Everyone needs a little good news these days, so here is some: The world just took one step closer to getting rid of nuclear weapons.
Now, there are many steps left to go, but a hopeful landmark has been reached. On Oct. 24, Honduras became the 50th country to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which means that the pact passed at the United Nations in 2017 will soon become law. Honduras joined countries such as New Zealand, Malaysia, Jamaica and Austria in pledging never to produce, own, use or store these weapons.
The ratification “represents a meaningful commitment towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Does that mean we can stop worrying about Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, the failure of the United States and Russia to broker arms deals, China’s expanding arsenal or tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan? It does not, unfortunately. The nine nuclear states and their military allies (including Canada) are not signatories to the treaty, which prohibits countries from owning, producing or hosting nuclear weapons.
But clearly the treaty is rattling the superpowers. The U.S., for example, has called on countries to rescind their support of the ban treaty. According to the Associated Press, the U.S. has sent a letter to countries backing the ban, saying: “We believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession.”
Why would the U.S., with its thousands of warheads, be afraid of a legal document that cannot force it to give up its weapons? The activist coalition behind the treaty, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), believes it is because the treaty will create powerful new norms that stigmatize this class of weapons. This is what happened in the case of biological and chemical weapons and landmines, which were banned in 1973, 1993 and 1997, respectively.
There’s also a lot of money to be made in the production and maintenance of the world’s deadliest arsenal. ICAN estimates that the nine nuclear states spent US$73-billion on their weapons in 2019 alone. That is, of course, money that was not spent on education, health care or housing.
ICAN, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, has expressed disappointment in Canada’s invisibility on the disarmament front. As a NATO member, Canada would be in a tricky position if it acted against the interests of the U.S. (not to mention nuclear-armed France and Britain).
That doesn’t mean that Canadian leaders couldn’t speak out, or use soft diplomacy to push for a world free of nuclear weapons. In fact, it’s fallen to Canada’s elder statesmen to take up this role: Last month, Jean Chrétien and Lloyd Axworthy were among the dozens of high-profile signatories to a letter supporting the ban treaty. “Without doubt, a new nuclear arms race is under way, and a race for disarmament is urgently needed,” the letter reads.
Mr. Axworthy, who was then Canada’s foreign minister, was a driving force behind the 1997 landmine ban, known informally as the Ottawa Treaty. That pact acted as a model for the nuclear-ban treaty, in the way that it highlighted the unacceptable damage that weapons do to civilians – often the most vulnerable civilians.
That is the crux of support for the nuclear ban: There is a humanitarian cost to the arms race that, until now, has been brushed aside. Civilian populations would be devastated in any armed conflict. Even countries that do not possess these weapons would still experience devastating effects. The world’s climate would be harmed in ways that we cannot imagine. Scientists modelling the effects of a nuclear conflict say it would have a disastrous effect on nature, particularly on growing seasons and ocean health. Even if a conflict is avoided, the weapons have already caused immense damage to the Indigenous populations in the countries where they were tested, before tests were banned in the 1990s. There’s also the resource drain that the weapons represent: good for arms manufacturers and those who invest in them, not so good for everyone else.
The next step for the ban advocates is to work on persuading countries to ratify the treaty, and to persuade and educate those who might be sitting on the fence, or who are completely unaware of the issue. The Japanese-Canadian Hiroshima survivor and activist Setsuko Thurlow is hosting a webinar for Canadian MPs on the subject of the treaty next month.
There’s a road ahead to a world free of nuclear weapons. Canada should be on it.
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