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This was the first CCADD meeting held in co-operation with Chatham House, and took the form of an open debate on the motion: ‘that the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system is both immoral and illegal’.  The principal speakers for the motion were Dr. Rebecca Johnson and Professor Nick Grief; those against were David Fisher and Professor Steven Haines.  More than sixty people attended, including CCADD members, members of Chatham House and guests.  The chair was taken by Lord Harries, President of CCADD.  At the beginning of the meeting a vote on the motion was taken, with the following result: 25 for, 23 against, with 7 ‘don’t knows’.  At the end the vote was: 21 for, 29 against, 6 don’t knows.  However, the number of those present at the beginning was not quite the same as those present at the end, so it would be a mistake to read much into this result.


The main points made in the debate can be summarised as follows:


Rebecca Johnson:  Cardinal O’Brien (of Edinburgh), and Revd Alan McDonald (Moderator of the Church of Scotland) had rightly drawn the attention of the current NPT Preparatory Review Conference to the illicit nature of nuclear weaponry, on the grounds of their being inhumane, immoral and contrary to all the major faiths.  But the case against nuclear deterrence is not confined to those of faith: common morality itself condemns it.  As the International Court of Justice advisory opinion of 1996 said, nuclear weapons are intrinsically and irremediably indiscriminate by virtue of their heat, blast and radiation effects.  Even with a reduction from 200 to 160 warheads, the proposed future Trident system will be equivalent to 1280 Hiroshimas.  Furthermore, nuclear weapons endanger the very survival of the planetary habitat.  And they do not prevent wars, as Vietnam, the Falklands, Afghanistan etc show.  They cannot make the world safer.  And if it is wrong to deploy them, it is equally wrong to threaten their use.  They can have no useful role in the 21st century we now confront.  They distract us from tackling the real conflicts of the modern globalised world.  A commitment to their immorality corrodes everybody, including ourselves in Britain.


David Fisher:  The motion is notably rigid and absolute.  It fails to consider what would things be like if the ‘good guys’ (i.e. the democracies) gave their nuclear weapons up and only the dictators continued to have them.  Nevertheless, the challenge of justifying them is more difficult in this post-cold war world.  The ‘just war’ criteria remain relevant, especially those of ‘just cause’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘proportionality’.  Obviously nuclear deterrence cannot work against terrorists who are impervious to rational calculations of self-interest, and present no territorial targets.  And it is inappropriate to consider them against regional powers armed with biological or chemical weapons.  So the only possible justification is in an extreme emergency threatening the very existence of the state, as the ICJ opinion allowed.  We cannot completely rule out such an emergency for the next 30-50 years.  So replacement of Trident is a prudent insurance policy provided that the weapons are targeted only in a ‘counter-combatant’ mode against military targets (dictators are more concerned to maintain their military assets than their own citizens) and all the other just war criteria are also met. 


Nick Grief:  The blast, heat and radiation effects of nuclear weapons, even when used purely in self-defence, would unavoidably violate the international laws of war and of international humanitarian law.  The ICJ opinion insists that discrimination is a legal requirement, and international humanitarian law makes clear that it is never permissible to make civilians the object of attack.  By a majority, the ICJ concluded that using nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to international humanitarian law, and protecting ‘vital national interests’ is not a justification.  Although Britain claimed an exception to such legal constraints, the ICJ chair insisted that its conclusions do not permit such an ‘open door’ interpretation of its findings.  Thus, if it is illegal to use indiscriminate nuclear weapons even in extreme national self-defence it cannot be legal to threaten to do this for deterrence.


Steven Haines: Strictly speaking, the UK is not proposing to ‘replace Trident’, only the ‘platforms’.  And even if Trident is immoral, it would be wrong to vote for the motion if it is not also illegal.  The three main sources of international law are: treaties, customary law, and previous judgements, such as the ICJ ‘opinion’.  None of these contains any comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons, and the NPT expressly allows for five states to possess them.  The ICJ did not address the problem of deterrence as such, and this policy hinges on a threat that is necessary to give meaning to the right of self-defence in the extreme case.  Article 6 of the NPT only requires negotiation for disarmament, not unilateral renunciation.  And the proposed reduction of the UK arsenal is an example of a step towards disarmament.


Debate and discussion: Points made from the floor were taken by the speakers in groups of three.  The following questions were first of all raised:

  1. If nuclear weapons are allowed for some states, why not for the others who need them just as much?
  2. If it is immoral for a state to deploy them, is it not also immoral for that state to be in alliance with any nuclear-armed state?
  3. International law is not really a constraint on the unscrupulous.

The speakers for the motion agreed that states should obey the law, even they often do not so do.  RJ admitted that Art. 6 of the NPT was a bit ‘fuzzy’, but the post-cold war extensions of the treaty (1995, 2000) have made things clearer, especially by de-linking nuclear disarmament from ‘general and complete disarmament’.  SH pointed out that a state could fully abide by treaty law by formally withdrawing from the NPT if, like N. Korea, it wanted to go nuclear.  It is arguable that nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan have helped to prevent a major conflagration in South Asia.  But all the speakers were opposed to proliferation on ‘more means better’ lines.


4.  What is the specifically Christian approach to the issues?

5.  Is it not better to spend the money on good causes?

6.  How confident can we be that nuclear states would abide by any commitment to a ‘counterforce’ policy in a crisis?

7.  Isn’t international law made by those who want to keep things in their own hands?

SH reminded people that conventional wars in the twentieth century killed countless millions; something which nuclear weapons have helped to prevent.  DF pointed out that the costs of the proposed Trident replacement are not prohibitive in the context of government spending on defence.  He also thought that democracies are more likely to keep to their commitments than other states.  RJ admitted that if nuclear weapons did deter wars, and did not undermine international law, they might be acceptable.  But the recent Virginia mass-murder case shows how weapons are part of the problem, not of the solution.  NG insisted that there was nothing wrong with national self-defence but it must remain within the law, and nuclear weapons could not achieve this.  International law will be stronger in the future than it is now.


The Chair then thanked the speakers, and Chatham House for making this meeting possible.  It was widely agreed that it was a very good meeting, and that further joint CCADD/Chatham House debates should be encouraged in the future.