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Oslo, Ottawa, and the need for a nuke-free world

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Originally published in the March 13 issue of Embassy

The endgame to nuclear disarmament is remarkably straightforward: a global legal ban on the development, possession, testing, and use of nuclear weapons by any actor. Call it a multilateral treaty or a Nuclear Weapons Convention—there is no clearer path to rid the world of the most destructive weapons ever made.

Regrettably, more than four decades after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, came into force, nuclear-weapons states still call a ban ‘premature.’

But demands for a ban are mounting. Calls come from a growing number of scientists, legal scholars, mayors, and parliamentarians, as well as active and retired diplomats and statesmen—from both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states.

From March 1 to 5, Oslo was the epicenter of the latest international push for a world free of nuclear weapons. Back-to-back conferences—the first organized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the second by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry—shone the spotlight on the use of nuclear weapons and prospects for adequate emergency response.

Despite the disappointing boycott of the governmental conference by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—also the sole possessors of nuclear weapons among states parties to the NPT—representatives of more than 130 states, various United Nations agencies, the Red Cross, Hiroshima survivors, and about 500 civil society activists examined in detail the effects of a nuclear attack.

Grim first-hand testimonies alternated with disturbing scientific findings. The message was clear: effects of the use of nuclear weapons on the environment, the global economy, and life on the planet would be catastrophic; effective emergency relief, impossible.

Underlying the visceral reaction to the presentations was frustration with the anomalies, contradictions, and fundamental injustices underpinning the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime that delay progress to disarmament. Among them:

• the mistaken notion that the primary risk of nuclear weapons is their potential proliferation—not their existence;

• the imbalance between disarmament and non-proliferation obligations, with the former framed as a mere aspiration and the latter a hard obligation;

• the rationale by which nuclear-weapons states claim nuclear arsenals as vital for their national security, but express outrage when others pursue nuclear weapons;

• a discriminatory approach that imposes sanctions against some states suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, while ignoring the undisputed, illegal possession of nuclear arsenals by others.

Canadian leadership needed

Especially problematic is the determination of several nuclear-weapons states to retain a nuclear arsenal as long as such weapons exist. This strategic, political, and logical straitjacket all but ensures that a world without nuclear weapons will never be achieved. The alternative necessarily has to be a concerted effort to negotiate a global legal ban on nuclear weapons.

Achieving such a ban would require determined leadership, and Canada is uniquely positioned to assume this role. Besides enjoying credibility as a responsible international actor, Canada is a member of NATO (a nuclear alliance), an active player in the global nuclear energy industry, a state party to the NPT, and a member of the G8 and G20.

The current Canadian government has not made nuclear disarmament a top foreign policy priority. But it should. And such a stand would have wide public support.

In 2010 a unanimous motion by the House and Senate urged the Canadian government “to engage in negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention as proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General” and “to deploy a major worldwide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.”

Civil society organizations, former diplomats and government officials, and more than 600 recipients of the Order of Canada are urging the Canadian government to support UN resolutions calling for formal negotiations toward a nuclear weapons convention. Polls indicate that more than 88 per cent of Canadians support a legal agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Canada’s current position—and that of most NWS—focuses on a step-by-step process. From this perspective, the international community cannot negotiate—or even plan for—a global legal ban on nuclear weapons until, for example, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty enters into force or a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty is negotiated. But if the end goal is clear, are intermediate steps necessary?

If street racing in a residential neighbourhood poses a grave danger and has already caused deaths, steps could be taken to limit the number of vehicles in each race. New drivers could be forbidden. But the obvious course of action would be to seek a ban on street racing.

The Canadian government should move past the step-by-step approach that its delegation in Oslo reiterated, and embrace the opportunity to make a significant contribution to international peace and security by leading the call for a global legal ban on nuclear weapons.

The double standards sustaining the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime will not and cannot hold indefinitely. Citizens aware of the dire consequences of nuclear weapons will pressure governments to move toward complete nuclear disarmament.

Mexico has already announced that it will host a follow-up to the Oslo conference. In an eventual process to negotiate a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons, Canada should be a key player and not merely a spectator.

Cesar Jaramillo is program officer at Waterloo-based Project Ploughshares. He can be reached at


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