The time is Ripe for Canada to Support a Ban on Killer Robots

Killer Robots: they’re not just features of futuristic dystopian movies, even though I’m sure the first thing that came to mind was The Terminator!

Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has increased exponentially in recent years, from Siri to self-driving cars to autonomous drones, able to reach remote communities. So much of this technology has been marketed as improving lives and creating opportunities for all.

However, many experts within the AI community have long argued about the dangers of limitless development and use of this technology; particularly when it comes to fully autonomous weapons, aka Killer Robots. It’s not about defunding or vilifying the AI sector, but rather about ensuring that such technology will never be used as a weapon – i.e. autonomous devises programmed to kill and destroy.

These experts have joined scientists, human rights, and disarmament advocates from around the world in a campaign calling on governments to commit to a total ban on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons (The Campaign to Ban Killer Robots).

stop killer robots event (2)

Last week (Aug 27-31, 2018), civil society and state actors participated in a gathering at the UN in Geneva to discuss the urgent need for a ban on autonomous weapons. Activists are calling for a global ban by 2019.

Considering this, where does Canada fit – what are Canada’s global responsibilities in the movement to ban Killer Robots?

  1. Canada’s claims as a global human rights leader demands it.

“We’re Canada and we’re here to help,” exclaimed Prime Minister Trudeau in his first speech at the United Nations in 2016. In this and other grand proclamations since, the Trudeau government established itself – in words, anyway – as a global leader in protecting universal human rights.

The evidence for significant human rights concerns – from international humanitarian law to the lack of trustworthiness and ingrained bias within the technology itself – is clear and speaks for itself.

Yet, where is Canadian global leadership against the development and use of killer robots? Since 2013 26 countries have signed onto the campaign, but no action from the Canadian government thus far.

Canada has yet to clarify its own policy on the development and use of autonomous weapons. From the 2017 Canadian Defence Policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged – in 113 pages, there is only one mention of autonomous weapons: “The Canadian Armed Forces is committed to maintaining appropriate human involvement in the use of military capabilities that can exert lethal force,” (pg 73). However, appropriate human involvement is never defined.

  1. Canada has clearly named AI as an economic priority/opportunity

In the 2017 Federal Budget, the Canadian government designated $125 million for investment in Canadian-based AI companies. The government sees an opportunity for Canada to become a leading innovator in AI technology.

Again, this is not to say that Canada should not invest in such industries. But with such emphasis put on innovation in AI as a priority, it is critical that the Canadian government equally emphasize the importance of global leadership in preventing the development of autonomous weapons.

If Canada could be a leader in the movement to ban land mines in the 1990s – even though Canada did not have nor use land mines – it is even more critical that Canada, a leader in AI technology,  use such influence to also call to ban the use of AI technology to development and use of autonomous weapons.

  1. The voices of the public and the tech community

Finally, some of the loudest voices in Canada calling for the government to support a ban on killer robots are those in the field itself, including AI researchers and developers.

In November 2017, five leaders in the AI field in Canada addressed several of these concerns in an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau. Over 650 academics, practitioners, and developers then signed on. The Prime Minister has yet to respond.

“AI has tremendous potential to be a force for good in society,“ said Donna Precup, Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning, McGill University, in 2017. “As part of the AI research community, I think it is our moral obligation to ensure it continues to develop in this direction and prevent it from being mis-appropriated for harm.”

Polls in Canada and around the world show significant distrust of AI in general and even more definitive disapproval for their use in weapons. Canadians, and others around the world, are distressed at possible impacts on civilians and indiscriminate killings completely outside of any human control.

What are we waiting for?

stop killer robotsAs of now, fully autonomous weapons – Killer Robots – have not yet been fully developed or used in combat.

But as Paul Hannon, Director of Mines Action Canada argues, now is the time for Canada to come on board and ban such weapons pre-emptively, before they even see the light of day: “We know the revolution is coming and we know we can stop it, peacefully, without death or injury.”

Help to send the message: Take action in Canada and spread the word on the Global Campaign

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa Office.


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.

