Pushing a stalled nuclear disarmament agenda

No statement or commentary about this NPT PrepCom, which runs through to May 11, begins without a reminder that the NPT is in serious trouble. And so it is.

And therein lies a disturbing irony. While the reasons behind the trouble are well-known – indeed, they can be summed up in a series of place names: Washington, Delhi, Tehran, London, Pyongyang, and many more – the nuclear disarmament agenda is actually very detailed, well-known, and very widely agreed. And it is also very stalled.

The agreed disarmament agenda

Of course, it is in those details where the devil will hold sway in the next two weeks, but, for the record, let’s at least acknowledge that at the general level, the nuclear disarmament agenda enjoys broad global support and the priorities that should engage Canada also seem clear.

That broad support is owed to the fact that the agenda has been painstakingly (or at least painfully) constructed through the consensus decision-making processes of the NPT review conferences, and the results are set out in the agreements reached at the 1995 and 2000 conferences. The agenda is confirmed and elaborated in the Blix Commission report[i] and it can be viewed as working toward three fundamental objectives: 1) preventing the use of existing arsenals, 2) preventing the expansion or enhancement of existing arsenals and making progress toward their elimination, and 3) preventing horizontal proliferation.

1. Preventing use

a) Abolition is the agreed aim, because the only way to finally prevent the use of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them.

b) Negative security assurances are commitments by Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) party to the NPT – and what is now required is that such assurances be made legally binding.

c) To prevent accidental use, the US and Russia are required to de-alert (eliminate the possibility of them being launched within minutes of a warning – a warning that could turn out to be false).

2. Preventing and reversing vertical proliferation

a) Ratification of the already negotiated Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to prohibit any further testing of nuclear warheads.

b) Preventing the expansion of stockpiles of fissile materials for weapons purposes requires the negotiation of a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT) and preventing the use of existing stockpiles for weapons by progressively placing them under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

c) Make all nuclear weapon reductions irreversible and verifiable.

d) Promote transparency and accountability by regular reporting to NPT meetings or conferences on progress made in implementing the disarmament agenda.

3. Preventing and reversing horizontal proliferation

a) Make the Additional Protocol to safeguards agreements, which allows for more intrusive and effective inspections, the minimum standard for national safeguard agreements with the IAEA.

b) Deal with the legacy of the unrestrained Cold War nuclear arms race through the global partnership to control and clean-up nuclear materials, especially in the former Soviet Union.

c) Maintain effective export controls over nuclear materials.

d) Explore means of exercising international and non-discriminatory control over the proliferation sensitive elements in the manufacture of nuclear fuel for civilian reactors.

There is much more that needs doing, but these elements at least have met virtually universal support, in principle.

Priorities for Canada

Canada must obviously be active in pursuing implementation of all those elements of the global disarmament agenda, but it is also important give priority to particular issues that it is in a good position to influence.

The basic commitment to abolition is central. In 1999, through the official response to a report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Government of Canada declared that “Canada ‘s objective has been and remains the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.”[ii] This position has been held through successive changes in Government and enjoys support across the political spectrum. Each new Canadian Government should, as a matter of course and at the highest level, reaffirm Canada ‘s fundamental commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

From time to time there will necessarily be some shifts in priorities according to changing circumstances, but currently at least four of issues deserve the focused attention of Canada.

1. The disarmament machinery: Nuclear disarmament depends first and foremost on the political will of states to simply do it, but the institutional mechanisms through which they pursue that fundamental and urgent agenda are critically important. The mechanisms can themselves become obstacles to effective progress, and it is clear that in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament and the NPT Review Process there are institutional arrangements and practices that serve to impede the disarmament progress. These impediments require urgent attention and Canada , having developed significant proposals to address the “institutional deficit” within the disarmament system, is well placed to work with likeminded states to press for constructive change.

2. The internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle: The conflict regarding Iran ‘s uranium enrichment program raises important issues about the spread of sensitive civilian technologies – to which all states in compliance with non-proliferation obligations are legally entitled – that have immediate relevance for the pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is in the interests of nuclear disarmament that these technologies be severely restricted, but such restrictions must obviously be nondiscriminatory. Canada should take an active role in investigating and promoting international mechanisms toward that end.

3. Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines for civilian nuclear cooperation with de facto nuclear weapon states: The US-India civilian nuclear cooperation deal has led to proposals to exempt India from the current guidelines of the NSG, and Canadian technology and interests are directly engaged. Canada must be at the fore of international efforts to universalize the NPT and to bring India, Israel, and Pakistan under the rules and discipline of the nuclear nonproliferation system, ensuring that nonproliferation objectives are not only uncompromised but strengthened through any NSG action to modify its guidelines.

4. Resolving the NATO/NPT contradiction: As a NATO country Canada is juggling two conflicting commitments. Through NATO Canada insists that nuclear weapons are essential to its security and are thus to be retained for the foreseeable future; through the NPT and related disarmament forums Canada promotes the elimination of nuclear weapons at the earliest possible date. This conflict must be resolved in favour of the second commitment.

[i] Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. 2006. Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms. Stockholm. http://www.wmdcommission.org.

[ii] Government of Canada. 1999. Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation: Advancing Canadian objectives. Government statement. April.

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