On Scotland

Next year, the people of Scotland will decide in a referendum whether or not Scotland will continue as an independent sovereign state or stay as a part of the United Kingdom. An independent Scotland will have consequences that are of direct relevance for the NPT. All UK nuclear weapons are on Scottish territory. Deployment of nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland could lead to the violation of Articles I and II of the NPT. Now is the time for states parties to stress in statements that such an act is unacceptable. Not to threaten the nascent Scottish nation, but to help build their case against the British deployments. And to prevent the UK government, perhaps aided by NATO states, from cooking up some subjective interpretation of the Treaty. Better to prevent an extra blow to the NPT regime than to try to fix it afterwards.

The Scottish people will get the chance to vote on the future of their country on 18 September 2014. Whether or not they vote YES remains to be seen. Only one third of citizens recently polled favour independence. Many are still on the fence. What is much clearer, and transcends the dependency debate, is the outright dislike by the Scottish of nuclear weapons in their country. A recent poll shows an 80% majority in favour of evicting Trident from Scotland. For this reason, the independence referendum is regarded by many as a great chance to get rid of the nuclear weapons.

The NPT has a lot to offer for the Scottish demand. Article II states that “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any state whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly.” The Article leaves little room for interpretation. Scotland, as a non-nuclear weapon state, shall not have nuclear weapons on its territory.

NATO, however, has throughout the existence of the NPT, been deploying American nuclear weapons in European countries. Currently these weapons are in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. There is every chance that the UK will argue that the deployment of Trident in Scotland is no different. NATO has always defended its practice with two arguments. One, the bombs remain in custody of the US in “peace time” and as such are not transferred to a non-nuclear weapon state. The second argument has been that the deployments predate the NPT. Or, in other words, the NPT was signed taking into account an existing practice of forward deployment. This would not apply to the Scottish situation. In this case, a new situation would emerge. In this case, a state, already part to the NPT would decide to enter into an arrangement that involves the deployment of nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear weapon state territory, knowing full well that it is not in compliance with Article II.

In fact, a comparison with the break-up of the Soviet Union is more appropriate. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed and gave birth to a number of independent states, several of these new states had Soviet weapons on their territory. For all the right reasons, the international community expressed concern about the fact that this created problematic situations in relation to NPT requirements. Money and political capital was invested to achieve a situation in which Russia was recognised as the only post-Soviet nuclear weapon state. The other states dismantled their weapons or arranged relocation to Russia. The independence of Scotland will, for international treaties, be regarded as a split of the United Kingdom. Scotland will not have to renegotiate every treaty of which it is part now. Like Ukraine or Kazakhstan, Scotland will find itself in the peculiar position of having nuclear weapons on its territory, to which it could in theory have just as much ownership rights as the remainder of the UK. But it does not want to take over the UKs role as a nuclear weapon state and it does not want bombs on its territory.

At a seminar in the Scottish Parliament this April, Scottish International Development Minister Humza Yusaf very eloquently laid out why and how an independent Scotland may achieve the status of being nuclear weapons free. He ended with a call on the international community to keep up the pressure. Clear statements by NPT states parties, groups of states, and by representatives of civil society will help the Scottish government in its case to demand rapid removal of the Trident missiles. But, he also hinted, pressure could safeguard against possible tendencies within the government to backtrack on its demands if the pressure gets higher.

State parties to the NPT, who believe that continued deployment of UK Trident missiles in an independent non-NWS Scotland would be a further blow to the Treaty, need to speak out now, in their country statements and joint statements. In addition, they could use it as an entry point for discussions with the UK, about the viability of its nuclear weapon arsenal. It is the UK after all that maintains that the Trident weapons have nowhere to go but Clyde Naval Base in Scotland. So if Scotland exercises its sovereign right and ends the deployments … where does that leave Trident?

This article was published in the NPT News in Review 29-04-2013. The NPT News in Review is an initiative of Reaching Critical Will and is a daily publication during the NPT Preparatory Committee and Review Conferences.