Canada’s Voting Record at the UN First Committee

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor March 2001 Volume 22 Issue 1

Canada took an important step forward in nuclear disarmament at the UN General Assembly in 2000 by voting for the first time in favour of the New Agenda (NA) resolution. That might be termed the good news. The bad news is that Canada again refused to support several resolutions calling for negotiations on an international convention prohibiting the development, deployment, or use of nuclear weapons.

An evaluation of Canada’s true stance on nuclear weapons requires examining the major resolutions voted on in the UN First Committee. In 2000, progress was clearly made even as the old impediments caused by Canada’s reluctance to offend the United States prevented a more forthright stand for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

To understand the complexities and nuances that colour activity in this field, we must look at the main resolutions.

The New Agenda countries of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden in 1998 and 1999 presented resolutions calling upon the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) for an Aunequivocal undertaking@ to negotiate total nuclear disarmament. Since the United States, United Kingdom, and France were adamantly opposed, Canada felt it could not support such a call. But it did play a leading role in getting most of the non-nuclear states within NATO to abstain. This sent a message to the nuclear powers within NATO that the non-nuclear states were not happy with the rigid stance of the nuclear powers.

The New Agenda countries went into the Sixth Review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in April-May, 2000 with at least their foot in the door of the NWS. As a result of the determination of the New Agenda, the NWS decided to negotiate with them in order to prevent the NPT conference from exploding. This negotiation secured from the NWS Aan unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.@ The commitment was backed up by a program of 13 Practical Steps. For the first time in an NPT setting, nuclear disarmament was clearly separated from general and complete disarmament. The New Agenda termed the achievement Aan important landmark on which to build a nuclear weapons free world.@

Thus the New Agenda came to the United Nations First Committee with a new resolution seeking to consolidate the consensus achieved by the 187 States Parties to the NPT. The NA stepped back from their original stance of calling in a direct manner for an accelerated process of negotiations; but in doing so they repeated the precise language previously agreed to at the NPT on the 13 Practical Steps in order to give this commitment the force of a UN resolution.

This strategy sought at first to draw Ayes@ votes from the non-nuclear NATO states. When the New Agenda received word that these states (including Canada) favoured the resolution, the NA leadership raised the stakes and made a few cosmetic changes without affecting the substance of the resolution in order to attract the NWS. The tactic worked B at least for the most part. Russia and France held to an abstention. But 18 of the 19 NATO states (including most importantly the United States and the United Kingdom) voted Ayes.@ The vote in the General Assembly was 154 in favour, three opposed and eight abstentions. It was a triumph of masterly diplomacy by the New Agenda and confirmed their states as the most important political force in the international community working for nuclear disarmament.

The New Agenda’s action enabled Canada to breathe a big sigh of relief. Canada had been uncomfortable not previously supporting the New Agenda. Now it could, without countering the US. And Canada, by voting in favour, strengthened its own call for NATO to do a serious, not just perfunctory, review of its policies on nuclear weapons.

There are two other aspects of the New Agenda resolution that should be noted in assessing its skilful drafting. The NA resolution went beyond the 13 Practical Steps by including an operative paragraph which 

Affirms that a nuclear-weapon-free world will ultimately require the underpinnings of a universal and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument or a framework encompassing a mutually reinforcing set of instruments.

Without saying so, this can be construed as a reference to a Nuclear Weapons Convention, the very idea of which ordinarily sends shivers down the backs of the NWS. The key concept here is a Anegotiated legally binding instrument.@

What does this mean if it is not a Nuclear Weapons Convention? The fact remains that not only Canada but also the US have voted for this concept. Also, in a preambular paragraph, the New Agenda picked up on the idea first advanced by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to convene an international conference to identify ways of eliminating nuclear dangers. Though opposed by the US and other major nuclear powers, the idea survived scrutiny, and the UN Millennium Declaration produced a consensus declaration which agreed to keep options open to such a conference. The NA resolution reinforced the idea of such a global conference.

The real test of Canada’s bona fide for the New Agenda lies in what Canada will do to advance the content of the resolution, which has achieved enormous backing of the international community. By attaching itself to the New Agenda B and assuming the NA maintains its adroit and dextrous leadership B Canada can contribute to nuclear disarmament in substantive ways.

With the exercise of creativity and perhaps a little bravery, Canada can move out of the sterility which has characterized Canada’s votes in the First Committee in the past and which was seen again in the latest session. For example, Canada almost automatically voted Ano@ to an Indian resolution whose central paragraph 

Reiterates its request to the Conference on Disarmament to commence negotiations in order to reach agreement on an international convention prohibiting the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

Why would Canada oppose such a resolution if it is sincere about the elimination of nuclear weapons? Well, it was sponsored by India, which is in ill repute today in nuclear disarmament circles after its testing in 1998. Since the New Agenda resolution criticized India, Pakistan, and Israel for retaining their nuclear weapons options and not joining the NPT, India voted against the NA. This is not exactly constructive dialogue.

Canada’s opposition to the Indian resolution and also its abstention on the customary Malaysian resolution backing up the International Court of Justice with a call for immediate negotiations was also based on NATO’s opposition to a Nuclear Weapons Convention. If Canada is to succeed in getting NATO to conduct a full-fledged review, it cannot (or so it says) flout NATO policy. Besides, it is Canada’s view that India’s sanctimonious attitude is hardly conducive to international progress. It is this kind of merry-go-round that has paralyzed the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva B and which shows, once again, what a breath of fresh air the New Agenda has brought.

