By Cesar Jaramillo
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 3 Autumn 2020
COVID-19 disrupted international security diplomacy this year and led to the postponement of the consequential Review Conference of States Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But 2020 remains a significant year for the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.
Lest we forget
This year, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and NagaG7saki on August 9. The 2020 NPT Review Conference would have marked the 50th anniversary of the Treaty. And it is likely that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will reach the 50 ratifications required for its entry into force.
Each milestone reminds us of how woefully distant the world remains from the goal of complete and irreversible nuclear disarmament. Approximately 14,000 nuclear warheads remain in existence: a testament to the ineffectiveness of the current approach to nuclear disarmament—and to the clear and present risk of a new humanitarian catastrophe that would dwarf those of 1945.
The NPT was designed to prevent non-nuclear-weapon states from acquiring nuclear weapons and to compel nuclear-weapon states to eliminate them. But those that hold nuclear weapons have resisted, avoided, and ignored not only their treaty obligations, but the global groundswell of support for nuclear abolition.
Throughout successive NPT review cycles, Project Ploughshares has witnessed with disappointment the unchanging posture of nuclear-weapon states. They cling to a double standard that allows them to keep their weapons, while denying those weapons to others. This attitude distracts from valid concerns about proliferation dangers, generates strong proliferation pressures, and creates disincentives for non-nuclear-weapon states to adhere to non-proliferation commitments. Ultimately, this us-and-them approach offends a fundamental sense of justice and equality among nations.
While almost all states agree that the existential risk posed by these weapons cannot be justified, more states today have nuclear weapons than did when the NPT came into force. Vague declarations affirming support in principle for the eventual goal of a world free of nuclear weapons will no longer suffice.
We are in this together
The goal of a world free of nuclear weapons lies at the very heart of the NPT and remains a foundational objective of the United Nations. Now the international community has an opportunity to take concrete steps toward that goal—without exceptions or exemptions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global sense of shared vulnerability. And we are seeing that the countries best able to protect their own vulnerable populations do so through investments in science, healthcare, and social welfare, rather than stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
The conviction that nuclear weapons must and can be eliminated is not based on a naive or crude understanding of international relations. Project Ploughshares is fully aware that some states enshrine nuclear weapons in their national security doctrines and strategies. However, any perceived benefits of nuclear weapons possession are far outweighed by the threat these weapons pose to all humans.
A renewed focus on this humanitarian disaster has served as catalyst and rallying point for a growing number of states and civil-society organizations—and was critical to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. But the abolition of nuclear weapons is not based only on humanitarian grounds. These weapons stand as a symbol of a corrupt multilateral global system riddled with double standards. A system that must be dismantled and replaced.
Canada: Prepared to lead?
Non-nuclear-weapon states in NATO continue to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil and train their pilots to drop U.S. nuclear bombs, contrary to the letter and intent of Article II of the NPT. All NATO members, including Canada, embrace this overt nuclear deterrence policy as legitimate security doctrine. Clearly, such a policy can only obstruct any journey to a nuclear-weapons-free future.
Despite its official acceptance of such NATO policy, Canada remains uniquely positioned to assume a leadership role in the push for a world free of nuclear weapons. Besides enjoying well-earned international credibility as an honest broker, Canada is a state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a member of the G7 and G20.
To date, however, Ottawa has failed to make nuclear disarmament a top foreign policy priority—even though such a stand would have wide public support.
Civil society organizations, former Canadian diplomats and government officials, and more than 1,000 recipients of the Order of Canada are urging the Canadian government to take a more ambitious and proactive approach to nuclear disarmament that includes Canada’s accession to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
In 2010 a unanimous motion by the House of Commons and Senate urged the Canadian government “to engage in negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention as proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General” and “to deploy a major worldwide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.” It fell on deaf ears then, but can be the basis for renewed Canadian engagement now.
Demands for nuclear abolition are mounting. The message is clear: the threat posed by nuclear weapons is real; their use is unacceptable; and their complete elimination is not negotiable. The cost of inaction could result in the greatest human-made catastrophe in history.