Why is Canada Against Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons?
Published: Friday, 03/04/2016 12:00 am EST
Last Updated: Friday, 03/04/2016 3:46 pm EST
In the dim days of the Cold War, Canada aided United States preparations for nuclear war, hosting nuclear-tipped missiles on its soil, ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
Though this practice ended in 1984, Canadian policy on nuclear disarmament has remained deeply conflicted. Instead of championing global efforts to outlaw these ultimate weapons of mass destruction, the Trudeau government is applying the brakes.
On March 2, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion addressed diplomats at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva—a moribund, unrepresentative forum that has failed to produce a single accord in almost two decades. Despite its shameful record, Dion warned nations that “premature action” towards a nuclear weapon ban “risks undermining international stability by creating a false sense of security.”
Echoing the position of the Harper government, he dismissed the idea of a global prohibition on nuclear weapons as an “appealing gesture” of “highly questionable” practical impact. The current security environment, he said, is not conducive to progress on nuclear disarmament. But today’s heightened tensions among nuclear-armed nations make banning nuclear weapons all the more urgent.
As a party to the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Canada is legally bound to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament—an obligation that applies without condition, no matter the security environment. Governments cannot simply assert that the time is not ripe for action. We might expect the nuclear-armed nations to make such a claim, and often they do. But Canada should not.
Dion’s objection to a ban on nuclear weapons, in truth, has nothing to do with the supposed ineffectiveness of such an instrument. On the contrary, the Canadian government fears that it would be a powerful tool with which campaigners, parliamentarians, the media and the public at large could pressure it to reject nuclear weapons.
Canada still clings to the misguided belief that US nuclear forces afford it protection. In the government’s view, it would be acceptable under certain circumstances for these inhumane weapons to be used.
Nuclear weapons are indiscriminate weapons; they cannot distinguish between a building and an infant. Their purpose is to level cities and wipe out entire communities. Canadians have to ask themselves under what circumstances they would be comfortable with another country killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, poisoning unborn generations and causing catastrophic damage to the environment in their name.
Unless Canada is prepared to adopt a principled stand on nuclear weapons—weapons whose effects are catastrophic and inhumane beyond question and comparison—it is likely only to hamper progress toward a nuclear-weapon-free world. Such a role one might have expected from the former Conservative government. But this new government should pursue a more enlightened approach.
In the past, Canada has been a leader on disarmament, and it can become a leader again. Canadian inventiveness and determination in the 1990s were instrumental to the successful conclusion of a global agreement proscribing anti-personnel landmines—pernicious devices that had killed and maimed thousands of civilians for decades. This landmark agreement became known as the Ottawa treaty.
The Canadian government of the day refused to accept the enormous institutional barriers to progress. Motived by humanitarian ideals, it convened a meeting of like-minded nations in 1996 to address the scourge of landmines. The following year, 122 nations adopted the ban—leading to a staggering decline in landmine stockpiles and deaths worldwide. It is a success story of which all Canadians should be proud.
But Dion this week criticized “ad hoc” processes of the kind that produced this historic outcome. He encouraged nations to work through established channels to achieve their goals. In the case of landmines, those channels had long been blocked by nations that considered landmines essential for their security. They declared a total ban impractical and premature. But Canada persevered, and proved them wrong.
Landmines are not the only inhumane weapons to have been banned. Chemical weapons, biological weapons and, most recently, cluster munitions have also been declared illegal—because of their unacceptable humanitarian impact.
But the most devastating and inhumane weapon of them all, nuclear weapons, is the only weapon of mass destruction not yet prohibited in a comprehensive manner. But that might soon change, with 126 nations having pledged to fill this unacceptable “legal gap” and have started detailed discussions about this instrument at a UN working group in Geneva, Switzerland.
Canada should join the humanitarian pledge and work to ban nuclear weapons.
Beatrice Fihn is executive director of the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.