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The nuclear-weapons-ban thing is not going away, prime minister

By Cesar Jaramillo      

Canada's opposition to the nuclear weapons ban treaty has degraded its reputation on disarmament, at home and abroad.

The United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons overwhelmingly adopted a treaty to do just that on July 7, though Canada and the remaining members of NATO either boycotted or voted against the treaty. Photograph by Paolo Rivas courtesy of the UN
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Dear Mr. Trudeau,

You recently dismissed this year’s multilateral process to negotiate a legal prohibition of nuclear weapons as “useless.” I’m afraid you were misinformed: it was anything but.

Since no one from your government attended these historic negotiations, I’d like to share a few reflections related to the proceedings. You see, despite the absence of an official government delegation, several Canadians did participate—myself included. Let me fill you in.

Did you know that the unprecedented diplomatic undertaking you consider useless involved not just a majority of the world’s nations?

For innumerable civil society organizations; current and former diplomats; humanitarian agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross; academics and scientists from all continents; and survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all deeply invested in this process—the July 7 adoption of a nuclear weapons ban treaty was the most consequential nuclear disarmament development in decades.

As with the land mines treaty effort, in which Canada was a global leader two decades ago, the growing global movement to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons is deeply rooted in an unequivocal recognition of the indiscriminate, catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use.

While land mines still exist, their explicit prohibition has become an integral and necessary element of the framework for their elimination, and the normative bar against their mere possession has been forever raised. Despite your boycott of the nuclear ban treaty negotiations, Canada, too, stands to benefit from a strengthened global norm in rejection of nuclear weapons.

Prime minister, the nuclear disarmament landscape was dramatically altered a few days ago in New York, as newly-emboldened voices from all corners of the planet established a ban of the most dangerous weapons on Earth. Please know that those voices will not be quelled, whatever the position of outliers. They will be heard at conferences of states parties to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, at sessions of the Conference on Disarmament, at the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Canada’s absence was noted and questioned, just as our selling Canadian military goods to human-rights pariah Saudi Arabia has been noted and questioned. The weight and credibility of Canada’s hard-earned disarmament and arms control credentials have taken a substantial hit, abroad and at home.

Were you aware that many of the most knowledgeable Canadians on nuclear disarmament have profound concerns about your government’s handling of this file? This is not an overstatement: you can ask around.

Cesar Jaramillo, pictured here in downtown Ottawa in 2015, leads Project Ploughshares, a nonprofit that promotes policies and actions that prevent war and armed violence. The Hill Times photograph by Carl Meyer.

Apprehension about Canada’s stand, and the arguments used to justify it, is shared by Canadian civil society experts, academics, former ranking diplomats, and a host of prominent citizens. Nearly a thousand recipients of the Order of Canada continue to call for urgent Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament.

Instead Canada, like most other NATO member states, boycotted the conference—just as the U.S. had asked. And even though Canada presents itself as a responsible non-nuclear weapons state, it continues to embrace NATO’s overt nuclear deterrence doctrine as a valid security policy, effectively legitimizing the weapons held by its nuclear-armed allies.

Now those allies are engaged in a multibillion-dollar modernization of their nuclear arsenals. How can this not be seen as contrary to the goal of nuclear abolition? How can the placement of U.S. nuclear weapons on the territories of NATO members in Europe be compatible with the transfer prohibitions of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Do you really believe that proliferation concerns will ever be fully allayed while nuclear states and alliances obstinately cling to their arsenals?

NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy is clearly out of sync with the views and expectations of most states. Why can’t Canada work with its allies, and engage would-be adversaries, to formulate security arrangements that do not pose an existential threat to human civilization? As a NATO member state, it is surely Canada’s prerogative to raise such issues within the alliance—and to expect to be heard.

Ban advocates are fully aware that a legal prohibition is not tantamount to abolition. The need for complementary efforts is undisputed. Canada’s continued work on a fissile materials treaty, for instance, is undoubtedly important. But it is not sufficient. Quite simply, it falls short of current multilateral expectations. Without a cohesive link to a broader, credible move toward complete nuclear disarmament, this effort reflects neither the gravity of the nuclear threat nor the urgency of abolition.

Although Canada has repeatedly claimed that the process that resulted in the ban treaty did not take into account the current international security environment, a growing global majority sees this line of argument as a deliberate delay tactic. If the security environment is not ripe for nuclear disarmament now, when will it be?

This much is certain: the value of the process that resulted in the adoption of the nuclear ban treaty at the United Nations earlier this month goes far beyond the legal prohibition itself. It is ultimately an ongoing political struggle of the highest order.

States with nuclear weapons will only disarm—if they ever do—when they so choose. That odious reality is well understood. But no longer will they control the prevailing narrative of nuclear weapons. For a vast majority of nations, these already-illegitimate instruments of mass destruction are now and forever unambiguously illegal.

The door has been left open for outliers to join the treaty, which opens for signatures on September 20.

Please, prime minister, think very carefully about Canada’s position on nuclear disarmament. Reflect on the groundbreaking, audacious political statement issued at the United Nations this month by most nations, in an open challenge to the express desires of the most powerful states on Earth.

More than 30 years ago, your father led our country in renouncing the placement of U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. It was a bold move. We need that boldness now.

So read the signs of your time and take up the nuclear disarmament torch. This is your moment, Mr. Trudeau.

But will you seize it?

Cesar Jaramillo is executive director at Project Ploughshares, an operating division of The Canadian Council of Churches.

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