Government stonewalling on attendance at humanitarian impacts conference

The British government has stonewalled on giving a commitment to attend a forthcoming international conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, saying merely that it is “considering” whether to attend.

The Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Human Weapons, hosted by the Austrian government and scheduled to take place on 8-9 December 2014, aims to strengthen the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime and to continue to development momentum behind the 'humanitarian initiative' to address the risks and consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

128 nations attended the first conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in 2013 in Norway and 145 went to a follow-up conference in Mexico earlier this year. 135 nations have agreed already to attend the third conference in Vienna, and 155 nations have supported an international statement from New Zealand urging universal attendance at the conference.

The 'P5' group of nuclear armed states recognised under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the United Kingdom, joined North Korea and Israel in boycotting previous conferences because of fears that they could be used as a forum to push for the elimination of their stockpiles. India and Pakistan, also nuclear armed, attended the Mexico conference.

Responding to an oral Parliamentary Question from Jeremy Corbyn MP, Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said that the government has received an invitation to the conference and is “considering whether to attend”.  

Mr Ellwood criticised the goals of the conference as “unclear” and said that the government “do not believe that a ban on nuclear weapons is negotiable”, nor “that it would even be observed by many nuclear powers”.

Mr Ellwood claimed that, even if a ban could be achieved in theory, “in practice the confidence and verification measures that would be necessary to make it effective are not in place”.

Lord Des Browne, Secretary of State for Defence under the previous Labour government, said that the nuclear armed states “should participate in and help shape the agenda” for the Vienna conference.  Speaking at a meeting of the Arms Control Association in Washington DC, he said that the UK's attendance at the conference would depend on whether the USA agreed to attend.

“From the point of view of the United Kingdom, if the US agrees to go, we will go”, he said.  It was “no coincidence that we have not made up our mind for each of the last two conferences until immediately after the United States made its decision”.

Lord Browne warned that the P-5 process on disarmament issues and prospects for next year’s Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference “do not currently look encouraging”, and expressed dismay at the state of the P5 process, stating that “Our intention was to create a force for progressive dynamism: it appears that, inadvertently, we have created a cartel”.  He criticised the nuclear-weapon states for an approach to disarmament that “is so painfully slow that it too often feels as if we are moving backwards” and for “working to modernize their arsenals, sending a powerful and unfortunate message about their lack of enthusiasm for arms control”.

Lord Browne warned that the world had “squandered a recent period of opportunity for progress on a variety of fronts, including reductions”, and called for the humanitarian impacts initiative to become “a shared enterprise across nuclear haves and have nots rather than a new point of division, by focusing on preventing the worst not only through disarmament, but by de-alerting, by securing materials, by universalizing the additional protocol and by ramping up considerably effective preparations to handle an incident should it happen”.


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