Canada and a nuclear weapons convention

"We call on all member States of the UN – including Canada – to endorse, and begin negotiations for, a nuclear weapons convention as proposed by the UN Secretary-General in his five-point plan for nuclear disarmament."

This statement has at last count been signed by more than 300 Canadians named to the Order of Canada.[i] The initiative, led by Ploughshares co-founder Murray Thomson,[ii] himself an Officer of the Order, has won the support of a wide cross-section of Canadians from scientific, cultural, business, NGO, and political communities, including: aerospace engineer Bruce Aikenhead; writer Margaret Atwood; physician Harvey Barkun; NGO leader Gerry Barr; former UN Ambassador William Barton; artist Robert Bateman; theologian Gregory Baum; fisheries scientist Richard Beamish; Senator and musician Tommy Banks; politician and human rights leader Ed Broadbent; singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn; journalist Peter Desbarats; fashion designer Marielle Fleury; business entrepreneur Margot Franssen.

And that is just a brief selection of names from the first quarter of the alphabet.[iii]

While the idea of a nuclear weapons convention (NWC) has wide public appeal, it has yet to be embraced by the Government of Stephen Harper. While it supports the proposal in principle,[iv] Canada says now is not the time. The Government insists that before an NWC can be credibly advanced, other treaties to prohibit the development and production of nuclear weapons should  be in place, thus apparently seeing the convention more as a way of commemorating the completion of disarmament negotiations than as providing a comprehensive guide, as envisioned by the Secretary-General’s approach, to those negotiations.

Officials generally, and with some credibility, argue that the prospects for adopting an NWC are not promising as long as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is not fully effective, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has not entered into force, and negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT) remain stalled. But by this very logic, the basic conditions for launching negotiations for a NWC are actually in place.

The NPT, for example, is far from ineffective. It has been and remains a successful bulwark against proliferation. Only one state party to the NPT, North Korea, has persistently violated it and withdrawn from it. Of course, the NPT has proven least effective in producing timely nuclear disarmament as required under Article VI. In this case, serious work toward an NWC and a disarmament road map would significantly enhance the effectiveness of the NPT.

And, while the CTBT is not yet in force, it is no longer a matter of serious contention. Negotiations have been successfully concluded. All of the nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT (China, France, Russia, UK, US) have signed the treaty, with the US and China yet to ratify it, and are adhering to a moratorium on testing pending the Treaty’s entry-into-force. Of the four other states with nuclear weapons, only North Korea has explicitly rejected a moratorium.

Meanwhile, the international community, through the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament, has agreed to begin negotiations on an FMCT. The nuclear weapon states within the NPT have all already halted production of fissile materials. Negotiations within the perennially-deadlocked Conference on Disarmament still need to overcome procedural hurdles, raised most recently by Pakistan, but basic support for a treaty is in place.

Now is, in fact, the ideal time to begin to frame an NWC. It would consolidate multilateral disarmament gains and set out the full requirements, including verification mechanisms, to secure the goal of a world without nuclear weapons within an agreed time frame.

What could Canada constructively contribute if it were to embrace the immediate pursuit of a nuclear weapons convention?

  1. The first priority would be to reestablish Canada’s active support for a world without nuclear weapons. The Harper Government has certainly not rejected that goal, but neither has it promoted it. So, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister should each make an early and prominent speech in which they address nuclear disarmament and reaffirm Canada’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. 
  2. The Government should also acknowledge that while progress toward a world without nuclear weapons will obviously involve a variety of key measures (such as the key agreements mentioned above), ultimately all those measures must be brought together in a single umbrella or framework convention. Thus, Canadian policy should explicitly call for the start of negotiations toward such a convention that sets a clear timeline for irreversible and verifiable nuclear disarmament. 
  3. Next Canada could and should convene an informal international consultative process involving a core group of like-minded states and representatives of civil society to thoroughly explore the focus, scope, verification, and other elements relevant to a nuclear weapons convention. One outcome of this consultation could be an informal international Contact Group or Nuclear Weapons Convention Action Group to systematically press the issue on the international stage. 
  4. In the meantime Canada should be thinking about the particular contribution it could make to the international process. The UK, including some joint work with Norway, has for example been focusing on verification measures linked to a nuclear weapons convention.[v] Canada was once active in this area, and still is involved in CTBT seismic verification. Consideration could be given to reviving the verification unit within Foreign Affairs to work with and bolster the UK-Norwegian initiative.  
  5. Canada could also credibly focus on the development of appropriate transparency requirements and identification of the kinds of institutional and governance arrangements needed to ensure an effective and effectively managed nuclear weapons convention. Canada has championed reporting in the NPT review process as a means of promoting accountability, has put forward proposals to overcome the institutional deficit of the NPT, and has supported the institutionalization of enhanced civil society participation in multilateral disarmament efforts. 

There is no shortage of things to do and no credible reason to wait. The pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons requires Canada’s energetic engagement. 


[i] Jeff Davis, “Order of Canada Recipients Demand Worldwide Ban on Nuclear Weapons,” Embassy (Ottawa, 26 August 2009).

[ii] He is supported by former Senator and Ambassador for Disarmament Douglas Roche and Nobel Prize laureate John Polanyi. The author is a signatory.

[iii] There are plans for the complete list to be available online soon.

[iv] At the UN Canada was one of only two NATO countries to abstain (generally indicating agreement in principle but objection to specific details) on resolution A/Res/63/49 in the General Assembly which calls on states to immediately begin “multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination.” All other NATO states voted “no.” Canada joined its NATO colleagues to vote “no” on another resolution calling for negotiations on such a convention (A/Res/63/75) – in this case the resolution also affirmed that any use of nuclear weapons would be in violation of the Charter (a legitimate affirmation but not one likely to be supported by members of a military alliance whose doctrine claims nuclear weapons are essential to their security).

[v] The UK together with Norway is undertaking research, for example, on the verification of nuclear warhead reductions and hosted a meeting of nuclear weapon states (September 3-4, 2009) to “discuss confidence building measures including the verification of disarmament and treaty compliance.” See

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.