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

We’ve banned cluster bombs now let’s stop funding them!

This week’s guest writer is Erin Hunt, Programme Coordinator at Mines Action Canada (MCC is a member) and a Senior Researcher on Victim Assistance for the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. Originally from Victoria, BC, she holds an M.A. in Human Security from Royal Roads University and has been involved in campaigns to ban landmines and cluster munitions since 2003. 

Canada has finally ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions and totally banned these inhumane weapons. After signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions in December 2008, Canada ratified the Convention in March of this year. It will be fully bound by the provisions of the Convention on September 1, 2015.

At Mines Action Canada, we are still concerned about the national legislation used to implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The two and a half year long process to pass this legislation is indicative of the importance of the Convention and the widespread concern about loopholes in the legislation known as Bill C-6.

Clustermunitions_webrotatingphoto13_1We had the pleasure of working closely with MCC staff and other campaigners to push Canada to fix the loopholes. And we were pleased to see the government make a small amendment to the legislation before passing the bill. That small amendment did not fix all of the problems but it was a victory nonetheless, demonstrating that ordinary people can influence policy and strengthen Canada’s position against an inhumane weapon.

Now that Canada has ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions some people may think our work is done. But a good deal more work remains. One of the biggest issues that Canadians can assist with is investment in cluster munition producers.

The 2014 report “Worldwide Investments in Cluster Munitions; a shared responsibility”, authored by Dutch peace organization PAX, shows that 151 financial institutions around the world invested US $27 billion in the seven cluster munitions producers identified in the research. Two of these financial institutions are from Canada.

06B18LancerCBU2The government frequently said that Canada’s national legislation to implement the ban on cluster munitions outlawed investment, but the language is not clear. Without strong language in the legislation, it is up to us as clients to ensure that Canadian financial institutions do not invest our money in cluster munition producers. Now is the time to contact your financial institution and ask them to outline their policy regarding cluster munitions.

Financial institutions listen to their clients. This spring, NEI Investments and Desjardins announced they have banned investments in cluster munitions producers. Both financial institutions already had cluster munitions policies in place for specific funds and have now extended that exclusion to all products, according to the financial companies.  We hope that with your help we will see more Canadian financial institutions following this example over the next few months.

This September the First Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions will take place in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Review Conference will mark the 5th anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions becoming international law. States parties to the Convention will gather in Dubrovnik to assess progress over the past five years and to plan for the future of the convention. Civil society will be there pushing governments to live up to their obligations under the treaty to clear land, destroy stockpiles, assist victims and universalize the ban.

That meeting will highlight some of the many successes of the Convention. We hope that one of those successes will be the end of Canadian investment in cluster munition producers. By drying up the financial support for the production of cluster munitions, we can help create a world free of these horrific and banned weapons.

Pulling the plug on killer robots?

Technology sure moves fast. Google glass…aerial drones…self-driving cars…and now…

Killer robots?

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference put on by the Canadian Red Cross called “‘Killer Robots’—the Future of Weaponry and International Humanitarian Law.” Bringing together experts from academia, the military, legal community, robotics industry, and civil society, for one mind-bending afternoon we explored the ethical, legal, and technical angles of the issue.

So, what is a “killer robot,” anyway?

Killer robots—more officially (albeit less provocatively) known as fully autonomous weapons systems—would be able to select and fire on targets without human intervention.

Although, for the moment, “killer robots” do not exist, high-tech militaries are developing or have deployed precursor weapons that demonstrate the drive towards more autonomy for machines in military theater. Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. is a leader in this technological development; but, China, Russia, Germany, South Korea, Israel, and U.K. are also participants.

Back in 2012, Human Rights Watch released the first major publication by an NGOindex3 on the topic. Intriguingly called “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots,” the report analyzed the nature of existing and potential technology, and articulated compelling arguments for why fully autonomous weapons should be preemptively banned before we sleepwalk into a new—and deeply troubling—reality.

