$1.7 trillion

In 2016, global military spending amounted to a staggering $1.68 trillion.

Courtesy of SIPRI

It likely won’t be surprising which countries topped the military-spending charts—that year, the U.S. and China clocked in at $611 billion and $215 billion respectively.

While states like the U.S. are, of course, in a league of their own, Canada is not off the hook. Though not commonly known as a “military superpower,” Canada is still in the top 16 highest defence spenders worldwide (and 6th out of 28 NATO countries).

What’s more, last June the Canadian government unveiled a plan to further expand its “hard power” on the world stage.

Driven by everything from armed conflict to foreign policy objectives, geopolitical interests, and perceptions of security, the “necessity” of high military spending can be difficult to challenge in political circles.

But what are the implications of such excessive spending on global peace, security, and development? Are global defence expenditures—which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says tend to be weak in transparency and accountability—connected to genuine security needs?

And how do such bloated defence budgets square with international obligations under Article 26 of the UN Charter, which calls for peace and security “with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources”?

As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, “the world is over-armed—and peace is under-funded.”

Enter the Global Days of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS, for short). Birthed in 2011 by the International Peace Bureau, this campaign—running from April 14th to May 3rd—calls for a reduction in worldwide defence budgets and the re-allocation of those funds for social spending.

This year’s slogan? “Reducing 10 percent of military assets will help save our planet!”

It goes without saying that the economic and human costs of war are overwhelming. Weapons—primarily small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, and other conventional weapons—have a devastating impact on people in conflict zones. And in the wake of war, rising health care and reconstruction costs take an incredible social and economic toll on communities.

Moreover, as Eisenhower warned back in 1953, excessive levels of defence spending also have an enormousopportunity cost.” While the world diverts a huge proportion of public resources to the defence sector, basic human needs such as food, health, education, housing, employment, and environmental security are chronically under-funded. Such under-funding only serves to create and exacerbate conditions of social, human, and economic insecurity.

But back to Canada…

The day after Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland delivered her foreign policy speech in the House of Commons last June (setting up the rationale for a bigger defence budget), Defence Minister Sajjan introduced his 113-page plan to hike Canada’s military spending by more than 70 percent over the next decade—from $18.9 billion today to $32.7 billion by 2026-7. Most of these funds are set to be delivered after 2021 (after the next election cycle!).

With big ticket items like fighter jets, military personnel, war ships, new capabilities for Special Forces, and so on, the defence plan was an unexpected pivot away from the Liberals’ election promise to “build a leaner military.”

Not surprisingly, National Defence is already the largest spender among Canadian government departments. And, of course, this prioritization of defence spending isn’t unique to Canada.

As SIPRI writes, globally there is “a gap between what countries are prepared to allocate for military means to provide security and maintain their global and regional power status, on the one hand, and to alleviate poverty and economic development, on the other.”

Just compare, for a moment, worldwide military spending against the entire budget of the UN. As Doug Roche—former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament—wrote in a recent book, “all told, the entire body of work of the UN, including peacekeeping and the sweeping economic and social development programs of forty specialized agencies and programs, costs $30 billion per year. This works out to about four dollars per person on the planet. It is only 1.76 percent of the $1.7 trillion that nations spend annually on arms” (p. 79).

Yet, for decades, the UN has faced financial difficulties and been forced to cut back on programs.

This spending imbalance—and its implications for peace and security—is precisely what the Global Days of Action on Military Spending tries to draw attention to.

During tax season, some groups, like Conscience Canada, even encourage Canadians to withhold the military portion of their taxes and call for the creation of a government-controlled Peace Fund where that money can be diverted for non-military peacebuilding purposes. 

What could be achieved if governments re-directed even ten percent of current defence spending towards social development needs? 

Indeed…what if?

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

Closing the accountability gap on business and human rights

On January 17th, the federal government unveiled a long-awaited policy reform.

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Courtesy of KAIROS Canada.

