Nuclear Weapons at the UN: Canada as Bridge Builder?

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2008 Volume 29 Issue 4

This year the United Nations First Committee met from October 6 to November 4. A specialized committee of the General Assembly, it is tasked with discussing issues related to international peace, security, and disarmament, and generating resolutions to be considered by the Assembly.

The very first resolution passed by the General Assembly on January 24, 1946 agreed to the “elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”1 Over 60 years later, member states are still struggling to build consensus on how best to do this. In the 2008 session, two resolutions related to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation were adopted by consensus: “Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East,” and “Mongolia’s international security and nuclear-weapon-free status.” Thirteen others were put to a vote, many of which reflected deep divides between states with nuclear weapons and those without. As a country without nuclear weapons but part of the NATO military alliance that includes a nuclear weapon umbrella, Canada often finds itself trying to straddle this divide.

Canada’s voting record

On the 13 nuclear weapons-related resolutions brought to the General Assembly by the First Committee this year, Canada voted yes four times, no three times, and abstained six times. This pattern of voting has been fairly consistent over the years, with only small shifts in the number of yes votes and abstentions (see the accompanying chart for a complete Canadian voting record for this session).2

As in previous years, Canada supported the resolution by the New Agenda Coalition (L.30), a group of middle power countries that promote a nuclear weapons-free world, despite opposition from the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Canada also said yes to the resolutions in support of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a nuclear weapons-free Southern Hemisphere.

Those resolutions that Canada voted against—“Nuclear disarmament,” “Convention on the prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons,” and “Reducing nuclear danger”—were sponsored predominantly by states outside of the mainstream disarmament and nonproliferation community such as Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. These resolutions garnered the highest levels of opposition.

The most interesting aspect of Canada’s voting record at the First Committee in 2008 is the line separating abstentions and yes votes. An abstention is best described as a “yes” in principle, with “no” to one or more substantive details. Canada often straddles this line between yes and no, just as it straddles between the worlds of nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. Canada’s vote on two resolutions in particular—“Renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons” and “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems”—demonstrates the strain that can result.

Straddling two positions

In 2008 Canada joined a growing list of states in co-sponsoring what began as a Japanese resolution calling for renewed determination toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. This group now comprises Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Finland, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Switzerland, and Ukraine. Not unlike the New Agenda Coalition resolutions, this resolution seems aimed at garnering broad support across nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, and emphasizes the role of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and related commitments as the cornerstone for disarmament. However, the resolution goes a step further by including additional operational clauses to support disarmament, such as reduced readiness of nuclear weapons for launch, and their reduced role in security policies.

Of the 13 resolutions brought to the vote in the 2008 session, this was one of the most successful. With a vote of 163 in favour, four against (North Korea, India, Israel, and the United States), and six abstentions (Bhutan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, and Pakistan), it garnered support second only to that awarded the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty resolution. From a Canadian perspective, however, one phrase is crucial. The resolution calls for “further reductions to the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security.” This language is important because it marked the line between a yes vote on this resolution and an abstention on another.

The resolution “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems,” sponsored by Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden, and Switzerland, was like the Canadian-sponsored one in calling for practical steps to be taken to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems. This is the second year in a row that this resolution has been tabled, and for the second year in a row, Canada abstained. In the second resolution the phrase “in ways that promote international stability and security” was absent.

In explaining its abstention, Canada stated that it must balance disarmament objectives with security obligations, “based on the principle of undiminished security for all.” Moreover, “there must be recognition that—for the time being—deterrence remains an important element of international security, and a fundamental component of the defence strategy of NATO, of which Canada is a member.” This resolution split the NATO members, with Belgium, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, and Spain voting yes and France, the United Kingdom, and the United States voting no. The remaining members, with Canada, abstained.

This vote was an opportunity for Canada to join the ranks of NATO’s dissenting non-nuclear weapon members in support of a practical measure with which it agrees. The explanation not to do so seems to be stretched. It is not clear how reduced readiness of weapons, from minutes to perhaps days, diminishes their ability to deter. Indeed, by reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war, it actually enhances security for everyone. It is also not clear why the sponsoring parties could not have added the phrase “based on the principle of undiminished security for all.”

From straddling to bridge-building?

In his opening statement to the 2008 First Committee, Canadian Ambassador Marius Grinius said that “Canada aims to be a ‘bridge-builder’ between Nuclear Weapon-States and non-Nuclear Weapon-States,” noting that “the opportunity to find common ground seems to be shrinking as national positions become increasingly inflexible in the face of national and regional security concerns.”3 This sentence implies a clear strategy that is not necessarily reflected by Canada’s voting record.

On the issue of reducing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons, it would seem that Canada was able to straddle both positions, supporting language that enabled most states with nuclear weapons and those without to find common ground. But on most other issues, Canada could not quite bridge the gap. To support its claim as a bridge builder, Canada needs to create more opportunities for compromise that both sides can support.



  1. See 1946 Resolution.
  2. Texts of resolutions are available at the Reaching Critical Will website.
  3. A copy of this statement can be found here.
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