Faith communities must show clear leadership: Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

by Rebekah Sears

“We thus make a passionate plea to the leaders of all religions, all people of good will, and all leaders of nations both with and without nuclear weapons to commit to work to eliminate these horrific devices forever,” from a statement adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, November 2018, developed by Jonathan Granoff of the Global Security Institute.

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Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

Last month I had the privilege of participating in the Parliament of the World Religions in Toronto. The Parliament is a gathering held every six years, bringing together religious leaders and organizations from around the world, with the purpose of seeking interfaith cooperation to addressing the greatest challenges and obstacles for a just peace facing our world today – challenges that transcend international borders, and that impact peoples of all ethnicities, faiths and creeds.

The theme of this year’s Parliament was: The Promise of Inclusion, the power of love: Pursuing global understanding, reconciliation and change. For seven days, thousands of people participated in plenaries and keynotes, as well as hundreds of workshops, on responding to the global forced migration and refugee crisis; protecting the rights, sovereignty and languages of Indigenous peoples; confronting violence against women and supporting greater leadership of women in faith communities; urgent, timely and coordinated action on climate change; combating social injustice, and countering hate and war; and speaking with a united voice against the looming threat of nuclear war.

Unfortunately, so often religion has been, and continues to be, used as a cover to justify political and social injustice and violence. Faith is a persuasive motivator, and regrettably has, and continues to be, used and manipulated in the pursuit of power – often as a great divider of peoples.

The message at the Parliament was aimed at countering such actions, seeking unity, in both action and conviction, calling all faith leaders to reject the use of religion to harm or oppress others, and instead applying such principles to uphold human dignity and justice.

There are so many themes, panels, workshops and keynotes that I could highlight, but one of the issues that kept coming up – from both political leaders and leaders of faith – was the looming threat of nuclear war and the call to abolish nuclear weapons.

Though only held and controlled in the hands of the few and powerful, the possible and very real and devastating threat of nuclear weapons knows no borders nor abides by international law or recognizes human dignity.

Last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) oversaw the final push for the adoption of a  Global Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for which ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The nine states that currently hold nuclear weapons refused to sign the treaty, as did many of their allies, including Canada.

The position of the leadership of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on this is clear, based on a statement released just after the conference. It was a call to action for religious leaders of all faiths to lead the way and speak truth and demand justice and peace from the powerful nations of the world, regarding the very real threat of nuclear weapons.

Representatives of ICAN were also at the Parliament itself, professors and experts Dr. Emily Welty, also of the World Council of Churches, and her spouse Dr. Matthew Bolton. At a plenary session they spoke about the often-patronizing reaction they get when speaking out to states resistant to signing the treaty, both weapon-holders and others – “It’s complicated.” Yes, like most big geopolitical issues, denuclearization is a complicated process. But to throw in the towel and ignore the potential devastating realities is just not an option.

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Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

The message of Welty and Bolton was clear. We know, through the research and investigations – the science and testimonies – the definite devastating impacts of a possible nuclear war. As we speak, nuclear testing continues to have devastating impacts on communities on Christmas Island in the South Pacific, along with a dozen other countries where there has been nuclear testing since 1945. Locals are rarely consulted and often not even warned. As people of faith we understand the call to come together on the issues that unite us and to speak up for justice and human dignity.

 

After this plenary session, Peter Noteboom, the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares co-lead a workshop called Principles to Practices: peace and abolishing nuclear weapons. Peter and Cesar presented research, testimonies and personal stories with a call to action from a Christian faith perspective. Earlier this year the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) passed a resolution outlining their Shared Principles of Peace, for all member churches. The document outlines principles of peace as part of the vocation of the church and its members, peace as means to work for justice, peacemaking as political engagement and a response to the threats of conflict.

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Cesar Jaramillo and others at a press conference when ICAN won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: Photo courtesy of Paula Cardenas Left to right: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) campaigners Setsuko Thurlow, Ray Acheson, and Cesar Jaramillo call on Canada to join a UN nuclear weapons ban at a press conference in Toronto on October 27, 2017. Jaramillo is the executive director of Project Ploughshares, an MCC partner.

To Peter the vocation of people of faith is clear – to be a united voice, speaking out of both practicalities and principles to demand a nuclear weapon-free world now – not after another Hiroshima…now!

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

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Canada and the Cuban missile crisis

By Monica Scheifele

Fifty-six years ago, the world faced the very real possibility of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. On Oct. 14 that year an American spy plane flying over Cuba photographed the installation of a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile. For almost two weeks following that discovery, US President Kennedy and Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev with their respective teams of advisors and diplomats wrestled with a crisis that could have resulted in nuclear war.