The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne—Minister of International Trade—announced that Canada will be establishing an independent human rights Ombudsperson to address allegations of abuse by Canadian corporations operating overseas.

For well over a year, rumours have swirled around Ottawa that this announcement was “imminent.” But it wasn’t until two weeks ago that more than a decade of advocacy by civil society groups finally bore fruit.

As an organization that has witnessed the negative impacts of Canadian mining overseas and has heard repeated calls from partners for mechanisms for redress, we at MCC are grateful for this new policy direction.

Called the “Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise,” this position will put the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (set up in 2009) out of commission. The Ombudsperson will, at least initially, continue to focus on mining, oil, and gas companies, while also adding the garment industry to the mix.

I doubt that many will be sad to see the CSR Counsellor’s office go. With no political independence (the Trade Minister is, after all, its boss) and no mandate to investigate complaints, make binding recommendations, or require companies to participate in proceedings, this position has been hamstrung by inherent flaws and limitations from the get-go.

Indeed, the CSR Counsellor was, from day one, an inadequate response to long-awaited calls for action.

Dating back to the 2007 National CSR Roundtables, experts from multiple sectors (including industry) have been advising the government to establish an independent human rights Ombudsperson “with teeth” (something other than the voluntary, non-binding, market-based CSR incentives the government usually prefers). Ever since those roundtables, civil society groups have been working hard to keep this “ask” alive-and-kicking on the political agenda.

In recent years, the Open for Justice Campaign—an initiative of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability and MCC partners like KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation—has rallied Canadians to push for the establishment of an Ombudsperson as well as for legislated access to Canadian courts (the latter of which also has gained steam thanks to several civil cases winding their way through court on our own soil).

Now, this decade of sustained advocacy finally has paid off.

Touted as the “first of its kind in the world” and part of the government’s “progressive trade agenda,” the newly-announced human rights Ombudsperson—and its promised multi-stakeholder Advisory Body—will provide a fresh start for Canada to take leadership for responsible business conduct abroad.

Last week, MCC joined the voices of Canadian civil society in welcoming the Ombudsperson announcement in a letter to the Trade Minister. “If properly implemented,” the letter says, “this position will help hold Canadian companies accountable for human rights violations overseas, provide remedy for victims of abuse, and prevent future harm for local communities.”

If properly implemented…

Herein lies the crux of the matter.

As the government now begins the work of building the office and hiring its very first Ombudsperson, key questions still need to be firmly answered.

Will the office…

…be fully independent from business and government at all stages of the process?

…be properly funded and staffed, so as to undertake complex investigations?

…be entirely transparent, making its progress, findings, and final recommendations for remedy publicly available?

…be able to monitor progress on recommendations and settlement agreements?

and, most importantly…

…have the authority to summon witnesses and compel disclosure of corporate documents?

The Government of Canada has the opportunity to take a real, global leadership role here. And civil society partners like KAIROS are “cautiously optimistic.”

But the credibility of the office hinges on its implementation.

Lend your voice (with our easy email tool!) in thanking the Canadian government and expressing your support for an effective and fully independent Ombudsperson with strong investigative powers!

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

***Check out CNCA’s great infographic on criteria for an effective Ombudsperson

A landmine-free world? Not there yet

Twenty years ago this week, history was made.

On December 3-4, 1997, the Mine Ban Treaty opened for signature at the National Conference Centre, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill.

As Former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy put pen to paper and affixed the first signature to the landmark treaty, thousands gathered in Ottawa—state delegates, throngs of media, NGOs, grassroots peace activists, and even a bus-load of landmine activists who had traveled several continents to get here.

That day, they accomplished what had felt nearly impossible just 14 months before—an international treaty that entirely banned a weapon known to cause indiscriminate physical and psychological harm to civilians around the world.

Sometimes referred to as the Ottawa Convention—though officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction—this treaty is arguably one of the world’s most successful.