Robotic weapons are often divided into three categories depending on the level of human involvement in their actions. There are:

  • Human-in-the-Loop Weapons: which can select targets and deliver force only by human command;
  • Human-on-the-Loop Weapons: which can select targets and deliver force under the oversight of a human who can override a robot’s action; and
  • Human-out-of-the-Loop Weapons: which are capable of selecting targets and delivering force without any human input or interaction.

As a stark shift in policy, taking humans out-of-the-loop would involve the intentional (and unprecedented!) relinquishment of control—delegating crucial moral decisions around who lives and who dies to machines.

Not surprisingly, this is hotly-contested terrain.

Those in the “for-autonomous-weapons” camp have argued that substituting machines for humans in combat is justified (and preferable) because robots—invulnerable to the perils of the human condition (exhaustion, emotional outbursts, perception bias, etc.)—would outperform soldiers physically, emotionally, and ethically. Ethical standards, proponents argue, could simply be “programmed” into machines.

But is this wishful thinking?

Those in the “against-autonomous-weapons” camp articulate compelling legal, technological, and ethical concerns around why killer robots are a bad idea. Full stop.

  • Legal concerns: Robots could never comply with the complexity of the laws of armed conflict (aka International Humanitarian Law) in chaotic contexts. First, a robot would need to be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; Second, it would need to morally assess every conflict to justify whether a particular use of force is proportional, and; Third, it would need to comprehend military operations in order to decide whether the use of force on a particular occasion is of military necessity;
  • Technological concerns: While people expect robots not to make mistakes, this is not realistic. As one roboticist told us, robots, tested in very controlled environments (entirely unlike any battlefield!) do not have situational awareness or the ability to recognize aggressive postures as even a child can. What about the risks of malfunction? Cyber attacks? Decoys? And who ultimately is liable for mistakes—the military? people in the lab writing code? manufacturers?
  • Ethical concerns: Would having the capability for autonomous weapons lower the threshold for war because the risk to soldiers’ lives is minimized? Do we want to give human life over to computer codes? Or, as one military general put it, is “death by algorithm not the ultimate human indignity”? 

Clearly, these questions are compelling and should stop us in our tracks. But what are civil society groups and other experts doing about these concerns?

Well, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots—an international movement of over 50 civil indexsociety organizations (including MCC partner, Mines Action Canada) in 24 countries—is pushing for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

In other words, they are urging countries to “pull the plug on killer robots” before they move from science fiction to reality. While I enjoyed The Matrix (well, the first movie at least), I’d prefer these remain only on the movie screen.

Calling for a comprehensive treaty and for countries to pass laws and polices that ban autonomous weapons, the Campaign urges states to implement the recommendations made in 2013 by Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. His recommendations include things such as placing national moratoriums on lethal autonomous robots; participating in international fora on the issue; committing to full transparency on weapons development review processes; etc.

Lest we think a preemptive ban on a weapon is impossible, there is a precedent. In the 1990s, blinding lasers were banned prior to their use on the battlefield (through Protocol IV of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons [CCW]).

Important conversations on autonomous robots are starting to creep ahead in multilateral fora like the CCW, and bold steps are being take in the robotics field. Last year, Canadian-based Clearpath Robotics—a Kitchener-Waterloo based company specializing in autonomous control systems—became the first company to pledge not to make killer robots!

Many experts predict that full autonomy for weapons could be achieved in 20 to 30 years, if not sooner. It is urgent that concerned people continue to ask important questions.

Just because technology can be developed, should it be?

By Jenn Wiebe, Interim Ottawa Office Director


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?


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!


What’s in a word? Moving forward on Bill C-6

After many letters, scores of petitions, and numerous meetings with Members of Parliament, Bill C-6, An Act to Implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions, has been amended and will make its way back to the House of Commons in the new year.

This moment was the culmination of the efforts and energies of many civil society organizations over the last year and a half. MCC’s work on cluster bombs, of course, reaches back much further than this.

From the earliest days in the villages of northern Laos experimenting with16LaoBombieBeater80_2 shovels and a heavily-shielded bombie-beating tractor for clearing contaminated land, to advocating internationally for the eradication of the weapon, for more than 35 years MCC has been at the forefront of calls to address the devastating impacts of cluster munitions.

