top of page

A Seat at the Table: Why Canada Must Become an Observer to the TPNW

Ella Levin is an Alumna of U of T with a BA majoring in Political Science and Sociology. She is currently a Blumenfeld Junior Fellow at Science for Peace.

US Atomic Energy Comission, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The past four years have seen an exciting change regarding the regulation of nuclear weapons. In 2020, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into effect, making nuclear weapons finally illegal under international law. The TPNW was viewed as a triumph by anti-nuclear weapons activists, not only for its ban on nuclear weapons but for its understanding of the humanitarian and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons. Yet while activists have celebrated the TPNW as progress towards a more peaceful world, many countries including Canada, have refused to sign the treaty. Canadian activists have pushed back against this refusal, demanding that Canada become a signatory. In response, the federal government has stated that signing the TPNW would contradict Canada’s commitments to other international treaties, as well as Canada’s responsibilities to NATO.


In this paper I will provide a condensed overview of the creation of TPNW and discuss its significance for nuclear weapons regulation. I will also discuss various Canadian activist efforts surrounding the TPNW and the response from the federal government. I argue that the apparent lack of interest from the government demonstrates a need for a shift in the approach taken on by Canadian activists, and that an focus on “observing” rather than signing the treaty, is currently the most feasible way to promote Canadian involvement with the TPNW.


Since the creation of the TPNW in 2017 opinions on its legitimacy have been divided into two camps. The first supports the TPNW for its humanitarian and environmental commitments and as the only international treaty to explicitly ban nuclear weapons. The second camp rejects the TPNW, and argues that it is an unrealistic approach to international security. Among those who oppose the TPNW is the United States, who refused to participate in the creation process since 2017 and has firmly rejected its legitimacy. NATO has also rejected the TPNW, arguing that the treaty is not compatible with policies on international security. Canada, a major ally of the U.S and a member of NATO, has followed suit. Like the U.S, Canada refused to participate in the proceedings during 2017, and has refused to sign the TPNW since its coming into effect.


            The need for stronger regulation of nuclear weapons stems from concerns over the severe level of destruction that is caused by nuclear weapons. The strength or “yield” of a nuclear weapon is measured in “kilotons” of dynamite. One kiloton would equal 1,000 tons of dynamite. For reference, a single fireworks explosion only has 1.3 grams of dynamite, a similar strength to a hand grenade. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki measured 15 and 20 kilotons of dynamite respectively. These explosions left thousands dead or injured and destroyed everything in a 4-kilometer radius from “ground zero”, the exact location of detonation. Today, the U.S and Russia have higher yield weapons, known as “Thermonuclear” bombs or “Hydrogen” bombs. Thermonuclear bombs use a different scientific process to release the energy blast, which can measure at a much higher yield than an atomic bomb. Thermonuclear weapons are measured in “megatons”, one megaton equals to 1,000 Kilotons, or 1,000,000 tons of dynamite. It is estimated that the current average nuclear bomb held by the U.S and Russia has a yield of 100 kilotons of dynamite, making them significantly more damaging that those used in Japan. A bomb of “only” 300 kilotons has the strength to completely obliterate the entire downtown core of Toronto, stretching from High Park to the Beaches and from Lake Ontario up to Eglinton Road. The shock wave from a 1-megaton nuclear weapon, would travel at 1261.73 km per hour and would be strong enough to demolish the entire city.


The detonation of a nuclear weapon causes harm in 3 ways. Radiation, force, and heat generated by the explosion can cause burns and injuries kilometers away from ground zero. The explosion of a 300-kiloton nuclear bomb would create a shock wave strong enough to flatten buildings and cause mass casualties up to 4 kilometers from ground zero, all within the matter of seconds. The explosion would also generate a fireball, the heat of which would instantly kill anyone within a 600 meter distance from the centre. Nuclear explosions can also create firestorms, which are intense fires burning over large areas of terrain, carried by strong winds. The heat is so great that it can ignite additional fires and cause severe burns up to 13 kilometers from ground zero. Finally, radiation from the immediate blast can be lethal and cause lasting health complications for the victims of the explosion as well as their descendants. Radioactive fallout from the explosion contributes to long-term health issues and can travel through wind affecting populations far distances from the initial site. The organization Atomic Archive estimates that nearly half the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the result of severe radiation burns. 


