It’s Time for Canada to be Bold: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons


Image credit: AFP


by Julie Clark
CGAI Fellow
March 2022

Table of Contents


In 2020, former minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy joined 55 allied non-nuclear weapons states’ (NNWS) leaders, calling for the courage to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). In their plea for action, the leaders remarked that it is our governments’ global responsibility to speak up about a future they hoped would be without nuclear weapons. However, Canada’s current position supports the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) position and thus a nuclear-free world is seen as a great aspiration but not practical for today’s security concerns.

Due to the current war in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, the treaty’s value seems to fade among more prominent security concerns. Yet, this tension demonstrates more than ever why this treaty is essential to engage with; especially after Russia placed its nuclear forces on high alter on February 27, 2022. This has been a reminder that a conflict can increase global instability when these weapons become a part of the conversation. Even with the deterrence of mutually assured destruction, the threat will always remain. It matters to Canada because of our alliances with the United States, the United Kingdom and France, which make up three of the nine nuclear states. Canada is also located near several nuclear states, with the U.S. and Russia to the south and north, China and North Korea (DPRK) on the Pacific and the U.K. and France on the Atlantic. Missile launchers have varying abilities, but it is an uncomfortable location for us to be. We need to also factor in the number of nuclear silos along our southwestern border, for which accidents are a threat to our western provinces’ safety. While the TPNW may seem counterintuitive to the current tensions, it is still a treaty Canada needs to engage with further. While Canada often encourages humanitarianism and a commitment to an equitable and peaceful future, it also is strongly committed to its alliances. As a result, Canada has rejected the TPNW and has refused to engage with its suggested possibilities. In the long term, this might be a mistake.  


What is the Nuclear Ban Treaty?

The TPNW is built on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which was adopted in 1968 and entered into force in 1970; Canada was among the original states party to the treaty upon its adoption. As of 2021, 191 states have formally approved the NPT, making it one of the most widely accepted nuclear disarmament treaties and a cornerstone of non-proliferation. The three pillars of the NPT are nuclear energy, non-proliferation and disarmament. These pillars have unintentionally led the treaty to be a building block for other nuclear-related schemes, such as those that address non-proliferation, nuclear/radiological emergencies and the monitoring of nuclear material. Hailed as a positive path forward, it is accepted by all five of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Of the nuclear states, India, Pakistan and Israel have rejected the NPT, while North Korea withdrew in 2003.

The main difference between the NPT and the TPNW is that it seeks reduction rather than a complete ban, granting nuclear states an avenue to maintain deterrence measures while also agreeing to global non-proliferation aims. The NPT’s Article VI indicates that effective measures need to aim for nuclear disarmament; the TPNW is meant to be an extension and expansion of this article. Whether the NPT is successful is up for interpretation depending on one’s expectations or global non-proliferation aims. Some are pleased that the reduction measures have been successful since 1970, since stockpiles have significantly been reduced. They often point to Article VI, as negotiations have been conducted in good faith on effective measures for arms control, since other treaties on specific reduction numbers tend to reference the NPT, i.e., the New START treaty between Russia and the U.S. Others criticize the NPT as being too slow to reduce global stockpiles and applauding the reduction of a few hundred or thousand warheads when there are still approximately 13,080 warheads globally, 90 per cent of which belong to the U.S. and Russia. This is not something to celebrate until it’s closer to zero. One could also argue that the Russian-U.S. bilateral agreements have achieved more significant reductions along with the end of the Cold War, regardless of the multilateral NPT mentioned in the preambles. Either way, the TPNW was drafted to support the NPT, as it mentions the NPT in its preamble and clearly states in Article 18 that the TPNW, “shall not prejudice obligations undertaken by States Parties with regard to existing international agreements.”

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was established in 2007 as an organization committed to the idea that the TPNW, also known as the Nuclear Ban Treaty, would change the global conversation about the elimination of nuclear weapons. During the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon), the goals for the TPNW were solidified. Article VI, number 80 of the 2010 NPT RevCon states:

The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.

The call to action brought about countless humanitarian conferences and resulted in the 2015 and 2016 UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) to determine the legal measures, provisions and norms for nuclear prohibition and elimination; it opened for full negotiations on March 27, 2017.  The TPNW was adopted on July 7, 2017, opened for signatures on September 20, 2017 and entered into force on January 22, 2021.

