Moment of opportunity or uphill struggle?

What is the likelihood that the Government of Canada will play a more active role in efforts to ban nuclear weapons? Have you asked your Member of Parliament this question?

On March 26, I participated in a Round Table in Ottawa organized by the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW). This gathering was held the same day that Prime Minister Harper participated in a Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

The Prime Minister was joined by leaders from 53 countries, including U.S. President Barack Obama. I was joined by a group half that size that included representatives of CNANW member agencies, as well as staff members from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT) Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Division.

Our agenda included sessions on arcane topics like the Government of Canada’s involvement in the upcoming Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2015 Review Conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This discussion included input from the Honourable Douglas Roche, O.C., the Acting Chairperson of the Middle Powers Initiative, and Cesar Jaramillo, a Program Associate with Project Ploughshares, a coalition partner of MCC.

Throughout the day participants stressed that the world could be on the verge of making significant progress toward abolishing nuclear weapons, and Canada is poised to make a positive impact. For example, there is all-party support for engaging in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (as reflected in unanimous House of Commons and Senate motions in 2010); there is overwhelming public support for a legal ban on nuclear weapons (as reflected in a call from over 500 recipients of the Order of Canada); and, perhaps most importantly, our neighbour to the south already wants to move in this direction.

Put another way, it was suggested that this was a major “legacy issue” ready for the government’s taking that would be bigger than the Ottawa Treaty that banned landmines or the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

While the potential seems obvious, I was left wondering how to make sense of bleak assessments in the media of recent disarmament efforts. After all, regardless of the efforts being made by many for positive change, a small handful of countries have managed to stall progress for the past decade. This could be a key moment in time, but enormous challenges still remain.

More significantly for us in Canada, what are the chances that banning nuclear weapons is the kind of issue that our current government will embrace? Is this the sort of thing that is in the DNA of a government that has focused on preparing the Canadian military for combat rather than peacekeeping? Is this the kind of agenda that Stephen Harper would have been pushing in Seoul?

One response to these questions is: “We will never know unless we ask!”

We do know that in recent years DFAIT has enhanced its capacity to contribute to international forums on nuclear nonproliferation. And we also know that the global community is starting to recognize that disarmament is a precondition for nonproliferation, not the other way around as has often been assumed.

In any case, the Round Table concluded with a working session that ironed out a joint statement that has since been endorsed by 27 Canadian civil society groups. This statement was delivered today to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of National Defence, as well as to members of the House of Commons and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees. Of course, it would make for good reading for all MPs—feel free to share it with yours!

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

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