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UK investments in nuclear weapons production and the impact of a new ban treaty: roundtable briefing

On 10th November the APPG on Weapons and Protection of Civilians held a roundtable briefing on new findings about private investments in nuclear weapons production, and how the UK as a nuclear-armed state would be affected by the commencement of negotiations on a new international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The report of the event below was originally posted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (UK).

Nia Griffith MP gave introductory remarks to the meeting (Clare Conboy)

Nia Griffith MP gave introductory remarks to the meeting (Clare Conboy)

Nia Griffith MP (Labour), Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Weapons and the Protection of Civilians, remarked on how the frustration of non-nuclear-armed states with the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament has led to the emergence of the humanitarian initiative, which is injecting a sense of urgency back into the issue internationally – whilst the UK itself insists that Trident renewal is consistent with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


Wilbert van der Zeijden and Maaike Beenes (PAX, Netherlands) presented the findings of their newly launched report ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb‘, which reveals that 26 financial institutions in the UK made an estimated £21.1billion (USD $32billion) available to 26 companies engaged in the manufacture of British and American nuclear weapons since January 2012. These UK-based banks and investment management funds include well-know names such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays Bank, Old Mutual and Lloyds Banking group. The companies involved in the manufacture of the weapons include BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and Boeing.

Don’t Bank on the Bomb 2015‘ shows that the stigmatizing effect of this international divestment campaign is already resulting in a huge increase in financial instructions divesting from nuclear weapon producers as well as a gradual drop in institutions still investing in them. At the same time, the report suggests that in the absence of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, banks like RBS will continue to invest billions in companies making these weapons of mass destruction, dragging their customers into the financing of these weapons, often unwittingly or unwillingly.

Elizabeth Minor (Article 36gave an overview of the international Humanitarian Initiative on nuclear weapons and growing global momentum towards a new treaty banning nuclear weapons as a humanitarian imperative. 121 countries have now endorsed the ‘Humanitarian Pledge’ to fill the legal gap with respect to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, and to cooperate with states, the Red Cross Movement, parliamentarians and civil society to “to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

A clear majority of states at United Nations General Assembly first committee have just voted in favour of a set of resolutions on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, including a resolution on this pledge, and a resolution that establishes a working group to discuss new law for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. Even without the initial participation of the nuclear-armed states, a new treaty banning nuclear weapons would have a significant impact, by increasing the political costs associated with retaining nuclear weapons, as well as practically affecting weapons programmes for example through prohibitions on financing. These international developments are important to UK parliamentarians, who should highlight the humanitarian initiative and ban treaty in domestic debate.

Rebecca Sharkey (ICAN UKdescribed new research from Scientists for Global Responsibility showing that if used, the nuclear weapons carried by just one British Trident submarine could directly cause more than 10 million civilian deaths. With more firepower than all the weapons fired in WW2 (and 320 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), this would trigger such huge climatic disruption that global food supplies would be at risk and the survival of human civilization itself would be threatened. She quoted Sir Nick Harvey, former Liberal Democrat Minister for the Armed Forces: “The UK government keeps saying the rest of the world is okay with us having nuclear weapons – but the Humanitarian Initiative shows this isn’t true.” 

Top UK investors in Trident, and the companies producing Trident II missiles for the UK and US (© PAX)

Top UK investors in Trident, and the companies producing Trident II missiles for the UK and US (© PAX)

In the context of ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’, she said that a divestment campaign can help to strengthen the taboo around nuclear weapons. Like fossil fuels or tobacco, an investment doesn’t need to be illegal for it to be subject to ethical objections. The recent vote at the Scottish Parliament highlights the widespread rejection of nuclear weapons in Scotland – and yet, anyone with a Royal Bank of Scotland bank account or a pension may be complicit in funding companies that produce nuclear weapons. ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’ gives citizens the power to demand divestment and to put pressure on companies to find other things to manufacture. ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’ research adds to the arguments for a global ban on nuclear weapons, which are currently the only weapons of mass destruction not yet explicitly prohibited under international law – a legal loophole which clearly needs filling.

Just as Britain did with the Atlantic slave trade, so we must now disentangle our society from an out-dated, unethical and dangerous habit, Sharkey said. She quoted historian Adam Hochschild: “Nuclear weapons are one of the entrenched wrongs of our own age which need to be seen as both outrageous and solvable, as slavery was felt to be in 1787″.

Experts from PAX and Baroness Jenny Jones (Clare Conboy)

Experts from PAX and Baroness Jenny Jones (Clare Conboy)

During discussion, Baroness Jenny Jones (Green) noted that the Green Party has been campaigning against nuclear weapons and in favour of ethical investments for a long time. People now understand how consumer power can have a big impact, but we also have to convince politicians to make real policy changes.

Margaret Ritchie MP (SDLP) said that the Social Democratic and Labour Party supports the complete abolition of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. On the east coast of Northern Ireland we can both see the potential damage and feel the fear emanating from Faslane nuclear weapons base, which is just across the water. She suggested various ways in which the issues discussed could be raised by MPs.

Ronnie Cowan MP (SNP) highlighted that Trident is a huge issue in his constituency of Inverclyde, which borders the Faslane nuclear weapons base. He said there needs to be a better understanding of what nuclear weapons really are, how many people they can kill in an instant – and also the many knock-on effects of any nuclear detonation, such as the contamination of water supplies and destruction of infrastructure, which would kill many more people. Momentum is building against Trident in Scotland – 56 Scottish National Party MPs have recently been joined by Scottish Labour in their rejection of the UK’s nuclear weapons.

Ronnie Cowan MP (Clare Conboy)

Ronnie Cowan MP (Clare Conboy)

Mr Cowan also highlighted the risk posed by abandoned Second World War sea mines in the Clyde – through which nuclear submarines navigate. Only a fifth of these mines are accounted for. He has been raising this issue with the government, and noted that a mine was recently found and destroyed by the Royal Navy, who said that the unexploded mine presented a clear and present danger. He also noted the different ways in which parliamentarians could get these issues on to the agenda in parliament.

David Lowry, of Paul Flynn MP (Labour)’s office suggested that the findings of the latest Don’t Bank on the Bomb report be raised by MPs in parliament.

Tim Hunt (Ethical Consumer Research Association) explained that divestment is a key tool in raising awareness of an issue and pushing for change using the power of stigma, especially in light of well-known successes such as the anti-apartheid campaign. The carbon divestment movement is having some impressive wins – £2.6 trillion has now been divested by religious organisations, governments and universities. California divested from coal in pension funds, as did the Norwegian Parliament. Barclays has pulled its investments from drones made by Elbit following a successful AVAAZ campaign petition.

Ann Feltham (Campaign Against the Arms Trade, CAAT) agreed that divestment campaigns are a good way to raise an issue, even if they’re not always successful in achieving actual divestment. In England and Wales, the government is trying to bring in new restrictions on Local Authority pension funds, which will be required to invest in infrastructure. Although this means they won’t be investing in weaponry, it does prevent ethical debate on investments.

Rob van Riet (Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, PNND) asked if there were examples of national legislation on investment in nuclear weapons, and also noted the pending case at the International Court of Justice, where the Marshall Islands is making a case against the NPT nuclear-armed states for their failure to fulfil their disarmament obligations.