Milan Rai looks at UK nuclear weapons policy in the wake of recent government statements regarding Iraq.
Article from SGR Newsletter 25, May 2002
British and US ministers and officials have issued veiled nuclear threats against Iraq, despite the fact that there is no solid evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, raising the prospect, as threatened in the 1991 war against Iraq, of nuclear weapons being used in a conflict with a non-nuclear nation.
Hoon's Triple Threat
Just before he left on a 'peace mission' to India and Pakistan, Jack Straw was asked on Radio 4's Today programme why the two countries should pay any attention to a country which had never itself renounced the first use of nuclear weapons. The Foreign Secretary 'said everyone knew the prospect of Britain (and the US and France) using nuclear weapons was "so distant as not to be worth discussing".'
Guardian columnist Hugo Young commented that Straw's response was 'about as misleading an answer as can be found in the entire record of Britain's conduct as a nuclear power.' The journalist then referred to the repeated nuclear threats made by Jack Straw's Cabinet colleague Geoff Hoon this Spring. ('Hoon's talk of pre-emptive strikes could be catastrophic', Guardian, 6 June 2002)
- On 20 March 2002, British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence that states like Iraq 'can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.'
- Then, on 24 March, Geoff Hoon appeared on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby show and 'insisted that the government "reserved the right" to use nuclear weapons if Britain or British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.' (Richard Norton-Taylor, 'Bush's nuke bandwagon', Guardian, 27 Mar. 2002)
- Finally, Hoon was asked about his threats in the House of Commons in a debate on 29 April Hoon said, 'ultimately and in conditions of extreme self-defence, nuclear weapons would have to be used.'
In the House of Commons debate, Diane Abbott MP pressed the Defence Secretary for an explanation of what these 'conditions of extreme self-defence' might be. Hoon refused to be specific. The Defence Secretary confined himself to saying that it was 'important to point out that the Government have nuclear weapons available to them, and that - in certain specified conditions to which I have referred - we would be prepared to use them.' This deliberate ambiguity is thought by the Government to be a useful form of 'deterrence'.
MPs have expressed concern as to whether Hoon's threats might be in contravention of international commitments given by the UK. In 1978, the five declared nuclear powers promised that they would avoid firing nuclear weapons at non-nuclear-weapon states. The US and British promises - or 'negative security assurances' (NSAs) - were full of exceptions and loopholes.
Restated in 1995, the British NSA said, 'The United Kingdom will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United Kingdom, its dependent territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies or on a State towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State.' (This was looser wording than given in 1978.)
In contrast, the 1995 NSA from China said, 'China undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances. China undertakes not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States or nuclear-weapon-free zones at any time or under any circumstances.'
In 1989, Nigeria proposed an international treaty banning the use of nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon State which had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, unless that State had nuclear weapons stationed on their territory. Britain and the other nuclear powers have resisted such proposals.
Iraq is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There is no evidence that Iraq possesses functioning nuclear weapons. Iraq is not allied with any nuclear weapon state. Therefore, unless the British Government claims that Iraqi military action against British and US troops in any coming war is 'in association' with China or Russia, the 1995 Negative Security Assurance ought to rule out the possibility that Iraq could be attacked by British nuclear missiles.
Hence the question by Malcolm Savidge MP to Mr Hoon on 29 April:
'Do the Secretary of State's recent comments concerning the possible use of nuclear weapons against Iraq signal a change of Government policy, whereby Britain is reneging on assurances given to non-nuclear weapons states under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Indeed, are the Government abandoning the policy of successive British Governments of regarding nuclear weapons as a deterrent of last resort?'
Hoon said that nuclear weapons were still a 'deterrent of last resort', but did not respond to the question about Britain's NSA.
The promise not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States is fundamental to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. A French diplomat was asked about Hoon's comments, 'Don't you think that all this might encourage small countries that are still developing nuclear arms to acquire atomic bombs themselves and therefore ruin all the efforts so far to elminate nuclear weapons of mass destruction?' The representative of the French Mission to the UN replied, 'The danger you point out is real. We've drawn the attention of our partners and allies to this difficulty many times.' http://www.un.int/france/documents_anglais/020326_mae_presse_moyenorient_2.htm
Chemical and Biological Exceptions
Giving testimony to the Defence Select Committee in March, Hoon cast some doubts on whether British nuclear threats might work in relation to 'a country like Iraq that, for example, places the lives of its own citizens at little value and might be prepared to contemplate taking on a nuclear power like the United Kingdom and accept the consequences.' Iraq doesn't have any nuclear weapons, so far as we know, and the International Atomic Energy Agency continues to inspect Iraqi nuclear sites.
