The World Is Gathering to Discuss Eliminating Nuclear Weapons, But the UK Government Won't Even RSVP

31/10/2014 17:46 GMT | Updated 31/12/2014 10:59 GMT

A question in parliament this week laid bare a contradiction at the heart of Britain's nuclear weapons policy. Jeremy Corbyn MP asked foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood whether Britain would be attending a conference in December, hosted by the Austrian government, to discuss the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The minister replied that the invitation had been received and the government is considering its answer.

All well and good you might think, if you don't know the backstory. Little reported in Britain, a groundswell of concern has emerged from governments internationally, about the dangers presented by the likely use - by accident or design - of nuclear weapons. Nothing to write home about, some might say, given that we all know the horrific consequences of even a small bomb - like those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But new research has been published about the extent of potential damage, unlimited by national boundaries, and the absolute impossibility of providing adequate assistance to a country or countries suffering such a grave emergency.

Not surprisingly, the countries that are discussing this issue are those that don't have nuclear weapons but would suffer the consequences nevertheless. Two conferences have already taken place on this subject, in Norway in 2013 and Mexico in 2014. 127 states attended the former event and 145 the latter, so this is no small beer. Britain, together with nuclear powers USA, Russia, China and France, has declined so far to participate. Ahead of the Mexico conference, at least 11 parliamentary questions were put over an 11 month period, asking if the UK would attend. The response then, as today, was that the government was considering whether to attend.

So why not attend? The government explanation for non-attendance - once you get beyond complaints that the conference goals are 'unclear' - is that the conference may talk about the possibility of a negotiated global ban on nuclear weapons. Our government doesn't believe that such a ban is negotiable. So herein lies the contradiction.

Britain has been a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1970, committed to disarming its nuclear weapons. All British governments since then have stated that they plan to do this, through a multilateral process. So here's a state-led multilateral forum, talking about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Some participants favour a global ban, others don't. But at least they are talking about it.

Perhaps Britain's self-exclusion from this important global dialogue would be more understandable if Britain was actively pursuing another multilateral nuclear disarmament process. But no, sadly not. Indeed, last time I checked, the government was actively pursuing a unilateral nuclear rearmament process - planning to spend over £100 billion on the replacement of Trident.

Looking at the Austrian government's statement about the conference, the reason for Britain's non-participation becomes clearer:

The more the international community discusses and understands the scale of these consequences and of the risks involved, the clearer the case and the stronger the sense of urgency become for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Whatever successive British governments have said about their commitment to multilateral disarmament, the tragic reality is that once an avenue is presented that could mean progress towards that goal - or even a recognition that elimination is necessary - you can't see our leaders for dust.