Dr John MacDonald: Precedent for Scots nuclear ban

The Mongolian constitution's ban on nuclear arms could be the blueprint for a Scottish ban, says John MacDonald. Picture: Getty
The Mongolian constitution's ban on nuclear arms could be the blueprint for a Scottish ban, says John MacDonald. Picture: Getty
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MONGOLIA has banned nuclear weapons from its soil, and Dr John MacDonald believes that Scotland could do exactly the same.

In WASHINGTON DC on Tuesday, Alex Salmond reiterated his commitment to an independent Scotland free of nuclear weapons. In articulating this to an American audience, his conviction on the issue is clearly undiminished.

The First Minister has referred to how a written Scottish constitution might help an independent Holyrood government achieve this aim. As he recently stated: “Scotland is currently the home of Western Europe’s largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction. They are based on the River Clyde, within 30 miles of Scotland’s largest city. A constitutional ban on the possession of nuclear weapons would end that obscenity.”

But are his convictions justified? Could a written constitution really help in the removal of nuclear weapons from an independent Scotland?

The short answer to this is “Yes”. For those who might require convincing, there are pertinent examples we can look to. Improbably, perhaps, Mongolia is one such example, a benchmark for how a state can enshrine nuclear weapons opposition into legislation which is then used to gain formal recognition by the international community.

The government of an independent Scotland, and those charged with scripting a written Scottish constitution, would do well to look to the Mongolian experience as an example of good – and effective – practice.

Before detailing the Mongolian experience, we might first consider the difficulties a newly independent Scotland would likely face on the nuclear weapons front, difficulties which might make the construction of a constitution all the more pressing.

One thing is certain: London and Washington would be desperate not to undermine the Anglo-American nuclear status quo and so the Scottish Government would likely come under great pressure to retain British nuclear weapons.Interestingly, the 1970 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) complicates things somewhat. Since the NPT designates only five nuclear powers – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – an independent Scotland would not be recognised as a state entitled to possess nuclear weapons.

While this will be music to the ears of many Scottish citizens, it does not address what would actually happen to Scottish-held nuclear weapons in the event of a “Yes” vote. There will be no easy banishment of these weapons: the logistics are complicated and the British government has raised concerns over the financial cost of any re-siting of weapons from their current Scottish housings.

One possible – and extremely delicate – solution would be for Edinburgh and London to agree to continued “British management” of the Faslane and Coulport nuclear bases; they would effectively be “sovereign” UK nuclear bases on Scottish soil.

Whilst this arrangement would undoubtedly spark apoplexy throughout Scotland, it is a scenario recognised in international legislation. Under Article 1 of the NPT, a nuclear weapons state can site its nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear weapons state as long as the weapons and their housings are under full control of the nuclear weapons state.

Given the financial and logistical difficulties associated with relocating British nuclear weapons from Scotland, this arrangement may well appeal to both Downing Street and the White House. Both would likely apply great pressure on Edinburgh to assent and various “attractive propositions” would be made to the Scottish Government, ranging from generous recompense to assistance in helping Scotland through its various post-independence international negotiations.

The good news for nuclear weapons opponents is that a written Scottish constitution could effectively blunt any pressures that London and Washington might conceivably apply. Again, the NPT is significant.

Article VII of the NPT provides a proven pathway for states wishing to establish themselves as internationally recognised nuclear-weapon-free-zones (NWFZ). Mongolia is just one state that has taken this path. Significantly, written legislation played a key part in achieving this.

Addressing the UN in September 1992, the Mongolian president, Punsalmaagin Ochirbat, declared his newly independent country a nuclear-weapon-free-zone. This announcement was set against the backdrop of a collapsing Soviet Union, Russian troop withdrawals from Mongolia, and post-Communist Mongolia’s wish to normalise relations with China. Within less than a year, Mongolia’s declaration had been officially recognised and welcomed by both China and Russia.

Between 1993 and 2000, Mongolia’s efforts to be internationally recognised as a NWFZ saw the scripting of legislation which culminated in the Law of Mongolia on Its Nuclear-Weapon-Free Status. Inextricably tied to the Mongolian constitution, its articles clearly outlined Mongolia’s “nuclear position”:

ARTICLE 4: Prohibitions resulting from the nuclear-weapon-free status.

4.1 An individual, legal person or any foreign state shall be prohibited on the territory of Mongolia from committing, initiating or participating in the following acts or activities relating to nuclear weapons:

4.1.1 develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons;

4.1.2 station or transport nuclear weapons by any means;

4.1.3 test or use nuclear weapons;

4.1.4 dump or dispose nuclear weapons grade radioactive material or nuclear waste.

4.2 Transportation through the territory of Mongolia of nuclear weapons, parts or components thereof, as well as of nuclear waste or any other nuclear material designed or produced for weapons purposes shall be prohibited.

These articles, formally submitted to the UN, send a clear and comprehensive message to the world and they have provided the focal point for the Mongolian government’s subsequent – and successful – efforts to secure a deeper recognition of its NWFZ status. In September 2012, the five officially recognised nuclear powers (including Britain and the US) signed a formal pledge to “respect the nuclear weapon free status of Mongolia and not to contribute to any act that would violate it”.

In the event of a “Yes” vote in 2014, Scotland’s constitutional overseers would do well to look to Mongolia’s example. It demonstrates a tested pathway towards internationally recognized NWFZ status and it shows the significance of having nuclear weapons opposition enshrined in legislation. Indeed, Mongolia’s legislative articles might conceivably be written – almost word for word – into a Scottish constitution.

On reflection, then, it seems that several wise motives lie behind Mr Salmond’s wish to see the illegality of nuclear weapons enshrined in a written Scottish constitution.

First, doing so would formally proclaim Scotland’s nuclear weapons opposition to the world. It would ensconce this opposition within the collective consciousness of future generations of Scots, and would highlight Scotland as a progressive example for other states to follow.

Second, it would offer Scotland (and Scottish governments) strong legal protection against any future requests to host – temporarily or otherwise – nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons materials.

Third – and very importantly – writing “nuclear weapons are illegal here” into a formal constitution would provide critical democratic weight in Scotland’s secession discussions with Downing Street and the White House over the removal of British nuclear weapons from Scottish soil.

Recent polls suggest that Scotland’s role as “nuclear weapons host” is as unpopular with opponents of independence as it is with proponents. If this oppositional mood were to be enshrined into a publicly known constitution, it would make Scotland’s “nuclear stance” crystal clear and the US and UK would find it extremely difficult to ignore the democratic will of the Scottish polity. Precedent would also weigh heavily upon London and Washington: having accepted Mongolia’s formally proclaimed position, it is hard to see how they could ignore Scotland’s.


• Dr John MacDonald is a political commentator and academic. He is currently lecturing at the University of Glasgow