Photo by MAG Sri Lanka

In the mid-1990s, roughly 26,000 people were victims of anti-personnel landmines every single year—killed or permanently maimed, their lives altered in an instant.

Twenty years later, 162 states have become treaty signatories; more than 51 million stockpiled landmines have been destroyed; 27 countries and 1 territory once plagued by contamination have declared themselves mine-free; and production by the majority of the world’s landmine producers has ceased.

Just as importantly, the Treaty has helped make landmines one of the most stigmatized weapons in the world. At the end of the Cold War, landmines were an accepted component of virtually every state’s military arsenal. Fast forward to today, and international norms have developed that discourage any country—signatory or not—from using them. In fact, many non-signatory states (the U.S., for instance) are in de-facto compliance with the Convention.

This groundbreaking instrument also has broader significance for the ways in which it shaped future arms-control activism.

Back in 1996, most countries favoured working through traditional UN disarmament channels. But as negotiations within these structures (i.e. the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) were resulting in diplomatic stalemate, Canada did the “un-diplomatic” thing. It stuck its neck out—proclaiming that by December of 1997 Canada would hold a conference to sign a new treaty banning landmines. And it would do so by bypassing conventional channels altogether.

This alternative (and, at that time, unusual!) diplomatic model broadened the scope of participation to include civil society in the negotiations. While not an easy sell for many governments, this innovative process, Axworthy recalls, gave “participants…equal standing at the table regardless of their position. Mine victims sat next to ministers discussing strategy, reflecting an emerging sense of partnership between government and civil groups.”[1]

Within this context, NGOs and landmine victims—mobilized under the banner of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (a Nobel Peace Prize winner!)—made their case, providing compelling documentation on the devastating humanitarian impacts these weapons had.

In the end, this alternative process achieved an outright ban on a weapon that countries had once argued were indispensable. It was a game-changer.

One only need to look to later treaties on cluster bombs (2008), small arms (2014), and, most recently, nuclear weapons (2017), to see how NGOs, governments, and civil society have come together again and again to put humanitarian concerns at the center of disarmament conversations.

At this twenty-year anniversary of the Landmine Treaty, there obviously are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

In Ottawa this week we did just that. On Monday, December 4, NGOs gathered with government officials, diplomats, de-miners, and landmine survivors to commemorate the success of the Treaty. The conference, aptly-named “Unfinished Business: The Ottawa Treaty at 20,” explored the “wins” of the last twenty years, but it also threw down the many challenges that remain.

Let’s make no mistake—there is much business to be finished. Landmines are not an issue of the past.

With well over 60 countries still contaminated, people can’t travel freely, return home post-conflict, farm their land, or regain their livelihoods (check out the Landmine Monitor for annual statistics).

And as we heard this week, the world is facing a new landmine emergency. The number of people killed or injured by anti-personnel mines and other explosive devices has increased in recent years, hitting a ten-year high in 2015.

As organizations like Mines Advisory Group have reported, the regional conflict in Iraq and Syria (not to mention Ukraine and Myanmar) has resulted in a scale of contamination not seen for decades. Improvised explosive devices and locally-manufactured mines in these contexts are “sensitive enough to be triggered by a child’s footsteps but powerful enough to disable a tank,” MAG said at the conference.

All of this within the context of a global decline in funding.

Thankfully, on Monday Canada announced almost $12 million in funding for mine action projects in places like Iraq, Syria, Cambodia, Laos, Ukraine, and Colombia.

While a far cry from the $62.8 million Canada contributed at its peak in 1997, this funding is crucial. As the Landmine 2025 campaign is pushing, global support for clearance must be re-energized if signatories are to achieve treaty commitments.

And as Axworthy also noted this week, Canada could also lead in efforts to invest in new technologies for clearance.[2]

In other words, even as we celebrate the Treaty’s remarkable achievements, we must also recognize that much work remains. Let’s finish the job!

By Jenn Wiebe, Ottawa Office Director

[1] Lloyd Axworthy, Navigating a New World: Canada’s Global Future, Chapter 6: The Ottawa Process, pg. 127.
[2] Check out groups like Demine Robotics in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON.

