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Ministry of Defence

Monday 3rd
posted by Morning Star in Features

The government has sidestepped Parliament in renewing a nuclear weapons treaty, warns KATE HUDSON

British governments usually choose to describe the Trident nuclear weapons system as "an independent nuclear deterrent."

This fanciful description has a lot wrong with it - particularly the notion that Trident is independent. What's more, just at the point when a majority of the population wants to see our nuclear weapons scrapped, our government is taking steps to ensure that we have even greater nuclear collaboration with the United States.

The opportunity, seized on by the government, is the 10-year renewal of the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement - the world's most extensive nuclear-sharing agreement - originally signed by the two countries in 1958.

Known in full as the "Agreement between the UK and the USA for co-operation in the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes," the MDA established an agreement between both countries to exchange classified information to develop their respective nuclear weapons systems. It is this treaty which ensures that Trident is both technically and politically dependent on the US.

The British warhead is a copy of the US one, with some components directly bought from the US. With Britain's nuclear warheads expected to be non-operational by the late 2030s, a decision on their replacement will be intrinsically linked to the work taking place as part of the MDA.

Britain leases from the US the Trident II D5 missiles it uses and British submarines must regularly visit the US base in Kings Bay, Georgia, for the maintenance and replacement of these missiles.

The British government recently paid the US £250 million to participate in a missile-life extension programme and participates in numerous exchange visits with staff from the US nuclear weapons laboratories.

Britain also participates with the US in "sub-critical" nuclear tests - tests which fall just short of releasing a nuclear explosion.

Originally, the MDA prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons but an amendment in 1959 allowed for the transfer of nuclear materials and equipment between both countries up to a certain deadline. This amendment is extended through a renewal of the treaty every 10 years, most recently in 2004 when the government managed to avoid scrutiny by basically pulling a fast one.

The treaty was laid before Parliament just before the summer recess with an announcement that it had been signed a week earlier.

This was in spite of the fact that MPs had been asking questions for months about the government's intention to renew the MDA. This was an obvious - and successful - attempt to avoid any democratic scrutiny.

We all need to know what our government is signing us up to and this year's MDA renewal makes some significant changes to the agreement. Britain will become more dependent on US expertise for its own nuclear weapons programme and existing collaboration on warhead design will be extended to the nuclear reactors which would power a Trident replacement submarine.

A crucial factor which successive governments have chosen to overlook is strong legal opinion that the MDA violates the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Britain is a signatory.

The relationship and activities which are enshrined by the MDA confirm an indefinite commitment by the US and Britain to collaborate on nuclear weapons technology and violates both countries' obligations as signatories to the NPT.

The NPT states that countries should undertake "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to ... nuclear disarmament."

Rather than working together to get rid of their nuclear weapons, Britain and the US are collaborating on further advancing their respective arsenals.

A 2004 legal advice paper by Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin concluded that it is "strongly arguable that the renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement is in breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," as it implies "continuation and indeed enhancement of the nuclear programme, not progress towards its discontinuation."

NPT signatories are also committed not to transfer any nuclear weapons or explosive devices to any recipient, an action which is core to the functioning of the MDA and is the specific provision that requires the treaty to be renewed every 10 years. British governments have systematically ignored these legal arguments.

This year it has been harder for the government to avoid scrutiny, thanks to the work of Jeremy Corbyn and other concerned MPs.

As a result of repeated questioning and an early day motion, the treaty is currently on the table in parliament for 21 days and a Westminster Hall debate is taking place on November 6. MPs have no right to overturn the government's ratification of the treaty's renewal, but the very fact of open discussion is important in itself.

Far from being just a routine paper exercise, as some would portray it, this new version of the treaty is poised to underpin the enormously unpopular and as yet undecided replacement of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system.

As public concerns about transparency and accountability in government increase exponentially, it is vital that this treaty - and the behind-the-scenes processes that are taking us towards a new generation of nuclear weapons - are fully understood and exposed.

Challenging the so-called "special relationship" between the US and Britain is fundamental to ensure that Britain can be a country which chooses peace and meeting the needs of its citizens over war and nuclear weapons. It is also fundamental to the democracy and transparency of our politics and society.


Kate Hudson is general secretary of CND