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?”

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