The severity and quick nature of a nuclear explosion would likely cause intense strain to any health care system. First responders in the immediate area would be killed or injured by the explosion, therefore causing delays before additional responders could arrive to treat those injured. Radioactivity and damage to infrastructure would place first responders at risk and cause additional delays. Nuclear explosions can also release an electromagnetic pulse, which damages electrical equipment such as powerlines and cellular towers. This would have a serious impact on communication during an attack. Given the severity of the injuries, waiting too long for medical attention would likely be fatal for most of the injured.


In addition to the humanitarian devastation, the detonation of even a single nuclear weapon is damaging to the climate. Nuclear explosions generate heat that warms the air and then cools rapidly, releasing nitric oxides. Nitric oxides are carried into the atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer exposing people to harmful UV rays from the sun. Scientists estimate that a 1 megaton nuclear weapon would release 5,000 tons of nitric oxide. Such significant damage to the ozone layer would be disastrous for food production, as well as human and animal health.  Add to this the realization, as the organization “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” argues, that it would be practically impossible to have a limited conflict involving nuclear weapons, and that any intentional attack using nuclear weapons would likely escalate into full blown nuclear war. In the event of multiple nuclear explosions, the environmental effect would result in what scientists call a “nuclear winter.” Multiple nuclear attacks would result in a great number of fires, releasing millions of tons of soot and smoke into the atmosphere in addition to the many tons of nitric oxides. This theory posits that the amount of soot would be so significant it would create a barrier blocking light from the sun, therefore leading to a significant drop in temperature as well as a disruption to plant and crop growth. Ongoing medical issues from the nuclear war would combine with food scarcity, harm to animals and ecosystems and would trigger a widescale famine and ultimately collapse of our society.


The severe nature of nuclear weapons raises serious concerns regarding the scale of humanitarian and environmental damage that would occur in the event of a nuclear explosion. Under international law, weapons that cause unnecessary suffering and harm should be outlawed. Prior to the TPNW, activists questioned why nuclear weapons had not been outlawed despite clearly causing unnecessary suffering and harm. With the creation of the TPNW came an official ban on nuclear weapons, for those who sign and ratify the treaty. The TPNW also addresses the slowing rate of disarmament and criticizes how nuclear weapons have continued to be a core aspect of military and security policies.


And significantly, the TPNW makes clear that nuclear weapons would cause irreversible harm to the global climate. It requires signatories to invest in the rehabilitation of radioactive areas and agree to provide support to other signatories to do the same.


When a country signs the TPNW it agrees to never develop, test, or stockpile nuclear weapons. It also agrees to never aid or receive assistance in developing nuclear weapons, and to remove any nuclear weapons stationed on its territory. In addition to these prohibitions on nuclear weapons development, signatories of the TPNW also agree to support individuals within their territory that are affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons. This includes social and economic support, medical support, and psychological support. Included in these acknowledgements is an understanding of how war and violence can disproportionately affect women, children, and indigenous populations. Countries are required to work in accordance with the principles of accessibility, non-discrimination, and transparency. Furthermore, any remediation work on the environment must begin no later than 3 months after signing the treaty. Countries are required to work alongside a scientific advisory group that will provide guidance on how to implement the requirements of the treaty.


Until the creation of the TPNW, regulation of nuclear weapons was centered around the concepts of “non-proliferation” and “disarmament”. Non-proliferation refers to preventing the spread and development of nuclear weapons. Disarmament means the process of dismantling a nuclear weapon so that it cannot be used. Countries with nuclear weapons, otherwise known as Nuclear Weapon States, use these two concepts in tandem with a strategy known as “nuclear deterrence”. This strategy is used when nuclear weapons states are engaged in a conflict with one another. Because each has a nuclear arsenal, the potential for a nuclear attack on either country is a real possibility. Each state refrains from launching an attack based on the understanding that retaliation will follow. The desired result is a de-escalation of conflict and ultimately, peace. If nuclear deterrence fails, it means that one of the two powers has decided to use its weapons, therefore plunging the world into nuclear war.


Nuclear deterrence is the primary strategy used by NATO and its members, including the United States and Canada. For this reason, NATO opposes the TPNW and its prohibition of nuclear weapons, arguing that it contradicts deterrence and non-proliferation. In an official statement on the TPNW, NATO emphasized how a nuclear ban is at odds with its policy of deterrence. The statement went on to call the treaty unrealistic and declared that prohibiting nuclear weapons places international security at risk.


Yet there is also a significant level of risk associated with deterrence. After all, there is always the chance that a nuclear weapon state will use its nuclear arsenal regardless of the harm it causes. Anti-nuclear weapons activists argue that it is irresponsible and reckless to allow this strategy to govern international security. They argue in favor of a nuclear weapons ban because so long as nuclear weapons continue to exist, so does the threat to humanity.


