Nuclear disarmament: The best of times and the worst of times

Cesar Jaramillo Featured, Nuclear Weapons

As 2017 draws to a close, two ostensibly contradictory yet coexisting realities define the global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime. Each brims with intensity, the likes of which have not been observed in decades.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 4 Winter 2017 by Cesar Jaramillo

A serious threat

On the one hand, the threat of nuclear-weapons use, by miscalculation or design, has reached a level not seen since the Cold War. This year, the Doomsday Clock maintained by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which represents the threat of global nuclear war, was set at 2 ½ minutes to midnight—the second-closest to midnight since 1953. According to Retired Adm. James Stavridis, one-time allied commander of NATO, “we are closer to a significant exchange of ordnance than we have been since the end of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula” (Dreazen 2017).
Heightened security tensions between North Korea and the United States make an otherwise unfathomable nuclear catastrophe increasingly conceivable. But these two states are far from the only sources of tension that raise the prospect of nuclear-weapons use. From the perilous India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, to an increasingly strained NATO-Russia relationship, the spectre of a nuclear confrontation casts a dark shadow over all humanity.

But a glimmer of hope

At the same time, this year has seen one of the most consequential advances in nuclear disarmament in recent memory. On an otherwise disheartening global security environment, it casts a glimmer of hope.

On July 7, a majority in the international community adopted, against all odds, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations. For diplomatic delegations from more than 120 countries, multilateral organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and members of international civil society, it was a historic day. The history of the most devastating weapons of mass destruction ever conceived will now be divided into what came before, and what came after, this landmark treaty.

In the UN conference room that day were many from the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the international coalition that convinced so many UN member states to negotiate this unlikely treaty. With relentless determination, campaigners the world over laboured to reach this goal. They have come to embody the transformative potential of organized civil society in multilateral nuclear disarmament processes.

Three months after the adoption of the treaty, ICAN Director Beatrice Fihn received a call from the Norwegian Committee informing her that ICAN was to be awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. At Project Ploughshares we continue to rejoice in the timely and richly deserved recognition of the tireless work of the many committed civil society representatives from all continents and every age group. Steadfast determination overcame the persistent efforts of nuclear-weapons states and their allies to undermine treaty negotiations. We are proud of our own modest contributions to this grand effort.

Canada in the minority

Heightened nuclear risks and strengthened norms against nuclear-weapons possession epitomize an ongoing political struggle of the highest order.

An increasingly vocal majority of the international community demands the prompt and complete elimination of nuclear arsenals. A few states claim to require the purported security benefits of nuclear weapons and vigorously resist the rationale for, and implications of, the nuclear ban treaty.

And while there are certainly nuances among individual national positions, there is no question that Canada is in the latter camp.

The process that led to the negotiations of the nuclear ban treaty was a clear example of effective, rules-based multilateral work. Decisions at the UN General Assembly are taken by majority vote—not by consensus— and Resolution L.41, which called for the nuclear ban treaty negotiations, was transparently adopted by a wide majority of UN members.

In other words, it was precisely the type of resolution that a responsible multilateral actor ought to honour. However, Canada instead aligned itself with nuclear-weapons states and worked to undermine any and all efforts related to the nuclear ban treaty. It even boycotted the negotiations.

A consistent civil society message

Canadian civil society was not silent.

In September, the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons issued the following statement:

Canada must now decide if NATO nuclear policies will be given a higher priority than the country’s longstanding “unequivocal undertaking” to negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
We call on the Government of Canada to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and to state that Canada will, through dialogue and changes to its own policies and practices, persist in its efforts to bring NATO into conformity with the Treaty, with a view to Canada ratifying the Treaty as soon as possible.

In October, the Canadian Council of Churches sent a letter to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, which said in part:

We firmly believe that it is in the best interest of every nation to move decisively toward the shared goal of nuclear abolition and to consider the recently adopted nuclear ban treaty a necessary step toward that goal. We find it disconcerting that Canada’s position on nuclear disarmament aligns with that of states with nuclear weapons. We urge you to reconsider your current policy so that Canada can become an early signatory to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

In November, Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a group of more than 1,000 recipients of the Order of Canada, sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which read in part:

We recognize this Treaty as a milestone on the long quest for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and thus take strong exception to your characterization of the Treaty as “useless.” We deeply regret your Government’s failure to recognize the validity and importance of the Treaty, agreed to by a majority of the world’s states, which creates a legally binding instrument to prohibit the possession and use of nuclear weapons – paralleling the treaties prohibiting chemical and biological weapons. The tenacity with which nuclear weapon states seek to retain and even “modernize” weapons whose use would be in direct violation of international humanitarian law, makes a mockery of the solemn commitments they made and legal obligations they assumed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Canada must take extreme care not to aid them in their abdication of responsibility.

The way forward is clear. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been adopted. The Nobel Peace Prize has affirmed the validity of this groundbreaking effort and propelled it forward. Heightened risks of catastrophic nuclear confrontation underscore the urgent need for decisive, timely progress to nuclear abolition.

The message from civil society to the Canadian government has been remarkably consistent: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons constitutes a watershed moment for nuclear disarmament. But our government does not seem to be listening.


Dreazen, Yochi. 2017. Former NATO military chief: there’s a 10% chance of nuclear war with North Korea. Vox, September 28.

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