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Canada in self-chosen minority camp on nuclear disarmament

By Cesar Jaramillo      

Canada’s absence at nuclear-ban negotiations belies its commitment to multilateralism.

Back row from left, Project Ploughshares' Cesar Jaramillo with NDP MPs Linda Duncan, Hélène Laverdière, and Randall Garrison at a press conference in the foyer of the House of Commons with Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow, seated, on June 7. They sought to advance a motion that would see the Liberal government support the Draft Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, but the Liberals and Conservatives voted against it. Photograph courtesy of Anthony Salloum's Twitter page
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On June 6, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland asserted the Liberal government’s strong support for multilateralism as a central feature of Canadian foreign policy. The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that Canada would not participate in the most significant multilateral nuclear disarmament effort in decades.

A majority of the world’s states has convened in New York for the second leg of negotiations (June 15-July 7) on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” More than 130 nations had gathered in March for initial deliberations. But Canada was not there then, and is not now.

The process that led to negotiations was a clear example of effective, rules-based multilateral work. Decisions at the United Nations General Assembly are taken by majority vote—not by consensus—and Resolution L.41, which called for this year’s 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.

Canada is instead aligning itself with nuclear-weapons states, most of which have openly sought to obfuscate and undermine ban negotiations.

At the heart of their position is the notion that a comprehensive, time-bound effort to achieve nuclear abolition is premature. They say this more than seven decades after Hiroshima, more than 45 years after the entry into force of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and more than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War.

This minority claims that current international conflicts, many involving nuclear-weapons states, prevent their taking decisive measures now. But the only likely effect of waiting for ideal security conditions—and probably the intended one—is to forever delay the start of a credible process to eliminate nuclear weapons.

They continue to insist on a tried-and-failed “step-by-step” process that has stalled nuclear abolition for nearly 50 years. Steps include the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which some of these same states have failed to ratify; or the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament, which has been deadlocked for more than 20 years.

Nuclear-weapon states extol the value of nuclear weapons in safeguarding their national interests, but expect no one else to embrace the same rationale. They demand immediate, consistent compliance with non-proliferation obligations, but disregard their own responsibility to disarm.

These states consider the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons unacceptable for some states, but fine for military or economic allies, even those outside the NPT framework. They continue to spend billions of dollars modernizing arsenals and related infrastructure, extending the lifespan of nuclear arsenals and thereby pushing the abolition goalpost further down the field.

Nuclear abolition—as distinct from reconfigurations of nuclear arsenals and, of course, nuclear modernization—is a non-priority in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, London, and Paris. And no one is realistically predicting that Israel, Pakistan, India, or North Korea will give up their nuclear weapons soon.

The nuclear-ban movement rose up to protest this failure of the global nuclear disarmament regime and to openly acknowledge the catastrophic humanitarian impact of any nuclear weapons use.

No one equates a ban with abolition. But a nuclear-weapons ban is necessary if a nuclear-weapons-free world is to emerge. It will fill an anomalous gap in international law. Every category of weapons of mass destruction, except for nuclear weapons, has already been explicitly prohibited. It will also signal a compelling political commitment to the goal of complete nuclear disarmament.

Canada contends that negotiations to ban nuclear weapons will create a schism in the international community. But outliers have been repeatedly and widely encouraged to participate—which would in turn allow them to raise any and all concerns they consider pertinent. Perplexingly, states wishing to undermine negotiations point to their own unwillingness to participate as an inherent flaw in the process.

Why is Canada in this minority position?

The answer, at least in part, can be found in a NATO document from October 2016, in which the United States openly calls on members of the alliance “to vote against negotiations on a nuclear weapons treaty ban, not to merely abstain.” It further asks allies and partners to refrain from joining the actual negotiations. Canada quickly obliged—on both counts.

How this behaviour can be compatible with the high-profile declaration of support for multilateralism is anybody’s guess. And, as Canada does exactly what the United States asked, the irony of the recent foreign policy announcement that pointed to a decreased reliance on its southern neighbour is hardly lost.

Challenges remain on the path to abolition, but there will soon be a legal prohibition of nuclear weapons. With or without the participation of nuclear weapons states—and with or without Canada.

Cesar Jaramillo is executive director of the Waterloo, Ont.-based Project Ploughshares, which works to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and to build peace.

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