The fight for a nuclear ban, and indeed the TPNW itself, came about from concerns over one of the most significant international treaties on nuclear weapons prior to the TPNW, known as the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Created in 1968, the NPT has amassed 191 signatories and is considered the cornerstone of modern nuclear weapons regulation. The NPT relies on non-proliferation and disarmament as the main mechanisms for preventing nuclear war. It also determines which countries are permitted to have nuclear weapons, and which countries are not. Upon signing the NPT, countries with nuclear weapons agree to stop the development of new weapons and work towards disarming their arsenals. Countries without a nuclear arsenal that sign the NPT agree to never pursue their creation. Signatories also agree to never transfer, assist, or aid any other in developing nuclear weapons. In 1968 only 5 countries had nuclear weapons. Called “Nuclear Weapons States,” they were the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia (then the Soviet Union). The goal of the NPT was to preserve these 5 countries as the only nuclear weapons states, and eventually, reach a point where none had any nuclear weapons at all.


In some respects, the NPT has been successful in achieving its goals of non-proliferation and disarmament. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the formulation of the NPT twenty years later no nuclear weapon has been used in an intentional attack. The number of nuclear weapons worldwide has also decreased significantly over time. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the global total decreased from its peak of roughly 70,000 weapons during the Cold War, to around 12,000 weapons today. Yet weaknesses have also begun to emerge. Non-proliferation efforts failed to prevent an additional four countries from developing nuclear weapons. Today there are nine Nuclear Weapons States. India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel are either confirmed, or widely believed to have nuclear weapons.


Disarmament efforts have weakened as the pace at which nuclear weapons are dismantled has slowed. Slowing disarmament has allowed Nuclear Weapon States to avoid dismantling their arsenals, and instead work on maintaining and “modernizing” their weapons. The modernization process has changed the use of nuclear weapons in two ways. First, modern technology has produced weapons with extremely high yields and a stronger capacity for destruction. Second, nuclear weapons have also been developed to be smaller and compact. Although at first glance this may seem counter-intuitive, the purpose of creating smaller weapons is to integrate them into conventional methods of fighting and war. This creates an illusion that nuclear war can be fought on a limited level. However, the reality remains that any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for our society.


Nuclear Weapon States that sign the TPNW would commit to the same requirements as all other countries, as well to completely dismantling their arsenal within a timeline of ten years. There are currently 93 signatories of the TPNW (23 of which have signed the treaty but have not ratified it into force). Although Article 18 of the TPNW states that the TPNW does not override other obligations countries may have to other treaties, no Nuclear Weapons States have signed it. NATO and the U.S have taken this as evidence of the TPNW’s weakness and continue to support the claim that involvement in the TPNW creates more harm than good. They argue that the TPNW undermines the established policies of deterrence and non-proliferation as written in the NPT.


 The importance of the TPNW does not lie solely with its nuclear ban clause, but with an updated understanding of what supporting and preventing humanitarian and climate disaster should look like. The principles that inform the TPNW are clearly missing in the text of the NPT, which was indeed written at a time when environmental concerns, gender inequities, indigenous rights, and discussions surrounding mental health were not a priority in international politics. Though this does not delegitimize the NPT, it demonstrates the need for an updated treaty which can strengthen the areas that the NPT misses. It should be noted, that during a review conference for the NPT in 2015, a motion was put forth to establish a committee on increasing the humanitarian commitments of the NPT. Though the motion passed, the review conference failed to reach a consensus and thus indefinitely stalled progress on creating the committee.


NATO, the U.S. and Canada have neglected to address the humanitarian commitments of the TPNW, and instead focused on the nuclear weapons ban as their reason for not signing the treaty. When a petition calling for Canada to become a signatory reached the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Melanie Joly, the official response stressed that Canada would remain dedicated to the NPT. This perspective is directly aligned with that of NATO, which maintains that the prohibition of nuclear weapons will not deter the pursuit of nuclear weapons and will not eliminate the threat of nuclear war. Instead, Canada, NATO, and the U.S have made clear that non-proliferation as outlined in the NPT, remains the most viable method of deterring nuclear war.


