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Canada must show up for a nuclear weapons ban negotiation

By Paul Meyer      

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has trumpeted that 'Canada is back' at the UN. We would seem to be moving 'backwards' on our UN engagement if we persist in snubbing the efforts of the majority of states to initiate inclusive negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

The remains of a building in Hiroshima, Japan after it was bombed in August 1945.
Photograph courtesy of the United Nations

On October 27, delegations to the UN General Assembly First Committee session in New York adopted a controversial resolution that represents a dramatic departure from the stagnation that has marked global nuclear diplomacy in recent years. The resolution was adopted on a vote of 123 in favour, 38 opposed and 16 abstentions. All of the nuclear weapon states (except China, which abstained) and most of the NATO members (Canada included) were in the “no” camp, but a wide array of non-nuclear weapon states carried the day with a solid majority.

The resolution’s innocuous title “Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations” belies its historic significance. For the first time since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into effect 46 years ago, a multilateral negotiation to ban nuclear weapons will be launched. Although under the NPT, the five nuclear weapon states have an obligation to realize nuclear disarmament, actual progress to that goal has been sorely lacking.

With growing frustration over the gap between the rhetoric of striving for a “world without nuclear weapons” and real action to that end, many non-nuclear weapon states have decided to utilize the majority voting of the UN General Assembly to start a treaty negotiation in 2017 to prohibit these weapons. Of course the nuclear-armed states are strenuously opposing this effort and have resorted to the crude tactic of boycotting a preparatory process for nuclear disarmament negotiations that operated earlier this year in Geneva and now, vow not to participate in the ban treaty negotiations. Used to being the group that dictated what nuclear affairs would be undertaken by the international community, the five nuclear weapon states seem to have assumed that if they persisted with their rejection of the ban movement it would simply go away.

The high-handed behaviour of the nuclear powers has put their allies, including Canada, in an awkward posture. They have had to act as apologists for the absent nuclear armed states, calling the prohibition treaty a divisive step; one weakening the NPT and ineffectual without the engagement of the nuclear weapon states. However the nuclear powers are themselves the ones that have refused engagement, and the divisions that are being highlighted are the existing divisions between the nuclear weapon haves and have nots that the NPT has failed after almost half a century to overcome.

Canada and other states allied to the US have espoused a “step-by-step” approach to nuclear disarmament culminating in a comprehensive convention to eliminate nuclear weapons. The problem, however, is that these “steps”—including the entry into force of the nuclear test ban and the start of a negotiation of a ban on production of fissile material for nuclear weapons—have not advanced in years. Proponents of the ban treaty also argue that it would be complementary to an eventually more elaborate nuclear weapons convention, and indeed would provide an important impetus towards that goal.

Responsible multilateralism requires a state to respect the decisions of the UN General Assembly even if they do not mirror its preferences. Canada displayed this constructive approach last year when it did not support the resolution establishing the preparatory process, but was an active participant in that process when it was underway in Geneva this year. A similar approach should govern Canada’s future conduct with respect to the ban treaty negotiation that will start its work in March in New York.

While Canada may have its reasons for not supporting the resolution authorizing this negotiation, it should be a constructive participant in the negotiation process itself. This conduct is not only in keeping with respect for multilateralism, but it will also enable Canada’s representatives to promote their positions during the sessions and attempt to influence the course of these negotiations. An abstention rather than a “no” vote at the UN would have been a preferable manner to register Canadian concerns over the timing of negotiations over a nuclear weapon prohibition (Canada wishing it to be the last rather than the first step of negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons). The more fundamental point is that Canadian and global security interests are better served by engaging in the negotiation process now authorized by the UN General Assembly rather than by standing on the sidelines.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has trumpeted that “Canada is back” at the UN. We would seem to be moving “backwards” on our UN engagement if we persist in snubbing the efforts of the majority of states to initiate inclusive negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

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