UK to attend Vienna conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons

The government has announced that the United Kingdom will be represented in a landmark conference on nuclear weapons which will take place in Vienna next week.

Responding to a Parliamentary question from Nadhim Zahawi MP, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced: “We have decided to accept Austria’s invitation to attend the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons on 8 and 9 December. We will be represented by Mrs Susan le Jeune, the UK ambassador to Austria and permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency”.

Over 150 countries will attend the conference – the third such event since early 2013 – which will highlight the uniquely destructive power of nuclear weapons, including the impossibility of emergency medical responses and the risk of famine resulting from nuclear war.

There were fears that the UK would join other nuclear-armed states in boycotting the conference following its failure to attend previous conferences on the humanitarian impact of human weapons held in Norway in 2013 and in Mexico earlier this year.

Ministers had previously stonewalled on making an announcement on whether the UK would be represented at the Vienna conference, criticising its goals as “unclear”, but a decision by the US government to attend the conference is believed to have contributed to a change of view in Whitehall.

The government faced considerable political pressure to attend the conference, with two Early Day Motions on the issue attracting 34 and 79 signatures and front bench opposition politicians supporting the calls.

The UK was heavily criticised for not attending the previous conferences in Norway and Mexico. Former Conservative Defence Minister James Arbuthnot MP stated ‘We should be there. I cannot understand why we are not’, while former Liberal Democrat Defence Minister Sir Nick Harvey MP described the decision as a ‘disgrace’.

The Vienna conference, which will be hosted by the Austrian government, aims to “strengthen the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime and to contribute to the growing momentum to firmly anchor the humanitarian imperative in all global efforts dealing with nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament”.

In line with the previous conferences, the Vienna conference is expected to continue discussions on the humanitarian and environmental impacts of a nuclear weapon detonation, while also extending that debate to international law relevant to the issue.

Previous conferences were boycotted by the five nuclear armed states recognised under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Israel and North Korea 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.

Nuclear armed China, France, and Russia have as yet given no signs to indicate that they will attend the Vienna conference.

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