By Tim Kitz, with files from Yasmine Ghania
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was passed by the UN General Assembly on July 7, 2017. Canada did not bother to vote.
The treaty is a legally binding agreement with the eventual goal of completely eliminating nuclear weapons. In order to come into effect, 50 countries need to sign and approve it. Though 122 nations (every African, Latin American and Caribbean nation – as well as many Asian and some European nations) have supported the treaty, no nuclear-armed nation or member of NATO has joined them.
Despite the rejection of the treaty by these countries, activists like Ray Acheson of the disarmament advocacy group Reaching Critical Will hope it will stigmatize nuclear weapons.
Canada’s history with nuclear weapons is mixed. By providing uranium and plutonium to the Manhattan Project, Canada directly contributed to the development of nuclear weapons. But by 1965, Canada decided to stop exporting uranium for weapons and use all nuclear materials for peaceful purposes. “Canada was the first country with significant nuclear capability to reject nuclear weapons,” as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission proudly proclaims on its website.
In 1970, Canada — along with 189 other nations, including the U.S. and most of the nuclear powers — signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT commits all signatories to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”
NATO’s refusal of the current Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons seems to renege on this commitment. In this Canada and the rest of NATO seem to be following the lead of the U.S. Before the vote to hold negotiations was held, the U.S. issued a letter to its NATO allies saying “we feel efforts to negotiate an immediate ban on nuclear weapons or to delegitimize nuclear deterrence are fundamentally at odds with NATO’s basic policies on deterrence and our shared security interests.”
The Canadian government cites its attempts to prevent the sale of components for nuclear weapons — through a stalled treaty process from 1993 — as proof it is working for nuclear security. Meanwhile it dismisses the treaty banning nuclear weapons. Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Austin Jean told the Globe and Mail, “The negotiation of a nuclear-weapon ban without the participation of states that possess nuclear weapons is certain to be ineffective and will not eliminate any nuclear weapons. If anything, it may make disarmament more difficult.”
This kind of logic has been called “utterly outrageous” by one former Canadian ambassador for disarmament, Peggy Mason, and “pathetic” by Paul Meyer, another former ambassador for disarmament.
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 1 (Sept/Oct 2017).