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In a historic move at the United Nations last week, a large majority of the world’s nations voted to adopt a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons. Affirming that any use of nuclear weapons would be abhorrent, 122 countries voted for the treaty.
But none of the countries that actually possess nuclear weapons agreed to participate.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the final product of three international conferences hosted by the Austria, Norway and Mexico since 2013. Participants wanted to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons and the grave implications they pose for human survival, transcending national borders.
The first conference attracted 127 states — but not Canada — and more states attended each followup conference. They drew worldwide attention to the horrors that await humanity in the event of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons, including the consequences of a limited nuclear war between the United States and North Korea, or against Israel or Iran.
High-level diplomats decided to write a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Impelled by the urgency of achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world, and in the interest of serving collective security, the 10-page treaty is a result of the fear of “nuclear have-nots” have of “nuclear haves.”
It is the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty in more than 20 years.
Early on, the United States decided not to participate, and nearly all its allies followed suit. Austria tried to cajole countries such as Canada to join the negotiations, but the Netherlands was the only NATO member to participate. In the end, it voted against it.
American and Russian diplomats argued such a treaty would be worthless, and that countries should continue the step-by-step approach toward disarmament under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But the NPT’s deep-seated problem is that it has made very poor progress over the nearly half-century of its existence in reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons. Despite the end of the Cold War, there are still 15,500 nuclear weapons around the world, of which 95 per cent are owned by the United States and Russia.
While the two superpowers continue to emphasize the merits of the NPT, the nuclear have-nots have become increasingly disenchanted, especially in the wake of the 2015 NPT Review Conference when the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom reneged on any chance of a final consensus document.
The countries that chose to negotiate last week’s treaty argued any agreement that helps further stigmatize nuclear weapons was worth pursuing.
At the same time, everybody is worried that countries pursuing nuclear weapons, such as North Korea and possibly Iran, could impel other countries to develop their own weapons of mass destruction, leading to arms races around the world.
By choosing to side with the U.S. hegemon on this issue, Canada is criticized by the other non-nuclear-weapon states for its non-participation. It is unusual for Canada not to seek a seat at the table. Moreover, last week’s voting record indicates Canada could have taken part and voted against the treaty, as the Netherlands did. As well, Singapore abstained and other nations chose not to show up to vote.
Not surprisingly, the United States and North Korea skipped voting on the treaty banning nuclear weapons. A few days earlier, Pyongyang tested an intercontinental ballistic missile rocket — a weapon designed to carry nuclear weapons. Neither the U.S nor North Korea are expected to sign a treaty in which signatories promise never to develop, test or produce nuclear weapons, nor to use or threaten to use them.
American officials and media pundits who worry about deterring North Korea are fastening on its threatening behaviour. So it does seem unrealistic that this treaty will help to get rid of nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, all this means we must work harder to persuade the United States and Russia to sit together at the UN’s bargaining table.
After all, the U.S. plans to spend a trillion dollars to modernize its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years. Russia has withdrawn from the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and remains angry about NATO expansion into its former allies in the Warsaw Pact. At NATO headquarters, the NATO-Russia bargaining forum is on indefinite hold. U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for his actions in seizing Crimea from Ukraine, and while NATO deploys more soldiers in Latvia and Poland, Russia has deployed tactical nukes in Kaliningrad, its nearby enclave. Canada has contributed 300 human trip-wire troops to Latvia’s defence.
It is a pity Canada, the only country that unilaterally rid itself its own nuclear arsenal during the Cold War, has not taken stronger action. The conviction among diplomats around the world — as evidenced by the treaty — is that the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear war, whether accidental or deliberate, means all states share responsibility to prevent their use.
Canadians can no longer side with Americans in outmoded thinking that declares nuclear weapons to be essential and core capabilities in the West’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Erika Simpson is an associate professor of international politics at Western University who has long advocated for a nuclear weapons ban. This is an excerpt from her speech at Dalhousie University to be delivered on July 24 to an international audience.
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