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.

Peace, protest and patriotism: Muted voices from WWI

This week’s guest writer is Zacharie Leclair, administrative assistant for MCC Québec and member of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Board.  Zacharie holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the Université du Québec à Montréal and is also the author of Charles R. Crane and Wilsonian Progressivism, published in 2017.

At first it seemed ironic to me: I was taking part in a symposium on the history of conscientious objection held at a museum exhibiting artefacts of the First World War. The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (Missouri) was indeed hosting a conference called “Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I.” All sorts of people gathered there: historians, activists, archivists, representatives of various organizations, church laymen, independent researchers and many more. All had a common commitment to peace.

Though the mood was generally cheerful, a general distress seemed to permeate the public, especially those from the United States. After I presented a paper on President Woodrow Wilson’s response to Mennonite conscientious objectors during the First World War, to my surprise people appeared more interested in asking me about my perspective — as a French-speaking Mennonite (Brethren) from Canada — on the current political situation in the U.S.

Zacharie Leclaire

Zacharie Leclair speaking at “Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I” conference in Kansas City, Missouri, October 2017. Photo: Nan Macy

The social and political climate in the U.S. feels more tense and sharp, more polarized, than ever.  Many Americans wonder why their people seem to become more prone to violence and less united. Armed massive killings are now frequent, as well as protests and even public display of extremism.

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Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895, was a U.S. journalist, orator and leader in the anti-slavery movement. A former slave himself, he became the first African-American to hold a high-ranking position in the U.S. government. Photo: http://www.biography.com.

Lately football star player Colin Kaepernik launched a movement to express African-American discontent with police abuse and injustice by sitting, then kneeling, during the U.S. national anthem. Kaepernick attracted much contempt and criticism from some politicians and this might even have prevented him from securing a new contract as a free agent. Others wanted to see in him a beacon of justice reminiscent of the 19th century great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reminding that Kaepernik had sponsored a worthy and important cause through peaceful means. Strikingly, this issue polarized the public opinion along traditional racial lines.

Back at my conference, I was questioned as to what extent patriotism was historically a cause of division instead of unity. I offered an audacious answer.

I was born and raised in the province of Québec, a fundamentally nationalistic society.  The social and political life revolves around the deeply felt necessity of preserving and promoting its French heritage, through a lyrical as well as political patriotism, in face of a perpetual risk of cultural dissolution into the larger North American English-speaking world. Yet one can hardly think of a more peaceful, less militaristic, place than Québec. The usual correlation of patriotism and militarism, as a root cause of so many wars and conflicts, does not stand.

To my audience’s surprise, I added that I liked to conceive of protest movements as patriotic deeds. If patriotism means to love one’s country, in my Christian and French-Canadian perspective the command to love your neighbour as yourself should encompass loving one’s own people.

Avowedly Christian himself, Kaepernik publicly stated his support for his own Black people in the U.S. by reminding all in a peaceful and eloquent way the principle of equality contained in the American constitution. Out of love for his own, for his country, even for the constitution, he protested injustice. I concluded by saying that we should consider Kaepernik as a patriot, and protest as signs of solidarity instead of signs of disunity.

As a historian interested in conscientious objection, I believe that if leaders of the past could have conceived of war resisters as democratic heroes rather than as traitors or cowards — if they could have heard their voices instead of muting them — the last century might have avoided all or some of its darkest hours.

Plaque for Hutterite COs (002)

A plaque honouring Hutterite COs who were imprisoned, tortured and died at Fort Leavenworth military prison. Photo: History News Network.

In short, this is not only a plea for the critical study of history, but also a plea in favour of peaceful activism drawn from the love of the people – an activism of which MCC has undoubtedly been one of the most relevant and constant champions for almost a century.

 

Out of step on nuclear disarmament

The Humanitarian Disarmament Forum was abuzz with a celebratory spirit. It’s not hard to imagine why.

After all, the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN for short) had just won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. And the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the result of years of hard work by millions of global campaigners—had opened for signature at the UN merely a few weeks earlier.

In the world of humanitarian disarmament, history had been made yet again.

