Will Canada Follow Where ICAN Leads?

As was noted in Fast and Curious on October 6, the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recognized for its “work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

ICAN logo.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), known popularly as the Nuclear Ban Treaty, was adopted by 122 states – two thirds of UN membership – on July 7 this year, and opened for signature on September 20, instantly attracting 53 signatures and 3 ratifications (including The Holy See), with many more nations preparing to join soon. Seventy-two years into the nuclear age, and decades after biological and chemical weapons were outlawed, the Ban demanded by the very first UN General Assembly resolution (January 1946) is finally in place, offering a means to end what UN Secretary-General António Guterres, congratulating ICAN on October 6, called simply, the “nuclear nightmare.”

The question now, as ICAN campaigners eloquently argue, is not wherewithal but will.


On October 26, ICAN, a fast-growing coalition of 468 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in 101 countries, announced that two of its leading lights would accept the Prize in Oslo on December 10: 35-year-old executive director Beatrice Fihn from Sweden, and 85-year old Canadian citizen Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Fihn’s country played a prominent role in Ban Treaty negotiations; Thurlow’s adopted homeland (since 1955) boycotted the process, largely under US pressure, and has denounced its outcome. On June 6 this year, when Thurlow visited Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined an invitation to meet her. The next day, he described the Ban initiative as “sort of useless.” On  October 12, Canadian Ambassador to the UN Rosemary McCarney claimed the Treaty has, “to speak plainly…contributed to a further divide in the international community.” A divide, presumably, between a minority of states ascribing legitimacy to weapons capable of killing millions of people in minutes, and a majority that don’t.

In an ICAN press release on October 26, Thurlow ‘spoke plainly’ about why she was “dismayed and heartbroken” at Trudeau’s “callous language” with regard to “the most horrific weapons humankind has ever known.” At a press conference at the Canadian Council of Churches in Toronto the next day, she graphically recalled being pulled from the rubble of a Hiroshima classroom, stumbling from burning, screaming girls towards “people with flesh hanging from their bones, or part of their bodies missing, people carrying their own eyeballs or with their intestines hanging out.” How, Thurlow asked a Globe and Mail reporter, would Trudeau “feel to watch his own children just incinerated, melted, carbonized? That’s what happened in front of me, and I watched the city full of those people who simply melted.”


ICAN, however, is appealing to minds as well as hearts. Though he issued no statement after the Peace Prize was announced, under media questioning on October 27 Trudeau described Thurlow as an “extraordinary individual” whose “story and continued fight for a nuclear-free world remains something that this government and Canada is always supportive of.”

Setsuko Thurlow. (Photo via ICAN http://www.icanw.org/hear-the-stories/setsuko-thurlow/)

Setsuko Thurlow. (Photo via ICAN)

In principle, yes, but in practice? As Ray Acheson, the young Canadian woman leading the Reaching Critical Will program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), argued on October 26, the present Trudeau administration, in contrast to those led by the prime minister’s father, “has not held up Canada’s historical and moral support for humanitarian disarmament.” Why not? Partly, perhaps, because it has chosen, in the context of NAFTA renegotiation, to prioritize profits over peace, but mainly, as Acheson suggests, because “Canada continues to embrace NATO’s overt nuclear deterrence policy as a valid security doctrine, effectively legitimizing the weapons held by its nuclear-armed allies.”

The government’s rebuttal is twofold: that the Ban undermines the ‘cornerstone’ nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and that Canada is pursuing a more realistic and productive approach, chairing a UN High-Level Expert Preparatory Group “developing,” in Ambassador McCarney’s words (October 12) “elements for eventual negotiation” of a treaty banning the production of fissile materials (uranium and plutonium) for military purposes.

