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Rising nuclear risk: Threat of nuclear weapons use has increased, warn Lords ahead of international conference

Just days before states convene for the 2019 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the UN in New York, the House of Lords International Relations Committee has called on the Government to address grave concerns about the deteriorating state of nuclear diplomacy. 

Publishing its report Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty today, the Committee has concluded that a rise in tensions between nuclear possessor states and a breakdown in communication between them has increased the chance of nuclear weapons being used, in particular due to the breakdown in dialogue between Russia and the West since 2014. The causes of this increased risk include a more multipolar world, the development of new nuclear capabilities, irresponsible rhetoric, and a lack of clarity by nuclear-armed states about when they might use their weapons.

The Committee concludes that more dialogue and transparency between nuclear possessor states, and the maintenance of the existing international nuclear regime with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at its core, are of critical importance to long-term efforts to reduce the risks inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons.

The Committee's main concerns are that:

  • Misunderstanding, miscalculation or mistakes could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. There is a lack of understanding between nuclear possessor states on their respective nuclear doctrines and declaratory policies, for example what the response would be to a cyber-attack on a country's nuclear command and control system.
  • Reckless nuclear rhetoric in an era of digital communications could lead to a misunderstanding, and therefore the use of nuclear weapons.
  • Largely as a result of the worsening security environment, global progress towards disarmament has stalled. Tensions between Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Weapon States regarding the pace of disarmament puts pressure on the existing non-proliferation regime in the run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference.
  • Global nuclear non-proliferation efforts have been undermined by the US's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
  • The collapse of nuclear arms control agreements, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, risks further increasing the possibility that nuclear weapons could be used.

The Committee is calling on the Government to:

  • Encourage greater dialogue between all nuclear possessor states about nuclear risk, to reduce global tensions. In particular the Government and NATO must talk to Russia about nuclear strategic stability.
  • Seek to reduce tensions between Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Weapon States in advance of the 2020 NPT Review Conference, including by adopting a less aggressive tone towards the Ban Treaty and its supporters.
  • Continue efforts to defend and uphold the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Use ongoing discussions in NATO to promote either a revival of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or, at least, to avoid the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
  • Use the UK's upcoming chairmanship of the P5 group as an opportunity to discuss risk reduction and transparency between the Nuclear Weapon States, and to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, including encouraging the Nuclear Weapon States to show a more demonstrable commitment to disarmament.

Chair of the House of Lords International Relations Committee Lord Howell of Guildford, said: “We are now dangerously close to a world without arms control agreements, paving the way for a new arms race and for increased risk of nuclear weapons use. Disintegrating relationships between nuclear possessor states, new capabilities and technologies, mixed with a lack of communication and understanding, mean that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater now than it has been since the Cold War.

“The 2019 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference next week is an opportunity to push for an increase in dialogue and transparency between the nuclear possessor states, bolster nuclear non-proliferation efforts, and for the Nuclear Weapon States to show a demonstrable commitment to disarmament. We urge the Government to take our serious concerns into consideration, and use the Preparatory Committee to address them.”

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