The treaty’s main objective is to completely delegitimize the use, development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Article 1 outlines that state parties are never to develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess or stockpile the weapons and must be committed to destroying and rejecting nuclear weapons while maintaining a nuclear-free state. The preamble clearly criticizes the slow process of the current disarmament approach but reaffirms the NPT and recognizes the importance of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Distinctively, the treaty recognizes the humanitarian impact these weapons have had on the Hibakushas, (the Japanese affected by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), those affected by tests and on Indigenous communities. The treaty reiterates its founding concern that the existence of these weapons goes hand in hand with the possibility of catastrophic humanitarian consequences. The treaty currently has 59 ratifications and 86 signatories1; the nuclear states, NATO allies and Japan are notably absent.

The TPNW is necessary for national and global security since the broader argument has been made that the lack of a nuclear weapons detonation or accident has been partly dependent on luck and the presence of an international nuclear taboo. Indeed, reliable leadership from governments and militaries has been a significant factor in maintaining nuclear deterrence. Yet, as we have seen in the past decade, the global community should be wary of accepting that so much of our security rests upon the expectation that reliable leaders will always choose caution. As we reflect more on the pandemic’s impact and that of the climate crisis, one thing has become clear: No country is prepared to deal with the fallout of a nuclear attack or accident. That includes Canada.


Canada’s and NATO’s Position

Canada selectively supports non-proliferation regimes such as the NPT and the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). Officially, Canada strongly supports the NPT as an answer to the nuclear dilemma that generates necessary support among its allies. The focus is on our national security interests in conjunction with our proven partnerships. When it comes to nuclear weapons, there is a balancing act between supporting disarmament and our allied positions and responsibilities. While Canada is fully committed to maintaining the NPT’s success, and reiterates support for global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament goals, it does not support the TPNW. It attributes its hesitancy about the TPNW to rising insecurities in North Korea and the conflict occurring in Ukraine; both are linked to Canada’s commitment to its deterrence alliances. Similarly, Strong, Secure, and Engaged notes that “Canada benefits from the deterrent effect provided by its alliances (e.g. NATO and NORAD), and takes seriously its responsibility to contribute to efforts to deter aggression by potential adversaries in all domains.” Additional concerns have been raised by NORAD regarding Canada’s outdated North Warning System, calling for the modernization of our Arctic radar and missile interception systems. A call that has increased as a priority following Russia’s high nuclear alert. With the goal of maintaining a strong commitment to our alliances, especially NATO, Canada’s position mirrors that of the alliance itself as our global partnerships are integral to our national security.

In December 2020, NATO released a statement in preparation for the TPNW’s entry into force; it overruled the treaty “as it does not reflect the increasingly challenging international security environment and is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture.” The alliance continues to state that the core non-proliferation regime is the NPT since it already promotes global stability and security, and the TPNW would likely weaken the NPT. ICAN has refuted many of NATO’s claims indicating that the TPNW does not prohibit participation in any military alliances and reiterates that the TPNW is the “effective measure” requested in the NPT. The treaty also addresses other concerns NATO has already outlined, since the TPNW was modelled on existing nuclear disarmament plans. NATO again reiterated its steadfast commitment to the NPT and rejection of the TPNW at the Brussels Summit in 2021. While NATO openly supports disarmament and the goal of a nuclear-free world, it reminds the global community that it is a defensive alliance and that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” On November 30, 2021, NATO’s secretary general discussed the NATO 2030 Initiative and stated: “Nuclear weapons are proliferating,” thus making it less likely the organization will engage further with the TPNW.”

NATO’s statements, which are supported by Canada’s government, stand in opposition to national public polls and the Open Letter in Support of the TPNW signed by former Canadian leaders Lloyd Axworthy, Jean-Jacques Blais, Jean Chrétien, Bill Graham, John McCallum, John Turner and John Manley. According to a 2021 Nanos poll, 80 per cent of Canadians support the elimination of nuclear weapons, and a strong majority support or somewhat support ratification of the TPNW. Although this is a single poll, it provides evidence that Canadians need to be heard further on the matter of whether they support what the TPNW stands for.


