Harper government missing on non-proliferation

This commentary by Douglas Roche and Ernie Regehr in the February 3, 2010 issue of Embassy: Canada’s Foreign Policy Newsweekly,  grows out of last week’s conference, “Practical Steps to Zero Nuclear Weapons.”

High-ranking officials of the US State Department, NATO and the United Nations were in Ottawa last week to meet with the leaders of five national nuclear disarmament groups and experienced civil society leaders. It was all designed to move the Canadian government to actively support US President Barack Obama’s commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world.

Did it? Time will tell and we want to remain optimistic.

The two days of speeches and panels were sobering. Entitled “Practical Steps to Zero Nuclear Weapons,” the conference noted at the outset that because of President Obama, a new opportunity exists to make substantive reductions in the 23,000 nuclear weapons still in existence, halt proliferation and set the world on an irreversible path to zero nuclear weapons.

But the president is fighting rearguard actions in his own country, and the international community is still focused on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons rather than negotiating their complete elimination as called for by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In short, Obama needs the help of friends. Canada should support the president by making it clear that this country does not want to be used as an excuse for the US maintaining its nuclear umbrella over allies, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association based in Washington, DC.

Similarly, participants argued that Canada should use its influence to have NATO stop calling nuclear weapons “essential,” and to harmonize its nuclear policies with not only the Obama goal but the legal requirement imposed by the NPT for total elimination.

Participants focused on the proposal by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that a model Nuclear Weapons Convention, drafted a number of years ago, now become the starting point for comprehensive negotiations. A Nuclear Weapons Convention would be a global treaty prohibiting the development, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons. Already, 124 states at the UN have voted for such a global ban. Mayors for Peace, representing 3,500 mayors around the world, has been calling for it. And polls show that a majority of citizens around the world would favour it.

The sponsors of the conference—the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Canadian Pugwash Group, Physicians for Global Survival, Project Ploughshares and World Federalist Movement-Canada—thus recommended that Canada press the forthcoming NPT Review Conference to begin preparatory work on a convention.

Though Obama spoke out for nuclear disarmament 10 months ago, the Canadian government has remained mute. While the government has certainly not rejected Canadian policy supporting the elimination of nuclear weapons, neither has it championed it at this new moment of opportunity. Officials from the departments of Foreign Affairs and National Defence attended the conference, but their contributions were limited to procedural matters because they had no instructions from their ministers.

Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae gave a major speech calling for a new dynamic thrust in Canadian foreign policy, and NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar laid out a well-considered plan for Canada to support elimination by working on verification and related issues.

But no Conservative Party representative was in attendance. We personally delivered a formal letter of invitation in early December to a high-ranking Conservative official and were told the invitation would have to be relayed to the PMO. There was no response, and there was general surprise at the conference that the government was not represented.

The sponsors led off their recommendations by stating: “It is urgent that the prime minister and foreign minister find early and prominent opportunities to publicly address nuclear disarmament and reaffirm Canada’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.”

Canada’s chairmanship of the G8 and G20 meetings in Canada this year, the NPT Review Conference, and NATO’s current review of its policies all provide important opportunities.

Already, the opportunity to rid the world of nuclear weapons provided by President Obama shows signs of slipping away. Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, bragged in the Wall Street Journal that the US is increasing investments in its nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. The president is receiving insufficient support for his initiatives in his own country and, without demonstrable support, may not be able to sustain any momentum. The foreign ministers of Germany and Japan have come in behind him, but many other countries that should be championing his efforts are waiting to see what will happen.

It became clear at the conference that the world risks falling into a trap. Those who claim that nuclear weapons are still necessary do not usually oppose “eventual” nuclear disarmament, but they keep “eventual” so far over the horizon as to be meaningless.

In retaining “eventual,” nuclear defenders will so solidify the justification for nuclear weapons that proliferation to more states is bound to occur, and the more proliferation in the years and decades ahead, the harder it will be to even claim that nuclear disarmament has legitimacy.

The nuclear weapons cycle, 65 years old, must be broken now before a new and exceedingly dangerous spurt of nuclear proliferation takes place. That is why two of Obama’s priorities—ratification of the ban on testing and a permanent ban on the production of fissile material for weapons—now need Canada’s urgent support.

It is also important for Canada to commit now to preparations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. This is a direct request by 481 members of the Order of Canada, who represent a cross-section of Canadians deeply involved in the well-being of our country. In 2002, DFAIT began such work, but it lapsed in the Bush era. Obama provides a new opportunity. But will Canada seize it?

Retired senator Douglas Roche, is Canada’s former ambassador for disarmament. Ernie Regehr is senior policy adviser to Project Ploughshares. Both are Officers of the Order of Canada.

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