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With a new nuclear weapons ban treaty, lines are drawn in the sand

The adoption of a ban treaty will usher in a new, divided
nuclear order, with nuclear-armed states and their allies on one side and a
‘moral majority’ of states on the other. Where will Canada’s nuclear allegiances

By: /
5 July, 2017
Protesters take part in a protest against the Trident nuclear missile system in London, February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Paul Hackett
Paul Meyer
By: Paul Meyer
Adjunct professor of international studies, Simon Fraser University

This Friday, July 7, should mark the conclusion of negotiations at United Nations headquarters on the world’s first treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The 130 states engaged in the process have converged their positions over four weeks of negotiation this year in order to produce a concise agreement that fills the “legal gap” in the international nuclear order. That order is encapsulated in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that forbids acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states and commits the five nuclear weapon states — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — to eventual disarmament. The NPT however failed to prohibit possession or use of nuclear weapons and, despite its 47 years of existence, has been unable to bring about nuclear disarmament. 

This reality has led a majority of the NPT’s 191 states parties and many civil society groups to seek a different path towards the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The draft treaty being finalized in New York this week is due to be adopted by the conference on July 7, and will be open for signature as of Sept. 19 during the UN General Assembly. The treaty will formally enter into force after its 50th ratification. The treaty will prohibit the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons and outlaw the possession of these arms. In this sense it will go beyond the existing commitments of non-nuclear weapon states under the NPT while being  consistent with that accord. Not surprisingly, the nine states currently possessing nuclear weapons are not participating in these negotiations, nor are the non-nuclear weapon states in alliances with nuclear-armed states (with the notable exception of the Netherlands). These states recognize that the ban treaty would represent a potent stigmatization of the nuclear weapons they still cling to and an act of political and moral protest against their retention.

Canada is among the so-called “umbrella” states that have followed the lead of their nuclear weapon allies in boycotting the ban treaty negotiations. These states (most NATO members plus U.S. allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea) have privileged their membership in alliances that still rely on nuclear deterrence doctrines (i.e. that threaten the use of nuclear weapons in some contingencies) over their longstanding support of nuclear arms control and disarmament. These states’ refusal to engage in the UN-mandated negotiations on the ban treaty has not only prevented them from influencing the process and its product, but has also highlighted the schism that has erupted within the NPT membership over how nuclear disarmament is to be brought about. The ban treaty will have provisions for eventual adherence by nuclear-armed states, either through a “join and destroy” or a “destroy and join” model, including verification by a competent international agency. This treaty however, unlike the NPT, will not allow for a “grey zone” where nuclear weapon states and their allies, some of which permit stationing of nuclear weapons on their territory, are able indefinitely to pay lip service to the aim of nuclear disarmament without any meaningful advance towards it. 

The Canadian government has decried the ban treaty process for being “premature” and “ineffective” in the face of nuclear-armed state opposition. It has reaffirmed its support for “the step-by-step” approach to nuclear disarmament, despite the fact that none of the identified steps have been taken over decades. In a pale imitation of the ban treaty, it has held up its leading role on a UN expert group regarding elements of an eventual treaty to prohibit the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. A study group however is not the equivalent of an actual treaty negotiation, and the UN preparatory group Canada will chair over the next two years will still be subject to a consensus rule, selective membership, closed door proceedings and a mandate premised on eventual negotiation in the Conference of Disarmament, a multilateral body so dysfunctional that it has been unable to agree on a work program for 20 years. Perhaps if Canada had initiated, in concert with like-minded states, a real multilateral negotiation of a fissile material production ban, it could have offered up a serious complement to the nuclear weapon ban treaty, but this more ambitious option was not pursued.

“A new, bifurcated international nuclear order will come into existence with the ban treaty’s adoption.”

A new, bifurcated international nuclear order will come into existence with the ban treaty’s adoption. It will feature the nine nuclear-armed states “doubling down” on their investment in nuclear arsenals, with massive modernization programs underway. It may fuel further nuclear proliferation as other states seek to avail themselves of nuclear weapons — the purported security benefits of which the existing nine powers cannot seem to do without. The allies, the “handmaids” of this nuclear orthodoxy, will continue to affirm the dogma of nuclear deterrence and participate in its rituals. A new “moral majority” of states will continue to stand apart from these proceedings, but beyond their example, they will have little means to influence the behaviour of the minority. The NPT-based global compact will likely be weakened by defection de jure or de facto.

The divisions of the new nuclear order may bring greater clarity and honesty to the positions adopted by the members of the respective camps. It will not necessarily bring more stability to the global nuclear regime. Canada may find its nuclear allegiances challenged in a way it has not experienced since the advent of the atomic age. The ban treaty will produce a new, reforming spirit in global nuclear affairs. Its impact on the world is difficult to foresee, but, as is often said of nuclear weapons themselves, it will not be easy to put this genie back into the bottle.

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