At the United Nations in late October 123 countries voted in favour of a recommendation endorsing the launch of negotiations aimed at prohibiting nuclear weapons. Canada voted no. Douglas Roche, this country’s former Ambassador for Disarmament at the UN is clearly piqued. “The government turned its back on an important nuclear disarmament initiative,” he says, “and sided with the nuclear weapons states that want to keep and modernize their nuclear arsenals for the rest of the 21st century.”
Roche adds, “The blame for the Canadian diplomatic debacle belongs squarely on the desk of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose office won’t even answer letters or phone calls from high-ranking persons trying to alert him to the need for Canadian action.” Roche says that Trudeau seems “disengaged” on nuclear arms control and that his government has undermined the nuclear disarmament work championed by his father Pierre Trudeau.
Therein lays an irony. During the waning months of his time in office in 1983, Pierre Trudeau engaged in shuttle diplomacy featuring stops in Moscow, Washington and the capitals of other nuclear powers. He urged them to call a halt to the nuclear arms race. No such diplomacy has brought to bear by Justin Trudeau, whose sunny ways rhetoric is beginning to wear thin.
Pressure to vote no
The UN-mandated working group that met in Geneva over the past year submitted to the General Assembly a recommendation to convene negotiations in 2017 on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” Despite widespread support for the recommendation, most nuclear states voted against it. They included the US, Russia, the UK and France. North Korea voted for the resolution while China, India and Pakistan abstained.
At least some of the weapons states exerted diplomatic pressure on their allies to vote no. NATO continues to insist that its possession of these weapons acts as a deterrent and guarantees security. Neither Justin Trudeau nor Foreign Minister Stephane Dion appears interested in challenging that notion. On the other hand, the Netherlands which is also a NATO member chose at least to abstain from the UN vote. Canada caved in to the pressure and was among 38 countries that voted No. Dion admits that Canada would not support the effort because of its “obligations” to NATO.
Dion adds that Canada has chosen to work through the UN toward another agreement which favours a treaty to eventually shut down the flow of fissile materials which are used in building nuclear weapons. Critics say that is a half measure which has lain dormant for years and would take far too long to reactivate.
Dion has also described the UN motion which Canada has voted against as being merely “symbolic.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists would beg to differ. It has set its Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight. The group says that unless the nuclear arms race is reversed, an accidental nuclear holocaust is virtually inevitable. There are about 15,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear states, all of them much more powerful than the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those states are modernizing their arsenals and delivery systems. Japan and South Korea, which do not possess such weapons, are now hinting that they might acquire them. Terrorist organizations, including ISIL, are eagerly seeking nuclear capability as well. Even short of catastrophe, however, trillions of dollars are diverted into building and maintaining nuclear weaponry and testing those weapons has already caused environmental devastation.
It is not too late for Canada to change its position. Another resolution on a total nuclear weapons ban will come before the UN General Assembly for another vote later in December. Many Canadians, including more than 900 recipients of the Order of Canada, are calling for Canada to support negotiations toward a nuclear weapons convention. So far, they do not appear to have the ear of the prime minister.