The thousands of letters that Canadians mailed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this past summer evidently had no effect. On October 27, 2016, against the wishes of its citizens, Canada voted against Resolution L.41 in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. It was nevertheless adopted handily with the support of 123 nations, 38 voting against, and 16 abstentions. It calls for on a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”
Only a twenty-year long period of frustration finally brought the non-nuclear weapons states to this point. The Conference on Disarmament (CD), which was created by the UN to negotiate multilateral nuclear disarmament agreements, has been paralyzed that long, accomplishing zero progress. Because the CD has an extreme form of consensus, allowing no decision to be taken without the approval of all 55 member states, the nuclear weapons states (NWS) have easily blocked any move toward disarming their arsenals. Unlike other weapons of mass destruction — chemical and biological —a legal gap remains, enabling the five official NWS to claim that they are legally allowed to keep their nuclear weapons. The new UN initiative was taken to close this gap.
Beginning in 2013, meetings had been held in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna to emphasize the catastrophic humanitarian effects of nuclear war. That stimulated the UN to establish an Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) in 2015 to carry forward the work on disarmament. Unlike the CD, the OEWG allows all member nations to vote rather than requiring consensus. Its report was adopted in August 2016 with 68 in favor, 22 opposed (including Canada!), and 13 abstentions.
This report urged the General Assembly to undertake the new nuclear disarmament efforts which are unfolding now. For 20 working days in 2017 a negotiating conference will meet in New York. As we go to press we are expecting the final favorable vote of the General Assembly authorizing those negotiations.
Canada’s foreign ministry justifies its opposition to L.41 by claiming that members of NATO must support that alliance’s nuclear doctrine. (But the Netherlands abstained, and Canada’s Liberal government could too—if only to keep its own party’s platform pledge.) But Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion claims to be supporting disarmament by renewing an old effort to achieve a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty—a baby step toward the ultimate goal of disarmament. Unfortunately, there is no new incentive lending credible hope to this initiative, which also has been stalled 20 years in the CD. Canada’s feeble excuse shocks everyone who is alarmed about the continuing threat of nuclear warfare.