We’ve got to be bold: Lessons from globally-renowned peacebuilders

What is Canada’s legacy?

Across the country in 2017, especially in Ottawa, this question seems unavoidable – everyone is talking about legacy. As we near the celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday, people are asking, what is our current legacy? What will future generations of Canadians say in 50, 100, or 150 years? We can’t escape it – on the barriers around construction sites, in city parks and at government events we see the signs: “Canada 150.”

By the time it’s over, 2017 will no doubt be a year of unending festivals, cheesy punch lines, and romanticized political speeches, glossing over complex and often disturbing elements of our history.

But beyond the fluff of “Canada 150” celebrations there is a real opportunity to build a legacy of leadership and peace in Canada and around the world. A legacy built on actions, not just words.

This was the challenge for Canada a few weeks ago from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. She was joined by fellow global renowned peacebuilder and human rights activist Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and President of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

On April 12 I had the privilege of attending an event where Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Matt DeCourcey and NDP Critic for Foreign Affairs Héne Laverdière joined Leymah and Yanar to discuss innovation in Canada’s development programming. The two global peacebuilders challenged Canada to be a leader when it comes to international assistance – funding and partnering with innovative grassroots organizations and individuals to promote peace and justice from the ground up.

Earlier that same day Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai had addressed Canadian Parliament upon receiving honourary Canadian citizenship. She praised some of Canada’s humanitarian commitments of recent years, all while challenging Canada to be a leader in supporting education for girls and young women as a means to promote development, peace, and a better world for all: “If Canada leads, the world will follow,” Malala said.

Leymah grabbed onto Malala’s message, challenging the Canadian government to put its money and resources where its mouth is. For Leymah and Yanar, this means funding grassroots women’s and human rights organizations. “There are 10,000 Malalas out there…we just need to find them!” Leymah said. The point that both women emphasized is that these grassroots peace, community development, and human rights organizations are showcasing innovation and action, getting things done.

It’s a common misconception that local organizations are sitting around, waiting for funding from Western governments and civil society organizations. But this is definitely not the case. People are always looking for ways to better their local communities and are doing so every day, in difficult circumstances and with few resources. What outside funding of these local initiatives does enable is for local champions and actors to expand their impact. At MCC we seek to partner with local organizations for the same reasons, and together support great work being done within communities around the world.

But where does the Government of Canada stand on funding local partners? That’s a good question!

Last spring and summer, MCC, along with dozens of other organizations and individuals, participated in the International Assistance Review, spearheaded by Global Affairs Canada and the Hon Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development. While the government has published some of the major feedback from the review, after almost a year there has yet to be any official policy tabled.

And what does Budget 2017 say about Canada’s commitment to international assistance? Not much! No new spending money has been allocated for Canada’s international assistance. The programming priorities can still shift, but by not increasing the overall spending Canada is taking zero steps in 2017 to move toward the internationally-recognized goal of 0.7% spending on Official Development Assistance. Yet in pre-budget consultations, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development identified this as a goal to be reached by 2030. Instead, Canada is staying at about 0.26% spending for international assistance, which is not much higher than our all-time low.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bill Morneau hopes that organizations and groups will “do more with less,” as the government is focusing on increasing Foreign Direct Investment private sector initiatives, rather than investing more in grassroots peace and development organizations.

So, what does that mean? What should the direction of Canadian assistance funding be?

In the spirit of Canada 150, Leymah directed her comments to Parliamentary Secretary DeCourcey, sighting a joint Match International/Nobel Women’s Initiative campaign that challenges Canada to mark this historic year by making 150 new contributions to 150 small grassroots peace, development or human rights women’s organization around the world.

While genuine consultation and working with the grassroots communities takes time and flexibility, and it can be messy, the results speak for themselves: change and action from the ground up!

They urged the government to make Canada 150 count for something tangible.

