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Why Canada needs to be a leader on eliminating nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons are not compatible with current national and international security requirements. They are obsolete, counterproductive and wasteful. The time has come for the international community to commit to work toward a nuclear weapons ban – and Canada can take a leadership role in that effort.

Last week I spoke at the annual conference of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament in Washington. I was joined by elected officials from the United States, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan and South Korea, as well as representatives from the United Nations and civil society organizations.

We have long known that nuclear weapons are dangerous. There are numerous international treaties restricting their development and use. There is also a growing consensus among civil society and state actors that nuclear weapons are inhumane, and I hope that Canada will attend the next international summit on this subject in Vienna later this year.

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Moreover, though less widely recognized, nuclear weapons are problematic from a security perspective. This is true for three reasons.

First, nuclear weapons are obsolete. The immense explosive capacity contained in the atomic bomb is not useful as a counter to the real security risks faced by national governments and the international community.

Consider two of the greatest security risks facing modern states, cyberwarfare and terrorism.

We are increasingly dependent on the Internet for the operation of our government and our industrial institutions. Virtually every business sector – from electricity generation to central banking – is in some way reliant on the web.

With this rising reliance comes rising risk.

The cyberattack on the Estonian banking sector in 2007 illustrates the real power of virtual sabotage. National and international intelligence and security agencies are devoting increasing amounts of attention and resources to addressing cyberthreats.

Since September 11, 2001, terrorism has been at the forefront of the global security discourse. The number of disrupted plots has far exceeded the number of actual attacks. But both have disrupted life in cities from London to Bali, Nairobi to Mumbai, and Madrid to Toronto.

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The tactics of terrorism are constantly changing. The nature of terrorism means that a small number of people can cause disproportionate damage, and that numerous successfully disrupted plots cannot compensate for one intelligence failure.

Nuclear weapons are, at best, irrelevant in combating these central modern security challenges. A nuclear weapon cannot be used against an unidentified hacker lurking behind a proxy server. A nuclear weapon will not deter a terrorist seeking destruction regardless of personal cost.

Second, nuclear weapons are in fact counterproductive. The very existence of nuclear weapons makes the threat posed by cyberattacks and terrorism more significant.

If an adversary or terrorist were able to hack into the servers and intranet systems connected to a country's nuclear capabilities, the potential for carnage would be terribly and unpredictably enormous.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons makes it all the more likely that somewhere, eventually, a country's system will be without the cyberdefence measures needed to protect it from attack. All the more likely that a weapon will be lost or stolen and end up in hands that would choose to use it.

The greatest contributor to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the existence of nuclear weapons. And the single greatest step we can take to make the world safer from the possibility of nuclear weapons being abused, or used at all, is to pursue disarmament, non-proliferation, and an eventual ban.

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Third, nuclear weapons are wasteful. The Brookings Institute has estimated the total annual spending on all American nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs at over $35-billion.

Anything that costs that much while failing to address the world's most pressing threats – and potentially aggravating them – is by definition wasteful. It is all the more so given that countries with nuclear weapons must spend ever-increasing amounts to protect their arsenal from being hacked or stolen, on top of the constant risk of accidental detonation.

It's time to pursue a global ban on nuclear weapons, and Canada has a unique credibility in taking a leading role in such efforts. At the height of the Cold War, Canada chose not to develop nuclear arms. As a country, we have always known the dangers of nuclear weapons. But we need to engage and inspire a younger generation of people who may not have the intuitive understanding of nuclear weapons that came with life during the Cold War. By taking a strong position against these obsolete, counterproductive, and wasteful weapons, Canada can help build a safer, better world.

NDP MP Paul Dewar is the foreign affairs critic for the Official Opposition and a co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

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