The growing uncertainty over the status of Pakistan‘s nuclear arsenal is another reminder that these weapons continue to threaten the world, and suggests why Canada should be pushing for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, worldwide.There has never been a more important time for Canada‘s voice to be heard in support of nuclear disarmament, but if recent votes at the United Nations last month are any indication, Canada is slowly shifting toward embracing nuclear weapons.
Traditionally, Canada has been a champion of nuclear disarmament. But last month, our position was put to the test on a key UN vote to diminish the risk of nuclear war, and Canada sat silent.
Our ambassador, on instructions from Ottawa, abstained on an important UN resolution “calling on Nuclear Weapons States to lower the operating status of nuclear weapons.” This was the first time such a motion had made it to a vote.
The intent of the motion, championed by retired Canadian senator Douglas Roche and his organization, the Middle Powers Initiative, was to lengthen the time required for a nuclear launch, reducing the risk of an accidental or premature launch.
But the Harper government doesn’t see it that way. In explaining Canada‘s silent abstention, our ambassador said that while “reducing operational readiness remained important … at the same time, deterrence remained an important element of international security and a fundamental part of the deterrence policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).”
In other words, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided that NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy reigns supreme.
At the urging of anti-nuclear organizations such as the Canadian Pugwash Group, last spring then-foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay reported to Parliament that he had raised concerns about NATO’s reliance upon nuclear weapons at a meeting of the alliance.
Then the government shifted tactics, and a few weeks later then-defence minister Gordon O’Connor told Parliament: “We are a member of NATO and we stand by NATO’s policies. NATO, at this stage, has no policy of disarming from nuclear weapons.”
Not surprisingly, the old policy supporting “the complete elimination of nuclear weapons” was changed on the foreign affairs department website to say that Canada‘s policy is “consistent with our membership in NATO.”
But the reason for this shift may have less to do with NATO itself than with acquiescence to the United States‘ interests in keeping the door open to a renewal of nuclear weapons testing.
Equally worrisome this year was Canada‘s reticence to put its name behind a motion to prevent nuclear weapons testing. Last year, Canada co-sponsored a resolution calling for a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
In October, Canada failed to co-sponsor the resolution that stressed “the vital importance and urgency of signature and ratification, without delay and without conditions, to achieve the earliest entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.”
Thankfully, the resolution passed, 166 in favour to only one opposed (United States) with four abstentions (Colombia, India, Mauritius, Syria).
Ultimately, Canada voted in favour, but could Canada‘s decision not to co-sponsor the resolution, as it had done in the past, be related to the U.S. plan to develop new nuclear weapons?
This is a troublesome shift in Canada‘s policy on nuclear disarmament. One can trace its beginnings to 2005 when the Liberals, trying to curry favour in Washington, started getting cold feet on nuclear disarmament.
In her book Holding the Bully’s Coat, Linda McQuaig notes positively that, by 2005, Canadian leadership over several years had led to 13 other countries breaking ranks with their NATO allies and voting with Canada in support of a resolution aimed at ending the deadlock that is paralyzing the UN’s Conference on Disarmament.
Consistent with its leadership, Canada announced its intention to support another important nuclear disarmament resolution at the UN First Committee, the body responsible for disarmament. Canada‘s support of the creative and inspired initiative was intended to try to break the impasse on disarmament talks by proposing new, ad hoc committees that would bypass the deadlock.
But with hours to go, Canada pulled the plug on supporting the UN resolution, and as a result other countries followed suit. The reason: Paul Martin’s government succumbed to intense pressure from the White House. McQuaig notes, “tragically, the moment had been lost.”
While Martin’s failing may have been an aberration, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives may be making a more permanent policy shift.
Parliamentarians and Canadians need to raise the alarm about this shift. It is inconceivable that, at a time of renewed threats from nuclear weapons, Canada would be shifting away from an active role in advancing nuclear disarmament.
It is up to those who feel strongly that such a move is disastrous for global security to hold all parliamentarians accountable for allowing this to take place. It’s not too late to stop this shift in its tracks.
Anthony Salloum is program director at the Rideau Institute, a public policy and advocacy group based in Ottawa.