The importance of maintaining a balance between allegiance to NATO and regulation of nuclear weapons has been highlighted by the current Russian-Ukrainian war. Over the course of the war, remarks from Russian president Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have hinted at willingness to use nuclear weapons if Russia faces defeat, sparking widespread concern over the possibility of an escalation of the war. The threat of an imminent nuclear war was dramatically signaled when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set their “Doomsday Clock” to 90 seconds to midnight. For Canada, as a NATO member and ally to Ukraine, there is obvious concern over Russia’s intentions to use nuclear weapons. As the only treaty to establish a nuclear weapons ban, the TPNW is a pathway towards addressing such concerns and establishing new norms for international security, in which threatening to use nuclear weapons is unacceptable. Becoming an observer to the TPNW would signal Canada’s commitment to stronger nuclear weapons regulation and thus would further support Canada’s support for Ukraine, which already has included nearly C$2.4 billion in military assistance as well as donations of military vehicles and equipment.


As a result, some have suggested that Canada first become an “observer” to the TPNW, as a steppingstone towards signing the treaty. Observer status provides a straightforward, low commitment, way for Canada to increase its involvement, and contribute to the important work being done. As an observer to the TPNW, Canada would be permitted to attend and participate in treaty meetings without having to fulfil the commitments of a signatory. Observer status would mean Canada could simultaneously honor its responsibilities as a NATO member, while being involved in the fight to ban nuclear weapons. Furthermore, joining the TPNW as an observer would send a strong message to the international community regarding Canada’s principles on peace and international security, without requiring the Canadian government to make any long-term commitments. This would not be unprecedented, as there are several other NATO countries who have already attended TPNW meetings as observers. Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany all attended the first meeting of TPNW members, otherwise known as the “Meeting of States Parties” as observers in 2022. All except the Netherlands attended the second meeting in November of 2023 as well. This is a significant move, as Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium all host U.S nuclear weapons.


Yet within Canadian activism the focus appears to remain on the need to become a signatory, with limited mention of the opportunity observer status provides. Activists have organized to sign open letters and petitions,  calling upon the government to sign the treaty. Included in these efforts is call for Canada to increase its work in disarmament efforts beyond the TPNW as well, such as demanding that Canada take on a more significant role in shaping NATO policy. In an open letter to Minister Joly signed by Canadians awarded with the order of Canada, several demands regarding the TPNW were listed. Among them, that Canada take on a more significant role within NATO, the NPT, and disarmament efforts as whole. While the letter does urge Canada to take on a role with the TPNW, there is no mention of becoming an observer.


Other attempts to raise awareness of the TPNW and its goals have stemmed from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was one of the main civil society organizations that assisted in creating the TPNW. ICAN launched two campaigns, the cities appeal, and the parliamentary pledge, both aimed at working at a municipal level to generate enthusiasm for signing treaty. Twenty Canadian municipal councils voted in favour of signing the TPNW, including the cities of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The parliamentary pledge has been partially successful, resulting in a small delegation of Canadian MP’s attending the second meeting of state parties in November 2023 as independent observers. It seems however that the federal government takes little notice of these campaigns, as there has been no statement of acknowledgement of either the cities appeal or the parliamentarian pledge.


It is not surprising that nuclear states such as the U.S should be reluctant to sign the TPNW and eliminate their arsenals. However, Canada has neither a nuclear arsenal, nor hosts any nuclear weapons. Canada could easily continue its commitments to NATO while also showing support for the TPNW by becoming an observer to the treaty. While I firmly believe that Canada must ultimately sign the TPNW, it has become increasingly clear that this is not a priority for the current government. Involvement with the TPNW is critical for protecting against the threat of nuclear weapons. Refusing to participate in the TPNW does not exempt any country from the damage caused by nuclear weapons. Central within the TPNW is an understanding of the amount of harm that would be caused by nuclear weapons, particularly that harm would extend beyond borders. This implies that countries must agree to cooperate and work together to secure and prevent nuclear war from occurring.


On the 27th of this past November, 92 countries convened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City for the second meeting of states parties to the TPNW. There was no official delegation from Canada.


Yet any level of involvement with the TPNW would be beneficial to the international community, as cooperation and support is a sure path towards a stronger and more peaceful world. Clinging to the NPT, in a manner similar to the Nuclear Weapons States, only demonstrates the weakness of Nuclear Weapons States to actively work towards a better world, and instead sheds light on their desire to cling to outdated and eroding policies which cannot properly protect us anymore.


Involvement with the TPNW signals more than just a desire to ban nuclear weapons. It provides a direct path towards a new approach to international security, where nuclear weapons no longer dictate the result of conflict and war and are no longer acceptable by the international community. Canadian activism ensures that we do not forget this critical issue. The rejection of the TPNW by the Canadian government does not mean walking away from the TPNW table. There is still an important way for Canada to have a seat at the table and it is the next best opportunity, observer status.


















bottom of page