On October 14-15, I had the privilege of joining coalition colleagues from Mines Action Canada (MAC) and Project Ploughshares at the annual Humanitarian Disarmament Forum in New York. For two, chock-full days, representatives from global coalitions working to protect civilians from the catastrophic effects of small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, fully autonomous weapons systems (aka “killer robots”), and nukes came together to share insights from their advocacy efforts.

Coming on the heels of the ground-breaking nuclear ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, the joy at the forum was palpable.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads are still in the world’s arsenals, many of them launch ready and on high-alert status. This means that the possibilities for nuclear catastrophe due to global tensions, human error, system malfunction, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by non-state actors are far too close for comfort.

The international community has already stepped up to ban biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), landmines (1997), and cluster bombs (2008). Finally, more than 70 years after the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons—have also been banned.

Front row: Setsuko Thurlow and Ray Acheson. Back row: Allison Pytlak, Cesar Jaramillo (Ploughshares), and Erin Hunt (MAC). Photo courtesy of Erin Hunt

Adopted in the heat of July, the 10-page treaty (backed by 122 nations) outlines a categorical prohibition on the development, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, or stockpiling of nukes or any other nuclear explosive devices.

Global campaigners like ICAN as well as Project Ploughshares and Mines Action Canada worked tirelessly, attending ban treaty negotiations as civil society delegates. Atomic bomb survivors (the Hibakusha) and victims of nuclear test explosions around the world were also critical players, providing, in the words of ICAN, “searing testimony and unstinting advocacy” on the humanitarian imperative for a ban.

As the shadow of nuclear conflict looms ever-larger in our current political reality, the new treaty fills a huge gap in international law.

Yes, there was strong opposition from nuclear-armed states (i.e. the P5 on the UN Security Council) and their allies. And, no, these states are not expected to sign-on to the treaty any time soon.

But other UN treaties have been effective even when key nations failed to sign up to them.

When the Mine Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1997 in Ottawa, civil society successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the Treaty to ban cluster bombs roughly a decade later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. 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.

Now, the prohibition on nuclear weapons marks a shift in the nuclear abolition debate.

Whither Canada in this global conversation?

According to his speech last year during Disarmament Week, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion claimed that a ban on nuclear weapons without the support of nuclear weapons states was a utopian dream. It was impractical, impossible, and divisive.

October 13th at First Committee, 72nd Session, Thematic Discussion on Nuclear Weapons

Since then, Canada’s actions have continued to be out-of-step with this global movement. Despite claiming its support for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the Canadian government not only boycotted the treaty negotiations but (rather than simply abstain) voted against the historic UN resolution that launched the process—a position influenced, in part, by U.S. pressure on its NATO allies.

Instead, Canada backs a “step-by-step,” incrementalist (and completely broken) approach to reducing nuclear arsenals, including, among other things, the proposal for a fissile material cut-off treaty, a “step” that has faced deadlock for years. I heard this support reiterated by the Canadian delegate’s remarks as I sat in on a First Committee meeting at the UN a few weeks back.

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a motion calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament. What happened?

Far from “being back,” Canada seems to be inching backwards on disarmament.

Encourage your Member of Parliament to sign ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge and send a message to Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, urging support for the treaty!


By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

No Way to Treat a Child

It was the middle of the night when Israeli soldiers came to 15-year-old Jarrah Masalmeh’s home to arrest him.

Jarrah Mesalmeh in the barbershop he runs below his family home. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Over the next five days, Jarrah’s family had no idea where he was being detained.

When they attended court during the trial ten days later, the family still couldn’t speak to their son.

Eventually convicted of throwing stones—something he says he didn’t do—Jarrah was sentenced to nine months in military detention, in a jail far away from his home.

When he was released, he wasn’t the same young man.

Unfortunately, Jarrah’s Masalmeh’s story is far from an isolated incident.

Two legal systems…two different experiences

Every year, hundreds of Palestinian children in the West Bank—like adults—face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment under an Israeli military detention system that denies them basic rights.

Most are accused of throwing stones.

Since 1967, Israel has operated two separate legal systems in the same territory. While Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are subject to military law (where army commanders have full executive, legislative and judicial authority), Israeli settlers in the West Bank are subject to civilian law.