What Hoon is afraid of is the possibility that Iraq may have some chemical or biological weapons which it succeeded in keeping hidden.
Former UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector Scott Ritter says that's not possible: stocks of chemical and biological weapons 'would no longer be viable': 'Weapons built before the Gulf war that slipped through the UNSCOM net would by now have passed their sell-by date.' (Guardian, 5 Mar. 2002, p. 16) 'Contrary to popular belief, BW [biological weapons] cannot simply be cooked up in the basement; it requires a large and sophisticated infrastructure, especially if the agent is to be filled into munitions. As with CW [chemical weapons], the CIA has not detected any such activity concerning BW since UNSCOM inspectors left Iraq.' (Ritter, Arms Control Today, June 2000)
But the fear in the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence is that if, somehow, Iraq does have chemical or biological weapons, there would be no reason for Saddam Hussein to hold back from using them against British and US troops (and perhaps Israel) if Washington and London launched a war aimed at deposing and killing him. Hence the attempt to 'deter' him from using his weapons of mass destruction by threatening to use British and US weapons of mass destruction in retaliation.
The Nuclear Posture Review
A leaked US policy document - the 'Nuclear Posture Review' - 'is understood to identify three circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used: against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack; in retaliation for the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; and "in the event of surprising military developments".' (Sunday Telegraph, 10 Mar. 2002, p. 1) Iraq is mentioned as a possible target.
Tory Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said in November 1993 that because the threat of an all-out nuclear assault might not be 'credible' against certain enemies, it was important for Britain to be able to 'undertake a more limited nuclear strike' to deliver 'an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost.'
This limited strike would be carried out by a single nuclear warhead, fired from a Trident submarine, on a 'Tactical Trident' missile, possibly carrying a 5 to 20 kiloton nuclear warhead. Hiroshima was destroyed by a 15 kiloton bomb.
The policy of using nuclear weapons to defend 'vital interests' was confirmed by New Labour's 'Strategic Defence Review', which concluded in July 1998 that Britain's nuclear arsenal should be the minimum needed to 'deter any threat to our vital interests'. (Chapter 4, para. 61) The Review explained that 'our vital interests are not confined to Europe. Our economy is founded on international trade... We invest more of our income abroad than any other major economy... We depend on foreign countries for supplies of raw materials, above all oil.' (Ch. 2, para. 19) So, 'vital interests' include economic and financial interests abroad as well as national survival.
According to the respected military journal International Defence Review (Sept. 1994) Tactical Trident has four possible roles: 'At what might be termed the "upper end" of the usage spectrum, they could be used in a conflict involving large-scale forces (including British ground and air forces, such as the 1990-91 Gulf War) to reply to enemy nuclear strikes.
'Secondly, they could be used in a similar setting, but to reply to enemy use of weapons of mass destruction, such as bacteriological or chemical weapons, for which the British possess no like-for-like retaliatory capability.
'Thirdly, they could be used in a demonstrative role, i.e. aimed at a non-critical, possibly [!] uninhabited area, with the message that if the country concerned pursued its present course of action, nuclear weapons will be aimed at a high-priority target. Finally, there is the punitive role, where a country has committed an act, despite specific warning that to do so would incur a nuclear strike.'
Only one of these scenarios involves an enemy with nuclear weapons.
Conclusions: Towards an Ethical Foreign Policy
- Geoff Hoon should be forced to make an explicit statement that British nuclear weapons will not be used in any war on Iraq that may take place.
- The Defence Secretary should withdraw from any planning for such a war, and the Government should state that Britain will not participate in a war on Iraq.
- The Government should make a clear, unambiguous and legally-binding Negative Security Assurance that it will never, at any time or under any circumstances, use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapons State which has signed up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and which has no nuclear weapons on its territory.
- The Government should publicly abandon the idea of 'defending' financial and economic 'vital interests' overseas with British nuclear weapons.
Milan Rai is a founder member of Active Resistance to the Roots of War (ARROW) and is joint co-ordinator of Voices in the Wilderness UK. ARROW, c/o NVRN, 162 Holloway Road, London N7 8DQ, http://www.justicenotvengeance.org/