UK government to use the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) held between 23 April and 4 May 2018 at the United Nations Office in Geneva, to recognise and act upon the UK's international obligation to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.

The letter also encourages the government to participate in the UN High Level International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, scheduled to take place between 14 and 16 May in New York, and to use the opportunity to develop relations with non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) and make progress on the UK's disarmament obligations. 

Francis Brienen, Deputy General Secretary (Mission) for the URC said: ‘It is imperative that the UK recognises its disarmament obligations and works with non-nuclear weapons states towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons threaten the safety of every single one of us and bring nothing but chaos and indiscriminate death and suffering. The URC is proud to stand with like-minded organisations in signing this letter.’

The letter reads:

The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP 
Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 

16 April 2018 

Dear Secretary of State, 

We are writing to urge the UK to use the imminent Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee meeting to recognise and act upon the UK's international obligation to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. 

As you will be aware, disarmament is a fundamental pillar of the NPT regime. However, the widespread feeling that the NPT's Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) are neglecting their disarmament obligations recently led the UN's High Representative for Disarmament Affairs to link the lack of visible progress on disarmament to the declining health of the NPT regime. Izumi Nakamitsu stated in a recent meeting at Parliament that only demonstrable progress towards nuclear weapons states' implementing their obligation under Article 6 to negotiate in good faith towards disarmament can "ensure the long-term viability of the Treaty."(1) 

Little progress has been demonstrated to the international community on the steps towards disarmament agreed in the NPT's 2000 and 2010 Action Plans. At the same time, the NWS have been taking steps to modernise their arsenals - tolerating the risks of global devastation through accident, mistake or cyber-attack – with Russia and the US also adopting more aggressive nuclear postures. For example, both states have rejected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) de-alerting, and have placed emphasis on 'lower yield' nuclear weapons (2) and their 'usability' in recent policy announcements. These represent not only a dangerous development but also a set of policies that are clearly opposed to NPT commitments. We were therefore deeply disappointed to see the UK government ‘welcome’ the recent US Nuclear Posture Review, (3) and we ask what steps the government will take to ensure that our close ally steps back from policies that will undermine the NPT regime. 

There is clearly an urgent need for states to build common ground on disarmament. Steps should be taken by the UK to build bridges with Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS), which must include signalling unmistakable progress towards the UK's obligation to disarm. They must also include acceptance of, and engagement with, the new realities in the international non-proliferation and disarmament architecture. 

As a country whose National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review links the UK's future security and prosperity to the health of the rules-based international system, the UK needs to ensure it acts to strengthen, not undermine, this system. Irrespective of the UK's position, the rules-based international system now unquestionably includes the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). In that context we would point out that the TPNW, as is made clear in its Preamble, is firmly anchored within international humanitarian law. Consequently, the UK should announce its intention to start constructively engaging with the TPNW, including through a commitment to attend future Meetings of States Parties as an observer. 

Such a participatory policy could minimise misconceptions about the TPNW and the continued importance of the NPT to states. Many UK allies will now be pursuing additional and mutually reinforcing work under the TPNW, towards common goals on non-proliferation and disarmament that are described within the NPT and other treaties. 

Participation would also provide an opportunity for the UK to contribute towards these goals by offering expertise to discussions and processes on subjects such as verification, and measures to assist individuals 

Such an approach would send an important signal to NNWS that the UK is taking seriously their legitimate concerns about the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the urgent need for disarmament, which led to the negotiation of the TPNW. Within the UK, the Scottish Government and Parliament share the views of the UN member states that adopted the TPNW. The Scottish Government and Parliament's constructive participation in the UK's engagement with these allies should be welcomed by the UK Government. 

An additional opportunity to cooperate with states on efforts to bring about nuclear disarmament, the UN High Level International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, takes place in May 2018. We urge the UK to attend this meeting at ministerial level or above and to use the opportunity to develop relations with NNWS and make progress on the UK's disarmament obligations. 

If the UK is to live up to its aspirations of a Global Britain, the UK cannot cherry-pick those forums for multilateralism that the government is most comfortable dealing with and ignore others. By adopting a policy of engagement and supporting the system as a whole, the UK can strengthen international cooperation at a time when the risks posed by nuclear weapons are considerable and arguably growing. We urge the UK to take all opportunities to work constructively towards the common goal of a world without nuclear weapons. 

The full list of signatories can be found here.