The evolving Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked fears that the chance for a nuclear war, while still low, is “not zero.” For many, a nuclear war has been unthinkable since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. However, it is now “back within the realm of possibility,” as Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, warned

Therefore, signing and ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a treaty that pursues the total elimination of nuclear weapons, has become more necessary than ever to prevent a nuclear conflict from happening. The TPNW, also known as the Ban Treaty, was adopted in 2017, with 122 states voting in favour of its adoption, and was officially entered into force in 2021. The TPNW has been signed by 86 states, yet there are many countries that have been reluctant to sign it, and Canada is one of them.

Since he took office in 2015, Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has claimed to support nuclear disarmament. “We need to move towards a safer world with far fewer nuclear weapons. We need to create a nuclear-free world for our children and grandchildren,” Trudeau asserted. When it comes to taking meaningful action, however, the Trudeau government has opposed the TPNW, arguing that, due to the lack of involvement of states with nuclear weapons, the treaty is “ineffective.” 

Opposition to the TPNW raises the question: does Canada support furthering nuclear disarmament or is it happy just claiming to want disarmament? And does Canada want to lead the world to be free from nuclear weapons, or does it want to accept the potential use of nuclear weapons and the effects of their use, which could happen sooner or later as long as these weapons exist? 

The TPNW

The TPNW is a legally binding international treaty that aims to ban nuclear weapons. In 2020, the TPNW reached the ratification threshold as 50 states, including Austria, Mexico, Nigeria, and Honduras, ratified or ascended it, entering into force a year later and becoming international law. States that sign the TPNW are obligated not to “develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.” 

That is why this treaty is considered a milestone in the history of nuclear disarmament. It is a major step towards banning nuclear weapons and saving humanity and nature from the impacts of their use. It is also an important instrument to “compel renewed action by nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons,” as stated by Daryl Kimball, the Arms Control Association’s Executive Director. 

Canada’s Stance on the Treaty

Rather than being part of a global effort toward nuclear disarmament, Canada has placed itself among the states that have not signed the TPNW. This is because nuclear-armed states refrained from joining the negotiations on the treaty. The United States, for example, contended that adopting the TPNW would have “wide-ranging” effects on its security relationships and nuclear deterrence strategies. Accordingly, the US refused to participate in the negotiations on the treaty and urged other powerful actors, like the other member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to act the same way. 

“There can be all sorts of people talking about nuclear disarmament,” Trudeau said, “but if they do not actually have nuclear arms, it is sort of useless to have them around.” Therefore, Canada boycotted the negotiations that led to the treaty’s adoption and voted against an annual resolution by the United Nations General Assembly that calls on non-signatory states to sign the treaty. 

This is surprising given the country’s earlier history of nuclear disarmament, especially under the current prime minister’s father: Pierre Trudeau. In 1978, Pierre Trudeau proposed at the first United Nations Special Session on Disarmament a “strategy of suffocation,” which included measures, such as a ban on testing nuclear weapons and the reduction of military spending on a new nuclear weapons system, all aimed at ending the nuclear arms race. In 1999, moreover, Canada encouraged NATO to review the nuclear doctrine of the Alliance “with an eye towards the [Non-Proliferation Treaty’s] eventual objective of complete disarmament,” something with which the Alliance eventually agreed to do.

The Government’s Rationale

Canadian officials argue that Canada still pursues nuclear disarmament, but through different approaches. According to Mark Gwozdecky, Assistant Deputy Minister for International Security and Political Affairs, the TPNW, though “well-intentioned,” is “premature.” As long as nuclear-weapon states do not support it, the treaty will not succeed to eliminate “even a single nuclear weapon.” Instead, Canada views the so-called step-by-step strategy, which consists of measures like the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), as more efficient to achieve nuclear disarmament. 

What this argument does not consider is that the CTBT has not come into force, despite being negotiated back in 1996. Eight states—the US, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and Egypt—have refused to sign or ratify the treaty, which is significant as all those nations apart from Iran and Egypt possess nuclear weapons. Thus, nuclear disarmament through the CTBT is currently as unrealistic as the participation of nuclear-weapon states in the TPNW. Likewise, there have been no negotiations on the FMCT, and none are likely to start in the foreseeable future. The step-by-step strategy, contrary to what Gwozdecky claims, is clearly inefficient to achieve nuclear disarmament.

Why Should Canada Sign the TPNW? 

What the TPNW offers is a possibility to shift norms, which in turn could push non-signatories to change their behaviours. The US, for instance, did not sign the 1997 Ottawa Treaty to eliminate landmines. Yet as many countries have signed this treaty, the US responded to this new norm in 2014 and “stopped using landmines, except in the Korean Peninsula.” The same thing applies to nuclear weapons. Canada can, if it signs the TPNW, contribute to the creation of a new norm, making it “uncomfortable for the nuclear-arms states … to continue to act as though [nuclear] [weapons] are legitimate tools for security.”

It is Time for Action

The Trudeau government has recently repeated the words it used when Trudeau got elected: “we are committed to achieving a world free from nuclear weapons.” The government’s opposition to the TPNW, however, reveals the clear gap between its rhetoric and reality, something that has drawn just criticism from opposition parties. “The Liberals cannot continue to pretend they believe in nuclear disarmament so long as they stay outside of this treaty,” said Hélène Laverdière, a New Democratic Party member. 

In a survey conducted by Nanos Research in 2021, 74% of Canadians expressed support for signing and ratifying the TPNW. Prior to this, notable Canadian politicians, including former prime minister Jean Chrétien and former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, signed an open letter supporting the TPNW and urging the country’s leaders to “show courage and boldness — and join [it].” So, what is the Trudeau government waiting for?

At a time when the risk of a nuclear war is increasing, Canada should, as a middle-power country, take a bold step and sign and ratify the TPNW. Otherwise, it will find itself on the wrong side of history. 

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Osama Alshantti

Osama graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2021 with a B.A. in Political Science. His main research interests include diplomacy and conflicts between states, human rights, and environmental...