Call to Action

Canada has a strong history of humanitarianism and support from the public for disarmament; it is time that we step forward once more as leaders in the disarmament community. It is impractical to ask Canada to sign and ratify the TPNW, but it is not out of reach for Canada to be more involved. Canada can do three things:

  1. Attend as an observer at the First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) in late spring/early summer; the delay gives Canada a chance to consider attending. An observer does not need to commit to the treaty but demonstrates a willingness to listen. Recognizing that there will be different approaches to the treaty given the current conflict in Ukraine and our relationship with the U.S. and other allies, our attendance could put us in an awkward situation. However, there is a benefit to being a part of the conversation.

    Also, Canada would not be alone, as NATO allies Norway and Germany will be observers at the First Meeting of States Parties. Following its fall 2021 election, Norway openly supports the “humanitarian initiative” of the TPNW and approaches its observer status as an extension of its existing commitment to disarmament and non-proliferation. Under the new Berlin Coalition, Germany has expressed interest in removing American nuclear weapons from its soil, regardless of its recent announcement to fund €100 billion to the Bundeswehr with a continual plan to purchase nuclear capable F-35 fighter jets. Notably, the coalition has put forth different views on the TPNW and its approach is to keep an open mind regarding the treaty. Whether one agrees with the treaty, observer status offers an insider a chance to better understand the state parties. Canada should consider carefully observing the meeting, considering the treaty’s aims and NATO’s views. Yet, it should have access to the conversation and be courageous;

  2. Canada needs to engage further in a parliamentary debate regarding the TPNW and our position regarding our policies on international great-power competition and nuclear weapons. The conversation should not be a footnote to the agenda but rather a whole debate about the pros and cons. Policy-makers, members of Parliament and the public need to know why Canada has yet to sign the treaty. An explanation for Canada’s hesitancy needs to go beyond NATO’s disagreement, because the question is why it The debate needs to consider our alliances, policies, geography, environment, health and public opinion. As more NATO members begin to engage with the TPNW, Canada’s perspective needs to solidify beyond the currently accepted parameters and must be bold;

  3. Canada needs to recognize its history with nuclear weapons. We no longer house American nuclear weapons since we either deactivated or relinquished the weapons back to the U.S. between 1968 and 1984. While some are aware of these factors, Canada has yet to fully recognize the impact our uranium mines have had on our Indigenous mining communities. Canada is not removed from its responsibilities in contributing to the Manhattan Project and the 1945 bombs made with Canadian uranium. This final call is for education. Citizens need to understand the history and impact these weapons have had globally and on our Indigenous communities. Canadian citizens need to understand that the nuclear threat has not disappeared, and the impact of our previous involvement is still being felt in communities across the country. We must be more transparent.

Deterrence works, but for how long? The past few weeks have demonstrated how fragile the deterrence system can be to shifts in the status quo. The world has been reminded as well of the nuclear risks at present, bringing the issue back to the forefront once more. And with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now more than ever, Canada needs to participate fully in conversations about nuclear weapons. A seat awaits us at the TPNW’s First Meeting of States Parties. We just need to be bold and courageous enough to claim it. 


End Notes

1 The numbers indicated here were recorded Feb. 18, 2022. As it is open for signature, the numbers could have changed by publication.


About the Author

Julie Clark is a Ph.D. Candidate in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs through Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU). Her research focuses on the governance of nuclear weapons and avenues for arms control and disarmament policies that address both humanitarian and national security concerns. Within her research, she examines explicitly the hesitancy that the deterrence allies have expressed about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Julie was the 2021 Women in Defence and Security (WiDS)-CGAI fellow and was one of the Women in International Security- Canada's Emerging Thought Leaders for Gender and Security in 2020.

Julie is also a founding member of the board of experts for the Canadian Students Against Nuclear Weapons which aims to create the next generation of anti-nuclear activists. Throughout her academic career, she has worked with various NGOs, creating local and provincial interest in the importance of providing opportunities for others. As a member of the Hard of Hearing community, it is important to Julie that she continues to defy society's limitations while encouraging others to do the same, striving for a more accessible environment within academia. Julie graduated with a Master's degree in History with a focus on Modern Korean History and North-East Asian Politics in 2015, and in 2016/7 she was an intern with the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva, Switzerland.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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