Canadian priorities for surmounting the obstacles to nuclear disarmament

A November 13-14 public forum at Toronto City Hall looked at the opportunities and obstacles to nuclear disarmament. The program and details are available at The following notes are part 2 of my comments, focusing on Canadian disarmament diplomacy priorities.

The first, and really most urgent, priority is for Canada to rediscover its traditional of disarmament diplomacy.

Canada has an important history of active support for nuclear disarmament. Later today you’ll be hearing from two terrific former Canadian Ambassadors for Disarmament – they and many other Canadian diplomats and officials have been deeply engaged in bringing constructive Canadian influence to bear upon the NPT Review Process and other multilateral disarmament forums.

Of course, there has always been a strong element of ambivalence in Canadian disarmament policy. Remember that, when Canada joined the newly-negotiated NPT in 1968 as a non-nuclear weapon State, some 250-450 nuclear weapons[i] were deployed with Canadian forces in Canada and Europe. Put another way, in numbers of warheads, Canada’s arsenal was a lot bigger than is China’s today. While all nuclear weapons had been withdrawn from Canadian territory or deployment with Canadian forces by the early 1980s,[ii] direct participation in nuclear weapons-related operations continued, and remains today, through membership in NATO and NORAD.[iii]

In recent years, certainly at the highest levels of Government, ambivalence seems to have turned to indifference. The Harper Government has not rejected Canadian policy in support of the elimination of nuclear weapons, but neither has it championed it. The first priority now needs to be a clear decision to re-assert Canadian disarmament diplomacy. It is urgent that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, as should every 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.

A second priority is to recognize that an important impediment to disarmament is a seriously flawed set of disarmament institutions.

The Conference on Disarmament has been famously deadlocked for more than a decade – and recent reports of a breakthrough turned out to be premature. Multilateral disarmament will continue to founder in the absence of disarmament machinery that is effective and trusted.

Canada has prominently advanced proposals for shoring up the disarmament institutional infrastructure. An innovative proposal to take key issues out of the CD and pursue them in specially created working groups mandated by the General Assembly, was a case in point a few years back. Canada’s effort to strengthen the NPT’s institutional and accountability mechanisms is an important initiative that Canada has persisted in throughout the current NPT review process. Some of the most energetic opponents of that effort are members of the G8 – which suggests using the forthcoming G8-G20 meeting in Canada to try to shore up support. To make headway will require Canadian leadership that has the courage of its formal policy declarations, supplemented by a coherent strategy and a diplomatic offensive to gather a credible supporting coalition of like-minded States.

A sub-element of institution building is the need to enhance and regularize the role of civil society in the NPT review process.

The research and public engagement work of disarmament NGOs and think tanks is widely recognized as an important element of developing the political will to act on the particulars of the disarmament agenda. In 2003 Canada submitted a working paper to the NPT to encourage a more prominent role for civil society and diplomats actively pursued support for the initiative. The Harper Government has not only given up on advocacy on the matter, but has ended the long-standing practice of including civil society representatives on its delegations to the NPT Review Conferences.

Canada has also championed Transparency and Reporting in the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime.

Institutional fixing and transparency regulations definitely lack an air of the heroic – these are not causes likely to enflame public passions. But this is a case of the mundane being not only important, but essential. These are foundational questions of accountability and of the ending of nuclear impunity. In 2000 the NPT Review Conference agreed on a provision for “regular reports” on progress made in implementing Article VI. The nuclear weapon States have actively resisted the idea that there is actually any actual multilateral transparency obligation involved (as distinct from bilateral transparency/verification), but the degree to which nuclear weapon States are prepared to report reflects the degree to which they regard themselves as accountable to other States Parties to the Treaty.

It is a principle that Canada has championed and needs to continue to press with some vigor.

Ultimately, disarmament will require a nuclear weapons convention.

Finally, we need the Government to acknowledge that while progress toward a world without nuclear weapons will obviously involve a broad range of incremental measures and agreements, ultimately, all such measures must be brought together in a single umbrella or framework convention. Thus, Canadian policy should explicitly call for, and work toward, a nuclear weapons convention that sets a clear timeline for irreversible and verifiable nuclear disarmament.[iv]

The nuclear threat is an eminently solvable problem. Compare it with all the other perils this troubled planet faces:  from the economic crisis, to climate change, energy deficits, burgeoning pollution, acute water shortages, unrelenting hunger, grossly inadequate health services, and chronic armed conflict. Solving these problems requires a vast array of complex social and behavioral transformations. But nuclear disarmament really only needs only a few clear decisions by a relatively small cadre of leaders. A very small number of leaders can decide to take weapons of high-alert and immediately make the world a much safer place. Similarly, it takes only a small number of leaders, most of whom have now declared their commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, to make the decisions needed to progressively remove weapons from deployment and into the dismantling shops.


[i] John Clearwater is the leader in documenting the history of nuclear weapons in Canada. In his 1998 book, Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada’s Cold War Arsenal (Dundurn Press) he concludes that “at the height of the Canadian nuclear deployments, the greatest number of weapons which could have been available to Canada would have been between 250 (low estimate) and 450 (high estimate),” p. 23. The November/December 1999 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported (by Rpbert S. Norris, William M. Arkin, and William Burr, pp. 26-35) on a Pentagon document received through the Freedom of Information Act entitled: History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons:  July 1945 through September 1977. One graph shows a peak of just over 300 nuclear weapons in Canada in the late 1960s. The Clearwater upper end estimate is higher because his totals include the weapons with Canadian forces in Europe, while the Pentagon report would show those as being in Germany.

[ii] It was also under Trudeau’s watch that all the nuclear weapons within Canadian territory and deployed with Canadian forces in Europe were withdrawn – a development that was primarily a function of technological advances in fighter-interceptor aircraft and conventional air-to-air missiles.

[iii] The North American Aerospace Defence Agreement -- While the NORAD air defence role declined significantly when the main Soviet threat switched to intercontinental ballistic missiles from bombers, NORAD was also the primary ballistic missile early warning agency.

[iv] What could Canada constructively contribute if it were to embrace the immediate pursuit of a nuclear weapons convention? Canada could and should institute informal international consultations 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. In the meantime Canada should be thinking about the particular contribution it could make to the international process. The UK, sometimes working with Norway, has been focusing on verification measures linked to a nuclear weapons convention.4 Canada was once active in this area, and still is involved in CTBT seismic verification. Consideration could be given to reviving some of this work to bolster the UK-Norwegian initiative.

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