As UN General Assembly kicks off, all eyes on Canada’s disarmament stance

Justin Trudeau heads to New York next week, just as a ground-breaking treaty opens for signature. As Erin Hunt asks, can he turn around Canada’s deteriorating reputation as a leader on disarmament?

By: /
September 13, 2017
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

On September 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to address the United Nations General Assembly. That high-level week — when world leaders descend on New York to speak at the United Nations — is generally referred to as the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), but it is just the beginning of months of work spread across six committees of the General Assembly. 

This year, disarmament issues are going to be front and centre during the high-level week and throughout the General Assembly’s First Committee meetings all fall. (Each of the six committees goes in depth into specific areas of the General Assembly’s work, with the First Committee covering disarmament and international security.) Canada has a long history of leading on disarmament issues but that reputation is on shaky ground. All eyes will be on the prime minister and Canada to see if Canada will return to being a leader.

North Korea’s recent nuclear weapons test is sure to be a major topic of conversation throughout UNGA. The test on September 3 was the latest action in a summer of missile tests and rising tensions. International condemnation of this nuclear weapons test and the missile tests has been strong and swift, including from Canada. Many states have called on the Security Council to take action and the council voted in favour of new sanctions on North Korea on September 11. It is to be expected that the world leaders will reiterate condemnation of the tests in their upcoming UN addresses and that the First Committee of the General Assembly will also discuss the issue. Hopefully, Canada will continue to advocate for a robust diplomatic response with an aim towards long-term disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. 

A ground-breaking treaty boycotted

While it might be easy to think the main disarmament story this summer was rising tensions in East Asia, in reality July saw one of the most hopeful developments towards nuclear disarmament in over a decade. An impressive 122 states adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on July 7.

This new treaty prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and assistance with use of nuclear weapons, and includes positive obligations to assist victims of nuclear weapons use or testing and to remediate the environment. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is groundbreaking not only because it fills a legal gap by explicitly prohibiting nuclear weapons, but also because it is the first nuclear weapons treaty to recognize the disproportionate impact nuclear weapons activities have had on Indigenous peoples and the rights of victims of nuclear weapons use and testing.

The states negotiating the treaty were clear about their reasons for prohibiting nuclear weapons: these indiscriminate weapons threaten the security of all, regardless of which state possesses them, and another nuclear weapon detonation by intention or by accident will cause humanitarian suffering on an unimaginable scale.

The treaty will open for signature the day before Trudeau is scheduled to address the General Assembly. Canada boycotted the treaty negotiations following calls from the United States for all NATO members to vote against and then not participate in treaty negotiations. Now this game-changing treaty is a reality and Canada has to decide how to react. It is unlikely that Canada will sign the treaty on September 20 so three paths remain. First, Canada could follow the nuclear weapons states in denouncing the treaty and vote against any resolutions which mention it. Second, Canada could ignore this development, not speak on the topic and abstain from voting on any resolutions that mention the treaty. Third, Canada could welcome the treaty’s signature and its humanitarian aims and then vote in favour of any resolutions mentioning it.

Ideally, Canada will pursue the third path and recognize the humanitarian aims of the treaty even if it cannot yet sign the treaty. That course of action will show the world that Canada and Trudeau mean what they say about the importance of multilateralism and diplomacy.

An overlooked anniversary

Closer to home, Canada’s greatest contribution to global peace and disarmament in the past 50 years will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Ottawa Treaty banning landmines was signed on December 3, 1997, and has since saved thousands of lives, resulted in hundreds of square kilometres of land being cleared, seen millions of mines destroyed and gained the support of 162 states.

"The question is: has Canada abandoned the Ottawa Treaty?"

Around the world, countries will be celebrating this milestone and recommitting themselves to the goal of a world without landmines by 2025. The progress made by the Ottawa Treaty over the past 20 years will be a topic of discussion throughout UNGA meetings this fall. With this anniversary overlapping with Canada 150 celebrations, you would think the Canadian government would be keen to highlight this successful Canadian initiative at home and at UNGA. However, thus far the government has been silent. Furthermore, over the last five years Canada has been largely absent from the global effort to implement the Ottawa Treaty; Canadian funding levels are dismally low and high-level statements in support of the treaty are rare. The question is: has Canada abandoned the Ottawa Treaty?

The widespread use of improvised mines by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has put the landmines issue back in the news, caused the largest increase in new casualties in over a decade and provided a reminder that while the world has seen amazing progress on landmines there is still much work to be done to finish the job. This new landmine crisis and the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty are topics that should be covered in the prime minister’s address to the General Assembly. The Ottawa Treaty shows what is possible when states, civil society and international organizations work together. For a government that is committed to multilateral approaches to international issues, highlighting the Ottawa Treaty should be an easy win. A mention of the Ottawa Treaty and the landmines issue would indicate that Canada is proud of what has been achieved so far and is committed to helping finish the job on landmines. 

Toward a UN Security Council seat

How the prime minister and the Canadian government approach these disarmament issues during UNGA will have long-term impacts because Canada is actively campaigning for a seat on the Security Council in 2021. Canada, Norway and Ireland are competing for two seats which will be voted on in 2020. To be elected to the Security Council, Canada will need to prove to other states that it can be a force for good on the council and can provide an independent voice on peace and security matters. The Canada that led the world to negotiate and implement the Ottawa Treaty in the face of strong opposition is one that will be an independent voice for peace and security on the council, but the Canada that disregarded the security concerns of over 120 states by boycotting and dismissing the nuclear prohibition treaty negotiations will have a much harder time securing a Security Council seat. It is up to the prime minister and Canada’s diplomats to clarify which Canada we are.

Trudeau’s address to the General Assembly will set the tone for Canada’s involvement in UNGA this year. Considering the current state of the world, disarmament issues should be front and centre, yet we have seen few if any indications that the government recognizes this fact. For years, Canadian leadership on disarmament was crucially important in nuclear disarmament efforts and on conventional weapons control issues like the Ottawa Treaty. Now, reminding the world of that reputation would be an easy win that could have a positive impact on our quest for a Security Council seat.

In last year’s address to the General Assembly, Trudeau asked, “What will help make the world a safer and more peaceful place?” In a world faced with nuclear tensions, a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and a new landmine crisis, the answer to that question is clear: renewed Canadian leadership on disarmament.