By SEAN HOWARD
On July 7, Canada stood on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as 122 states voted to adopt perhaps the most radical and far-reaching agreement in its history.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a potentially decisive step toward the goal outlined in the very first UNGA resolution on Jan. 24, 1946, namely “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons” and other weapons of mass destruction.
Treaties banning biological and chemical weapons were adopted in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, and the new agreement thus fills the glaring “legal gap” in international humanitarian law allowing the world’s most powerful weapons to continue to threaten us all.
Although banning the Bomb is very different from eliminating it, and although the negotiations were boycotted by "the nuclear nine" — Russia, the U.S., the U.K., France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — and most of their allies, the treaty still sends “a clear message," in the words of Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, “on behalf of a large majority of nations” that the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons” are so unacceptable they must be merely reduced but abolished.
“This message,” she added, “must be heard.”
The UN’s most powerful, privileged and heavily armed nations, however, are not listening. Almost immediately after the treaty was adopted, to sustained and thunderous applause, a joint statement from the UN ambassadors of the U.S., the U.K. and France stated bluntly: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it.”
Why? Because “the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia.”
Aside from the dubiousness of this claim, and its implicit invitation to other states to also acquire such wonderful "peace-keeping" weapons (a suggestion made explicitly by Donald Trump in his election campaign), the vow to never join the treaty runs counter to both the spirit and letter of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which grants these three powers (together with Russia and China) the right to possess nuclear weapons only on condition that they negotiate “in good faith” their progressive reduction and eventual elimination.
It is, above all, the abject failure of these five powers, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, to honour this legally binding obligation that has in recent years pushed the non-nuclear-armed majority in the direction of a ban, in the hope of creating a new norm and stigma strong enough to change political and public perceptions of nuclear "deterrence" in the nuclear-armed and -allied minority.
An atomic-bomb survivor and Toronto-based activist, Setsuko Thurlow, told the General Assembly on July 7: “We’ve always known that nuclear weapons are immoral. Now they are also illegal.”
Whether she is right that the treaty “is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons” remains to be seen, but Ray Acheson, the brilliant young Canadian woman at the forefront of the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), wrote on July 8 that a “new reality” has been created, admittedly a “leap into the unknown,” but one already successful in shattering the hypocritical and self-serving status quo and placing the future debate on a far firmer, human- rather than state-centric, ethic and legal foundation.
Treaty negotiations, in addition, broke ground in their systematic inclusion of global civil society and survivors of nuclear attack and testing, and in the encouragement of maximum and high-level female participation. The talks, in fact, were chaired by Ambassador Elaine Gomez Whyte of Costa Rica, (a small country with no military since 1948), who described the treaty’s adoption as “a historic event for humanity.”
But if it was a great day for the planet, it was a sad one for Canada, which, like every other NATO state except the Netherlands, bowed to U.S. pressure to not even attend a UN multilateral negotiation.
On June 6, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland gave a major speech declaring a new degree of Canadian independence from America. Four weeks later, Canada was nowhere to be seen as most of the world came together to insist on a future free of the threat of Armageddon. As the prime minister’s father once said: “The prevention of nuclear war is more important than Canada-U.S. relations.”
Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University.