Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 1 Spring 2014
A development of historic dimensions is beginning to energize the otherwise lethargic nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime. Nearly seven decades after nuclear bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an international process to achieve a legal ban on nuclear weapons is starting to take shape.
A global push for a ban
On February 13-14 the Government of Mexico hosted the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in the state of Nayarit (Mexico 2014a). Like the first, held in Oslo, Norway last year (Norway 2013), it was premised on the belief that the only foolproof way to ensure that humans do not again suffer the devastation caused by nuclear bombs is to completely eliminate this category of weapons.
A key catalyst for both conferences has been the renewed attention given to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and to the concomitant impossibility of providing effective emergency relief following their use. Recognition is growing that the use of nuclear weapons would be inconsistent with fundamental precepts of International Humanitarian Law, including key principles governing the legal use of force, such as distinction, precaution, and proportionality.1
For such a fraught issue, the basic case for nuclear abolition is remarkably simple: If the consequences of nuclear weapons use are unacceptable, and there is a clear and present danger that these weapons may be used by accident, miscalculation, or design, then they must be eliminated.
The attitude of scores of nations on this issue has reached a critical tipping point, and calls for nuclear disarmament were heard loud and clear in Mexico. Diverse states, including the Philippines, Jordan, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Colombia, Hungary, Iraq, and Switzerland, referred specifically to the unambiguous and urgent need to completely eliminate all nuclear weapons.
The predictable pushback
But the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council—all nuclear weapon states—were not there to be heard. They boycotted the conference in Mexico, as they had the inaugural one in Oslo (The Oslo Times 2013). The P5 boycott, however, didn’t prevent their positions from being aired in Mexico. Others were there to make the P5 case.
Canada and other NATO members insisted at the conference—as nuclear weapon states often do—that the primary sources of nuclear insecurity reside in the byproducts of nuclear weapons, such as proliferation pressures, not in the weapons themselves. They conflated and confused the root cause of the problem with its various manifestations. They lamented the lack of engagement with the P5 by those leading the calls for nuclear abolition—at the very forum the P5 had boycotted. But they were largely silent on the blatant disregard by nuclear-armed states for their obligations to disarm.
Canada expressed a legitimate fear that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of rogue non-state actors, but failed to acknowledge that the weapons themselves are unacceptable, no matter who has them. Canada also voiced skepticism about the value of a legal ban on nuclear weapons. Banning nuclear weapons, argued the Canadian delegation, does not guarantee their elimination.
True. But establishing a legal ban would be the strongest diplomatic signal in decades of the widespread rejection of these weapons. It would also fill a void in international law; every other category of weapons of mass destruction—all far less destructive than nuclear arms—has been explicitly declared illegal.
This anomaly was emphasized in Mexico. The summary report from the conference Chair specifically recognized that ongoing discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should encourage the establishment of new international norms and standards “through a legally binding instrument” (Mexico 2014b).
Canada argued in Mexico that the priority should be to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used. However, while the notion of a perpetual moratorium on nuclear detonations sounds appealing, it is based on flawed assumptions. From human folly to technical error, there are countless well documented scenarios in which nuclear weapons could have been employed in the past (Lewis et al. c.2014). The only way to guarantee that they will never be used in the future is to eliminate them.
In the end, Canada and a handful of other countries, including Germany and Australia, continue to insist on the tried-and-failed, step-by-step approach that, 40 years on, has not made the goal of complete nuclear disarmament any more attainable. This position is increasingly out of tune with the emerging, compelling, and persuasive narrative embraced by a majority of the world’s nations, which says that a legal ban is not only urgently needed, but indeed possible.
At best, Canada seems indifferent to the logical implications of fully recognizing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. At worst, it is solidifying its position as an obstacle to their unequivocal prohibition.
Domestic support for nuclear disarmament
Canada’s current stand on this issue is more perplexing given the favourable domestic political environment for nuclear abolition. A historic unanimous parliamentary motion in 2010 urged Canada 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” (Parliament of Canada 2010).
More than 700 recipients of the Order of Canada have also petitioned the government to endorse and support a process leading to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons (Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention 2013). Polls show that roughly 9 in 10 Canadians believe that nuclear weapons make the world a more dangerous place and 73 per cent would support their total elimination through an enforceable ban (Environics 2008). Members of Parliament from every major party are members of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, which advocates for nuclear abolition.
But, so far, the Canadian government has been far from responsive. The forcefulness of Canada’s warnings on the risks of proliferation stands in stark contrast with the timidity with which it demands concrete nuclear disarmament. On related issues, such as nuclear weapons concerns in the Middle East, Canada’s position has become brazenly and predictably one-sided—bashing Iran about its purported desire and capability to develop nuclear weapons, while staying silent about Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal.
Despite the recalcitrant positions taken by some states, the push for a legal ban on nuclear weapons remains strong. Skeptics doubted that momentum could be sustained after the 2013 Oslo conference, but Mexico decisively took the baton from Norway. The 2014 conference represented a remarkably cohesive movement of supporting states and civil society organizations. Austria’s announcement that it would host a follow-up conference as early as later this year consolidated the process.
A challenging path lies ahead. The nuclear weapon states have dug in their heels. Not only did they boycott the two conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, they also skipped the 2013 United Nations Open Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament (UNGA 2013). In addition, their policies and actions are far from consistent with the goal of nuclear disarmament. The doctrine of deterrence remains central to their security arrangements, while billions of dollars are being spent to modernize nuclear arsenals (Priest 2012).
It is also the case that the global momentum and political will to move this issue forward are unprecedented in the post-Cold War era. The feigned lack of interest of nuclear weapon states and their coordinated boycotts may indicate that the process is starting to become a diplomatic annoyance for them.
Canada’s support for a legal ban on nuclear weapons would be welcome and consequential. The prompt pursuit of concerted diplomatic efforts to achieve the complete and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons is in the best interests of every nation.
For now, the process to establish a legal ban constitutes a necessary step forward. It will be rooted in the widespread rejection of the continued existence of nuclear weapons and a full recognition of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use. From this perspective, the use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable and the goal of their complete elimination is not negotiable.
Every indication is that the process will move full steam ahead, with or without the nuclear weapon states. And with or without Canada.
Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. 2013. 705 Recipients of the Order of Canada.
Environics. 2008. The Canada’s World Poll. January.
International Committee of the Red Cross. 2011. Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. November 26.
Lewis, Patricia, Heather Williams, Benoit Pelopidas, and Sasan Aghlani. c.2014. Too close for comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Policies for Today, Chatham House,
Mexico, Foreign Affairs Secretariat. 2014a. Second Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons.
_____. 2014b. Chair’s summary.
Norway, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2013. Conference: Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
Parliament of Canada. 2010. Nuclear non-proliferation. 40th Parliament, 3rd session, December 7.
Priest, Dana. 2012. Aging U.S. nuclear arsenal slated for costly and long-delayed modernization. The Washington Post, September 15.
The Oslo Times. 2013. Conference for Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons—A Comprehensive Initiation: Report. Blog, March 10.
United Nations General Assembly. 2013. Report of the Open-ended Working Group to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons. September 3.