Leymah and Yanar both see this year as the moment to speak out and act for the future. “A new legacy is waiting…It can be grabbed now, or by a future government!” Yanar challenged.

Now is the time: turn words into something tangible. Let’s make a new legacy of action!

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa. 

Another effort to hold mining companies to account

Rumour has it that the federal budget may come down sooner rather than later. Civil society organizations are hoping to see some positive policy signals when it’s tabled—from more money committed to international development, to the establishment of a federal ombudsperson for the extractives sector (the mining, oil and gas industry).

Establishing an ombudsperson with the power to investigate Canadian mining companies implicated in wrongdoing abroad is something experts have advised the government on since 2007.

Liberals supported the idea of an ombudsperson while they were in Opposition (in fact, four of the five political parties have supported it), and there has been chatter around Ottawa for the last few months that they’ve been “seriously reviewing” the creation of such a position.

This is welcome news.

Home to the majority of the world’s mining companies, Canada is a superpower in the global extractives industry, with thousands of active projects in more than 100 countries.

Marlin Mine

The Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala is owned by Canadian mining giant Goldcorp. MCC photo by Anna Vogt

Unfortunately, Canadian mining companies have a mixed record. While mining has the potential to bring socioeconomic benefits to a host country, jobs are often short-lived, financial benefits to the economy meager (particularly in mining-rich areas), and communities not consulted. As our partners have told us, mining often displaces communities, destroys agricultural land, contaminates water, exacerbates social tensions, and leaves long-term ecological damage in its wake. What’s more, people who defend their rights often lack protection and are even targeted by threats of violence.

To promote the industry, the Canadian government provides strong diplomatic and financial support to mining companies in a variety of ways. And although the government has now implemented mandatory revenue disclosure requirements for mining, oil, and gas companies—something MCC actively supported—most of the accountability mechanisms in Canada are entirely voluntary in nature.

For this reason, Canada’s Corporate Social Responsibility strategy has been widely critiqued by civil society actors (and the UN) as falling short of what is needed to hold mining companies accountable to human rights, labour, and environmental standards.

How do people harmed by the overseas operations of Canadian extractive companies seek redress?

Currently, Canada has two mechanisms that can receive complaints by local communities—the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (2009), and the OECD National Contact Point (2000).

From the outset, these mechanisms have been widely criticized as being toothless—lacking in independence, investigatory powers, and the ability to recommend sanctions for non-compliance. And, given that neither mechanism can obligate companies to participate (a rather significant problem!), they have not proven effective in resolving cases or curbing corruption.

Enter the Open for Justice Campaign—an initiative of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), KAIROS, Development aopen-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDnd Peace, and others. This campaign calls for the establishment of an independent extractives-sector ombudsperson, as well as legislated access to Canadian courts for people seriously harmed by overseas mining operations (which is really gaining steam, thanks to recent high-profile court decisions).

Last spring, over 50 Canadian civil society organizations, including MCC, became signatories to a public statement that echoed these calls.

An effective ombudsperson—operating at arms length from the government—would have the power to investigate complaints, recommend the suspension of government support to companies found in non-compliance, and be mandated to perform these functions regardless of a company’s willingness to participate.

In the fall, the CNCA even launched model legislation—the Global Leadership in Business and Human Rights Actto provide the blueprint for creating such a non-judicial grievance mechanism.

Not only would this provide access-to-remedy for affected communities, but it could benefit companies in the long-run (we’ve even seen some pro-ombudsperson commentary from industry!). When extractive projects generate conflict, unless community grievances are effectively resolved, companies risk operating delays and negative publicity.

Through this, and other effective mechanisms that put human rights at the centre of the government’s approach, Canada can help facilitate an operating environment where responsible business practices are recognized and rewarded.

Of course, a more comprehensive review of the government’s CSR strategy would be welcomed. Given Canada’s status as a global mining power, it ought to be part of a rigorous foreign policy debate.

