On Oct. 24, UN Day, the Central American state Honduras made history. It did so by being the 50th state to ratify the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, thereby triggering the treaty’s formal entry into force, which will occur 90 days hence, on Jan. 22, 2021. On that date, the treaty (aka “the ban treaty”), which was adopted by 122 states when negotiated in 2017, will become a legally binding accord on all of its parties.
Set alongside the existing 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been the key underpinning of the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, the ban treaty sets out a clear route to achieving the nuclear disarmament goal specified in the NPT’s Article VI.
The ban treaty complements the NPT by providing a comprehensive prohibition on nuclear weapons akin to that applied in the past to the other categories of weapons of mass destruction (namely chemical weapons and biological weapons). By so doing, proponents see the treaty as filling the legal gap that has allowed nuclear weapons to be treated differently than other weapons of mass destruction.
The ban treaty’s prohibitions extend to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, which would negate a policy of nuclear deterrence such as that maintained by NATO, which threatens the use of nuclear weapons under certain unspecified contingencies. And herein lies the rub. The nuclear-weapon-possessing states and their allies, including Canada, shelter under their “nuclear umbrella” (the extension of security commitments by nuclear weapon states). These states are committed to policies of nuclear deterrence, and as a result they have rejected the ban treaty from the beginning. They boycotted the negotiations that produced it and have sworn that they will never sign on to it.
Despite its self-identity as a good “multilateralist,” Canada did not participate in the UN General Assembly-mandated negotiation to produce a treaty. Once adopted, the Canadian government was quick to condemn it, stating that “the ban treaty has contributed to a further divide in the international community.” Fundamentally, the government has been unable to resolve the conflict between its support for nuclear disarmament (and the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, which by the way is also an explicit goal of NATO) and its reliance on an alliance that is still wedded to the policy of nuclear deterrence.
Canada has doggedly continued to espouse a “step-by-step” approach for nuclear disarmament despite the fact that in recent years those “steps” have either gone backwards or are treading in place. As a nuclear arms race is again accelerating alongside the dismantlement of existing arms control agreements, Ottawa is often a quiet bystander to these developments or a “me, too” participant in the diplomatic initiatives being led by concerned states like Sweden and Germany.
The United States, under the Trump Administration, has even engaged in a rather crude effort at diplomatic intimidation, telling states that have signed and ratified the ban treaty that they are guilty of a “strategic error” and should repudiate their signature of the accord.
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These scare tactics are unlikely to succeed, and with the formal entry into force of the ban treaty a new norm will emerge with respect to nuclear weapons, one that renders these weapons not only immoral but also illegal.
The supporters of the ban treaty (both states and civil society organizations) are in for the long game. They recognize that the treaty’s rejection by the nuclear armed states will mean that the blueprint for nuclear disarmament will not be realized in the short term. Still, the treaty’s stigmatization of nuclear weapons will gradually put pressure on the nuclear states to move away from their current pursuit of costly nuclear modernization, and towards national and multinational action to effect nuclear disarmament. We need only recall how the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines has still not been signed by powers such as China, Russia and the United States, but the behaviour of all these states with respect to these inhumane weapons has been positively influenced by the widely supported prohibition norm established by the Convention.
Some Canadian civil society organizations, such as the Canadian Pugwash Group, which I currently chair, have suggested a position for Canada to take on the ban treaty that would help put it on the right side of history and morality. The Canadian Pugwash Group is dedicated to pursuing nuclear disarmament via international cooperation. The winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, the global Pugwash movement was born in 1957 in the Nova Scotia village of Pugwash with an East-West meeting of nuclear scientists.
We recommend Canada express its support for the ban treaty and its core goal of nuclear disarmament, while working nationally to enable Canada to accede to the treaty as soon as possible. At the same time, Canada should persist in efforts to persuade NATO to bring its nuclear policies into conformity with the treaty. If NATO’s policy can’t be altered (its decisions are made on a consensus basis), then Canada has the option of disavowing support for nuclear deterrence, as has been done in the past by several member states that have dissented from various aspects of alliance nuclear policy. It is important to note that NATO’s nuclear policy is just that: a policy subject to change, and it doesn’t feature in the legal basis for NATO membership as set out in its 1949 founding treaty.
During remarks at an Oct. 27 Empire Club event, Canada’s UN Ambassador, Bob Rae, said that the entry into force of the ban treaty should “force us to debate the issue.” Citing the desire of all to get out from underneath “the nuclear sword of Damocles” hanging over humanity, he suggested that the government will sustain its disarmament efforts with a typically Canadian mix of “pragmatism and idealism.” Let’s hope that such a debate leads our government to adopt a policy regarding the ban treaty that is more in keeping with our history and values.