To Ban or Not to Ban: A Canadian Dilemma

On May 22, Ambassador Elayne White of Costa Rica, president of a UN disarmament panel, released a ‘Draft Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.’

The draft treaty, while certain to be subject to scrutiny and revision, faithfully reflects the determination of the 130 states attending the panel’s March session to establish a clear and comprehensive nuclear weapon ban.

Amb. Elayne Whyte Gómez, permanent representative of Costa Rica to the UN Office. (UN Photo)

Specifically, states would undertake to “never under any circumstances … develop, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices…use nuclear weapons…[or] carry out any nuclear weapon test.”

While affirming the “crucial importance” of the 47-year old nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a means of “realizing the objective of nuclear disarmament,” the proposed ban pits supporting countries against the United States and other nuclear powers which prefer a new and improved version of the NPT to an outright ban.

The timing of the announcement is also interesting, coming on the heels of a May 2-12 meeting at the UN in Vienna that saw delegations from 111 states gathered to begin preparations for the 2020 Review Conference and 50th birthday of the NPT.

Had the draft ban been released during this “PrepCom” (as it’s known in diplo-speak), it would have aggravated and distressed a small minority of delegations as much as it would have delighted and excited the large majority. What, then, is causing what amounts to a fissioning of global nuclear diplomacy?


Legal Gap

The nuclear ban process, mandated by a UN General Assembly resolution last December, is primarily – as the draft text acknowledges – the achievement and outcome of the ‘The Humanitarian Initiative,’ strongly influenced by international civil society, which in 2013-2014, at three increasingly well-attended conferences, identified an overriding priority: a treaty filling the “legal gap” permitting the continued existence of the world’s most devastating weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD), while the two lesser categories, chemical and biological, are outlawed.

Shortly after the last of the three conferences, also held in Vienna and attended by 158 states, the Initiative was distilled into a powerful ‘Humanitarian Pledge,’ released and signed initially by Austria but soon endorsed by over 100 (and now 127) states. Precisely because “the scope of consequences of a nuclear weapon explosion and risks associated raise profound moral and ethical questions that go beyond the debates about the legality of nuclear weapons,” the Pledge argues, closing the aforementioned “legal gap” would play a crucial role in “efforts to stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate nuclear weapons.”

United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination 27-31 March 2017. (UN Photo)

The NPT, while praised by the Pledge, only partially stigmatizes the Bomb, according five states, the Permanent-5 Members of the UN Security Council, the dubious ‘status’ of ‘nuclear-weapon states,’ though only on condition they negotiate “in good faith” the progressive reduction and eventual elimination of their arsenals. By nature and design a transitional arrangement, the NPT can encourage efforts to promote, but can never by itself achieve, prohibition and elimination.

The Treaty’s original negotiators and signatories were aware of the limits of their achievement. To prevent the ‘transitional arrangement’ becoming a permanent, two-tier status quo, the P-5 were given 25 years to bring their “good faith” talks to a successful conclusion, allowing the Treaty’s conversion to a convention codifying a nuclear-weapon-free world. In 1995, with the Cold War freshly ended, the Treaty was indefinitely extended amid P-5 promises of accelerated and concerted progress. The following year, a unanimous Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague reaffirmed the “good faith” clause as unequivocally committing the P-5 not just to reductions but a far grander goal: Global Zero.

Yet a quarter of a century after the Treaty’s extension, and nearly half a century since its entry into force, a very ungrand total of zero days have been spent by the P-5 in “good faith” talks. Worse, all five are spending a fortune ‘modernizing’ their arsenals, often introducing new weapons with new capabilities, backed by taboo-loosening doctrines potentially lowering the threshold for nuclear use (either ‘limited’ or pre-emptive). The three nuclear-weapon states outside the Treaty – India, Israel and Pakistan – are doing the same, while NPT-renegade North Korea is flaunting its membership of the ‘nuclear club’ with serial warhead and missile testing.


Canada’s dilemma

Such a dire and deteriorating situation should, surely, harrow the soul of any sane, self-respecting non-nuclear-weapon state. And such sanity indeed abounds in much of the world: all of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, together with large swathes of Asia and the Pacific, and non-aligned pockets of Europe, support the ban talks not out of disloyalty to the NPT but fidelity to its spirit and core aspirations. Opposition to a ban is limited to the ‘nuclear nine’, all but one member (the Netherlands) of NATO, and America’s Asia-Pacific ‘umbrella’ allies (Japan, South Korea and Australia). Canada, long a champion of both the NPT and NATO, thus finds itself in a small minority of states conspicuously absent from a UN-sanctioned, multilateral process – a stance hardly calculated to win back hearts and minds lost during the UN-bashing Harper era.

Press Encounter by the US permanent representative to the UN, Ms. Nikki Haley along with IK PR Roycroft and DPR of France speak to media on the Nuclear Question prior to the GS opening session on nuclear disarmament (UN Photo)

Both horns of the Canadian dilemma were on display in the ‘National Report’ submitted to the PrepCom. “Canada’s international security policy,” the report opens, “continues to promote a step-by-step process toward the non-proliferation, reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons” – so far, so good – “consistent with its NATO obligations and in a manner that promotes strategic stability for all.” But can that circle be squared?

As defined in its most recent Summit Declaration (Warsaw, July 2016), NATO regards nuclear weapons as “an appropriate” component – for itself, not others – of a “mix” of capabilities. They are so “appropriate,” in fact, that NATO stations them in five ‘non-nuclear’ states (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey), operates a Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) to review war-fighting plans, and refuses to rule out ‘going nuclear’ first in a war or crisis. In addition, according to the Declaration, the weapons are indispensable politically, strengthening “Alliance cohesion,” suggesting that the hallowed NATO formula, “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance,” can be roughly translated as “since we need them to exist, they damn well better.” Such a doubly sanctified view of nukes – as both strategically sensible and a kind of magic transatlantic glue – cannot, of course, be rationally regarded as consistent with the NPT obligations, or seen as enhancing ‘strategic stability for all.’



To its credit, Canada was one of only seven states (together with Austria, Australia, Iran, Japan and New Zealand) filing a National Report, honouring a promise made by all NPT members in the Final Document of the 2010 Review Conference. And Canada did have some positive news to report, including a prominent role in convening a Group of Governmental Experts to explore the scope of a possible Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) – banning the military production of uranium and plutonium – and holding expert consultations with civil society groups on ways to bolster international verification capabilities and promote peace and disarmament education. For many years, Canada has been able to argue that such ‘steps’ are leading in the right direction, creating conditions of sufficient security and (verifiable) trust to permit the nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent nations to safely disarm.

Participants at UN Conference on Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, March 2017 (UN Photo)

Participants at UN Conference on Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, March 2017 (UN Photo)

In the context, however, of what Sweden called at the PrepCom “an apparent renaissance for nuclear weapons,” entailing a real and rising “risk that nuclear weapons might actually be used, intentionally or not, with attendant catastrophic humanitarian consequences,” such steps appear increasingly timid, incommensurate to the challenge, or even hypocritical excuses to defer real progress. “Can we agree,” the Netherlands wondered in the midst of heated and fractious debate, “that we have to find ways to incorporate the important concept of the consequences of nuclear weapon use with security and stability considerations as the underlying basis for further disarmament?”

This is indeed the key question. And this time, the old answers won’t do.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.





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