In the meantime, please let your MP know that you support the establishment of an independent and effective ombudsperson office to oversee Canadian mining, oil and gas projects abroad

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Will Canada “be back” as a disarmament champion?

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines—a disarmament effort that radically curtailed global use (and virtually eliminated trade) of a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

Canada’s political leadership was front-and-centre in this historic achievement.images1

Since then, great international strides have been made to establish agreements and norms against other weapons that cause grievous suffering to civilians.

Following the model of the landmine treaty, cluster bombs were categorically banned a decade later in Norway. And, in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty became the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional arms.

Where is Canada in all of this? Well, in the twenty years since the Ottawa Treaty captured the world’s attention, Canada’s disarmament leadership has waned.

Once a major donor in mine action, Canada’s funding dropped significantly after 2010. Then, in 2015, the previous government passed (with little political fallout) widely-condemned cluster munitions ratification legislation that contravened the spirit and letter of the Convention. And, to date, Canada is the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark Arms Trade Treaty.

While we have seen “sunny ways” on various issues since last fall, there has been barely a whisper on disarmament…until last week.

At a speech in Toronto on October 28 during Disarmament Week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion acknowledged Ottawa’s historic role in banning landmines, and signaled a number of government priorities for arms control and disarmament—some positive, some a bit ambiguous, and some not-so-good.

Acknowledging the rather troubling fact that Canada has yet to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, Dion promised to make good on his mandate by “introducing the legislation necessary to join the ATT in the House of Commons by the end of this year.”

Civil society will be eagerly awaiting its full ratification into Canadian law.

06B18LancerCBU2Dion also recognized the need to “make more progress in the elimination of cluster munitions.” Though decidedly short on details, this is welcome news if it means Canada will increase investments in land clearance and victims assistance (as it did recently for landmines in Colombia).

Less welcome, however, is the government’s inaction on closing the controversial legal loophole that allows joint military operations with countries outside the treaty. Such inaction is curious considering that while in Opposition, the Liberals and NDP pushed (unsuccessfully) for amendments that would have categorically ruled out any connection to the use of these lethal weapons.

But the most problematic? Canada’s take on nuclear weapons.

According to Dion’s speech, a ban on nukes—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons (of which there are still over 15,000)—seems to be a utopian dream.

Canada recently voted against a widely-supported UN resolution to start a process towards negotiations for a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons—backing instead the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty as the “more realistic” approach.

Minister Dion argues a ban isn’t possible, isn’t practical, and is divisive. Disarmament activists, however, argue that the world is rapidly changing, and the step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear arsenals is not only tired, it’s completely broken.

nukefreenow-620x310

Courtesy of ICAN

As billions continue to be spent modernizing nuclear arsenals, a ban is needed. And we should be under no illusion that there will ever be a “perfect” security environment in which to undertake this Herculean task.

Decades ago, a total ban on landmines would have been unthinkable—arguments about national security, military necessity, and their importance in joint military operations were used then, as they are now. Yet the thinkable became possible thanks, in part, to the standard-setting leadership Canada took in advancing humanitarian considerations, even in the face of aggressive opposition from allies.

Indeed, implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

As a Project Ploughshares staff once said, “advocating arms control and disarmament is an incremental, often tedious activity with surprisingly rapid and successful exceptions—like the Ottawa Process.”

Big change can happen when there is political will.

Does Canada have the will to “be back” as a disarmament champion?

By Jenn Wiebe, Director of the Ottawa Office

From a bunker to a ban: the new push to abolish nuclear weapons

If you’ve never had a chance to wander the eerie, underground halls of the once top-secret Diefenbunker, you should put this on your bucket list.

Built in 1959 during the height of the Cold War, this four-story bomb shelter—located evacuation-distance from downtown Ottawa and made to withstand a 5-megaton blast—was intended to serve as emergency government headquarters for 535 Canadian political and military officials in the event of a nuclear attack.

