Why hasn't the UK dismantled its nuclear weapons?

Following the recent open letter to the Prime Minister calling for action on dismantling the UK’s nuclear weapons, Angie Zelter, founder of anti-nuclear activist group Trident Ploughshares, outlines her concerns about ongoing risks if the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons continues to go unsupported.

Drake's Island, Plymouth
Angie Zelter

The world is facing two interlinked existential threats – climate chaos and nuclear war. Many people have been aware of this for decades and activists in the peace and environmental movements have done their best to make the public and governments aware of the dangers, demanding change.

For instance, Trident Ploughshares (TP) decided in 1998 to disrupt the UK’s nuclear weapons system in a non-violent, open, and fully accountable manner. For over 22 years we have taken part in hundreds of actions at Trident-related sites, including Faslane, Coulport, Aldermaston, Burghfield, and Devonport. Well over 3,000 TP members and supporters have been arrested, facing fines or imprisonment. Many thousands more took part in TP-organised demonstrations and blockades, which were so large that few were arrested. Some of the actions involved major disarmament, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage – which we justified as preventing mass destruction

From the start, the campaign was based on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. In March 1998, we sent an Open Letter to Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that was entitled RESPECT THE LAW: DISMANTLE TRIDENT. We offered to negotiate with the Government before starting our disarmament actions, suggesting nine visible, verifiable elements that would indicate genuine commitments to de-nuclearise the UK in accordance with promises made in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (as stated in Article VI of the NPT). Nothing was done, and so we started the direct disarmament actions which continue to this day.

The cardinal principles of IHL include “the principle that the right of parties to an armed conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited, the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, the rules on proportionality and precautions in attack, the prohibition on the use of weapons of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, and the rules for the protection of the natural environment.” All these are massively breached by threatening the use of nuclear weapons. The nine nuclear armed states are all modernising their weapons and wasting scarce resources on the current nuclear arms race, and the Doomsday Clock is now closer to midnight than at any time in the history of its existence.

But there is hope for us all, because the majority of non-nuclear states have decided that they have the power to take action and are not waiting for the nuclear-armed states to disarm. Fifty states have now ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). While nuclear weapons have been unlawful since their inception, the TPNW fills a gap in the law by specifically proscribing nuclear weapons. It prohibits the developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, assisting other states with these prohibited activities, stationing, deployment or installation of nuclear weapons belonging to other states on a state party’s territory.

Although nuclear weapons states have not signed or ratified the TPNW, nevertheless it will alter their capabilities and, more importantly, as with other inhumane weapon prohibition treaties and conventions, it is already changing the global perception of what is acceptable. This norm shift is significant in a world in which even authoritarian states guard their global reputations as they attempt to expand or protect their spheres of influence.

If the TPNW does not persuade the nuclear weapon states to disarm and if people in these countries do not demand, with actions as well as words, that their leaders disarm, then we will one day find that nuclear weapons will be used by accident or design. The conflict and insecurity created by the climate emergency, left unattended, may also precipitate nuclear war or accident and thus destroy our attempts to restore biodiversity and ecosystems that are so necessary to sustain life on our fragile planet. This is why TP wrote on 30 November 2020 another Open Letter to the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, with a similar plea to the one we gave 22 years before: RESPECT THE LAW: DISMANTLE THE UK’S NUCLEAR WEAPONS. And this is why we call on you all to join with us and peacefully disrupt the Trident bases until our nuclear weapons are safely dismantled.

Angie Zelter is an activist and founder of a number of international peace campaign groups, including Trident Ploughshares