Will ICAN’s Nobel prize impact Canada’s position on nuclear disarmament?

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — a signal that much of the world demands renewed efforts toward nuclear abolition. Is Canada listening? 

By: /
October 19, 2017
ICAN
Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Grethe Ostern (R), member of the steering committee, Daniel Hogsta, coordinator, attend a news conference after ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize 2017, in Geneva, Switzerland October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Canada’s claim that it supports the abolition of nuclear weapons is in dire need of a reality check. While successive Canadian governments have paid lip service to the pursuit of a nuclear weapons-free world, in fact their policies, doctrines and actions are more conducive to the perpetuation of nuclear weapons than to their elimination.

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded recently to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is but the latest testament to the widening gap between Ottawa’s nuclear disarmament rhetoric and action. The award recognized the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted in July by a wide majority in the international community — and was strongly championed by ICAN.

Canada not only boycotted the treaty negotiations themselves, it also voted against the UN resolution that launched the process. In other words, it did exactly what the United States had asked of all members of NATO — itself a nuclear alliance.

In a memo issued before the resolution came to a vote at the UN General Assembly, the US demanded of its allies a complete boycott of the ban enterprise. In the same document, the US also acknowledged that “the effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging” and that it “could impact non-parties as well as parties.”

Still, nuclear-armed states insist that a comprehensive multilateral effort to achieve nuclear abolition is premature. That they say this more than seven decades after Hiroshima, more than 45 years after the entry into force of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and more than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, has only served to exacerbate widespread frustration about the glacial pace of nuclear disarmament.

They also claim that the current global security environment is not ideal for nuclear abolition. But the sobering reality is that it may never be. Nuclear disarmament obligations must therefore be implemented under less-than-perfect international security conditions.

There are now approximately 15,000 warheads in existence, many of them on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes. And the risk of deliberate use is compounded by the concomitant risks of accidental or unintended use.

Further, while every other category of weapons of mass destruction had already been specifically prohibited under international law, nuclear weapons — the most destructive of all — remarkably still had not.

"No reasonable observer would characterize Canada's behaviour as favourable to the elimination of nuclear weapons."

The nuclear-ban movement led by ICAN rose up to protest the many failures of the global nuclear disarmament regime and to openly acknowledge the catastrophic impact of any nuclear weapons use. However, Canada does not stand with the growing number of nations, organizations and individuals that are clamoring for a concrete, time-bound path to complete nuclear disarmament.

Canada, like its nuclear-armed allies, continues to insist on a tried-and-failed “step-by-step” process that has stalled nuclear abolition for nearly half a century. Steps such as the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which some of these same states have failed to ratify. Or the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament, which has been deadlocked for more than 20 years.

Critically, Canada continues to embrace NATO’s overt nuclear deterrence policy as a legitimate security doctrine, effectively validating the weapons held by its nuclear-armed allies. These allies are now spending billions of dollars to modernize their nuclear arsenals, thereby extending their shelf life and indefinitely delaying the start of a credible path to abolition.

These are not matters of opinion or interpretation. No reasonable observer — in or out of government — would characterize this behaviour as favourable to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Here’s the thing: there is no path to nuclear abolition that avoids stiff, multifaceted opposition. Any and all efforts in this regard will need to overcome deeply entrenched political, economic and security interests. Opposition to the nuclear ban treaty is a case in point.

Despite such predictable pushback, the awarding earlier this month of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN is only the latest signal that most of the world wants to shift the terms of the debate about the urgency of nuclear abolition. And as global security tensions — between North Korea and the US in particular — make nuclear catastrophe an increasingly conceivable scenario, Canada finds itself on the wrong side of history and humanity.  

In the end, Ottawa’s purported support of nuclear abolition can only hold true in the most ethereal and non-committal way possible. Because today, in 2017, Canada actually — and openly — supports the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons by its allies.

Author Cesar Jaramillo attended the nuclear ban treaty negotiations as an international civil society delegate and is part of various coalition partners of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.