Britain Must Obey International Law on Trident

15th November 2000

In the seventh day of the hearing of the Lord Advocate’s Reference of the Trident Three ruling in the High Court in Edinburgh, a Queen’s Counsel has been arguing that both the British government and the British courts are bound by the principles of international law.

Aidan O’Neill, QC, appearing for Trident Three member Ellen Moxley, said that the Scotland Act and the European Convention on Human Rights ensure that all matters (including the conduct of the State) are “justiciable”, i.e., that their lawfulness or otherwise are a matter for the courts, “such as to include even matters of the defence of the realm… where, as in the present case, fundamental rights issues are at stake.” There is therefore no Royal Prerogative to break the law.

In a strong challenge to the High Court itself he said, “…this court has to be willing to apply the requirements of the Rule of Law against Executive action, regardless of questions of realpolitik or expediency.” On the legality of Trident he demonstrated that NATO itself had acknowledged that nuclear retaliation, was central to its strategic doctrine. This threatening stance was illegal.

At the end of his submission the judges put it to him that to allow ordinary citizens to intervene as the Trident Three had was to open the door to anarchy and vigilantism. O’Neill maintained that if the states activity in question was illegal, if all other avenues of redress had been exhausted, and if the persons concerned could be reasonably sure that their actions would impede the illegal act, such intervention was justified.

A Trident Ploughshares spokesperson said: “Today Aidan O’Neill has made it even more difficult for this court to avoid its clear duty: to recognise the UK nuclear weapons system as unlawful and to acknowledge that the actions of the Trident Three were not merely justifiable but entirely praiseworthy.”