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  • November 2nd, 2016

We call on Canada to step up on nuclear disarmament

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The following article by RI President and former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, Peggy Mason, appeared in the influential Hill Times Wednesday, 2 Nov 2016. It elaborates on her earlier Statement released immediately after UN First Committee vote.

Canada Says No to Historic UN Vote on Nuclear Disarmament

The negotiation to be launched by this resolution is the best hope the international community has to move away from the nuclear brink,” writes Peggy Mason

On October 27, the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security of the UN General Assembly passed a historic resolution, mandating the launch in 2017 of negotiations for a legally binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons. Such a ban could reinforce customary international law against the threat or use of nuclear weapons and enable further negotiations on their verifiable destruction and ultimate elimination.

Tensions between Russia and the USA are dangerously high. All nine nuclear-weapons-possessing states (USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea) are modernizing their arsenals, with the 1 trillion dollar American program dwarfing all the rest. Russia is second with a planned $70 billion expenditure. The negotiation to be launched by this resolution is the best hope the international community has to move away from the nuclear brink. It is the culmination of years of work and reflects the determination of the vast majority of UN member states to not allow the nuclear weapons states to paralyze disarmament efforts indefinitely.

Canada’s vote against this resolution puts this country, quite simply, on the wrong side of history. It was one of only a handful of countries to vote NO, in concert with the USA, Russia, the UK and France. Of the other nuclear weapons states (NWS), North Korea voted for the resolution while China, India and Pakistan abstained. In voting against, Canada joined most other NATO member states, despite our legal obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Article VI to enter into good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.

This is the exact opposite of what Canada should be doing. We should be working as hard as we can to reduce NATO’s dangerous and unnecessary reliance on nuclear weapons, not using that reliance to oppose nuclear disarmament negotiations at the UN. One NATO member, the Netherlands, withstood pressure and abstained rather than voting against, bolstered by overwhelming support for the resolution in the Dutch Parliament. This stance is all the more remarkable given the Netherlands’ role as one of five NATO countries where American so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons are based.

So what is going on here? What possible rationale could the Trudeau government have for this regrettable step? It flies in the face of a long tradition of both Liberal and Progressive Conservative leadership at the UN on nuclear disarmament at the very time when it is most urgently needed.

Canadian diplomats argue that major nuclear weapons states will likely boycott the negotiation, rendering its outcome symbolic at best, or perhaps even creating confusion in international law. Canada prefers a “step-by-step” approach, which includes the nuclear weapons states from the outset and therefore offers the best prospect of concrete progress.

The problem, however, as former Ambassador Paul Meyer wrote in these pages the day after the UN vote, is that these “steps” – including the entry into force of the nuclear test ban treaty and the start of negotiations to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons – have not advanced in years. Canada’s strategy amounts to inching slowly forward toward the ever-receding nuclear disarmament horizon while on a conveyor belt hurtling backwards toward ever more lethal nuclear weapons upgrades.

A preference for pragmatic steps does not justify Canada’s voting against such a landmark resolution rather than abstaining. Abstention is the traditional expression of support for the objective – nuclear disarmament – but not the methodology.

We are also told that Canada made a “tactical” decision to vote against the ban treaty resolution so as to secure more support, particularly from the NWS, for the establishment of a high-level group to prepare for a negotiation to ban fissile material essential for nuclear weapons.

But the “FISSBAN” resolution represents a very modest advance over a similar resolution passed in 2015 and its passage could just as easily be due to the pressure generated by the nuclear ban treaty resolution.

Of course there is no doubt that Canada is in a delicate position, trying to balance its NPT obligations with its membership in a military alliance that still purports to rely on nuclear weapons as the supreme guarantor of its security. But this has been so since the NPT entered into force in 1970. It did not stop Canada during the Cold War years from voting differently from the USA on disarmament issues in the UN First committee 52 per cent of the time. It did not stop Canada from leading on a UN nuclear test ban resolution, vociferously opposed by the United States for many years. Most importantly, it did not stop Canada from resisting any suggestion that NATO consensus would dictate our voting at the UN.

Canada also argues that a negotiation to outlaw nuclear weapons will be futile so long as relations continue to deteriorate between Russia and the West.

Non-nuclear weapons states like Canada, sincerely dedicated to nuclear disarmament, should instead be arguing that the heightened tensions between the USA and Russia require that nuclear disarmament efforts be redoubled.

Canada has another opportunity to put this right when the General Assembly votes on this resolution in early December. The Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW) and many other NGOs are calling on the Government of Canada to support the resolution or, at a minimum, to abstain on the vote. We can also do what Japan has done and signal our intent to contribute constructively to the negotiation, once launched.

These actions would be worthy of a country seeking election to the UN Security Council in 2021.

Peggy Mason is the President of the Rideau Institute and a former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament

Click here for an exact record of the vote. Y for Yes, N for No and A for Abstention.

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