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Canada: Back in the Arms Control and Disarmament Game?



by Marius Grinius

March 23, 2016

Recent visits to Ottawa by the United Nations Secretary-General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights symbolized Canada’s welcome return to the wide spectrum of UN-related multilateral engagement. Foreign Minister Dion further confirmed Canada’s re-engagement when he addressed the high-level segment of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in early March.

He confirmed that Canada will accede to the long-overdue Arms Trade Treaty. He noted Canada’s participation in the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, a United States initiative, which aims to ensure that any future nuclear disarmament verification regime will be credible.

He also stated that Canada will push again for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty that would verifiably ban the production of nuclear materials used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, an issue made more urgent by North Korea’s recent fourth nuclear test. Canada also participates in the Open-ended Working Group towards a Nuclear Weapons Convention which will ban all nuclear weapons.

Canada’s return to the international arms control and disarmament game, or ACD game, is welcome by many. Canada will, however, face a number of challenges.

Canada began its retreat from the multilateral ACD world in 2000, when it shut down its world-class Verification Research Program because of budget constraints. This program, essentially deriving from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s peace initiative efforts in the early 1980s, established Canada’s international name in arms control verification by addressing substantive arms control issues.

Through research grants, it also encouraged an entire generation of Canadian academics to become specialists in international security issues. The program also engaged key Canadian companies such as SPAR Aerospace and MacDonald Dettwiler, global leaders in satellite technology.

While Canada did continue to support a number of security initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, it generally became less active in the bigger ACD world. Fortunately, the vacuum created by Canada has been filled by activist countries led by Australia, Austria, Norway, Japan, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico and others.

It will take time, resources and expertise for Canada to re-establish its global ACD credentials.

Although Canada historically has been a strong proponent of nuclear non-proliferation, it cast a negative vote, along with the US and UK, at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference thereby increasing doubt about the future of the non-proliferation regime.

Minister Dion argued that further political and legal steps in the context of the treaty could be taken. But most of the measures he listed have been discussed for decades without much progress. For example, continuing work to universalize the treaty is a fine aspiration; but nuclear weapons states India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have no intention of joining it. Canada’s nuclear co-operation agreement with India has not enhanced Canada’s nuclear non-proliferation credentials.

A bigger arms control challenge is the planned modernization of their respective nuclear weapon inventories by the US, Russia, China and UK. Peace groups were disappointed that Minister Dion, while lambasting the dysfunctionality of the Conference on Disarmament, called for setting realistic objectives and taking contemporary strategic realities into account.

He said, “Preaching total disarmament is not one of these realistic objectives.” He is quite right, given Canada’s treaty commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to the US, its most important security partner.

Canada should, however, call for a review of NATO’s doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear weapons will not go away anytime soon given old military thinking. At the same time, conventional munitions are becoming more accurate, faster and more deadly to the point where they can destroy targets that once were reserved for nuclear strikes. Indeed, the utility of nuclear weapon use must be questioned when future battlegrounds will be cyberspace and outer space where no arms control regimes exist. Why nuke a city when you can paralyze its electricity, water, heating and communications infrastructure?

Canada must be ready to bring real substance to the 21st century’s arms control dialogue.

Marius Grinius is the former Canadian Ambassador to the UN and Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (2007 – 2011). He is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Photo credit: The Hill Times: Jake Wright

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