By Sean Howard
The United Nations General Assembly seems poised to authorize an historic push to reach the goal set in its inaugural resolution, adopted unanimously by the 47 states left standing at the end of the Second World War: “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993 have already outlawed the two lesser categories of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), though neither ban is yet universal or watertight. A large majority of states are now anxious to fill what has become known as “the legal gap” in the WMD regime with a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) codifying and verifying a nuclear-weapon-free world (NWFW).
That majority, though, does not include Canada, despite the clear, present and growing danger of the first use of nuclear weapons, by miscalculation or malice, since 1945. Not only are there currently over 15,000 nuclear weapons in the possession by nine states — the Permanent Five (P-5) members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States) of the UN Security Council, plus Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — but over 30 ‘threshold’ nuclear states are producing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium for ostensibly peaceful but potentially military purposes, with many others — concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa — seeking to swell their ranks.
Yet on August 19 this year, Canada was among only 22 states voting at a UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) in Geneva against a proposal to ask this year’s UN General Assembly to open talks in 2017 on an NWC. Five days later, former Canadian Senator and Disarmament Ambassador Douglas Roche wrote in The Hill Times: “In an amazing diplomatic volte-face, the Canadian government … turned its back on an important nuclear disarmament initiative and sided with the nuclear weapon states that want to keep and modernize their nuclear arsenals for the rest of the 21st century. This is an astounding Canadian action and has given the back of the government’s hand to civil society groups across Canada and 900 members of the Order of Canada who have urged the government to join in nuclear negotiations.” With its vote, Roche lamented, the reputation of Canada as a traditional disarmament champion “took a dive.”
Roche and many other diplomats, politicians, activists, academics and others have been frantically lobbying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to change course and vote in favour of the initiative in the UN First Committee (responsible for disarmament and international security) and then the full General Assembly this autumn. The signs, so far, aren’t promising. In the House of Commons on September 19, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: “Will the Liberal government reverse this shameful position and vote in favour of nuclear disarmament at the UN General Assembly?” The answer, a polite but firm no: “the most effective way to reach a nuclear-free world is with a pragmatic step-by-step approach.” To which Mulcair acerbically replied: “On this step-by-step approach, let us suggest that one of those steps should be actually voting for nuclear disarmament.”
Sajjan is alluding to the provisions of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which indeed strikes a reasonable bargain: in return for other countries not acquiring nuclear weapons, the nuclear-weapon states designated in the treaty — the P-5 — commit themselves to negotiating “in good faith” the progressive reduction and eventual elimination of their arsenals. The NPT originally gave the P-5 a target date of no later than 1995 for this to happen; in 1995, the Treaty was renewed indefinitely on the assumption that, with the Cold War now over, ‘good faith’ would finally prevail.
The NPT, in short, is not intended as a destination, simply a station on the way to a nuclear-weapon-free world. The problem, as noted by Roche et al., is that the P-5 (and the other nuclear-weapon states) are busy taking steps towards, not away from, the nuclear brink. And to the pertinent question, ‘How many days in the NPT’s 46-year-old existence have the P-5 spent on ‘good faith’ negotiations?’ the answer is a strikingly round figure: Zero.
The P-5 and their allies argue that opening talks on an NWC will somehow undermine the integrity of the NPT. It is, however, the view of the 107 NPT states explicitly endorsing the NWC option that this ‘integrity’ has long been lost, leading to the emergence of what South Africa (which, under President Mandela, renounced nuclear weapons) acidly refers to as “a state of nuclear apartheid.”
Canada, though, is interested more in the views of its 27 fellow NATO members. NATO, the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance, continues to describe nuclear weapons as the “supreme guarantee” of its security; and Canada, like all NATO states, belongs to a Nuclear Planning Group providing what it calls “planning guidance aligned with 21st century requirements.” The Trudeau Liberals, then, like the Harper Conservatives, appear to have chosen NATO over the NPT, nuclear weapons over nuclear disarmament, while remaining officially, rhetorically — and awkwardly — committed to both.
When, as seems certain, the UN-sanctioned NWC talks begin next year, they’ll be snubbed and dismissed by the nuclear-weapon states and their allies, fearful of the creation of a powerful new norm — moral, political and legal — against these genocidal weapons whose use under any circumstances would run counter in the most vile and violent way to international humanitarian law. This is the reasoning behind the Humanitarian Pledge issued initially by Austria in 2014 and now signed by 127 states (not, of course, including Canada), declaring simply “that the risk of nuclear weapons use with their unacceptable consequences can only be avoided when all nuclear weapons have been eliminated.”
Once a Convention is agreed, the hope runs, conventional wisdom will change. This was also the reasoning — substantially vindicated — behind the campaign to ban land mines in the 1990s: Don’t wait for the land mine-states to do the right thing, stigmatize the damn weapon and (with the help of civil society) generate maximum support.
In that case, Canada played a leading and distinguished role. Today, it is a laggard apologist for a failed status quo.
On October 27, the UN First Committee adopted resolution L.41, ‘Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations,’ authorizing a United Nations conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total abolition.” The vote was 123 to 38, with 16 abstentions; all NATO states voted No, with the exception of one abstention (the Netherlands). Under the terms of the resolution, expected to be approved by the full General Assembly in early December, the conference will meet in New York from March 27-31 and June 15-July 7, operating “under the rules of procedure of the General Assembly,” e.g. by majority rather than consensus. There is thus a strong probability than a prohibition treaty, a powerful new norm stigmatizing all nuclear weapons, will be ready for adoption as early as 2018.
Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason, Canada’s Disarmament Ambassador from 1989 to 1994, issued a statement on the day of the vote arguing that the government’s hardline stance “puts this country, quite simply, on the wrong side of history.” “We should be working as hard as we can,” she continued, “to reduce NATO’s unconscionable and unnecessary reliance on nuclear weapons, not using that reliance as a reason for opposing nuclear disarmament negotiations at the UN.” Mason urged Canada to change its vote to “ideally to a Yes, but, at a minimum, to an abstention” in December, and to attend the talks next year, “actions” she described as “worthy of a country seeking to be elected to the UN Security Council in 2021.”
Mason’s sentiments were echoed by Paul Meyer, Canada’s Disarmament Ambassador from 2003 to 2007, who described resolution L.41 as “a dramatic departure from the stagnation that has marked global nuclear diplomacy in recent years.” Writing in The Hill Times on October 28, Meyer lamented that while “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has trumpeted that ‘Canada is back’ at the UN,” we “would seem to be moving ‘backwards’ on our UN engagement if we persist in snubbing the efforts of the majority of states to initiate inclusive negotiations on nuclear disarmament.”