Since the beginning of November, my colleagues and I in the Ottawa Office eagerly attended each and every committee hearing on Bill C-6. While MCC was not one of the two civil society organizations invited to testify in person this time around, we tabled a written submission offering the committee our recommendations for strengthening Canada’s implementation of the Treaty.

In addition to expressing deep concern over the wide-ranging exemptions mapped out in Section 11 of the bill, MCC called on the government to take stronger leadership in mandating an ongoing commitment to the positive obligations Canada is assuming as a state party to the Convention (e.g., helping universalize the norms of the treaty, providing support for victims, notifying allies of our obligations, and destroying our stockpiles).

Last Tuesday was a big day in the life of the committee study. Having voted the week before to set aside Section 11—the most contentious clause in the bill—for special consideration, the committee now debated and discussed this part of the legislation in detail. We listened with baited breath while they did so.

Many opposition amendments were brought forward. All were voted down.

In the end, one government amendment was put forward, and approved, that deleted a single word—”using” in 11(1)(c)—from the over 2,700 word bill.

So, what’s in a word?

06B18LancerCBU2“Using” is, of course, a crucial one. We think that deleting this word from Section 11(1)(c) likely means that while on joint military missions Canadians will be prohibited from dropping a cluster bomb from a Canadian plane. The issue, however, is that the amendment did not delete enough.

This is not the only time the word “use” shows up in Section 11 in some way, shape, or form. Even with the amendment, while on exchange or secondment to joint missions with non-party states Bill C-6 still permits the Canadian Forces to facilitate ongoing use by:

  • directing or authorizing an activity that may involve the use, acquisition, possession, import or export of a cluster munition…
  • expressly requesting the use of a cluster munition…
  • acquiring, possessing, or moving a cluster munition…
  • transporting or engaging in an activity related to the transport of a cluster munition…
  • aiding, abetting, or counseling another person to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…
  • conspiring with another person to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…
  • receiving, comforting, or assisting another person  to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…

If Canada doesn’t want our military personnel personally to use cluster bombs, why would we allow them to assist in or even request the use of these weapons by others?

Given this lengthy list of wide-ranging exemptions still permitted under Canada’s Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act, it seems an amendment should have been tabled to change the bill’s rather misleading title!

How will Canada navigate the tensions (indeed, inherent contradictions) between facilitating the ongoing use of a banned weapon in joint operations on the one hand, while upholding the universalization clauses of the Treaty found in Article 21(1) and (2)—which require Canada to actively discourage the use of cluster bombs by non-party states and urge others to join the Convention—on the other?

In response to these tensions, the government suggested that our loopholes will become less necessary over time as more states become signatories to the Convention. In other words, when countries such as the U.S. step up to the plate, Canada will be in a better position to fulfill its Treaty obligations. An interesting argument. It was, after all, Canada’s standard-setting leadership in implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines that helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

But is there a brighter side?

Clustermunitions_webrotatingphoto13_1Here’s another perspective: While deleting a single word doesn’t do much to ameliorate the problematic elements of the bill, perhaps there is more to this word than meets the eye.

As was noted in the final Committee hearing, there have been very few amendments made to government bills over the last number of years—in the current Parliament, roughly 80% of all bills have sailed through committees untouched. Perhaps it was the hard work and unified voice of Canadian civil society organizations and international campaigners that helped create the wiggle room needed for one small improvement to be made to the legislation.

While we don’t anticipate any further amendments to the legislation as it goes to third reading in the House and then on to the Senate, this is not the last word on Bill C-6.

At the final Committee hearing last Tuesday there was another word worth noting: in addition to proposing the amendment the government gave its word that it would invite the Standing Committee to play a more significant role in strengthening and expanding on the annual transparency reports required by the Treaty.

We are hoping that this annual reporting process will provide an opportunity for MCC and other civil society organizations to draw attention to Canada’s implementation of its positive obligations under the Convention in the years ahead.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst