Seize the Day: Civil Society Recommendations to the Canadian Government to Advance Nuclear Disarmament

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2010 Volume 31 Issue 1

On January 25-26, experts including academics, civil society representatives, and government officials convened in Ottawa for a conference entitled “Practical Steps to Zero Nuclear Weapons.” The event was sponsored by a coalition of Canadian civil society organizations, including Project Ploughshares,1 and sought to address current challenges and opportunities facing nuclear disarmament. The primary outcome was a set of practical recommendations intended to encourage the Canadian government to assume a proactive role in efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons and to seize the moment of renewed momentum for nuclear abolition.

A window of opportunity

Virtually all conference panelists referred to the present opportunity that the international community has to make substantial progress in eliminating nuclear weapons. The president of Les Artistes pour la Paix, Pierre Jasmin, said: “The key to a nuclear-weapons-free world is to start negotiations [on a Nuclear Weapons Convention] now while political conditions are right.” The urgent call to take concrete steps now was sounded repeatedly.

Critical issues and processes discussed at the conference included:

The NPT Review Conference

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the global regime to control nuclear weapons, will be reviewed at the United Nations in May 2010. The RevCon, which takes place every five years, is a unique opportunity to address the deficiencies of the nuclear regime and restore the NPT’s credibility as an effective mechanism to curb proliferation and confirm implementation of the nuclear weapon states’ commitment to disarm.

Conference speaker Dr. C.S. Eliot Kang, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, said that the challenges facing the NPT—such as non-compliance by some states, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, and North Korea’s unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty—have led many to believe that the NPT is close to collapsing. And, although Kang acknowledged that the US and other nuclear weapon states parties to the Treaty bear a special responsibility, he stated clearly that the US will maintain a ‘safe’ nuclear arsenal for as long as these weapons exist anywhere in the world. In addition, a senior UN official said that several substantive disagreements at the last Preparatory Committee will likely resurface during the upcoming RevCon.

Among the key issues for the RevCon highlighted by event participants were:

  • The ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • Negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty;
  • Such institutional deficits of the NPT as the lack of a permanent secretariat and staff;
  • A preparatory process for a Nuclear Weapons Convention; and
  • Universalizing the NPT to bring in states such as India, Pakistan, and Israel.

Civil society engagement

Panelists stressed the importance of the role that civil society can and should play in nuclear disarmament. The conference itself was a testament to this. A key concern of conference speakers was that the current Canadian government has ended the longstanding practice of including civil society representation in the official Canadian delegation to the NPT Review Conference. A formal request has been made to restore this practice.

NATO’s Strategic Concept review

The current review of NATO’s Strategic Concept featured prominently in conference discussions. A NATO official present at the conference explained that, from NATO’s perspective, the purpose of nuclear retention is political rather than military. He stated that, although NATO’s nuclear doctrine is important, a “crowded plate” of strategic issues is competing for space during the current review process.

Ernie Regehr of Project Ploughshares addressed specific concerns about NATO’s Strategic Concept, including its current commitment to retaining nuclear weapons; the conflicting obligations of states that are both members of NATO and Non-Nuclear Weapon States Parties to the NPT; and the notion of extended deterrence, used to justify the possession of nuclear weapons to protect other Alliance members.2

The Obama moment

Participants noted that President Obama has ushered in an era of cautious optimism, perhaps best epitomized by his 2009 speech in Prague in which he affirmed the commitment of the United States to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and called on the international community to take practical steps toward this end. Following the Prague speech, Obama personally presided over a historic session of the UN Security Council. Resulting UNSC Resolution 1887 affirms the necessity of taking concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament and reiterates the importance of upholding the tenets of the NPT.

The US Nuclear Posture Review, currently under way, has also generated significant expectations among disarmament advocates and observers, as it will define the role of nuclear weapons and delineate US nuclear strategy. While it has not yet been released, there is hope that it will reflect the vision articulated in Obama’s Prague speech and will afford a diminishing role to nuclear deterrence as part of overall US military strategy.