  • In more than half of all cases, arrest happens in the middle of the night by heavily armed Israeli soldiers;
  • During transfer, children are often blindfolded, hooded and/or painfully restrained with zip ties;
  • In the majority of cases, children are interrogated without legal counsel and without access to a parent or guardian;
  • Interrogations tend to be coercive, including verbal abuses, threats and physical violence that ultimately results in a confession;
  • Children are often shown, or made to sign, documentation written in Hebrew, a language most do not understand;
  • After sentencing, more than half of Palestinian child detainees are transferred from occupied West Bank to prisons inside of Israel—a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Upon release from prison, these children are typically traumatized, cautious about ever leaving the house for fear of going straight to prison again without question.

Relationships with their parents become strained, as there is a sense that they can no longer be protected.

There is a profound impact on children and families alike.

Why does it matter?

Beyond the moral questions, these practices are all in violation of international law, which protects children against ill-treatment when in contact with law enforcement, military and judicial institutions.

For instance, the UN Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)—both ratified by Israel in 1991—prohibit the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment under any circumstances. Full stop.

The CRC outlines, among other things, that:

  • The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions (Article 3);
  • Children should only be arrested and detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time (37);
  • Children have the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment (37); and
  • Children in custody have a right to prompt access to legal advice and to a prompt hearing before an independent court (37).

In other words, Israeli authorities have no right to treat Palestinian and Israeli children differently under the civilian and military legal systems.

What can we do in Canada?

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, third party countries like Canada have an obligation to hold Israel to account for these violations—by cooperating with other states to bring an end to the situation, refusing to recognize the situation as lawful, and abstaining from giving aid or assistance.

In short, Canada has international obligations.

The No Way to Treat a Child campaign—led by Defence for Children International – Palestine—is urging Canada to live up to these responsibilities, in word and in deed.

As a first step, the campaign is inviting Canadians to sign a petition to the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, calling on Canada to prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and to hold the Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systemic ill-treatment of Palestinian child detainees.

We invite you to learn more, and join us as we work to draw attention to the situation faced by Palestinian children and their families!

By Jenn Wiebe, Ottawa Office Director

MCC participates in this initiative in both Canada and the U.S. In Canada, MCC’s engagement with No Way to Treat a Child is part of its own A Cry for Home campaign. 

 

Swords into ploughshares

When Ernie Regehr and Murray Thomson started Project Ploughshares in 1976, their initiative was only supposed to last six months.

Just over forty years and many awards and accomplishments later, Ploughshares stands as one of the leading peace research organizations in Canada.

How did it all begin?

The seeds of Ploughshares were first sown four decades ago when two groups of people, each working separately on a common concern, came together.

Ernie Regehr—witnessing the links between militarism and under-development while working in southern Africa—teamed up with Murray Thomson (then-Director of CUSO) in 1976 to create a Working Group called “Ploughshares.” With the help of a bit of seed money and support (from CUSO, Canadian Friends Service Committee, Conrad Grebel University College, and Mennonite Central Committee), they studied the role of the international arms trade in impeding social and economic progress in developing countries.

Meanwhile, that same year, John Foster of the United Church had also convened a Working Group called “Canadian Defence Alternatives,” which aimed to educate the public on the increasing militarization of national security policy in Canada.

When these two groups merged together, Project Ploughshares was born.

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“Let us beat our swords into ploughshares,” by Evgeny Vuchetich (for the UN, 1959).

Emerging as the ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament, Ploughshares—formally established as a division of the Canadian Council of Churches—provided a critical assessment of the expansion of the Canadian arms industry, the nuclear arms race, and the impact of the world’s massive and growing stock of “swords” on security and development.

Not surprisingly, calling for the transformation of “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) was not an easy sell with political decision-makers.

As staff wrote in the very first issue of the The Ploughshares Monitor (which hit the shelves in April of 1977),

It is a common assertion of federal politicians and government officials that there is “no constituency” for peace issues. Public interest in the arms race, nuclear proliferation, and related issues is said to be minimal, making it difficult to place these items on the national political agenda. However, people with an active concern about these issues know otherwise. There is a “peace constituency” out there….

