Canada and a nuclear weapons ban

From March 1st to March 5th the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry hosted back-to-back conferences in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. As Project Ploughshares program officer Cesar Jaramillo reports, the disastrous consequences of the use of nuclear weapons discussed at the conferences underline the need for a global ban on these weapons (Cesar Jaramillo, “Oslo, Ottawa and the need for a nuke free world,” Embassy News, 13 March 2013):

Grim first-hand testimonies alternated with disturbing scientific findings. The message was clear: effects of the use of nuclear weapons on the environment, the global economy, and life on the planet would be catastrophic; effective emergency relief, impossible.

Underlying the visceral reaction to the presentations was frustration with the anomalies, contradictions, and fundamental injustices underpinning the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime that delay progress to disarmament. Among them:

  • the mistaken notion that the primary risk of nuclear weapons is their potential proliferation—not their existence;
  • the imbalance between disarmament and non-proliferation obligations, with the former framed as a mere aspiration and the latter a hard obligation;
  • the rationale by which nuclear-weapons states claim nuclear arsenals as vital for their national security, but express outrage when others pursue nuclear weapons;
  • a discriminatory approach that imposes sanctions against some states suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, while ignoring the undisputed, illegal possession of nuclear arsenals by others.

Especially problematic is the determination of several nuclear-weapons states to retain a nuclear arsenal as long as such weapons exist. This strategic, political, and logical straitjacket all but ensures that a world without nuclear weapons will never be achieved. The alternative necessarily has to be a concerted effort to negotiate a global legal ban on nuclear weapons.

Many states are already in favour of starting negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban the weapons entirely. But the nuclear-weapons states and many of their allies–including Canada–insist on a “step-by-step” approach (ending nuclear testing, stopping the production of fissile material, etc.) that could eventually add up to an overall ban sometime in the distant future. This approach frees countries like Canada from having to make unwelcome comments about the nuclear-weapons states’ plans to retain the weapons indefinitely, but it hasn’t done much to bring the actual elimination of nuclear weapons closer.

Jaramillo calls for a new Canadian approach to nuclear disarmament.

The Canadian government should move past the step-by-step approach that its delegation in Oslo reiterated, and embrace the opportunity to make a significant contribution to international peace and security by leading the call for a global legal ban on nuclear weapons.

The double standards sustaining the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime will not and cannot hold indefinitely. Citizens aware of the dire consequences of nuclear weapons will pressure governments to move toward complete nuclear disarmament.

Mexico has already announced that it will host a follow-up to the Oslo conference. In an eventual process to negotiate a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons, Canada should be a key player and not merely a spectator.

More information and summaries of the Oslo conferences are available online through Reaching Critical Will.

Photo credit: ICAN

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