Cuban missile crisis

Up until recently, I’d never considered Canada’s role in these historic events. I’d only ever thought about the actions of the main players Cuba, the US and the Soviet Union. In my limited understanding Canada didn’t really have a part to play in this drama. Granted we were geographically close to the action but with limited clout on the political stage in comparison to the superpowers of the US and Russia.

In October 1962 John Diefenbaker was the Prime Minister of a Conservative minority government with Lester Pearson and the Liberals as the Official Opposition. The Social Credits and the New Democrats filled the rest of the House of Commons.

The Canadian government was only informed of the situation a few hours before President Kennedy shared the details of the crisis on television with the American people on October 22.  The Canadian government quickly acted to ensure that Canadian airspace and Canadian air transport facilities were not being used to transport Soviet weapons to Cuba. However, when the US asked the government to put Canadian troops on alert and raise the military threat level to DEFCON 3 to match that of the US military, Diefenbaker delayed acting resulting in divisions within his own cabinet. The delay may have stemmed from Diefenbaker’s dislike of Kennedy or as an effort to avoid actions that could escalate tensions.

Pearson and the Liberals fully supported the US from the beginning and commended Kennedy for bringing the matter before the UN Security Council, but Diefenbaker still called for independent UN inspectors to go to Cuba to survey the nuclear sites and verify the facts. Generally, Diefenbaker was supportive of American action during the crisis, but he did not offer the unequivocal support that Kennedy might have expected.

Eventually the Prime Minister did put Canadian troops on alert (only after the Canadian military had already put itself on alert), supported the US proposed NATO blockade or “quarantine” as it was called, and agreed to aid the United States if an attack occurred.

The biggest source of contention, though, was likely Diefenbaker’s refusal to allow nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. This was also a position strongly supported by the New Democratic Party of the day.

On Oct. 24 there were questions in the House of Commons about whether Canada had defaulted on an obligation in respect to the NORAD treaty by refusing the request of the United States to arm Canadian Bomarc squadrons with atomic warheads. The Minister of Defence claimed there was no default of the treaty. It wasn’t until Pearson became Prime Minister in 1963 that Canadian missiles were armed with nuclear warheads.

DiefenbakerAgain, it may have been his dislike of Kennedy or a sense of nationalism and a need to stand up to the Americans that led to the decision. However, Diefenbaker’s words in an update to Parliament on Oct. 25 suggest it may have been an effort to keep the crisis from escalating.

“It has been necessary and will always remain necessary to weigh the risks both of action and inaction in such circumstances. I need not refer to the record of Canada in two world wars, in the NATO alliance and in Korea and demonstrating the fact that Canadians stand by their allies and their undertakings, and we intend in the present crisis to do the same. On the other hand, we shall not fail to do everything possible to seek solutions to these problems without war. We shall seek to avoid provocative action. Our purpose will be to do everything to reduce tension.” – Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, House of Commons, October 25, 1962.

In the end nuclear war was averted and the underground bunker (now known as the Diefenbunker) built 30 km outside of Ottawa from 1959 to 1961 and designed to withstand the force of a nuclear blast was never put to the test of protecting Canada’s leaders.

Canada’s actions or in the case of the warheads, lack of action, may not have changed the outcome of the crisis. I like to think, though, that the Canadian government’s responses did help maintain some form of equilibrium and calm. Perhaps in light of new nuclear threats from North Korea and the US pulling out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, Canada will again find a way to act as a stabilizing force.

Want to learn more about Canada’s current policy around nuclear weapons? Check out some of these resources:

Project Ploughshares Factsheet on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

MCC Ottawa Office Notebook – Out of step with nuclear disarmament

Ploughshares Monitor Vol. 39 Issue 2 –  Statement to the 2018 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – Positions on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

– Monica Scheifele is the Program Assistant for MCC Ottawa Office

Seventy years after Hiroshima, it’s high time to ban the bomb

As August 6 will be the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we are republishing an article by Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, which was originally published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 3 Autumn 2015

On the morning of Thursday, August 6, I was among tens of thousands of people gathered at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Setting the stage

Despite the multitude, which included officials from more than 100 countries, there was a brief moment of complete silence at precisely 8:15 a.m.—the exact time when the bomb euphemistically called “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima.

Schoolchildren then solemnly rang a bell in the middle of the park. Next came speeches from, among others, the Mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, and the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe.

Some Hibakusha (bomb survivors)—most now over 80 years old—were also in attendance. And a peculiar combination of sorrow and hope filled the air.

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on 70th anniversary  (photo credit: EPA/KIMIMASA MAYAMA)

Sorrow because we stood there to remember that dreadful month of August when death, destruction, and incalculable human suffering befell the men, women, and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Up to a quarter-million people died—many instantly, others in the weeks and months that followed. Farmers and teachers, singers and poets, old and young. The commemoration offered a grim reminder that humankind had devised the means to destroy itself—efficiently.

