Is Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads illegal?

Much of the British media has dedicated the last few days to questioning the strategic and fiscal pitfalls/merits of the military and nuclear agreements signed by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday. However, the legal context to the nuclear part of the agreement raises some interesting questions, and has largely been ignored.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who served in Sangin, Afghanistan. A memoir of his experiences, ‘Callsign Hades’, described as ‘the first great book of the Afghan war’, is out now; he delivered his Masters dissertation on British military-media relations

Much of the British media has dedicated the last few days to questioning the strategic and fiscal pitfalls/merits of the military and nuclear agreements signed by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday. However, the legal context to the nuclear part of the agreement raises some interesting questions, and has largely been ignored.

According to Dr David Lowry, former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre, any Franco-British military nuclear co-operation would be a violation of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – by both nations.

The UK is both a co-author of the 1968 treaty text, and a depositary state for the treaty itself, article one of which reads in full:

“Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon.

“State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.”

Dr Lowry argues that:

“Any interpretation of the entente nucleaire must regard it as at least an ‘indirect’ transfer of nuclear weapons knowledge.”

He points out that while the UK and France have agreed to cooperate on the science and testing of warheads, which can be interpreted as proliferation, they have also, somewhat duplicitously, created the impression they are at the same time pursuing non-proliferation policies by calling “on all countries to adopt robust measures to counter proliferators such as Iran and North Korea”.

He has a point. This new UK-French understanding is rather strange when seen in the context of the NPT. It shows that while Iran is criticised for its atomic ambitions and alleged breach of its NPT obligations, Britain and France breach their own NPT obligations when it suits them.

Obviously, nuclear technology transparency is far greater in the UK and France than in North Korea and Iran, but there is also an unmistakable whiff of ‘realpolitik’ about the new Anglo-French accord.

Another interesting question arises out of the terms of the agreement: If Britain and France have agreed to the sharing of nuclear warhead research capacity for the next 50 years, then this surely runs counter to next year’s P5 ‘nuclear disarmament’ meeting in Paris. As Dr Lowry points out:

“Just whose nuclear disarmament are they planning to discuss?”

16 Responses to “Is Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads illegal?”

  1. Jon H

    RT @leftfootfwd: Is Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads illegal? //bit.ly/dbZdcT asks Capt. Patrick Bury

  2. Shamik Das

    Is Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads illegal? //bit.ly/dbZdcT asks Capt. Patrick Bury on @leftfootfwd //myloc.me/dQglm

  3. David Cole

    It might well be but there is already nuclear weapons sharing with Germany, Turkey and Italy and, formerly, with Greece and Canada. Regardless of the merits of the plan, it strikes me that this is something that is already happening.

  4. Ben Folley

    RT @leftfootfwd: Is Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads illegal? //bit.ly/dbZdcT asks Capt. Patrick Bury

  5. treeman

    don’t be a twat patrick. that would mean the UK and US have been breaking the treaty for years.

  6. Mili

    Oops. You know the thing with the French and the nukes? Yeah, it might be illegal. //bit.ly/bekIHS

  7. Matthew Taylor (MTPT)

    Treeman’s right. Same point applies to US and India.

    Another, more sophisticated, argument which has been raised is that the UK no longer has air dropped “tactical” nuclear weapons, but the French Force de Frappe does: the entente, it’s said, breaches NPT by effectively giving the UK access to this technology. It’s a ropey bit of logic given that:

    (a) the “tactical” nuclear weapon in question is just a small nuclear fission, placed in a bomb case and fused for dropping from an aircraft;

    (b) the UK currently makes its own thermonuclear warheads, including primaries, for use on Trident missiles;

    (c) the primary from a thermonuclear warhead is a small nuclear fission bomb;

    [Before I get jumped on, I’m aware it’s *a little* more complicated than that – but it’s an order of magnitude less so than going from non-nuclear to nuclear, or from nuclear to thermonuclear.]

  8. treeman

    matthew, i don’t understand one point. the UK no longer has air dropped tactical nuclear weapons. but the UK makes it’s own nuclear weapons and makes and flies planes. not too much of a stretch we need French help for?

  9. Patrick

    Treeman, I understand this kind of thing is nothing new. Reporting one expert’s opinion on it though, and asking an interesting question, shouldn’t qualify one for abuse, thanks.

  10. treeman

    sorry, i take back the twat comment. it’s hard to tell who is twisting the data to fit their own loony left opinions on this blog and who is just giving their own reasonable view, whether I agree with it or not.

  11. labourdevon

    RT @leftfootfwd: Is Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads illegal? //bit.ly/dbZdcT asks Capt. Patrick Bury

  12. Lib Dem foreign minister's French slur | Left Foot Forward

    […] Left Foot Forward looked at whether Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear warheads, covered by the treaty, was legal. Share | Permalink | Leave a comment Comments > […]

  13. Andrew Gibson

    Whilst co-operation on testing might be (at a stretch) interpreted as proliferation, anything that enhances or increases expertise on testing without detonation is positive, in my book. We have to narrow the rhetorical riggle-room of states that test nukes the old-fashioned way. ie. by offering to help them test the warheads safely. I don’t think these developments hamper multilateral disarmament at all. Whilst I would prefer more UK expertise (and funding) on testing facilities, if sharing with the Frenchies is what is takes to continue responsible testing, so be it.
    I note the UK has been co-operating with Finland on verification measures, which I find very positive. //ukinvietnam.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?view=Speech&id=22918643

    If we ever get global agreements on multilateral disarmament, we need more not less scientific expertise.

  14. Andrew Gibson

    I realise that my comments are based on some tricky presumptions. I am of the view that making testing more difficult would either a)hamper the production of new warheads (probably a good thing) or b) encourage states to reject the Test Ban Treaty (a bad thing). I dont believe nuclear weapons states would let the Test Ban Treaty get in the way of their continued possession of nukes, it would feel like a technicality. So, based on the presumption that the UK and others will replace their weapons either way, it is better to continue to test them safely.

    ps. sorry, this is rushed. friday night…

  15. Patrick

    Thanks for your comments Adam. I think, as many people have pointed out, Dr. Lowry’s position is based on a pretty strict/narrow interpretation of the NPT. I thought he made an interesting, somewhat legalistic point, but one that was worth a story none the less.

  16. Patrick

    Patrick. I agree and my name is Andrew

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