By sitting out nuclear weapons meeting, Canada backtracks on its commitment to peace

Whether due to U.S. pressure or a lack of political courage — or both — Canada is expected to be absent from next week's negotiations in New York. Erin Hunt looks at the motives behind the move, and the message it sends.

By: /
March 21, 2017
Anti-nuclear protesters raise a placard during a rally in front of the parliament building in Tokyo, Japan March 11, 2017, to mark the six-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

On March 27, states will convene at the United Nations to begin negotiations on a new treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons — a meeting which will be the first major development in nuclear disarmament in decades, and which has taken on greater urgency in light of the irrational and worrying governing style of United States President Donald Trump.

The negotiations, which will aim to ban nuclear weapons (the only weapons of mass destruction not prohibited by international law), have come about through an unconventional process that was inspired by the way Canada led the world to ban antipersonnel landmines, culminating in the 1997 Ottawa Treaty.

Between March 2013 and December 2014, over 100 states, along with international organizations and civil society led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, met three times in Norway, Mexico and Austria to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, through a diplomatic process known as the Humanitarian Initiative. Shockingly, these meetings were the first time the international community had discussed the humanitarian harm caused by nuclear weapons and our collective capacity to respond should a nuclear weapon be detonated again.

Those meetings led to last year’s October UN resolution to start negotiations, which was passed by the General Assembly by a wide margin in December.

Surprisingly, Canada wasn’t among the countries voting in favour of starting negotiations and the government has said it will not be attending this month’s meeting at the UN, as reported by The Globe and Mail.

Despite our long history of pushing for disarmament — Canada was the first state with the capacity to produce nuclear weapons that chose not to do so — when it comes to these recent meetings and the upcoming negotiations, Canada doesn’t seem to be “back.” But why?

Canada under pressure?

Reports indicate that some nuclear-armed states, particularly the U.S. and the United Kingdom, have been pressuring Canada and other allied states to not attend the negotiations, regardless of their decades-old obligation to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Other states with nuclear weapons, including Pakistan and India, are still considering participating.

In a leaked memo to other NATO countries, the U.S. wrote last year that “if negotiations do start, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them.” It seems these nuclear-armed states are concerned that a ban treaty would create new norms against nuclear weapons and increase pressure to meet their disarmament obligations. Increased pressure to disarm would be especially challenging to the U.S. and the UK, because they both have plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals. These actions run contrary to the NPT, which Canada has been party to since 1970, and which calls on all states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating…to nuclear disarmament.”

They also run contrary to NATO’s commitment to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. While NATO may currently be a nuclear alliance (remember, it was not founded as one, and some states have opted out of nuclear sharing), its 2010 Strategic Doctrine commits member states “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.” Under then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Canada pushed for a review of the importance of nuclear weapons in NATO’s Strategic Concept; unfortunately, the review recommended maintaining the status quo with regards to nuclear weapons. Now, despite our previous work towards disarmament and our legal obligations under the NPT, Canada looks set to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the nuclear disarmament debate.

It is difficult to find a reason for such a dramatic change in direction from Canada. Canadian values of humanitarianism, peace and security have not changed. Nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons cannot protect our country from current threats like terrorism, cyber attacks and climate change. The international community has learned more about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the risks of a future nuclear detonation, furthering the case for disarmament.

One possible explanation for Canada’s change in direction could be a lack of political courage to challenge the status quo. This lack of political courage could also explain the government’s reticence to announce its intentions with regards to attending the negotiations. When asked in parliament about attending the negotiations, the government refers to work being done on the Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) and does not address the upcoming negotiations. 

In a recent statement to The Globe, a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson said: “The negotiation of a nuclear-weapon ban without the participation of states that possess nuclear weapons is certain to be ineffective and will not eliminate any nuclear weapons.” This statement is rather problematic. First, it presumes to know how effective a legal instrument will be before it is negotiated or implemented. Without knowing what the treaty will say, how is GAC certain it will be ineffective? The assertion that the treaty will not eliminate any nuclear weapons is a talking point we have heard from Canada before, and there is a simple response: Well, of course not — treaties are not magic.

But a ban treaty would be another step in a gradual process leading to complete nuclear disarmament, and complementary to the FMCT, the NPT and other actions Canada promotes. It would also increase the pressure on the nuclear weapon states to effectively carry out steps towards disarmament. We have seen from other disarmament issues that prohibition comes before elimination.

A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would finally state clearly that nuclear weapons are illegitimate and incompatible with international humanitarian law.

If Canada does not attend these negotiations, we will be left out of the conversation. Considering one of the topics for discussion would be interoperability with states outside the treaty and with states who continue to possess nuclear weapons, boycotting the talks means not having a say in a decision-making process that could impact our alliances around the world.

Our close ally and NATO member, the Netherlands, “has chosen to take part constructively, with an open mind and without being naïve,” as Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said in February. This position is one Canada could adopt easily; attending the negotiations does not automatically require signing the resulting treaty but merely listening with an open mind, asking questions and weighing in on issues that affect Canada.

More worryingly than being left out of the decision-making process, boycotting the negotiations will raise questions from states participating in the negotiations and civil society beyond whether not Canada is committed to the NPT and disarmament. With these negotiations, the vast majority of the world is saying that nuclear weapons threaten international security and that a prohibition on nuclear weapons will help, so why is Canada ignoring these concerns? Much of the discourse from states under the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella has seemed to imply that the security concerns of these few states were more important than the security concerns of the over 120 countries who see nuclear weapons as a serious threat. Will these states support Canada’s UN Security Council bid, if we disregard their concerns about weapons that threaten the security of us all?

Above all there will be questions about Canada’s views on the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. If Canada does not support a prohibition on nuclear weapons, then the logical conclusion is that Canada feels that nuclear weapons are legitimate weapons.

According to NATO’s website, “deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element” of the alliance’s overall strategy. But it is rarely explained that this means we as Canadians accept that one possible response to an attack on Canada or one of our allies is the use of nuclear weapons, despite their indiscriminate and widespread humanitarian consequences. As a country under the U.S.’ nuclear umbrella, we have agreed to the use of one or more weapons of mass destruction on cities to defend Canada. What would justify the complete destruction of a city, irradiation of the environment and deaths of thousands or millions of civilians in our name?

Political will needed

Staying outside of the upcoming negotiations will raise questions not only internationally but also domestically. Canadians have been speaking out and taking to the streets to ban the bomb for decades. Cities from coast to coast to coast are members of the disarmament organization Mayors for Peace; parliament under Stephen Harper passed a unanimous motion calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament in 2010; hundreds of Members of the Order of Canada have joined a letter calling for nuclear disarmament.  

This public support for disarmament was a key driver behind Canada’s previous efforts towards nuclear disarmament. Now, Canadians themselves need to speak up again and call on Justin Trudeau to participate in the negotiations. It’s time to call your member of parliament and remind them that Canadians want a world without nuclear weapons.

In 1978, then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau told a special session of the UN that “we must impart a fresh momentum to the lagging process of disarmament.” In 1998, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee noted that “the challenge of moving toward the prohibition on nuclear weapons remains fundamentally political and moral.” In 2017, the Humanitarian Initiative has provided fresh momentum and the moral argument for prohibiting nuclear weapons. It’s time for the prime minister to find the courage and the political will to take a step towards nuclear disarmament.