Over the decades, Ploughshares has proven that the peace constituency is alive and well!

Our office copy of the very first Ploughshares Monitor (Vol. 1, No.1)!

Serving as the focal point for broader church and civil society participation, they have shaped public policy conversations on some of the most complex international security challenges—from nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, to conventional arms control, weaponization of space, reduction of armed violence, and more.

Some of this work has focused on mobilizing Canadians to act for peace.

In the 1980s, for instance, during a time of deep public anxiety about the Cold War, Ploughshares not only led a high-level church leaders’ delegation to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on nuclear disarmament, but they organized Canadians to send two million postcards to MPs, urging them to oppose the modernization of nuclear arsenals.

Later, in the lead-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, Ploughshares co-wrote Prepare for Peace in Iraq, a statement endorsed by 40,000 Canadians, which helped influence the government’s decision not to participate in the “coalition of the willing.”

Other elements of Ploughshares’ work may have been less visible to the broader public, but have played a significant role in furthering various agendas of the global disarmament community.

indexIn 1986, for example, they created the only database on Canadian military production and exports, still used by international organizations researching the global arms industry.

Since 1987, they’ve published the annual (and popular!) Armed Conflicts Report, which monitors the number and nature of conflicts worldwide.

And in 2003, they initiated the annual Space Security Index project, the first and only comprehensive and integrated assessment of space security.

In addition to providing technical expertise, Ploughshares has co-founded some important coalitions (the International Action Network on Small Arms, Mines Action Canada, etc.) and provided thoughtful leadership on others (like Control Arms Coalition). This civil society collaboration has been particularly important in the development of a convention like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Since the 1990s, Ploughshares, in partnership with other NGOs, actively and persistently promoted a treaty to regulate the trade and transfer of conventional weapons. In 2013, this decades-long endeavor finally paid off when, after rigorous negotiations, the UN adopted the ATT—a monumental achievement for the disarmament community.

Over the last number of years, they’ve weighed-in on many important public debates: in 2010, they critiqued the planned Joint Strike Fighter Jet program, long before it became top political news; this last year they’ve questioned the government’s $15 billion Saudi arms deal through innumerable op-eds and interviews; and, most recently, they’ve called out Canada—once a disarmament champion—for its absence at UN negotiations to create a worldwide nuclear ban.

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Ploughshares staff, past and present (photograph by Emilia Zibaei–at the 40th anniversary celebration; from the Ploughshares website)

As new staff have come on board, Ploughshares has been able to delve more deeply into research on fully autonomous weapons systems, and to expand into new areas such as refugees and forced migration.

Known for its credible research, precise analysis, and long-term commitment to advancing policies for peace, Project Ploughshares as consistently punched well above its weight.

Where will the next 40 years lead?

Jenn Wiebe is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office and serves on the Governing Committee of Project Ploughshares 

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.

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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

What’s the 411 on the Arms Trade Treaty?

During the marathon (by Canadian standards!) election campaign, the Liberal Party claimed its vision for “a more compassionate Canada”—a “sunnier” Canada that would re-engage multilateral institutions, re-invest in public diplomacy, and reverse the decline in foreign aid.

Three months after their win, the Liberals have moved into Langevin Block. Political staffers are slowly (but surely) taking their positions. And everyone in Ottawa has hit the ground running, trying to give legs to the many promises made on the campaign trail.

The slogan around town is, “Canada’s back.” 

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All photos courtesy Ploughshares.ca

As the newly-appointed Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion has a role to play in rebooting Canada’s image (with his renamed department). His mandate letter, while containing a dash of politics-as-usual, also signals some decisive foreign policy shifts—even a re-commitment to peace operations, mediation, and conflict prevention.

To what extent any security paradigm-shift will be implemented remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one encouraging step is the promise to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Given the widespread accessibility of cheap weapons has been a key factor in exacerbating conflict and fueling displacement around the world, MCC welcomes this promise. The illicit flow of small arms and light weapons (even a steady trickle across porous borders) can wreak havoc, destabilizing communities, negatively impacting development, supporting the emergence of extremist movements, and even sustaining the power of autocratic regimes. Weapons diversion is, according to the UN Secretary-General, a “colossal problem around the world.”

