Canada back-pedals on nuclear weapons ban

The UN has adopted a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Canada claims to support the elimination of nuclear weapons but opposed the treaty.
Nuclear test in Nevada in 1953. Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration/Wikimedia

It is fitting near year’s end, although worrisome, to learn that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its Doomsday Clock to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight, closer to potential nuclear calamity than at any time since the 1980s. They point, for example, to North Korea’s continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as bellicose counter threats being made by the US government. They point as well to the escalation of tensions between the US and Russia. “Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink,” the atomic scientists say. “If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

Peace prize for ICAN

One group of citizens has stepped forward and for their efforts they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017, which was presented in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10th.  The International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of civil society organizations from more than 100 countries. ICAN’s fifteen Canadian partners include the Anglican Church of Canada, Physicians for Global Survival, the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Quakers. Since its founding in 2007, the group has worked to convince United Nations member states to create a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

ICAN says the effort was urgent because there had been two decades of “paralysis” in multilateral efforts toward nuclear disarmament. There are an estimated 15,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of states that possess them. All of those countries continue to modernize their  weapons and intend to keep, rather than eliminate, them.

Prohibition treaty adopted

Despite this opposition, the civil society campaign was successful at the UN and in July 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by 122 member nations. The treaty would prohibit nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. A nation that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan. Similarly, a nation that hosts another nation’s nuclear weapons on its territory may join, so long as it agrees to remove them by a specified deadline. Once the treaty has been ratified by 50 states, the ban on nuclear weapons would enter into force and become binding under international law for all the countries that are party to the treaty.

Nuclear states oppose

However, the so-called “big five” states on the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and Great Britain – have shown no interest in co-operating or in adopting such a treaty. They all possess nuclear weapons and want to keep them and they want to control the agenda. The US, for example, placed pressure on its NATO allies to boycott the UN’s entire treaty-making enterprise. Unfortunately, the Canadian government allowed itself to be bullied. In 2016, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion claimed that a ban on nuclear weapons without the support of nuclear weapons states was a foolish and utopian dream.

But ICAN and other campaigners, including the Canadian civil society partners, point to earlier initiatives whose success appeared unlikely but which were ultimately accepted even by the big powers. These include treaties to ban biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), landmines (1997), and cluster bombs (2008).

Canada back-pedals

The Canadian government continues to claim that it supports the abolition of nuclear weapons, but that is belied by its opposing the UN’s historic treaty in July. Canada continues to insist, along with its nuclear-armed allies, on an incrementalist approach to abolition that has failed for nearly 50 years. Our government also ignores a House of Commons resolution, passed unanimously in 2010, calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament. The Trudeau administration claims to “be back” at the UN but is back-pedalling on the pressing nuclear question as the clock threatens to tick down to midnight.

A somewhat briefer version of this piece was published on the website of the  United Church Observer on December 8, 2017.