Why the Party should reject calls to sign to the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

In July 2017, a UN Conference on Nuclear Weapons comprised of 124 states voted 122 – 1 – 1 in favor of creating a Treaty to ban nuclear weapons; only The Netherlands voted against, and Singapore abstained. Though the Conference Vote itself results in no legal obligations on the UN Member States, the Treaty opened for signature on 20 September 2017.  As of today, 59 states have signed it, and 11 have ratified it; 90 days after 50 states have ratified the Treaty, it will come into force – currently a distant prospect.

Kevin White wrote an article for LDV on 11 July highlighting his second attempt backed by 156 party members to get FCC to consider a motion at Autumn Conference committing the Party to “to campaign for the UK to add its name to the list of signatories to the Treaty” – and presumably ratify the Treaty.

Speaking as a multilateralist who has consistently opposed Trident replacement on the grounds that it is too expensive – it will consume between a quarter and a third of the MoD procurement budget each year between now and the mid-2030s – and Trident is a level of capability that the UK no longer needs. As an academic international lawyer, I understand the attraction of a Treaty that would ban nuclear weapons and lead to global nuclear zero – an aspiration that I fully support.

Unfortunately, the Ban Treaty will not – and cannot – achieve nuclear zero. There is a simple reason for this. An international Treaty usually only binds those States that sign up to it, unless a vast majority of states sign up, and non-signatories act as if they were bound by it, known as customary international law.

However, if a state objects from the outset to a Treaty, it cannot be bound by the Treaty even if it becomes customary international law, under the “Persistent Objector” rule; this is how China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and the United States cannot be bound without their consent by the Ottawa Convention on Landmines.

All of the official and unofficial nuclear weapons states have objected to the Ban Treaty – which is why they did not take part in the UN Conference – meaning that the Ban Treaty can never impose obligations on them. This means that the Ban Treaty is a dead letter, and that only disarmament negotiations between the nuclear weapons states will result in disarmament.

Moreover, as NATO is an Alliance premised on the possible first use of nuclear weapons to respond to an attack on one or more of its members, and where every member state is entitled to join the Nuclear Planning Group, which sets the policy governing the use of the Alliance’s nuclear weapons, signing the Ban Treaty is incompatible with NATO membership.

This is critical. If the LibDems were to advocate signing the Ban Treaty, we would be requiring two things:

  • First, unilateral nuclear disarmament and military denuclearisation of the UK, and removal of any foreign nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons-associated systems from British territories worldwide. UK unilateral nuclear disarmament actually reduces the chances of broader nuclear disarmament by removing a “gain” that a post-Putin Russia and post-Xi China could use to sell reductions in their arsenals at home.
  • Second, the UK would have to leave NATO, as NATO is not going to become a non-nuclear Alliance without global disarmament.

It is unfortunate that Mr. White has not bothered to spell out the implications of his proposal in his article or his proposed motion. In requiring both UK unilateral nuclear disarmament and leaving NATO, this proposed motion would fundamentally change our approach to foreign policy and Britain’s place in the world. In good conscience, I could not support either policy, as it would make the UK and the world less safe and make nuclear disarmament harder to achieve. I do not think that I am alone in this position, and I am confident that a motion requiring unilateral disarmament and NATO withdrawal will be rejected by Conference.

For these reasons, I hope FCC rejects this motion, instead of remitting consideration of the Ban Treaty to a working group considering British Foreign and Defence policy in the round ahead of the next election. This is the appropriate place for members to weigh the options informed by expert legal and policy advice, rather than in motions which fail to set out the implications of their passage.

* Toby Fenwick is a Research Associate of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has written extensively on the UK Trident programme, and served on the party’s last Trident Working Group. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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  • Steve Trevethan 18th Jul '18 - 5:05pm

    Mr Kim Jong-UN has shown the negotiation value of an independent negotiating tool.
    Is our nuclear weaponry independent and so of actual use?
    Through its attacks on Afghanistan and Libya, NATO has directly created migrations of Biblical proportions which have destabilised individual European nations and Europe itself and so encouraged the rise of far-right/soft fascist attitudes and behaviours.
    How is it a help to Europe?
    PS Please compare the GDPs and arms expenditures of Russia with those of the USA and of the European nations.

  • John Marriott 18th Jul '18 - 5:15pm

    I agree, Toby. Remember what Aneurin Bevan said about a Foreign Secretary being “sent naked into the Conference Room”. It’s a tough and dangerous world out there…Still.

  • Firstly, I don’t think it’s OK for anyone to claim that they are so obviously right that Conference shouldn’t be allowed to debate the issue.

    Secondly, why would the UK have to leave NATO if we unilaterally disarm? Most NATO members don’t possess nuclear weapons or have them stationed on their soil.

  • Toby Fenwick 18th Jul '18 - 9:45pm

    John/Joseph, thank you.

    Nick: I’m a bit confused. I am pleased that FCC have chosen not to debate this motion because to pass it implies a whole raft of consequences across out foreign and defence policy – and a party working group is the approproate forum for this.

    UK unilateral nuclear disarmament per se would not be inconsistent with NATO membership- though for as long as we sheltered under NATO’s nuclear umbrella we would open ourselves to charges of hypocrisy.

    But the Ban Treaty goes much gurther and NATO membership is incompatible with Art 1(c) 1(d) and 1(e) of the Ban Treaty- which is why no NATO member has signed up.

  • The treaty in question says that signatories agree not to threaten the use of nuclear weapons.

    The whole point of NATO is to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. NATO exists to convince the USSR that if their tanks were to cross into West Germany, or Greece, or Turkey, then nuclear missiles would fly at Moscow. That is its entire raison d’être.

    It follows therefore that you cannot both sign the treaty, and be a member of NATO.

  • I do not have strong views on what Conference does or does not debate. We need though to recognise that world war 2 is over, the cold war is over, and thanks to Mr Trump the long standing consensus in the west is over. We need to develop a foreign policy fit for the real world that we live in. We can stop for example fighting proxy wars in other countries and killing so many innocent people.

  • We can stop for example fighting proxy wars in other countries and killing so many innocent people

    When was the last time the UK was involved in a proxy war?

  • Peter Hirst 19th Jul '18 - 2:00pm

    As it’s unlikely nuclear weapons will be used, it is important to give the right messages. Anything that supports and moves us towards nuclear disarmament must be welcome. Details matter but posturing is more important. If we can gain some momentum towards multilateral disarmament, we should go some way to giving it a nudge.

  • it’s unlikely nuclear weapons will be used

    Have you discussed that with Kim Jong-un? And Ali Khamenei?

  • Today

    Oh, gosh, I missed that. Where, who are the proxies, and who are the instigating powers?

  • @Dav

    How about Yemen? The british military help train the Saudi armed forces, and British citizens help maintain and support the British-supplied military hardware.

    In Syria, we went for the best of both, by supporting the “good” rebels, and then getting directly involved ourselves as well. Everyone’s a winner!

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