Gavin Strang


Nuclear Weapons Proliferation speech

9 July 2009

Speaking in advance of the debate he initiated on the floor of the House of Commons on 9 July, Gavin Strang MP said:


The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, is the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime.  

The Treaty came into force in 1970, and is recognised as having been a real success.   The NPT was negotiated at a time when there was a very real danger that the number of states with nuclear weapons could reach 20 or more within a decade or so.   That that did not happen is recognised as being in large part due to the Treaty.  

The NPT is also given credit for the decision of a number of states who had set out on nuclear weapons programmes, or who had inherited nuclear weapons from Soviet predecessors, to abandon that path.

The NPT is essentially a deal between those of us with nuclear weapons and those without.   The Non-Nuclear Weapons States agree not to pursue nuclear weapons.   In return they have access to civil nuclear energy and a promise of disarmament from the five recognised Nuclear Weapons States – China, the US, Russia, the UK and France.

While the so called ‘grand bargain’ at the heart of the NPT is easily described, supporting and enforcing it is a constantly changing task as technology advances and politics shift.   The fundamental issue is whether the Nuclear non Proliferation Treaty is the way forward for the next 20 years.

Recent history

Following the end of the Cold War, steps were taken to strengthen then non-proliferation regime, and the NPT Review Conferences of 1995 and 2000 gave us real grounds for optimism.   Review Conferences are held every five years as part of the ongoing operation to ensure that the mechanisms in place to protect the world from nuclear proliferation are up to the job.  

However, from 2000 onwards we have been going backwards.

The last Review Conference, in 2005, ended in failure.   Nothing was achieved.

The link between non-proliferation work and disarmament is strong, and is brought out in the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.   It is far more difficult to effectively deal with a less cooperative state, or to build support for measures to strengthen anti-proliferation work, if dissenting parties can point to the failure of the Nuclear Weapons States to make progress towards disarmament.   

As far as the UK is concerned, I am firmly of the view that the decision to replace Trident is a setback.  

The present

So having endured those bleak years, are we now on the way up?   There are, in my view, real grounds for optimism at present.

Firstly, because of the new administration in the United States.

The new President has declared that he wants to work towards a world without nuclear weapons, to pursue the US ratification of the vital Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and to support a verified Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty  .   As the House will be aware, the US and Russia made progress earlier this week on a Joint Understanding for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.   The START Follow-on Treaty would reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads and delivery vehicles.  

Surely this encouraging development points up the difference in President Obama’s approach from that of his predecessor.   I would go so far as to say that President Obama provides us with the best hope we have had for years in the area of non-proliferation.

Our own Government, to its credit, has shown that it is seized of the importance of progress at next year’s NPT Review Conference.   In March the Prime Minister announced that the UK is to work with other countries to set out a ‘Road to 2010’ Plan.   I understand that publication is likely to come before the House rises.

There are signs of movement at international level as well.   In May the Preparatory Committee agreed by consensus an agenda for the 2010 NPT Review Conference.   This may not sound significant, but it was the first time that this has been achieved by the Preparatory Committee in 15 years. 

Later in May, the UN Conference on Disarmament – which had been deadlocked for twelve years - agreed a Programme of Work including the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT)

Looking to 2010 and beyond

So it seems there is indeed new scope for progress, and it is vital that we seize this opportunity.   Because the challenges that we face are urgent.  

So how do we proceed?   Looking to the 2010 Review Conference and beyond, a consensus has been emerging over some of the steps that need to be taken.

Firstly, we must see the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty    The Treaty can only come into force when all five Nuclear Weapons States and all states with civil nuclear reactors have signed.   Nine such states, including the United States and China, have still to make this commitment.    As I have mentioned, President Obama has pledged to pursue this, and the fact that the Senate is Democrat-led gives further ground for hope.

Secondly, in order to strengthen measures which prevent the illegal diversion of material to nuclear weapons programmes, we must have universal adoption of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol   which allows inspectors more intrusive access.   The Government recognises progress here to be a priority.

Third, a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty would halt the further production of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium.   The Government has identified this as an essential step towards a world without nuclear weapons, and as I have mentioned, President Obama has reversed the position of the previous administration and reinstated US support for such a treaty.

Fourth, moves to guarantee supplies of fuel for peaceful nuclear energy uses, enabling countries to forgo the development of fuel-cycle facilities, would limit the risk of diversion and of terrorist intervention.  .   If progress is to be made here, participating states must have absolute confidence that supplies would be guaranteed.

Fifth, we need proper enforcement measures for states which breach or withdraw from the NPT system – a point made by President Obama in his speech earlier this year in Praguel, and this is a priority of the UK Government.

Sixth, we Nuclear Weapons States must take steps to de-alert our existing arsenals, reduce our dependence upon those arsenals in our defence policies, and improve our levels of transparency.   As the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has pointed out, the fact that we do not even have an authoritative estimate of the total number of nuclear weapons attests to the need for greater transparency.

Finally, we Nuclear Weapons States have an obligation to disarm.   As I have said, disarmament is one of the three pillars of the Non Proliferation Treaty, and the world is watching closely.    The progress towards a successor to START made by the US and Russia this week is an encouraging step in the right direction.   Non-Nuclear Weapons States will need to see that we Nuclear Weapons States have an ongoing commitment to further, deeper cuts in our arsenals.   

This week we saw the death of Robert McNamara, US Defense Secretary during the Cuban Missile Crisis.   I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis.   I was a student at the time and can remember the genuine fear that we all felt.

Forty years after that crisis, McNamara famously revealed how close the world came to nuclear war, and let me quote him.

‘It was luck that prevented nuclear war.   […] Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies.   And that danger exists today.’  

The case for a world without nuclear weapons was made by Robert McNamara in one sentence:

‘The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.’

News Archive

Select a year:

This site is maintained by Gavin Strang, who was the MP for Edinburgh East from 1970 to 2010. It is part of the site maintained up until 2010.