Massive injections of arms from the outside can have a destabilizing effect across entire regions. After the fall of Gadhafi, weapons that were poured into Libya by the international community—which was arming various actors within the conflict—began feeding terrorist movements in Mali, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. It’s also no secret that so-called Islamic State militants are well-armed because they’ve laid claim to Soviet, Chinese, and American weapons seized from over-run (U.S.-backed) Iraqi military bases.

In other words, the international community—with its $1.76 trillion annual arms trade—has a role to play in ensuring volatile contexts don’t get flooded with weapons that provide corrupt governments or armed groups with the primary means of perpetuating violence and intimidation.

Bullet Proof treatyEnter the Arms Trade Treaty. Coming into force just in time for Christmas of 2014, the ATT is the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional (non-nuclear) arms, ranging from light weapons to fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, and warships, as well as their related ammunition, parts, and components. The treaty imposes strict conditions on arms transfers (export, import, transit, transshipment, and brokering), requiring states to assess the potential for weapons to be used in committing serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.

All said, it’s a crucially important convention. But, of course, it ain’t perfect.

Critics will note (quite rightly) a central weakness of the ATT—that the assessment and authorization of whether an arms transfer risks undermining peace and security is undertaken solely by the exporting state. In other words, the treaty doesn’t really challenge the political interests of arms exporters (not a huge shocker; after all, what did we expect?). And while there are transparency measures, there is no enforcement regime.

Yet the creation of the ATT acknowledges the enormous costs of not regulating the arms trade. Besides, what other instrument puts states on the hot seat, forcing them to justify their arms sales to gross human rights violators?

So, whither Canada?

Well, to date, Canada is the only member of the G7 and the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark treaty.

The rationale of the previous government? That Canada already has a strong export-control system for weapons.

Canada’s track record, however, tells a different story. Recent deals to countries such as Colombia, Nigeria, Libya, and, most notably, Saudi Arabia, raise troubling questions about how the government determines who it sells weapons to.

Federal export controls require that when selling arms to countries with persistent records of serious human rights abuses, Canada must first obtain assurances that there is no reasonable risk the weapons could be used against civilian populations.

Stop the violenceGiven that Saudi Arabia annually tops the charts as being among the worst human rights violators in the world, how could Canada’s (largest-ever) $15 billion contract to sell armoured vehicles to the Saudi National Guard pass muster? Far from being merely “jeeps” (as Trudeau called them on the campaign trail), these vehicles—some of which will be weaponized with turrets and cannons supplied by a European subcontractor—are surely capable of mass destruction.

Still, the foreign affairs minister is standing by this contract for its economic value (though taking some flak for this position). Yet acceding to the ATT is in his mandate. It’s right there in his letter.

Yes, I recognize that foreign policy is, as one columnist recently put it, “more about dark arts than sunny ways.” State interests rule. But I’m still holding out hope. Effective arms control is possible when there is political will (and public support).

Sure, the ATT is flawed, and it isn’t a panacea. Conflicts won’t simply end tomorrow because of it (though they will be harder to carry out and sustain!). Yet it is a tool that outlines how governments can, and should, exercise greater restraint in the weapons trade—a tool that can help shift norms and behaviour over the long-term.

That is a critical achievement indeed.

Jenn Wiebe is MCC Ottawa Office Director

  • Listen to Project Ploughshares Executive Director, Cesar Jaramillo, interviewed on CBC Radio’s Day 6: “Is Canada failing to live up to its human rights commitments with its arms deals?”
  • Read Ernie Regehr’s Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot be Won on the Battlefield (2015): Chapter 7, A Treaty to Control the Arms Trade.
  • Check out a joint letter (by partners such as Project Ploughshares) to Minister Dion, calling for Canada’s rapid accession to the Arms Trade Treaty.
  • Take a look at the Ploughshares Monitor from summer of 2015, featuring an article on the arms deal with Saudi Arabia.