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Aidan Liddle

UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament

Part of Conference on Disarmament

21st February 2020 Geneva, Switzerland

Disarmament blog: the P5 meet in London

Last week saw a major milestone in preparations for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in April, when the five NPT Nuclear Weapon States met at Lancaster House in London for their ninth annual ‘P5’ conference.

We began the Conference by welcoming the new RevCon President-designate, Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina, and the chairs of the three Main Committees, collectively known as the Bureau. It was useful to hear more about what they thought the key issues for the RevCon would be, what a successful outcome might look like, and what they thought the P5 could do to help achieve it.

In the afternoon, we continued the P5 Conference tradition of a civil society segment. This one was bigger and better than ever: thanks to our partners at King’s College London and the European Leadership Network, the room was full, with almost 80 civil society participants from all five Nuclear Weapon States and 16 other countries. In a lively series of breakout groups, civil society participants engaged directly with members of the P5 delegations on some of the most important issues facing the NPT, not just in this review cycle, but looking ahead to the next. This element is now firmly embedded in the P5 Conference format, and an important contribution to transparency in the NPT.

Following a dinner for the leaders of the P5 delegations, we reconvened the next day in P5-only format to discuss the particular contribution the Nuclear Weapon States could make to the success of the RevCon. That was an opportunity to review the work that has been going on in various working groups over the past few months, not least on nuclear doctrines, the fissile material cut-off treaty, and the South-East Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. In particular, heads of delegation were able to agree that we would hold a joint side event on peaceful uses of nuclear technology as well as the one already announced on nuclear doctrines, that we would publish Phase 2 of our Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, and that we would all present national reports at the RevCon.

The P5 will keep working on all these deliverables up to the RevCon. They also agreed that our work on nuclear doctrines and strategic risk reduction should continue beyond the RevCon – a recognition that these will continue to be important issues for the next review cycle.

The next milestone is the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force, which is being marked with a high-level conference in New York on 5 March. After that, there will only be seven weeks to go until the RevCon itself. There’s lots of work to do to get ready.

10 comments on “Disarmament blog: the P5 meet in London

  1. I note that you mention that a South-East Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone was discussed at the meeting. Surely it would have been more relevant to have discussed a Middle East WMD Free Zone at the conference, as this has been a consistent request from NAM states. It’s been the subject of a UNSC resolution and at the 2010 NPT RevCon it was agreed that a conference to begin the process would take place. No progress has been made, and understandably this has led to frustrations among non-nuclear armed states. Have the UK and P5 abandoned any hope of taking the concept of a Middle East WMD Free Zone forward?

    1. The question of the MEWMDFZ was of course raised during our discussions; it’ll be an important one at the RevCon. But we specifically considered the SE Asia NWFZ as there’s a particular action there for the P5 concerning the Protocol to the Treaty, which is open to the P5 for signature to give legal effect to our negative security assurances to the SE Asian parties to the Treaty. While the P5 have a close interest in the MEWMDFZ, and the UK, US and Russia have a particular role as co-sponsors of the Resolution on the Zone at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, it’s not for the P5 to make progress – that has to come from the states of the region, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by them. We can, and do, offer whatever support and encouragement we can, but this has to come from them, not imposed from the outside.

      1. Is it not true that during this event the US representative reiterated that the US will not participate in the sessions of the MEWMDFZ conference? So which exactly is the role of the US as co-sponsor of the 1995 Resolution in view of the other two co-sponsors apparent decision not to (directly or indirectly) black but to facilitate the conference? Presumably it is not for the P5 to make progress, but not even to ‘welcome’ the conference as the culmination of efforts to establish such a zone is, in my opinion, problematic. For whatever reasons the US is not in favour of the conference, it is a reality and this be treated as such, whether by the US or by the other P5 states or indeed by any other state. Last but not least, one should not forget that this is not about a nuclear weapons free zone but a WMD free zone, an evolution compared to the existing zones. It is an important development, which, mired in politics, has not attracted the attention and analysis it deserves.
        Thank you.

        1. I agree with you about the importance of the Middle East WMD Free Zone. The reality is that, while the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution have an important role in encouraging the countries of the region to make progress, the Zone can’t be imposed or mandated from outside the region. The UK position has always been that all the countries of the region have to negotiate and agree the establishment of the Zone by consensus. That’s why we disagreed with the process that established last November’s conference – which was done through a General Assembly resolution that was not supported by all the countries of the region – but consistent with our long-standing support for efforts to establish a Zone we participated as observers. The fact remains though that while not all of the countries of the region are engaged in the process, it will not lead to a Zone.

  2. Is there room for the UK to map out what a minimal (as opposed to Minimum) nuclear deterrent would look like 26 years after Trident’s last ‘hair-trigger’ target was removed?
    Any multi-lateral process will need to be supported by pretty similar unilateral decisions. Why not map them out for discussion?

    Achieving the de-targeted state agreed in 1994 would need to be on the list.

    1. Hi Mike – thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I understand the distinction you’re making between ‘minimal’ and ‘minimum’. What we mean by ‘minimum credible deterrent’ is to have the lowest level of capability that we calculate would be enough to deter potential aggressors. That will of course vary from state to state, depending on the threat they perceive, so it’s not for the UK to tell others what we think their minimum credible deterrent should be. As you say, since 1994 the UK’s nuclear weapons have not been targeted at any state; they are also now at several days’ notice to fire. This is consistent with our overall minimum credible deterrence posture.

      1. Thanks. We reference ‘potential aggressors’ while there is actually no Tier 1 threat as I understand it. Minimum can unfortunately become what we possess.
        Defining ‘minimal’ for UK would include a formal military and legal assessment of the threat, a step towards making the weapon system less political.
        It may involve relaxing patrols, as there has been no hair-trigger targets for the entire operational lives of the Vanguards.
        It may involve using the W76 whose PIT is good for another 100 years, rather than investing in a new proposed warhead.
        FAS and BASIC have described variants of what ‘minimal’ could look like.
        1994 Major/Yeltsin agreements to de-target, although treated as symbolic are not so. It appears we are somewhat trapped by platforms designed in the 1970’s without an adequate verifiable de-targeting process – ie notification of state, something which was likely to be discussed in Project Shadow in the early 2000’s.
        Finally, we could make clear any decision to re-target Trident for ‘hair-trigger’ working would need the approval of Parliament as part of our learning’s from Chilcott. Civilian control over targeting has not been considered since US Military made the in-flight switch to Nagasaki.
        ‘Minimal’ will need to need to defined anyway as a step towards meeting NPT, so why not try define it even as a theoretical exercise, perhaps using the CEND initiative, something the entire P5 (+4) will need to contemplate at some point. P5(+4) need a bridge to show intent. Identifying a minimal future state would seem a reasonably harmless but productive thing to do.

        1. I’m still unclear on the distinction you’re making, but our deterrence posture is absolutely calibrated on a formal assessment of the threat (see chapter 3 of the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, for instance), and what we think is the minimum (or minimal, if you prefer) level to deter that threat. It’s not a theoretical exercise: it’s based on the security situation in the world as we read it.

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About Aidan Liddle

Aidan Liddle has been the UK's Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament since July 2018, handling questions of nuclear, biological and conventional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation. He joined…

Aidan Liddle has been the UK's Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament since July 2018, handling questions of nuclear, biological and conventional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation.

He joined the FCO in 2003 and has served at the UK Representation to the EU in Brussels, at the British High Commission in Islamabad, and the British Embassy in Stockholm, as well as in various roles at the FCO in London.