But it was also a day of hope. The push for nuclear abolition is growing steadily in intensity, sophistication, effectiveness, and numbers of supporters. People in and out of government are working tirelessly to make sure that humanity never again witnesses such a tragedy.

What the international community must do

There must be a global legal ban on nuclear weapons, with specific provisions for the elimination of existing arsenals and a timeline for verified implementation.

Regrettably, more than 45 years after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force, more than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, and seven decades after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some states still consider serious work toward nuclear abolition premature.

More than 15,000 nuclear warheads remain in existence, many of which are tens of times more powerful than the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearly 2,000 are on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes, thereby exacerbating the risk of their deliberate or accidental use. This situation must change.

The lopsided logic by which the very nations that rely on nuclear weapons deem themselves fit to chastise others on the risks of proliferation is built on an extremely weak and inherently unjust foundation. This includes not only states that actually possess nuclear weapons, but also those that perpetuate nuclear deterrence as a legitimate part of their collective security arrangements—such as members of NATO, itself a nuclear weapons alliance. These states must be challenged.

While every other category of weapons of mass destruction has been specifically prohibited under international law, nuclear weapons—the most destructive of them all—remarkably still have not. A process to establish a legal ban on nuclear weapons would therefore constitute a welcome step forward on the urgent path to nuclear abolition. It would be rooted in the widespread rejection of their continued existence and a full recognition of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use.

Canada in the minority

The global nuclear disarmament regime is in a state of disrepair. The seminal 2015 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty did not produce a consensus outcome document; the final draft was openly blocked by the United States, the United Kingdom, and—ostensibly at the behest of Israel, a non-party to the treaty—Canada.

In this struggle, Canada stands not with the growing number of nations, organizations, and individuals that believe that a comprehensive process for complete nuclear disarmament is long overdue, but with the few that question the merits, feasibility, and timeliness of a global ban on nuclear weapons. Canada has recently adopted minority positions at some of the most important multilateral governance forums that tackle nuclear disarmament.

During the 2014 UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, 155 nations endorsed a joint statement focused on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that said that these weapons should not be used “under any circumstances.” Canada did not.

During this year’s NPT Review Conference, 159 nations endorsed a similarly worded statement. Again, not Canada.

The Cataclysm of Damocles

Let us consider the words spoken by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a 1986 speech entitled “The Cataclysm of Damocles”:

Since the appearance of visible life on Earth, 380 million years had to elapse in order for a butterfly to learn how to fly, 180 million years to create a rose with no other commitment than to be beautiful, and four geological eras in order for us human beings to be able to sing better than birds, and to be able to die from love. It is not honorable for the human talent, in the golden age of science, to have conceived the way for such an ancient and colossal process to return to the nothingness from which it came through the simple act of pushing a button.

nuclear abolition symbolDemands for nuclear abolition are mounting. Calls come from a growing number of scientists, legal scholars, mayors and parliamentarians, active and retired diplomats, statesmen and regular citizens—from both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. The message is clear: the threat posed by nuclear weapons is real; their use is unacceptable; and their complete elimination is not negotiable.

The cost of inaction could be another Hiroshima. Or worse.

From hand to hand to hand: The journey to North Korea

This piece by Julie Bell, a senior writer and editor for MCC, was originally published by MCC Canada on December 2, 2017.  We share this piece again in our Ottawa Notebook in light of the international summit Canada is hosting this week on North Korea.

PYONGYANG, DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea) – It’s been a long trek for these eight small bags of medical supplies. They have been packed and re-packed, crossed an ocean, passed through three countries and numerous airport security checks.

On this day the bags have reached their destination – a small medical clinic on a farm near Pyongyang.

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Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, with medical staff at clinic near Pyongyang. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

As I watch my MCC colleague, Chris Rice, hand one of the bags to the medical staff, I am humbled by the significance of this small gesture. Rice and I, and two of our MCC colleagues, are in DPRK at a time when tensions between this country and other parts of the world are running high. On this day, U.S. president Donald Trump is in the region and most people, including the people of DPRK, are aware of that.

And yet, the story of how the medical kits came to be is what matters most in this moment. Through translation, we tell the medical staff we have come to DPRK to visit some of the projects supported by MCC; including providing canned meat and soybean products to orphanages and schools and agricultural support on their farm. But their faces light up when we tell them that it was a conversation during a previous visit to the farm that prompted a collaboration of people around the world.

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A farm near Pyongyang, DPRK, where MCC has provided agricultural support. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

During that visit, medical staff told MCC about accidents on the farm – everything from cuts and scrapes to sprains and broken bones. Word of the need for medical supplies travelled through MCC’s regional office in South Korea and on to MCC offices in Canada and the U.S. We decided to put together medical kits and consulted with medical experts, both in and outside MCC, on what the kits should contain. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to buy the supplies and they were delivered to our material resources warehouse in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That’s where Natalie Gulenchyn, a long-time volunteer at the resource centre got involved.  She cut the fabric and sewed the bags, complete with MCC’s iconic dove logo.

