Angie Zelter (ed), 'Trident on Trial - the case for peoples disarmament'

IssueMarch - June 2002
Review by Sian Jones

As states increasingly contravene or discard international treaties in the name of the war against terror, the task that Trident Ploughshares (TP) 2000 set itself in 1998 seems more challenging, but at the same time increasingly more necessary.

Through attempts at the practical disarmament of Britain's Trident nuclear submarines, and subsequent appearances in British courts, TP aims to challenge to the legality of Trident, and so ensure that the British government respects the body of international law, which they and others believe renders the Trident nuclear weapons system unlawful. Trident on Trialis the story so far, interweaving the history of the campaign, the narratives of individual TP pledgers who have undertaken both symbolic and actual disarmament actions.

Running through the book, is the legal argument adopted by TP, as employed in the legal processes arising from an action at Loch Goil by Angie Zelter, Ulla Roder and Ellen Moxley, winners of the Right Livelihood Award. The book charts their acquittal at Greenock Court, and the subsequent Lord Advocates Review (LAR) a rare legal process in Scotland through which the government sought to challenge their acquittal.

Although, for TP, the actions of the pledgers and the legal arguments they employ are indivisible, I found the structure of the book is slightly problematic. Readers new to TP may find it easier to start with Chapter 8 (Our Story), then dip into the personal stories inspiring, humorous and often idealistic which testify to the imagination, diversity and personal commitment of TP pledgers, and then return to the legal narrative.

These sections of the book provide anyone wishing to challenge the legality of Trident with a mass of excellently researched information and relevant legal texts. The book also reveals the problems TP faces in getting domestic courts to accept international law, and in so doing reveals TPs heavy reliance on using the International Court of Justices Advisory Opinion that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be in contravention of the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, in courts where the ICJ's opinion is seen as soft law, and which states use where they are reluctant to incur binding obligations.

However, the fundamental challenge faced by TP is that it will be political rather than legal decisions that will decide the fate of Trident. In Scotland, where TP has succeeded in allying peace activists, nationalists and socialists, Trident has become a political issue. Elsewhere, this remains to be achieved. In commending the book, Roger Clark suspects that in a hundred years the legal arguments will continue to provide sustenance for the legal imagination. But legal argument may not be enough to challenge the political power of the British state, which relies on the Trident nuclear weapons system to guarantee its seat on the UN Security Council, and reinforces the present Prime Ministers ability to play war games with big-brother USA.

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