A Legacy for the Taking: The time is now for Canada to make anti-nuclear history

Cesar Jaramillo Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2011 Volume 32 Issue 3

A remarkable confluence of circumstances has opened up a window of opportunity for Canada to advance what is arguably the most important international security issue in history: the elimination of nuclear weapons. Not since the heyday of Canada’s contributions to peacekeeping operations and its championing of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines has this country had such a propitious opportunity to make a lasting mark on the global stage as it does now with nuclear disarmament.

This month Canadian civil society leaders sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper a set of recommendations on the role that Canada should play to advance the objective of a nuclear weapons-free world. Copies were also sent to members of all federal political parties; key government officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Department of National Defence; Members of Parliament; and Senators and over two dozen diplomatic missions in Ottawa. 

Specifically, the Canadian Government is being asked to take concrete steps to implement a historic motion passed unanimously by the House of Commons and Senate in 2010. The motion urges the government “to engage in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention as proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General” and “to deploy a major world-wide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.”

Canada is uniquely positioned to assume such a leadership role. Besides enjoying well-earned international credibility as an honest broker, the country is a member of NATO, an active player in the global nuclear energy industry, a state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a member of the G8 and G20. Yet the Harper government has failed to make nuclear disarmament a top foreign policy priority.

Could it be because there is a lack of domestic support for nuclear disarmament?

No. Civil society organizations across the country, as well as former diplomats and government officials, and more than 550 recipients of the Order of Canada are urging the Canadian Government to respond to the groundswell of support for concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament. Polls have shown that more than 88 per cent of Canadians would support an enforceable agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Might the Canadian government be reluctant to support a cause that does not resonate with the international public?

No. In more than 20 countries, including the five major nuclear powers, polls show that more than 75 per cent of people are in favour of a nuclear weapons ban. The organization Mayors for Peace, with a membership of more than 5,000 mayors from around the world, is rigorously campaigning for a ban. The UN Secretary-General has made nuclear disarmament a key priority, and more than two-thirds of UN members have voted in favour of negotiating a convention to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Could it be, then, that the government does not want to antagonize the United States?

No. In a departure from past U.S. policy, President Barack Obama has publicly committed to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. In Prague, in 2009, he called upon the international community to take concrete steps toward this end. Since the emergence of nuclear weapons over 60 years ago, there has been no more opportune time for Canada to take up the cause of nuclear disarmament without fear of upsetting its influential neighbour to the south.

It is hard to find a compelling reason why the Canadian government has not made nuclear disarmament a top priority. Fortunately, the window of opportunity is still open. But just barely. The U.S. presidential race will soon be in full swing and there is no guarantee Mr. Obama or his position on nuclear weapons will remain intact.
Canada could show its unequivocal resolve to play a key role in this process, for instance, by heeding the first of six specific recommendations that have just been sent to the Prime Minister:

Canada should support UN resolutions calling for formal negotiations toward a nuclear weapons convention to begin in 2014, and should offer to host in 2012 a preparatory committee meeting of states and civil society representatives to begin planning for that negotiation process.

The process of nuclear disarmament will be complex and the road to an actual convention that eliminates nuclear weapons will have obstacles. All the more reason to start laying the groundwork for a Nuclear Weapons Convention now, before the accidental or deliberate detonation of a nuclear weapon—by a state or non-state actor—reminds the world of just how urgent this matter is.

The Canadian Government could play a critical role in ridding the world of the most destructive weapons ever conceived. At the same time, it would illustrate the response of a democratic government to the explicit desires of its citizens and elected representatives. And it is hard to think of a more valuable legacy for the Prime Minister than paving the way to a world free of nuclear weapons.

Recommendations of the Sponsoring Groups

The Ottawa Experts Seminar on a Nuclear Weapons Convention, held April 11 and 12, included participants from the
academic community and civil society, as well as diplomats, parliamentarians, and government officials. The discussions addressed
a broad range of legal, political, security, and verification requirements for progress toward a global legal ban on nuclear weapons.

Taking into account the deliberations at the seminar, the sponsoring groups—Canadian Pugwash, Physicians for Global Survival, Project Ploughshares, and World Federalist Movement – Canada—put forward the following recommendations:

1. Canada should support UN resolutions calling for formal negotiations toward a nuclear weapons convention to begin in 2014 and should offer to host in 2012 a preparatory committee meeting of states and civil society representatives to begin planning for that negotiation process.

2. The Minister of Foreign Affairs should welcome the unanimous motions in the Senate and House of Commons calling for a new Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of nuclear disarmament and request that a special joint committee of the Senate and House of Commons hold hearings and prepare a report on how best to implement those unanimous motions.

3. The Government of Canada should re-establish a special disarmament verification unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Significant human and financial capital should be directed toward building Canadian expertise with regard to nuclear disarmament, drawing on lessons learned from verification regimes related to nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear testing, and chemical weapons. An urgent priority is the development of verification procedures and technology in support of the still to be negotiated fissile materials treaty. The overall focus of the new unit should be to develop and implement credible verification mechanisms, procedures, and technology to ensure compliance with a nuclear weapons convention.

4. Canada should continue its efforts within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to promote transparency and accountability and to address the NPT’s “institutional deficit.” Such measures include proposals for annual decision-making meetings of the NPT, for the establishment of an ongoing administrative support unit, and for more consistent and comprehensive reporting by States Parties regarding national efforts toward full compliance with the NPT.

5. In support of the NPT Review Conference’s call on states “to further diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies,” Canada should initiate discussions within NATO with a view to ending the Alliance’s reliance on nuclear deterrence. Such discussions should include the call for an immediate no-first-use pledge by NATO, as well as increased attention to transforming the security relationship between Russia and NATO. Canada should also insist on the removal of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons from the territories of non-nuclear weapons states in Europe, and encourage discussions to begin leading to a global legal ban on nuclear weapons.

6. Canada should restore the practice of an inclusive approach to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to take advantage of the expertise within the NGOs, for example, by restoration of the annual government-civil society consultation and by naming representatives of civil society organizations to the Canadian delegation to the First Session of the NPT Preparatory Committee, 2012. In this regard, we are pleased to note Canada’s endorsement of the “Berlin Statement by Foreign Ministers on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation” of April 30, 2011, which includes this promise: “We will actively promote disarmament and non-proliferation education, based on our conviction that education is a powerful tool for mobilizing further disarmament and non-proliferation efforts globally by enhancing awareness and understanding among our citizens.”

Spread the Word