New Year’s Resolution – Support the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons

Liberal Democrats should have the chance, at Spring Conference 2021, to vote to uphold the international rule of law and take a stand with the many countries who have signed and ratified the UN Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We should adopt a policy of support for the Treaty.

We have a choice to continue to align with the Conservatives and Labour, who will not support the Treaty, or to recognise that 21st century security depends on international cooperation and the rule of international law. We should recognise that resources and political energy should be spent on fighting climate change and inequality – not on modernising weapons of mass destruction. We should spend resources instead on conventional forces that can play an important role in peace keeping.

The Treaty comes into force on 21st January 2021. At that moment, possessing, developing, hosting, transporting nuclear weapons becomes contrary to international law. All nuclear weapons states are resisting the Treaty – ignoring it, ridiculing it – doing anything they can to resist the call from so many of the world’s people to ensure that nuclear disarmament becomes a reality and so removes one of the greatest threats to the future of humanity. Nuclear Disarmament would also free up the trillions of dollars currently earmarked for modernising nuclear weapons.

If nuclear weapons states had respected the deal made under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) there would be no need for this new Treaty. Countries would not seek to acquire or develop nuclear weapons in return for nuclear weapons states gradually disarming. However in the 50 years since the NPT came into force three nuclear weapons states, India, Pakistan and Israel have never signed up to it. Of the rest, including the U.K., they have not kept their side of the bargain. They may have reduced the number of warheads but at the same time they have developed more powerful systems. This UN Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Ban Treaty) was born out of the frustration of many countries that the few nuclear weapons states were clearly not intending to respect their disarmament obligation. Our U.K. Government says it supports global multilateral disarmament but then votes to retain and modernise the U.K. Trident missile system.

Nuclear Weapons are weapons of mass destruction just like chemical and biological weapons.

Liberal Democrats have resisted making unilateral nuclear disarmament a policy because we have felt that such a move smacks of an unpatriotic, tree-hugging, unrealistic dreamer mentality.
However, now we would be joining with 137 other countries who have signed or ratified the Ban Treaty. If the U.K. ignores all the millions of people represented by those countries, it smacks of the old imperialist attitudes. Surely we do not believe we deserve a bigger say in the world because we own nuclear weapons? There are voices in the Lib Dems who think we should not debate this at Conference. They think it is too divisive. I think not to debate it would be irresponsible and backward-looking.

* Baroness Sue Miller is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords. She is a member of Lib Dems against Trident and Vice President of Parliamentarians for Nuclear non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which is an international organisation of hundreds of Parliamentarians worldwide.

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24 Comments

  • Helen Dudden 15th Dec '20 - 3:24pm

    I agree, why waste so much time trying to find ways of finishing one another off. I don’t like chemical weapons either.

  • Kevin White 15th Dec '20 - 3:38pm

    Spot on Sue. I am so pleased to learn that the motion to Conference is being supported by a number of LibDem members of the Lords and former MPs. This party claims to be internationalist. If the FCC refuses yet again to discuss the Treaty, even though it is about to become international law, then it is putting two fingers up to the UN.

  • Sorry everybody but I cannot support anything that sounds or looks like unilateralism. We are already surrendering economic influence with Brexit. If we announce abandonment of our nuclear deterrent what signal do we give to the world? What message does it give to countries bullied by Russia?

  • In a world that we do not know where it is going it would again signal to the world that UK is turning its back on a major member of Nato.

  • Katharine Pindar 15th Dec '20 - 5:56pm

    As a member of CND, I welcome this post, thank you Sue.

  • Sole Reason 16th Dec '20 - 7:09am

    The nuclear weapons debate is complex and not binary as so many pundits like to assume. It requires not only the feelings and emotions of everybody but the contribution from informed political and technical people. The real strategic debate needs to begin with a discussion on the use of armed force in democracies. Regrettably this seems a bit high brow but it is seminal to understanding the irrational WMD debate. The only state to have used nuclear weapons with intent is the USA – a democracy. Think about that.
    In an ideal world there would be no weapons of any description, we can all agree with that. However, it is a flawed concept as we do not live in an an ideal world. In the real world, nuclear weapons exist and cannot be un-invented and so the next best step is to manage their ownership and existence. This is an ongoing project; politics is the art of the possible – pragmatism rules.
    What is the difference between Ypres, Dresden and Hiroshima? The answer is merely the time it took to kill so many people.

  • Jonathan Greenhow 16th Dec '20 - 10:36am

    A welcome move.

