Let’s get nuclear weapons out of the Arctic

In a few weeks, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon will host a meeting of foreign ministers of the five Arctic Ocean coastal states in Chelsea, Quebec. There is no shortage of topics for discussion, but chief among them should be increased security co-operation.

This co-operation could include finally ending Cold War–era practices that treat the Arctic as a staging ground for nuclear war, especially from nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines patrolling beneath the Arctic Ocean.

Nuclear disarmament is coming back into vogue with renewed efforts from the Obama administration to lower US and Russian nuclear stockpiles. This momentum, combined with growing international co-operation in the Arctic, makes the creation of an Arctic Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone a growing possibility.

Two and a half years ago, the Canadian Pugwash Group issued a call for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the lands and waters north of the Arctic Circle.

The rationale for such a step was straightforward, and has not changed in the intervening years. As global warming opens the Arctic Ocean and its littoral to greater commercial opportunities for circumpolar navigation, deepsea mining and—perhaps most lucrative—drilling for gas and oil on the sea bed, conflicts will inevitably arise concerning territorial waters, the extent of each country’s exclusive economic zones, and the enforcement of international environmental regulations.

Unfortunately, three of the most important Arctic states have taken a largely militaristic approach in dealing with these conflicts. The United States, having never ratified the Law of the Sea Convention, has taken its usual exceptionalist position to Arctic disputes, especially in setting the boundaries of undersea drilling rights, and—to Canada’s irritation—in its insistence that the Northwest Passage is an international strait.

Canada, rather than attempting to initiate multilateral negotiations to establish an international regime to settle Arctic disputes, has taken a belligerent and militaristic posture, constructing a series of military bases, outposts and listening stations to enforce its Arctic territorial claim unilaterally.

And perhaps worst of all, the Russian Federation has made the enforcement of its Arctic claims part and parcel of its military resurgence in the world. One Canadian expert summed up the situation this way: “The Arctic has become a hotbed of territorial disputes as surrounding countries spar for the control of resources while competing claims over Arctic territory are escalating.”

The Canadian Pugwash Group feels that if this militaristic trend continues, there is a real possibility that it will get out of control and become increasingly difficult to stop. There are many steps that could be taken to prevent such runaway militarism, but a key first step is to negotiate a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Arctic, thus ridding the Arctic region of these most destructive of military devices.

The impact of such a step would be threefold. First, it would be an important and visible confidence-building measure that would signal to states inside and outside the region their collective intention to settle disputes without resort to military force. Globally, it would assist in the ongoing efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Finally, and of increasing importance as economic activity mushrooms in the Arctic region, it would send an important signal that high-level pollution (such as that produced by the deployment of nuclear weapons) will not be allowed to degrade the Arctic Basin.

Obviously, there are some critical obstacles to such a step. Two of the Arctic nations are nuclear weapons states, and show no willingness to abandon the right of transit for their ballistic missile–firing submarines. Russia, in fact, is expanding its “Northern Fleet” (based almost entirely above the Arctic Circle), and testing and deploying new ballistic missiles and submarines to carry them. And although most Arctic states are non-nuclear, most belong to NATO, whose “Strategic Concept” includes specific reliance on nuclear weapons.

These obstacles need not prevent a step-by-step creation of a nuclear-free Arctic. Already many of the small Arctic states are willing to sign a treaty forbidding nuclear weapons in their Arctic territories. While Canada is not among them, there is another way they could contribute.

Successive Canadian governments have made it clear that they regard the Northwest Passage as Canadian territorial waters, and— given the many navigational hazards and “choke points” facing both surface ships and submarines attempting transit— Canada is in a position to deny passage to ships carrying radioactive cargoes of any sort, for reasons of navigational safety and to protect the delicate Arctic environment. Canada could then announce its willingness to negotiate rules of passage specifying how dangerous cargoes could be carried so as to prevent accident or spillage.

The renowned international lawyer Jozef Goldblat proposes more generally that small- and medium-sized countries in the region, such as Canada, are uniquely situated to initiate a debate on this and similar environmental problems in the Arctic littoral. He advocates declaring the entire Arctic area “a common legacy of mankind,” and notes that “the interest in creating a new regime in the Arctic would increase if the denuclearization efforts were made in parallel, as well as in conjunction, with scientific investigations leading to climate change.”

Our Pugwash colleague Dr. Adele Buckley suggests that all Arctic states presently nonnuclear agree to work together on a regional treaty, as allowed for in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to “assure the total absence of nuclear weapons from their respective territories.” This would include Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

All of these ideas, melded together during several international conferences in the past few years, have resulted in the initiation of a campaign of NGOs. Led jointly by the Rideau Institute of Ottawa and the Canadian Pugwash Group, its specific goal is to persuade the governments in the circumpolar region to negotiate a pact to ban nuclear weapons from their territories, territorial waters and economic zones. This campaign is ready for launch, and some preliminary steps have been taken: Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden have already instituted prohibitions on the introduction of nuclear weapons in time of peace.

There is no reason why the medium powers around the Arctic littoral cannot begin to take actions singly and collectively without waiting for the larger nuclear weapons powers to take action. Our campaign represents a determination that the time for waiting is over, and the time for action begun.

This op-ed by Steven Staples and Michael Wallace was published in Embassy on March 17, 2010.

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