The 47-year-old NPT, however, itself calls for “good faith” negotiations on reductions leading (“at an early date”) not just to an end to the nuclear arms race but nuclear weapons themselves. It is true the Treaty allows five states – not by coincidence, the Permanent-Five (P-5) members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, US) – to retain nuclear weapons, but only on condition they work hard to get rid of them. Three states chose to stay outside the NPT and build the Bomb – Israel in the late 1960s, India and Pakistan in 1998. North Korea left the Treaty after the 2003 ‘regime change’ War in Iraq and is now the ninth member of the ‘nuclear club,’ generating pressures for proliferation in Japan and South Korea, with comparable incentives in the Middle East. The NPT, in sum, is a ‘cornerstone’ upon which very little has been built, except a two-tier status quo South Africa – which under Nelson Mandela dismantled its secret weapons program – feelingly describes as ‘nuclear apartheid.’

As for Canada’s undoubted leadership on the fissile material file, while the High-Level Expert initiative is supported by pro-Ban states, it is also seen as extremely modest. Since the mid-1990s, prospects for a treaty have foundered over disagreement, not least between India and Pakistan, over whether it should just ‘cut-off’ future production (enshrining India’s advantage over its neighbor), or also eliminate stocks (thus eliminating that advantage). Almost certainly, the Preparatory Group will recommend that the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, operating by consensus and unproductive for decades, open negotiations without prejudice into the scope of any eventual prohibition; a proposal Pakistan has already said it will reject. Were the recommendation be to adopt UN General Assembly rules of procedure, requiring only majority support, a breakthrough might be possible. But not only would such a move exceed the group’s mandate, it would validate the logic of the Ban Treaty talks, which rejected consensus from the start. As did successful negotiations to ban biological weapons, chemical weapons, landmines, cluster bombs…

In an alarming indication of ministerial muddle-headedness on the issue, on September 20 Transport Minister Marc Garneau, speaking for the Government during Question Period, told then NDP-leader Thomas Mulcair that in 2016 “Canada rallied 159 countries to sign the fissile material cut-off treaty, and countries signed that treaty, whether they had nuclear weapons or not.” These were, in fact, the countries that voted to support talks on what talks on a treaty might look like.


Prime Minister Jean Chrétien hands signed landmine treaty to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a ceremony in Ottawa with Nobel Prize laureate Jody Williams, left, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, centre, and International Committee of the Red Cross President Cornelio Sommaruga. (CP Photo / Tom Hanson)

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien hands signed landmine treaty to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a ceremony in Ottawa with Nobel Prize laureate Jody Williams, left, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, centre, and International Committee of the Red Cross President Cornelio Sommaruga. (CP Photo / Tom Hanson)

Twenty years ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), upon which ICAN is explicitly modeled, and its inspirational leader Jody Williams, a young American activist (now an outspoken ICAN supporter) who acknowledged in her acceptance speech  the pivotal role of Canada in successfully concluding the 1997 Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention known as the ‘Ottawa Convention,’ the culmination of the ‘Ottawa Process’ sparked by Liberal Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy.

At a meeting of states and NGOS in the Canadian capital in October 1996, Williams recounted, the ‘Axworthy Challenge’ was issued: for delegates “to return to Canada in a year to sign an international treaty.” Though “the silence of governments in the room was deafening,” with many delegates “horrified” Canada “had stepped outside” time-honored “diplomatic process and procedure,” the gambit worked: negotiations soon opened, and were “historic for a number of reasons” — “smaller and middle-sized powers had come together, to work in close cooperation” with civil society; those powers “had not yielded to intense pressure from a superpower [America] to weaken the treaty”; and the talks “ended with a treaty stronger” than the original draft, not least because they “had not been held hostage to rule by consensus, which would have inevitably resulted in a gutted” text, instead of one “remarkably free” – just as, happily, the Nuclear Ban Treaty is – “of loopholes and exceptions.”

The Trudeau Liberals have been noticeably muted in marking the anniversary of the Ottawa Convention, one of Canada’s signature post-war contributions to international peace and security.

I wonder why?


Featured image: Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN, with the signed UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 7 July 2017 (Photo by Clare Conboy via Nobelprize.org)



Sean Howard



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