  • Please sign in support of the Sign the Treaty motion to Spring Conference. Thank you. https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1fGY62OZ9zxgeOz7GD22l16V7-RSZ0PmFgZzd-UOKUgo/edit

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 16th Dec '20 - 1:29pm

    I have signed the motion on the UN Treaty.
    It is very sad that the party seems so resistant to the idea of supporting this important initiative for peace.
    Motions in support of the UN Treaty have been submitted several times to Federal Conference Committee, and each time have been turned down. I think there was a feeling that the previous motions were not open about the fact that signing the treaty would mean that Britain was unilateral disarmament. And I do feel that perhaps the motions should have been more open about this. Many nations have signed the treaty, but none, so far, have been nations that have nuclear weapons. If Britain were to signed before any other nuclear power does so, then yes, Britain would be committing to get rid of nuclear weapons unilaterally. I support this motion because I am a unilateralist, and we do need to be open about the fact that adopting this policy would mean mean that the party will be adopting a policy of unilateralism.
    For too long, the party has been afraid of unilateralism. I think this fear is not based on any real concern that Britain would be at risk without nuclear weapons. Rather, it is a fear that unilateralism would somehow make the party look “extreme”, and would find it harder to win votes, especially the votes of former Conservative voters.
    How sad that it should be considered “extreme” to oppose the use of weapons of mass destruction, and to believe that Britain should have the courage to take the lead in rejecting such weapons!

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 16th Dec '20 - 1:38pm

    It’s worth pointing out that nuclear weapons are almost certainly already illegal according to international law, so in one sense the UN Treaty is merely affirming international law, rather than creating it. The Geneva conventions (which Britain have, of course, signed) make it clear that it is unacceptable to target civilians. Any use of nuclear weapons would inevitably target civilians, and would therefore break international law. Isn’t our party supposed to respect international law?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 16th Dec '20 - 2:44pm

    Sorry, in my first comment, third paragraph, second sentence, I meant to say “I think there was a feeling that the previous motions were not open about the fact that signing the treaty would mean that Britain was *committed to a policy of* unilateral disarmament”
    I do not mean to criticise these previous motions, all of which I would have voted for. But the case was not helped by some supporters trying to argue that the motion was multilateralist. It was unilateralist! And our party should be proud to adopt unilateralism.
    Unilateralism means having the courage to lead the way, and take a step that other nations do not yet have the courage to take. It means doing what we know to be right, even if it does mean we get accused of being “extreme”

  • Peter Hirst 16th Dec '20 - 5:05pm

    Anyone who thinks that possessing nuclear weapons is anything more than a dangerous waste of money is deluding themselves. The doctrine of nuclear deterrence has gone if it ever existed. Cyber crime is much cheaper, more effective and less prone to public disquiet. The real danger is that regardless of what many say possessing them does increase the risk of using them.

  • Paul Barker 16th Dec '20 - 5:49pm

    No. This is the sort of “Feel-Good” politics that CND peddles, in practical terms utterly useless.
    What has acheived Progress is Multinational Talks on reducing Nuclear Weapons.
    Unfortunately neither of the current Regimes in Russia & China seem interested in talking right now & theres nothing We, as Libdems can do about that.
    This motion would make us look like a “Fringe” Party, more interested in empty gestures than changing Reality.

  • Surely we do not believe we deserve a bigger say in the world because we own nuclear weapons?
    I suggest – based on their media comments – there are many Brexiteers who believe the UK does deserve a bigger say in the world, because the UK is special.
    This suggests on first appearances that the plucky little England Conservatives won’t pay much heed to the LibDems. However, within Brexit is an archilles heel…

    Fundamental to Brexit has been the Brexiteers cry that the EU is somehow preventing the UK from increasing its trade with the Rest of the World and thus outside of the EU we will be able to agree trade deals that are more favourable to UK interests. However, as very neatly pointed out to Boris and co. by Spain’s Foreign Minister trade deals are actually about “managing our interdependence”. Following this thread, it is obvious in the post-Brexit world, the intent is for the UK to become MORE, not LESS, dependent on other countries. Which rather nicely raises the question, of just what is the purpose of nuclear weapons in all of this? I thus suggest a commitment to the Treaty, isn’t just about nuclear weapons but gives a very clear signal about the UKs real intention and commitment to relationship building with the world outside of the EU/EEA/EFTA.

    Obviously, we also need to have some practical strategies and comeback on addressing China’s imperialist aspirations that are currently being aided-and-abetted by the lack of leadership and on-the-ground aid/action being displayed by the US/European nations in Africa and Asia.

  • Paul Barker, if we followed your logic then chemical and biological weapons and land mines would still be commonly used rather than provoking international outrage and censure. You say ‘fringe’ I say forward thinking. Of course the path to global disarmament depends on the nuclear powers. However the U.K. could boost the progress towards it. As you mention the big powers have most of the nukes and major progress depends on them. The world is at a crossroads where a huge modernisation programme including hypersonic delivery systems will put the world on an even more insecure footing. Lib Dem’s should be pointing the way to a more secure world.

