A principled nuclear disarmament policy for Canada

Cesar Jaramillo Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo and Setsuko Thurlow
Published by Embassy, an Ottawa-based foreign policy weekly.

As the prospect for a comprehensive legal ban on nuclear weapons seems to be moving from aspiration to reality, a window of opportunity is open for Canada—hitherto a spoiler rather than a constructive participant in this process—to signal a new direction in its nuclear disarmament  policy.

From April 28 to May 9 delegations from the 189 states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—including Canada—will gather at the United Nations in New York for the last Preparatory Committee before the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

This follows a mid-month ministerial meeting of the 12-nation Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in Hiroshima, which includes Canada. Both gatherings constitute propitious occasions for Canada to embrace the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament, as have dozens of nations.

A series of meetings over the past few years have underscored the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons as a key reason for their unequivocal prohibition. Most recently, in February in Nayarit, Mexico, the Mexican government hosted official delegations from 146 nations, various multilateral organizations, and international civil society representatives, at the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, or Hibakusha, were there to give first-hand testimony of the utter devastation caused by nuclear weapons and the long-lasting physical and emotional scars suffered by those who survived.

The prevailing sentiment in Mexico was clear: the humanitarian initiative should lead to the pursuit of an explicit legal prohibition on nuclear weapons, even if some or all of the nine states that currently possess them refuse to participate in the process.

The frustration is palpable among scores of countries that are increasingly vocal about the failure of nuclear weapons states to meet their disarmament obligations under the NPT. The combined nuclear arsenal of these states is estimated at 17,000 warheads, with as many as 5,000 on high alert status, ready to be launched within minutes. The risk of deliberate use is compounded by the concomitant risks of accidental or unintended use.

The Austrian government will build on the Nayarit conference with another in Vienna later this year. The expectation is that this event will go beyond visceral discussions of the disastrous effects of a nuclear weapons exchange to focus on concrete measures to avoid such an exchange. The difficulties of such a diplomatic undertaking are clear, but nuclear disarmament advocates—in and out of government—are experiencing a rare ray of optimism.

Missing the boat

Regrettably, Canada is missing the boat on the growing international tide to finally rid the world of the most destructive type of weapon of mass destruction.

In April 2013, during the second NPT Preparatory Committee, 80 nations endorsed a joint statement focusing on the devastating humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use. Canada did not.

In October, 125 nations endorsed a similar statement at the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. Again, not Canada.

Last month in Mexico, Canada went further and publicly questioned the merits of a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons, arguing that this would “not guarantee their elimination.” In fact, nobody was claiming that such guarantees were possible.

In recent years Canada has focused almost exclusively on the admittedly real dangers of proliferation, vehemently condemning any perceived attempts by non-nuclear weapons states to acquire these weapons. At the same time, it has been conspicuously silent on the unmet obligation of nuclear weapons states to disarm.

Further, Canada rejects calls for the prompt commencement of preparatory work on a Nuclear Weapons Convention (i.e., a nuclear elimination treaty), arguing instead for the same haphazard step-by-step process that has been pursued unsuccessfully for decades.

For example, Canada is chairing a group of governmental experts on certain aspects of an eventual fissile material cut-off treaty. It’s a worthy goal, but the value of such initiatives is greatly reduced by their isolation from a major diplomatic effort to achieve complete nuclear disarmament, with a real timetable for progress.

The humanitarian imperative for disarmament is well entrenched in Canadian foreign policy. A key catalyst for the Ottawa Process to ban personnel landmines was precisely the belief that humanitarian considerations outweigh any purported benefits of entire categories of weapons that produce indiscriminate effects. With nuclear weapons the stakes are significantly higher.

There is little doubt that Canada’s support for the humanitarian imperative to advance nuclear disarmament, including the pursuit of an unequivocal legal prohibition of nuclear weapons, would be welcomed both at home and abroad. Perhaps more important, this support would be thoroughly consistent with longstanding Canadian principles.

Setsuko Thurlow, member of the Order of Canada, is a Hiroshima survivor. 

© 2014 Hill Times Publishing

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