Join the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is the first legally binding international agreement that seeks to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. The treaty, which opened for signature in September 2017, prohibits signatory states from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing or using nuclear weapons. Canada is a non-nuclear weapon state and has never had its own nuclear weapons program. As a non-nuclear weapon signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Canada gradually terminated its nuclear weapons cooperation with the US. However, despite being a key player in the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime, Canada has refused to sign the TPNW. Canada should affirm its own official policy on non-proliferation and disarmament by signing and ratifying the TPNW. As a non-nuclear weapon state, Canada has nothing to lose by ratifying this treaty. If Canada is truly committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons, it cannot abstain from signing this treaty.

Overview

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is the first legally binding international agreement that seeks to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. The treaty, which opened for signature in September 2017, prohibits signatory states from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing or using nuclear weapons. The treaty also forbids signatories from assisting another state with any of these prohibited activities.[i] The TPNW is set to enter into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified or acceded to the treaty.  As of February 2019, 70 states had signed on to the treaty, and 22 of these states had ratified it.

Canada is a non-nuclear weapon state and has never had its own nuclear weapons program. In 1963, Canada signed a cooperation agreement with the U.S. to obtain nuclear warheads, and also agreed to hold U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil. In 1969, Canada signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a treaty where non-nuclear weapons states agree to not develop such weapons, and where nuclear weapons states agree to retire their nuclear weapons. As a non-nuclear weapon signatory to the NPT, Canada gradually terminated its nuclear weapons cooperation with the US.[ii] In addition to being party to the NPT, Canada has also ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and prioritized the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.[iii] However, despite being a key player in the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime, Canada has refused to sign the TPNW.

Questions for Federal Candidates

  • Do you believe that it is important for Canada to play a leadership role in the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime?
  • Do you believe that enough progress has been made toward global nuclear disarmament since the NPT entered into force in 1970?
  • Given that nuclear weapon states are not fulfilling their commitments under the NPT, do you believe that a new instrument is needed to further non-proliferation and disarmament objectives?

If elected:

  • Will you work to raise awareness of the need for progress on nuclear disarmament, and the imminent threat posed by nuclear weapons?
  • Will you work within caucus to raise awareness of the need for Canada to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

Supporting Points

  • International Law. As it stands, there is no unequivocal or explicit rule under international law against the possession of nuclear weapons. That being said, international law does place very heavy restrictions on their use. For example, under the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, it is illegal to use a weapon that may strike military objectives and civilians without distinction. [iv] It is also illegal under these Conventions to deploy means of warfare that cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering. [v] Given their fundamental properties, nuclear weapons are extremely difficult to use without causing collateral harm to civilians or unnecessary suffering. Therefore, international humanitarian law would prohibit the use of nuclear weapons in almost all conceivable situations.
  • UN Treaties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, is also a piece of international law that limits the potential for the use of nuclear weapons. This global treaty prohibits states from obtaining nuclear weapons, except for the 5 states that had them as of January 1, 1967.[vi] While the NPT has been important in curbing nuclear proliferation, it has been less effective with regard to disarmament. The TPNW, therefore, is the only international treaty that seeks to prohibit nuclear weapons under international law in a comprehensive and universal manner.[vii] The treaty was born out of a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Negotiations on the treaty began in March 2017, with the final text being adopted at a UN conference in July 2017. In the final vote on the treaty, 122 states were in favor, one voted against (Netherlands), and one abstained (Singapore).[viii] In all, 69 member states did not vote, among them all of the nuclear weapon states and all NATO members, except the Netherlands.
  • Canada’s Official Position. The Canadian government’s historic policy on non-proliferation and disarmament is built around the NPT, and is reinforced by other related treaties and initiatives. Officially, the Canadian government advocates for a step-by-step approach to disarmament. This approach includes having all countries join the NPT, bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force, and negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.[ix] Despite being a strong proponent of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the Trudeau government refused to sign the TPNW. In fact, during the initial treaty negotiations, the Liberals aligned Canada with nuclear-weapons states and boycotted the conferences altogether.[x] In defence of its position, the Trudeau government suggested that the TPNW contributes to division within the international community. This discord, it argued, will have potentially adverse consequences for regional and global security, and may disrupt the current review cycle of the NPT.[xi] Further, the Liberal government argued that the treaty will likely only engage states that are already bound by the NPT, without any mechanism to ensure new treaty obligations are being fulfilled.[xii] It is likely that Canada took this position under pressure from the US, and the Liberals’ reasoning makes little sense if nuclear disarmament is the ultimate goal.  The Standing Committee on National Defence published a report in which it recommended that Canada take on a leadership role within NATO in order to create the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons.[xiii]  For their part, both the NDP and Green Party have called upon the Liberal government to sign the treaty.[xiv] [xv]
  • Actions by Canadian Allies. As of May 2018, of Canada’s Western allies, Austria has both signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Austria has been an important actor in the nuclear disarmament regime, even hosting a conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in 2014.[xvi] Ireland has also signed the TPNW, but has yet to ratify it.[xvii]