  • @ Sue Miller
    Chemical & Biological Weapons were “Banned” by International Treaties, following Negotiations. We should be calling for Negotiations to reduce Nuclear Weapons, they have been effective in the past & they can work in the future. What doesnt work is calling for Countries with Nuclear Weapons to just scrap them.
    This proposal strikes me as dishonest, how can we Vote for it but still have a policy of rejecting Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament ?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 17th Dec '20 - 1:39pm

    Paul Barker, don’t you think Britain could be a far more effective advocate for peace if we had taken the lead in getting rid of nuclear weapons? Actions speak louder than words.
    Decades of a “multilateral” approach to disarmament have, in practice, meant little more than paying lip service to a vague desire to disarm at some unspecified point in the future.

  • Site officials might like to know that this post shows 3 comments (the correct number) when the full post is open for reading. It shows 18 comments when in compacted format.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 17th Dec '20 - 7:17pm

    Peter, 18 comments was the correct number (19 with your comment). But I found earlier that only three comments were visible when I looked at the site on my phone (although it said there were “18 comments”). All 18 comments were visible when I looked at it on my laptop

  • Stephen Yolland 19th Dec '20 - 3:31am

    Earlier it was said:

    >This proposal strikes me as dishonest, how can we Vote for it but still have a policy of rejecting Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament ?

    This is a fair comment that will be repeated by opponents of unilateral disarmament precisely because it fails to point out that the Government can choose to postpone implementing the treaty until they believe it is safe to do so, a crucial part of getting the motion across the line …

    I am a unilateralist but I know the party is not. We need a motion which all sides of the debate can unite around or this motion will again be rejected by FCC, and if it is taken by FCC it will fail at conference because party grandee after party grandee will line up to portray it as committing the party to unilateralism, which legally it would not. But those who believe in the Treaty don’t want to say that because they are actually trying to get a unilateral position through.

    This motion is poorly considered and I, for one, will look at amending it to try and get it through, but the arguments above are why I have not signed it.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 19th Dec '20 - 9:17am

    Stephen Yolland, it is not the case that “the government can choose to postpone implementing the treaty until they believe it is safe to do so”. If a nation which had nuclear weapons signed the treaty, they would be required to agree to a timetable for getting rid of their nuclear weapons, and would be required to keep to this timetable.
    It is true that the treaty does say that an exception could be made if some new and exceptional reason arose which could be argued to make it unsafe for the nation to get rid of its nuclear weapons. But these would have to be genuinely new and exceptional reasons. A nation cannot just sign the treaty, but have no plan to get rid of its nuclear weapons other than a vague intention to do so at some point in the remote future.
    So if Britain signed the treaty, but no other nuclear power did so, Britain would be committing to *unilateral* nuclear disarmament. And if the Liberal Democrats adopt a policy of support for Britain signing the treaty, then the party will have adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament. We cannot possibly argue that it would mean anything else.
    Stephen, you say “I am a unilateralist, but I know that the party is not”. It is true that party policy at the moment is not unilateralist, but the whole point of a conference motion is to change party policy. If Conference chose to vote for a unilateralist motion, then the party would be unilateralist. The point is that conference should be given the choice.
    I think we have to accept that we could never find a motion that all sides would agree with

  • neil sandison 20th Dec '20 - 12:17pm

    How do we get the USA , Russia, China ,France and other nuclear states to start serious talks on reducing existing stock piles and not replacing them with even more deadly weapons ?
    Nuclear fall out like all pollutants does not respect boundaries or borders if we had none at all as we learnt from nuclear accidents in the past the wind blows contamination to other countries and is unstoppable . I would like to see any motion strengthened with a strong multilateral clause that encourages those nuclear states to reduce and not replace their stock piles .

  • Stephen Yolland 3rd Jan '21 - 10:46am

    To be accepted, and then to win, this motion has convince the party, and then the people, that nuclear weapons do not, in fact, keep Britain safer. The motion ignores that obvious need, which is why it will fail as all the previous versions have failed.

    What we need are fewer motions and better arguments.

    The fact is Trident doesn’t keep us safe because there are no conceivable circumstances in which Britain would launch an independent nuclear attack. And if the use of those weapons is part of an American-coordinated attack on someone, then the point is moot as Britain will be erased from the face of the planet.

    The only conceivable argument for maintaining Trident is to deter a Russian attack. But the payload is not large enough to do that. Remember the Russians lost 20 million people in the last conventional war – they are not frightened of sacrificing millions of dead for the motherland.

    In the meantime, possessing nuclear weapons drains our economy of much needed funds, not least for conventional forces of which we are now hopelessly short.

    Signing the Treaty would be the kick up the arse that Britain can give the rest of the world to advance MULTILATERAL disarmament.

    These are the arguments that need to be advanced to allow the party to unite around a peace dividend position. Unfortunately this motion does not do that and the arguments, if past experience is anything to go by, will fail to be made.

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