Canada’s role

Canada’s unique position to take a leadership role in the efforts to abolish nuclear weapons was highlighted repeatedly. As a middle power, a member of NATO, an active player in the global nuclear energy industry, a state party to the NPT, and a member of the G8, Canada is positioned to influence the process of nuclear disarmament. However, as stated in the brief3 prepared for the conference, “there has always been a strong element of ambivalence in Canadian disarmament policy.” Calling for a more unambiguous and resolute stance by the Canadian government, University of Western Ontario professor Erika Simpson observed, “This ambivalence should end now that U.S. President Barack Obama has come out so strongly for active work leading to a nuclear weapons-free world.”

In addition, conference participants pointed to Canada’s remarkable opportunity to place the issue of nuclear disarmament on the agenda at this year’s G8 and G20 meetings. One of the customary prerogatives of the host nation has been establishing key elements of the agenda. However, a representative from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada could not disclose whether nuclear disarmament would feature prominently on this year’s agenda.

Conference recommendations

The role that Canada could play in the realm of nuclear disarmament was the primary consideration for the sponsors of the Ottawa conference. According to Ernie Regehr, “It is urgent that Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister Cannon publicly address nuclear disarmament and reaffirm Canada’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.” Thus, the formal conference recommendations4 were aimed at the Canadian government:

i) It is urgent that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister find early and prominent opportunities, including the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and Canada’s chairmanship of the G8 and G20 meetings in Canada, to publicly address nuclear disarmament and reaffirm Canada’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.

ii) Canada should encourage a new NATO Strategic Concept that a) welcomes and affirms the groundswell of calls for a world without nuclear weapons; b) confirms NATO’s commitment to the objectives of the NPT and declares that the intent of Article VI is a world free of nuclear weapons; and c) commits NATO to security and arms control policies that conform to Articles I and II of the NPT and that are designed to achieve the nuclear disarmament promised in Article VI.

iii) The Canadian Government should support new initiatives within Europe and publicly indicate its support for the removal of all remaining nonstrategic nuclear weapons from European soil, in support of longstanding international calls that all nuclear weapons be returned to the territories of the states that own them.

iv) Canada should support the development of an improved strategic relationship with Russia including initiatives such as upgrading the NATO-Russia Council; promoting continuing strategic dialogue between the US and Russia in support of a new nuclear disarmament treaty; and follow-on measures that engage other states with nuclear weapons, including China.

v) Canada should work to forge a consensus within NATO: that the policies of nuclear weapon states, and of NATO, should reflect the global norm, which has existed since 1945, against the use of nuclear weapons.

vi) Canada should compliment the United States and Russia for negotiations toward a START replacement treaty and insist on commitments at the NPT Review Conference to further US and Russian reductions and to multilateral reductions leading to elimination.

vii) As a NATO ally, Canada should encourage the Alliance to take advantage of the present climate of global support for nuclear disarmament to phase out any role for nuclear weapons in its security policies.

viii) Canada should press for the NPT Review Conference to commit to preparatory work on a Nuclear Weapons Convention, or framework of instruments, for sustainable, verifiable, and enforceable global elimination of nuclear weapons.

ix) The government should restore the practice of an inclusive approach to NGOs by naming representatives of civil society to the Canadian delegation to the 2010 NPT Review Conference in May 2010.

x) At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, Canada should demonstrate its commitment to seize the new hope-filled opportunity, not only to envision a world of peace and security without nuclear weapons, but to generate concrete actions to make it a reality.



  1. The other sponsoring organizations were fellow members of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW): Canadian Pugwash Group, Physicians for Global Survival, and the World Federalist Movement – Canada.
  2. For a more detailed discussion on NATO’s Strategic Concept Review and nuclear weapons, see Ernie Regehr, “NATO’s nuclear declarations,” on p. 3.
  3. The full conference Briefing Paper can be accessed here.
  4. Taken from the Briefing Paper (see #3 above), pp. 15-16, with some modification.
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