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Beyond the Limits


March 2002

On Wednesday 20 March 2002 Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, appeared as a witness before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. The subject was missile defence but the evidence contains disturbing material on Britain's nuclear deterrence posture.

The officially minuted proceedings make it clear that the UK is prepared to use nuclear weapons against "rogue" states such as Iraq if they ever use weapons of mass destruction - biological, or chemical - (WMD), not against the British homeland, but on our troops in the field.

The crucial disclosures start in para 234 with a discussion about UK general deterrence in relation to a attack on the mainland. However, para 236 moves on to a specific question from Jim Knight MP: "Do you think such a state ["a state of concern"] would be deterred by our deterrent from using weapons of mass destruction against our forces in the field?" Mr Hoon's answer is " ... the United Kingdom possesses nuclear weapons and has the willingness and ability to use them in appropriate circumstances". In para 237 he says that " ... in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons ... ". The context makes it quite clear that Mr Hoon is referring to a nuclear response by the UK to a WMD attack to British troops in the field.

On 8 July 1996 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) confirmed that to threaten, let alone use, nuclear weapons would be generally contrary to International Humanitarian Law. The judges were unable to pronounce on whether they could be lawful "in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake". Even then, any such threat or use should never violate the law.

A typical letter from the Ministry of Defence to the World Court Project UK dated 15 December 1999 states that "the United Kingdom would only consider using nuclear weapons in self-defence and in extreme circumstances, and subject to the rules of international law, and humanitarian law, applicable in armed conflict". This reflects faithfully the language of the ICJ. Many other letters and statements in Parliament are couched in similar terms.

Mr Hoon's evidence to the Select Committee flies directly in the face of such undertakings. A chemical or biological attack in the field could, by no stretch of the imagination, qualify as a threat to the survival of the British state.

Whether such a response could ever be "subject to the rules of international law, and humanitarian law, applicable in armed conflict" is also at issue in Mr Hoon's evidence. He says: "we cannot rule out the possibility that such states [Iraq for example] would be willing to sacrifice their own people in order to make that kind of gesture [willingness to use WMD]". If "such states" were to "sacrifice their own people", the agents of the sacrifice would be nuclear warheads launched by British Trident submarines. Saddam Hussein might be complicit in the sacrifice of innocent civilians; but it would be we who would be inflicting the sacrifice directly. This would almost certainly violate the need for the discriminate use of weapons demanded by International Humanitarian Law.

At the end of the proceedings on 20 March the Chairman, Mr Bruce George, told Mr Hoon that "we will ask you exactly the same questions again in due course". When the Committee next meets the Minister it should also ask him how a nuclear response by the UK in Iraq:

could possibly be proportionate and discriminate, qualify as defending "the very survival" of the British state, comply with the negative security assurances the UK has given all non-nuclear states, could avoid constituting a war crime.

___________________ Extracts from the examination of Rt Hon Geoffrey Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, to the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, 20 March 2002

234.Just a quick one in the last couple of minutes. Traditionally, we have had our nuclear deterrent and we have regarded that as an effective way of deterring others from sending ballistic weapons towards us. From a UK standpoint, to what extent does maintaining that nuclear deterrent mitigate the need for a missile defence system?

(Mr Hoon) In terms of deterrence, clearly, our nuclear capability deters those who might threaten the United Kingdom with a weapon of mass destruction. I think we would have to have a rather longer discussion about whether that, for example, might work in relation to a failed state or a country like Iraq that, for example, places the lives of its own citizens at little value and might be prepared to contemplate taking on a nuclear power like the United Kingdom and accept the consequences. I think in terms of deterrence there is clearly an effect that our nuclear weapons have, but the reason and justification for the argument about states of concern is that some of those states would not be deterred in the way in which conventional deterrence theory assumes.

235.Do you think that states such as, let us say, Iraq - which seems to be on our lips.

(Mr Hoon) On yours, anyway.

236.It seemed to stumble across yours. Do you think such a state would be deterred by our deterrent from using weapons of mass destruction against our forces in the field?

(Mr Hoon) I think, again, the same argument arises, that there are clearly some states who would be deterred by the fact that the United Kingdom possesses nuclear weapons and has the willingness and ability to use them in appropriate circumstances. States of concern, I would be much less confident about, and Saddam Hussain has demonstrated in the past his willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people. In those kinds of states the wishes, needs and interests of citizens are clearly much less regarded and we cannot rule out the possibility that such states would be willing to sacrifice their own people in order to make that kind of gesture.

237.Is it a confidence about whether or not they believe you would use them or confidence about whether or not they would care about whether you use them?

(Mr Hoon) They can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons. What I cannot be absolutely confident about is whether that would be sufficient to deter them from using a weapon of mass destruction in the first place.

Chairman

238.Thank you very much. I cannot say the sum total of human knowledge has increased significantly, Mr Hoon. You 'out-Boycotted' Boycott, and all I can say is that if you were playing for Derby County this season in goal then Derby would be up with Manchester United and going into Europe, because you did not concede many goals. However, we will ask you exactly the same questions again in due course, when we will expect totally, totally different answers. So thank you very much for coming.

George Farebrother,
Secretary, World Court Project UK
The World Court Project is an international citizens' network which is working to publicise and have implemented the July 8 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice.



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