Recommendations for Canada

  • Canada should affirm its own official policy on non-proliferation and disarmament by signing and ratifying the TPNW. As a non-nuclear weapon state, Canada has nothing to lose by ratifying this treaty. If Canada is truly committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons, it cannot abstain from signing this treaty.
  • Canada should encourage its allies, especially the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, to sign the TPNW and take legitimate steps toward disarmament. These allies have all signed the NPT, and therefore have an obligation under Article VI to pursue negotiations in good faith toward nuclear disarmament. In seeking to retain and even modernize their nuclear weapons, these states are making a mockery of the commitments they made under the NPT. Canada should not aid them in abdicating their responsibility.

 

[i] United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. (n.d.). Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/tpnw/

[ii] Diefenbaker Canada Centre. (n.d.). The nuclear question in Canada. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from https://www.usask.ca/diefenbaker/virtual-exhibits/nuclear-question.php

[iii] Government of Canada. (2018). Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/peace_security-paix_securite/disarmament_policy-politique_desarmement.aspx?lang=eng

[iv] Nyusten, G., & Egeland, K. (2016). “A ‘Legal Gap’? Nuclear weapons under international law.” Arms Control Association. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2016_03/Features/A-Legal-Gap-Nuclear-Weapons-Under-International-Law

[v] Nyusten, G., & Egeland, K. (2016). “A ‘Legal Gap’? Nuclear weapons under international law.” Arms Control Association. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2016_03/Features/A-Legal-Gap-Nuclear-Weapons-Under-International-Law

[vi] Nyusten, G., & Egeland, K. (2016). “A ‘Legal Gap’? Nuclear weapons under international law.” Arms Control Association. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2016_03/Features/A-Legal-Gap-Nuclear-Weapons-Under-International-Law

[vii] United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. (n.d.). Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/tpnw/

[viii] United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. (n.d.). Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/tpnw/

[ix] Government of Canada. (2018). Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/peace_security-paix_securite/disarmament_policy-politique_desarmement.aspx?lang=eng

[x] The United Church of Canada. (n.d.). Ask federal government to sign treaty to ban nuclear arms. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.united-church.ca/social-action/act-now/ask-federal-government-sign-treaty-ban-nuclear-arms

[xi] Global Affairs Canada. (2017). Canada—Statement on nuclear weapons—First committee of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.international.gc.ca/prmny-mponu/statements-declarations/2017/10/13a.aspx?lang=eng

[xii] “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations – Explanation of position on behalf of the following states: Albania, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey.” Retrieved February 28, 2019 from http://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/1com/1com16/eov/L41_Poland-etal.pdf

[xiii] Fuhr, St. (2018). “Canada and NATO: An alliance forged in strength and reliability.” Report of the Standing Committee on National Defense. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from http://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/NDDN/Reports/RP9972815/nddnrp10/nddnrp10-e.pdf

[xiv] Palmer, D. (2017). “Canada’s refusal to sign U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons threatens security council seat.” Green Party of Canada. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.greenparty.ca/en/media-release/2017-09-20/canada’s-refusal-sign-un-treaty-prohibition-nuclear-weapons-threatens

[xv] NDP. (2018). NDP MP signs UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.ndp.ca/news/ndp-mp-signs-un-treaty-prohibition-nuclear-weapons

[xvi] Federal Ministry. (n.d.). “Prohibition of nuclear weapons.” Republic of Austria. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.bmeia.gv.at/en/european-foreign-policy/disarmament/weapons-of-mass-destruction/nuclear-weapons/prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/

[xvii] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (n.d.). “Disarmament and non proliferation.” Government of Ireland. Retrieved February 28, 2019 from https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/international-priorities/peace-and-security/disarmament/

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