It may take more than the energy shown by the NA, however, to satisfactorily resolve the National Missile Defense (NMD) question, which many observers consider the greatest threat to nuclear disarmament. Russia and China, whose strong opposition to NMD is well known, introduced a resolution (similar to one in 1999) calling for the preservation of the integrity of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty so that it remains a cornerstone in maintaining global strategic stability and world peace and in promoting further strategic nuclear arms reductions. It specifically called for the parties to the ABM (the US and Russia) to Arefrain from the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems.@ There was no doubt that the resolution was aimed at the US, because it welcomed President Clinton’s decision not to deploy NMD Aat this time.@

Why would not Canada support such a resolution, since it has always championed the ABM? To ask such a question is to answer it. Canada feels it cannot directly oppose the US B even though the world community, including many states within NATO, is adamantly opposed to NMD. The resolution carried 88 in favour, five opposed, and 66 abstaining. Canada abstained, then stayed silent in explaining its vote, allowing Germany to speak for it. Germany said that, although it supported the ABM Treaty, Awe recognize the increasing security challenges caused by the ongoing proliferation of ballistic missile systems….@ Unless the NATO states toughen their stand against NMD, the US will feel it has their quasi-support to proceed with deployment.

The only resolution Canada introduced in its own name was a call for the Conference on Disarmament to negotiate an international treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Canada has long been a driving force to get such negotiations started, and the theme was repeated at the NPT 2000 Review. But Pakistan is blocking progress because such negotiations would not address the huge existing stocks of fissile material possessed by the nuclear powers. China is also blocking progress on the grounds that if NMD goes ahead China will need to start producing more nuclear weapons and will need new fissile material. China says an arms race in space must be prevented and charges the US with fostering one. For its part, the US says nuclear disarmament cannot proceed without a ban on fissile material.

These arguments keep going around and around. In its opening draft, Canada said the fissile ban treaty should be achieved Awithin five years.@ But in an effort to appease Pakistan, Canada dropped the time period and the resolution was adopted by consensus. The meaning of it all? Virtually nothing.

The halls of the Conference on Disarmament are dank and musty. Will the fresh air generated by the New Agenda clean the place out? If Canada is to contribute to the Aunequivocal undertaking@ of the total elimination of nuclear weapons, it had better start working more closely with the New Agenda.

Senator Douglas Roche, OC, Chairman of the Middle Powers Initiative, is Canada’s former Ambassador for Disarmament and each year monitors Canada’s performance at the UN First Committee.

13 Practical Steps on Article VI of the NPT

The following text is excerpted from the NPT Review Conference Final Document.

The Conference agrees on the following practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and paragraphs 3 and 4 (c) of the 1995 Decision on APrinciples and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament@:

1. The importance and urgency of signatures and ratifications, without delay and without conditions and in accordance with constitutional processes, to achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

2. A moratorium on nuclear-weapon-test explosions or any other nuclear explosions pending entry into force of that Treaty.

3. The necessity of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in accordance with the statement of the Special Coordinator in 1995 and the mandate contained therein, taking into consideration both nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation objectives. The Conference on Disarmament is urged to agree on a programme of work which includes the immediate commencement of negotiations on such a treaty with a view to their conclusion within five years.

4. The necessity of establishing in the Conference on Disarmament an appropriate subsidiary body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament. The Conference on Disarmament is urged to agree on a programme of work which includes the immediate establishment of such a body.

5. The principle of irreversibility to apply to nuclear disarmament, nuclear and other related arms control and reduction measures.

6. An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, to which all States parties are committed under article VI.

7. The early entry into force and full implementation of START II and the conclusion of START III as soon as possible while preserving and strengthening the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons, in accordance with its provisions.

8. The completion and implementation of the Trilateral Initiative between the United States of America, the Russian Federation and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

9. Steps by all the nuclear-weapon States leading to nuclear disarmament in a way that promotes international stability, and based on the principle of undiminished security for all:

  • Further efforts by the nuclear-weapon States to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally;
  • Increased transparency by the nuclear-weapon States with regard to the nuclear weapons capabilities and the implementation of agreements pursuant to article VI and as a voluntary confidence-building measure to support further progress on nuclear disarmament;
  • The further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons, based on unilateral initiatives and as an integral part of the nuclear arms reduction and disarmament process;
  • Concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems;
  • A diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination;
  • The engagement as soon as appropriate of all the nuclear-weapon States in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons.

10. Arrangements by all nuclear-weapon States to place, as soon as practicable, fissile material designated by each of them as no longer required for military purposes under IAEA or other relevant international verification and arrangements for the disposition of such material for peaceful purposes, to ensure that such material remains permanently outside military programmes.

11. Reaffirmation that the ultimate objective of the efforts of States in the disarmament process is general and complete disarmament under effective international control.

12. Regular reports, within the framework of the strengthened review process for the Non-Proliferation Treaty, by all States parties on the implementation of article VI and paragraph 4 (c) of the 1995 Decision on “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament,” and recalling the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice of 8 July 1996.

13. The further development of the verification capabilities that will be required to provide assurance of compliance with nuclear disarmament agreements for the achievement and maintenance of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Spread the Word