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Trudeau Liberals ditch their party’s moral high ground on nuclear disarmament

By Douglas Roche      

Pierre Trudeau and Lloyd Axworthy knew the right side of history, but the current Liberal government is running away from one of the great issues of our time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, pictured speaking to reporters at the National Press Theatre on May 31, are falling in line with nuclear-weapons states in rejecting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by 122 states. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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There I was, at the microphone reading the official policy of the Liberal majority government of Canada on nuclear disarmament to a rather perplexed seminar audience. Why was Doug Roche, a severe critic of this policy, pronouncing it from the podium? The answer is: not one Liberal Member of Parliament would come forward to speak on their own party’s policies on a paramount issue that affects the safety of every Canadian.

The Liberal Party is running away from one of the great issues of our time. It hasn’t always been like this. Thirty-five years ago, the Liberal prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, stuck his neck out by journeying to the capitals of the major nuclear-weapons states to plead with them to come down from their nuclear mountains. Two decades ago, the Liberal foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, pushed NATO to change its nuclear policies and align them with the goals of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So why the reticence today?

The empty Liberal chair last week was at a seminar sponsored by the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which embraces 16 civil society organizations across Canada, and Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a non-governmental organization that signed up more than 1,000 members of the Order of Canada calling on the government to take major diplomatic action for nuclear disarmament.

The seminar, titled Canadian Leadership on Nuclear Disarmament, featured Joe Cirincione, a renowned American nuclear security expert; a panel on NATO with Ernie Regehr, Peggy Mason, and Tom Sauer, all of them distinguished experts on nuclear disarmament issues; and it tried to have a panel of representatives from all the major political parties to give their parties’ policies. The process of lining up speakers started last June. We were sent from one Liberal official to another, and finally were told that Andrew Leslie, parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister, could not leave the Parliamentary Precinct on a Monday (the day of our seminar). I wondered: could he not go eight blocks for a 20-minute presentation at the Cartier Place Suite Hotel?

We thought the government’s policy on nuclear disarmament should at least be read into the record of our meeting (the result of which will be an informed letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on policy proposals). So I read Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s statement filed in the House of Commons Sept. 17.

It said Canada “does not intend to sign” the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by 122 states, because the major nuclear-weapons states oppose it and, “without the participation of nuclear-weapons states it will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon.” Rather, Canada wants more work done to build a treaty that would end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

NDP MP Alistair MacGregor personally contributed his party’s position and the Green Party sent a statement. The Conservative Party, like the Liberals, was nowhere to be found. It had also sent us on a merry-go-round chase to find a speaker. It was the absence of the Liberals—the government—that was most revealing of the dire situation Canada has descended to from the days of Axworthy and Pierre Trudeau.

In 2016, during the run-up to the negotiations at the United Nations that produced the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, the United States government sent a letter to all its NATO partners demanding that they oppose such negotiations. The U.S. feared the stigmatization of nuclear weapons and a legal challenge to the military doctrine of nuclear deterrence—which is precisely what the framers of the prohibition treaty want. The treaty, when it arrived a year later, prohibited the possession of nuclear weapons. This went further than the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enjoins state parties to negotiate “in good faith” the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Blustering, Washington (along with London and Paris) said it would never sign. Prime Minister Trudeau got some very bad advice and, in the House of Commons, called the negotiations “useless.” That is not what UN secretary general António Guterres thinks: he has called the treaty “historic.” Pope Francis went public in “firmly condemning” the “very possession” of nuclear weapons, and the Holy See was one of the first to sign and ratify the treaty. Now, nearly 70 states have signed and close to 20 have ratified. When the number of ratifications reaches 50, it will enter into force. What will Canada do then?

Canada’s Liberal government is pretending that this historical shift to the moral and legal stigmatization of nuclear weapons isn’t happening. But it is. Maybe the big powers will hold onto their modernized nuclear weapons for a long time to come, but they will do that without a shred of moral or legal standing.

Nobody thinks we can get to a nuclear-weapons-free world overnight. But shouldn’t Canada keep standing up for the principles involved? Is there not one Liberal MP who will do so?

When I read the government’s policies at the seminar, I did so without comment. My job, at that moment, was to be a bland spokesperson.

But now I am back to my regular life, dissenting and stating as clearly as I can that the present Canadian Liberal government has abandoned the valued moral and legal policies of the past, which were aimed at saving Canadians from the spectre of nuclear warfare.

Douglas Roche, a former Independent Senator, Progressive Conservative MP, and former ambassador for disarmament, is author of Hope Not Fear: Building Peace in a Fractured World.

The Hill Times

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