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Natalie Gulenchyn, who is in her eighties and volunteers at MCC’s material resources warehouse in Winnipeg sewed the medical kit bags that were transported to DPRK. MCC photo/Rachel Bergen

Everything was packed into a piece of luggage, which travelled with me from Winnipeg to Beijing, China.

In Beijing, we checked to make sure everything was okay and re-packed the luggage.

The luggage crossed its last border when we travelled to Pyongyang in DPRK. In yet another hotel room, we moved the supplies – from bandages to surgical tape and disposable gloves – into the eight bags lovingly sewn by Natalie.

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Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, along with medical staff at a farm clinic near Pyongyang, DPRK. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

Now, as the nurses and a doctor at the clinic thank us for the supplies, I am so grateful for all the hands and hearts involved in bringing these simple gifts here. Donors, volunteers, MCC workers and their families – these people made it happen.

On this day, the hostilities and harsh rhetoric of current times are irrelevant. I think about the many references in the Bible to “do the work of God’s hands.” The call to carry gifts of comfort and words of peace is the only truth that matters.

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

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?

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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!

 

World War I and the Humanitarian Imperative for Nuclear Disarmament

This week’s guest writer is John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization that works with churches, governments and civil society, in Canada and abroad, to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and build peace. Project Ploughshares is a longtime coalition partner of MCC.

The widespread use of weapons of mass destruction in World War I (WW1), particularly chemical weapons such as chlorine gas, shocked the public conscience and added to the existing demand for banning such weapons. The staggering numbers — 100,000 dead but more the hideously disfigured bodies of the wounded 1 million — shocked the conscience of the public as these poor souls returned home and compelled efforts to make chemical and biological weapons illegal to possess or use.

Attempts by nations to ban chemical weapons reached back into the 19th century, and extended well forward into the 20th. And yet in Syria chemical weapons were recently used in civilian areas. You scratch your head and wonder how long and how effective these efforts are if, after over a century of work to outlaw this particular class of weapons, it is worth the candle.

It is.

Photo credit cbc.ca

Photo credit cbc.ca

Setting norms in international law is notoriously difficult and time consuming. Implementation and verification are even more difficult and more time consuming. The difficulties of implementation and verification typically are used by opponents of constraints as an argument for not even trying to set new international norms. It becomes a vicious circle favouring a lack of action.

So, the advocates of legal restraint on specific military technologies have to somehow overwhelm the natural momentum of advocates for hard security realism, those who argue for the primacy of power as determining the outcome of conflicts and the use of dodgy military technologies, with another kind of argument.

The good news is that the machinery of disarmament for conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction has made great strides since WW1. Chemical and biological weapons have been deemed illegal; both possession and use. Certain classes of conventional weapons have been banned as well, including personnel land mines and cluster munitions.

But efforts dating from WW1 took almost a century to bear the less than comprehensive results we have today in outlawing and eradicating chemical weapons.

The way it works in practice is that these international norms are eventually nearly universally accepted and observed. The legitimacy of these weapons is then permanently degraded so the world can focus on the outliers, or spoilers, who continue to possess or use them. It isn’t perfection but the process makes the world considerably safer if not absolutely safe from the banned weapons.

no nukesSimilar arguments used to ban chemical and biological weapons, and some classes of conventional weapons, are just as applicable and arguably more so to nuclear weapons.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC), following the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, in 2011 passed a resolution indicating “that the principles and rules of international humanitarian law apply to nuclear weapons and that the threat or use of such weapons would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.”

Why? Nuclear weapons violate the principles of war because their use fails with respect to distinction, precaution and proportionality. Nuclear weapons cause incalculable human suffering that are unconstrained by time or space, there is no way to prepare for, or to meet, the overwhelming humanitarian needs of those affected even by a limited nuclear exchange, and damage to the natural world would be incalculable and could not be mitigated. We often explain this by the term “nuclear winter.”

In short, the possession or use of nuclear weapons threatens the future of human and other species, and the biosphere of the earth itself.

The ICRC sought in 2011 and going forward to “reframe the international debate” on nuclear weapons from considerations of geopolitical, security and deterrence to the humanitarian imperative to make them illegal and eliminate them.

Experience from other disarmament processes says that certain weapons, or a class of weapons, have been eliminated only after they have been outlawed. Civil society reflects and focuses widespread public disgust and mobilizes sympathetic states against the outlier and spoiler states who want to continue having them in their arsenals.

Not since the post-Cold War draw down of nuclear weapons from approximately 60,000 warheads to the current 17,500 has there been such a sense of optimism about the prospect for eliminating nuclear weapons. Let’s make the momentum continue!