“These new policies are taking us closer to nuclear war: they go alongside an increasingly aggressive international posture where global Britain’s new role in the world appears to be that of a nuclear-armed attack dog.”
By Kate Hudson, General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Earlier this year, Boris Johnson’s government made a radical U-turn on three decades of UK nuclear policy. Tucked away in the ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ was news that the UK’s nuclear arsenal will be increased by over 40%, from the current approx 195 warheads to 260. Each warhead is eight times the power of the Hiroshima bomb.
This reverses the decision by the coalition government in 2010 to reduce the stockpile to 180. This ongoing process will now be reversed, ending 30 years of gradual reductions in the UK’s nuclear arsenal. It is at odds with the renewal of the New START Treaty by Presidents Biden and Putin earlier this year which continues bilateral nuclear weapons reductions between the two countries. Not surprisingly, it has led to observations that the UK is starting a new nuclear arms race.
But it’s not just a question of an increase in the arsenal. The Review also includes a change in nuclear use posture – now reserving the right to use nuclear weapons not only against nuclear threats but against supposedly comparable threats, such as chemical and biological weapons or ‘emerging technologies’. This policy swing is reminiscent of the policies of the Trump era, notably the ‘usable’ nuclear weapons which were produced and deployed in his last year in office.
The British government is also threatening to use its nuclear arsenal against non-nuclear weapons states that are said to be heading in the direction of acquiring nuclear weapons – or, as the Integrated Review puts it, those states judged to be “in material breach of [their] non-proliferation obligations.” This is easily understood as a thinly veiled reference to Iran and raises the spectre of illegal pre-emptive attacks on that country.
Of course it’s not only CND that’s been outraged by these changes; the legality of Britain’s new policy was rapidly called into question at very high level. The Office of UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the UK decision was contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – in other words, it is illegal under international law.
This led CND to seek a legal opinion. In a lengthy and detailed document, two top legal experts, Professor Christine Chinkin and Dr Louise Arimatsu from the London School of Economics, found that the UK is indeed in breach of the NPT.
Article VI specifies that signatories undertake to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures” towards disarmament. The legal opinion finds that an increase in nuclear warheads does not constitute a good faith intention to negotiate and that ‘good faith’ is not just mood music – it has legal status and requires concrete outcomes.
The legal opinion also finds that the UK’s change in stance on the use of nuclear weapons is in breach of international law. Any use of nuclear weapons would violate international humanitarian law and a whole raft of legal obligations relating to the environment, proportionality, distinction and other matters enshrined in law.
People often switch off when faced with legal minutiae, but these underpin very significant principles and are the bedrock for political struggles which affect us all. The reality is that the British government is breaking international law and we can’t stand by and do nothing. These new policies are taking us closer to nuclear war: they go alongside an increasingly aggressive international posture where global Britain’s new role in the world appears to be that of a nuclear-armed attack dog.
So let’s work to defeat this: please report the British government to the UN for breaking international law. It’s a small step but it can build on the international outrage that exists about the arsenal increase and help to create momentum for change.
- Kate Hudson is the General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)
- Join the CND in reporting the UK government’s breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty here.