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Why Canada should rethink its stance on nuclear arms

By Earl Turcotte      

It’s time for global action and for Canada to engage in creative, muscular nuclear diplomacy.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion speaks at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on March 2. UN photograph by Elma Okic
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CARP, ONT.—Somewhat paradoxically, as humanity has developed ever more effective ways to wage war, we have also established a significant body of international law that limits the means and methods of engaging in armed conflict, leading to the partial or full prohibition of numerous weapons.

The Strasbourg Agreement of 1675 banned the use of poisoned bullets. Later came bans on spike pits, hollow point bullets, and balloon bombs.

More recently, there was the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which banned booby traps, weapons that produce non-detectable fragments, blinding laser weapons, and incendiary weapons.

In the late 1990s, Canada led the world in establishing the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines. A decade later, the Oslo Process resulted in a total ban on cluster munitions.

Civil society groups have now launched a campaign to pre-emptively ban autonomous robotic weapons (killer robots). States and civil society groups are monitoring developments in cyber and neurological weapons.

The world has banned all manner of chemical and biological weapons as well.

There has also been some progress with respect to nuclear weapons as well.

The Seabed Arms Control Treaty of 1971 prevents the deployment of nuclear weapons on the ocean floor.

The Moon Treaty of 1979 prohibits placing nuclear weapons on the moon.

And five nuclear-weapon-free zones have been established in: Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa, in total, involving 115 of 195 countries of the world and almost 40 per cent of the world’s population.

What is missing—and desperately needed now—is a legally binding instrument that universally bans nuclear weapons, eliminates global nuclear stockpiles, and establishes effective means of verification to ensure compliance.

On Oct. 27, member states of the United Nations voted on an Austrian-led resolution that mandates the negotiation of a new nuclear weapons treaty that would do exactly that: finally outlaw nuclear weapons. It passed with an overwhelming majority of 123 states voting in favour. Notably, China, India, and Pakistan abstained, and North Korea voted yes.

Shockingly, Canada was one of only 38 countries to vote against this historic initiative. This happened despite our 46-year-old legal obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue total nuclear disarmament; despite an all-party motion passed unanimously by Canadian Members of Parliament and Senators in 2010 to “deploy a major worldwide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament;” and despite the fact that there has been no progress on nuclear disarmament in more than two decades.

I offer seven reasons why Canada should reconsider this short-sighted, obstructionist position and support—even lead—this historic negotiation process:

  • The status quo is unsustainable. Given rising international tensions and the increased likelihood of nuclear terrorism, it is naive to think we can avoid nuclear catastrophe so long as any nuclear weapons exist.
  • A comprehensive nuclear weapons convention can be negotiated with or without the engagement (at this stage) of nuclear-weapons states. They can come on board later, when they are ready.
  • Creating new international law will further stigmatize nuclear weapons and increase pressure on nuclear-weapons states to give them up.
  • NATO states can pursue nuclear disarmament without jeopardizing membership in NATO; indeed, effective partnership in NATO demands reform of NATO’s security doctrine, eliminating the nuclear option.
  • Nuclear disarmament can be pursued without upsetting the international “balance of power.” Improved collective, common security measures can and must be part of the mix to ensure that international stability is maintained before, during, and after nuclear disarmament occurs.
  • In this regard, no one is proposing unilateral disarmament or NATO nuclear disarmament absent other nuclear powers; rather, there should be a multilateral approach implicating all nuclear powers concurrently.
  • Finally, it’s 2016, 71 years after the first atomic bombs were dropped. It is time for global action and for Canada to engage in creative, muscular nuclear diplomacy.

Earl Turcotte is a former Canadian and UN disarmament diplomat living in Carp, Ont.

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