The UK Attorney General’s Office (AGO) is investigating whether the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, can be taken to court for conspiring to commit war crimes with Trident nuclear weapons.
Nearly 400 people from five local campaign groups are bidding to prosecute the Westminster government for breaching criminal law by being prepared to unleash a devastating nuclear strike on Moscow or other foreign cities from submarines based on the Clyde.
Recent statements by May and Fallon that they would be willing to launch Trident missiles show that they are planning “indiscriminate mass slaughter”, campaigners say. They have begun prosecutions in local courts, but been told that the Attorney General’s permission is needed to proceed.
With the help of leading nuclear and human rights lawyers, they have submitted a large dossier of evidence to the AGO in London. “Work on the application is ongoing,” said an AGO spokeswoman.
“There is a considerable amount of material to work through and we will provide a response as soon as reasonably practicable.”
She added: “The Attorney will consider whether there is sufficient evidence to prove the charges proposed and, if so, whether a prosecution is required in the public interest. The Attorney will act independently of government when taking this decision.”
Local groups in England and Wales have come together under the banner of the Public Interest Case Against Trident (PICAT), backed by the Institute for Law, Accountability and Peace. They are being assisted by the well-known human rights lawyer, Kirsty Brimelow QC, and by the nuclear legal expert, Professor Nick Grief, both from Doughty Street Chambers in London.
Senior ministers should be accountable under the law, Grief told The Ferret. “The importance of PICAT lies in its emphasis on the rule of law, whereas nuclear weapons are the very antithesis of law,” he said. “The Attorney General is required to decide on principle and not on grounds of expediency whether to grant or refuse consent.”
PICAT’s draft indictment accuses May and Fallon of breaching section 51(1) of the International Criminal Court Act 2001 and section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. It says they “conspired together and with other persons to commit the war crime of excessive incidental death, injury, or damage by continuing and/or agreeing a policy to maintain the capability to launch a nuclear attack on targets in and around Moscow.”
The two ministers did this, the indictment continues, knowing that such an attack would kill or injure civilians or cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”. The destruction caused would be “clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.”
The United Nations International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 1996 that the use or threat of nuclear weapons would “generally be contrary to the rules of international law”, though it couldn’t decide whether that would apply “in an extreme circumstance of self-defence”. The decision was made on the casting vote of the court’s president at the time, Judge Mohammed Bedjaoui from Algeria.
Since then he has revealed his personal opinion that the UK’s deployment of over 100 warheads with an approximate yield of 100 kilotons each is illegal. “The use of even a single such warhead in any circumstance…would inevitably violate the prohibitions on the infliction of unnecessary suffering and indiscriminate harm,” he said.
Angie Zelter, a veteran peace campaigner and PICAT organiser, argued that the ideology of nuclear deterrence undermines international legal order. “We are trying to present our public interest case to enable a court of law to examine our evidence and prevent the disaster of a nuclear holocaust before it is too late,” she said.
Another PICAT organiser, Robbie Manson, said: “The making of detailed technical plans to bring about the indiscriminate mass slaughter of multiple millions of innocent non-combatant civilian Muscovite citizens is a clear and manifest breach of the fundamental codes of international humanitarian criminal law.”
The Ministry of Defence said it would be “inappropriate” to comment. “The application for prosecution is a matter for the Attorney General,” said an MoD spokesperson.
Direct action planned at Trident bases in wake of UN weapon ban
Nuclear bomb bases on the Clyde are being targeted with blockades, break-ins and a series of other protests next month.
The protest is timed to coincide with the close of United Nations (UN) negotiations between 130 countries on a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The UK government, along with other nuclear weapons states, has boycotted the talks in New York.
The online invitation to join the protest promises “ten days of camping, plotting and taking direct action to disrupt this monstrosity whether it be vigilling, blockading, breaking in, graffittiing, weapons inspecting, dancing in the road, planting seeds or what have you… the possibilities are enormous.”
Organisers are expecting people to come from Finland, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Deploying nuclear weapons at Coulport and nearby Faslane is “utterly intolerable”, they say.
“The camp is a special opportunity to mark the pariah status of these bases by doing what we can to peacefully disrupt the work there,” said David Mackenzie, a spokesperson for Trident Ploughshares.
Janet Fenton, vice chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is part of a delegation from Scotland now at the UN talks. “The UK government is showing a flagrant disregard for its obligations to its own citizens as well as the global community,” she said.
“At the end of the conference it is my intention to go straight to Coulport where I hope to make sure with others that the deranged and irresponsible activities there are challenged and highlighted.”
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) stressed that it recognised the right of individuals to participate in lawful protests. “Naval base security staff and Police Scotland will facilitate the conduct of peaceful protest,” said an MoD spokesman.
“However, any breaches in criminal law will be dealt with in an appropriate and robust manner. Well established, fully co-ordinated procedures are in place to ensure the effective operation of HMNB Clyde is not compromised as a result of protest action.”