The bunker, colloquially named after former Prime Minister Diefenbaker, was never used for its intended purpose. Thankfully, it never needed to be.

Walking through the bunker is like being in a time-warp. The iconic blast tunnel leads to 300 rooms filled with vintDiefenbunkerage typewriters and telephones, cryptographic areas, a shower room to wash off nuclear contamination, and a war Cabinet room—all hearkening back to a time when the fear of nuclear catastrophe gripped politicians and citizens alike.

Today, public angst has diminished. School children aren’t receiving lessons on how to “duck and cover” in the event of nuclear war. There is a virtual media blackout on the topic. And the bunker, a fascinating relic of our Cold War past, is now a public museum.

And yet when it comes to nuclear weapons, unfortunately there is still plenty to be worried about.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, there are still over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals—nearly 5,000 of which are launch ready, and almost 2,000 of which are on high-alert status.

A few weeks ago, I attended Rendezvous-Ottawa 2014—a two-day conference on nuclear abolition hosted by various organizations such as the International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Project Ploughshares, and Mines Action Canada.

For two, chock-full days, we heard about the impacts of nuclear weapons, exploottawa-clear1ring the inability of any city to respond with effective emergency relief after a detonation, and learning about the long-term and far-reaching devastation to ecosystems and human health (a.k.a. nuclear famine) in the nasty wake of an explosion.

I must admit that by noon on the first day, my spirits were a little dampened.

The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons—utterly indiscriminate in effect—are catastrophic.

The world is rapidly changing, and the incremental reduction of nuclear weapons is not working. The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction is no longer a viable argument—if, indeed, it ever was—for keeping these (insane) weapons in the world’s arsenals. The possibilities for nuclear Armageddon due to system malfunction, human error, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by extremist non-state actors mean we continue to walk the razor’s edge.

Yet power politics, state intransigence, the profit-driven military industrial complex, and lack of public awareness create obstacles to getting rid of these weapons once and for all.

So, how do we revive the conversation? Well, there was also good news at this conference.

Disarmament efforts continue in earnest, with the humanitarian imperative becoming the rallying cry for renewed attention. When you leave discussions to technical experts in our state capitals, it is easy to get stuck in the weeds. But when the need to abolish nuclear weapons is framed as a humanitarian issue, we all become experts.

Given that nuclear weapons states are in violation of their commitments under Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—they are required to eliminate their nuclear weapons, not spend obscene amounts of money modernizing their arsenals!—many civil society groups are pushing for a global ban on the weapon.

And when civil society gets behind something, magic can happen.

Ottawa is the site of the historic landmine ban treaty. When it was negotiated in 1997, civil society groups successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the international ban on cluster bombs roughly ten years later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. A robust treaty calling for an unequivocal ban on landmines ultimately helped stigmatize this indiscriminate weapon, leading even non-party states (like the U.S.) to adapt to new norms in military theater.

Can a ban on nuclear weapons do the same?

nukefreenow-620x310

Courtesy of ICAN

The International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) believes it could. They suggest a “ban treaty“—a legally binding instrument to prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling, and deployment of nucs—could be important even without the participation of the permanent members of the Security Council.

Such a treaty could not, of course, force nuclear weapons states to do anything. But it would lift up a global norm to project into the public and, in doing so, give a boost to other ongoing disarmament efforts (after all, it’s a lot easier to prevent the proliferation of weapons when they are considered illegal!). A ban treaty could stand alongside ongoing efforts to achieve a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Where is Canada in all of this?

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a historic motion made by the House and the Senate “to engage in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention as proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General” and “to deploy a major world-wide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.”

Canada has never taken concrete steps to implement this motion. It is not a foreign policy priority. In fact, Canada has been increasingly out of step with international efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Can the humanitarian angle be a catalyst for dusting the cobwebs off of this conversation and generate the momentum we need?

By Jenn Wiebe, Interim Ottawa Office Director

**See the fall special issue of the Ploughshares Monitor on nuclear disarmament for further reading!