Reflections on Nuclear Ban Treaty Day of Action

In which we join hundreds of eminent Canadians by gathering signatures for a citizen treaty…and ask the barber if we need a haircut

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Last week, in the midst of the hot spell, a group of peaceniks (myself included) set up a tall, vertical banner at the corner of University and Union. The little PeaceQuest Kingston band was part of a national push to get Canadians thinking about a United Nations effort to get the world to ban nuclear weapons. We armed ourselves with Sharpies.

We succeeded in getting dozens of Queen’s students to sign the our big, official looking “treaty.” The local “Citizen Signing Ceremony” was one of a half-dozen across Canada. We were urging Ottawa to sign the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that opened for signature at the UN on Sept. 20. Some 122 nations have supported the treaty.

When you do this sort of thing, especially in the public square, you sometimes feel that you’re on a lonely quest But we knew that some 970 Order of Canada recipients have already lent their support to an effort to get their country to take the lead in negotiations for the nuclear weapons convention proposed by the United Nations Secretary General.

The Order of Canada is the centerpiece of our honours system, recognizing people who have dedicated their lives to national service. Many OC recipients receive the recognition later in life and are no longer with us. But in Ottawa, the energetic Quaker Murray Thomson, 94, is still working for a more peaceful world.

In May, the dean of Canadian peace activism’s hand was evident in a letter to the Prime Minister. Mr. Thomson and his fellow activists wrote that “The world has entered its most dangerous nuclear moment since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.”

They went on to quote former US Defense Secretary William Perry’s frightening conclusion that “The likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War.”

But here’s a problem. A freshly negotiated Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an essential step towards eliminating the most lethal weapons of mass destruction. But the Trudeau government refuses to sign on.

Not only that, it didn’t even bother to participate in the United Nations sponsored negotiations aimed at banning weapons that could easily vaporize us all. Given the North Korea/United States standoff over the former’s nuclear program, the issue is more important than ever.

Nuclear sabre-rattling by frightening leaders Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will lead nowhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently observed that the North Koreans would rather eat grass than give up their nukes. A remarkable article by Evan Osnos of The New Yorker recently underlined the hideous uncertainty the world faces today. Mr. Osnos has worked a correspondent in Iraq, China and Egypt, had been allowed into North Korea.

“To go between Washington and Pyongyang at this nuclear moment is to be struck, most of all, by how little the two understand each other. In eighteen years of reporting, I’ve never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody—not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject—is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks.”

As with so many knotty war and peace problems, there’s only one way out. Talking. Negotiating. Learning about who’s thinking what.

The achievement of a UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons is not specifically about the standoff on the Korea peninsula. But the negotiations for the Treaty do, according to Cesar Jaramillo of Canadian peace group Project Ploughshares, “constitute a welcome shock to an otherwise lethargic nuclear disarmament regime.”

Students symbolically sign the Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons at the PeaceQuest Peace Day Picnic on September 21st, 2017. Click for full image.

Canada’s allies are divided, with most other NATO members opposed and even working to subvert the moves towards a new nuke ban treaty. It could limit nuclear weapons sharing practices as well as nuclear weapons related planning and training.

Canadian diplomacy has apparently been colonized by a military alliance dominated by the US and countries like Britain and France, whose military establishments are addicted to nukes. This isn’t about Trump. The unstable president’s predecessor was so keen on the nuclear arsenal (it makes “weapons of mass destruction” an absurd understatement) that last year Barack Obama authorized a nuclear weapons “modernization” scheme that would cost a trillion dollars. Not billions. A trillion – with a “T”.

As prominent Canadian military analyst Gwynne Dyer put it pungently in Canada in the Great Power Game “asking our soldiers if NATO was a good thing was like asking the barber if you need a haircut.”

Canada’s military is so tied up with the Americans – they use the word “interoperability” – that it’s hardly a wonder that the government listens when it hears about the alleged folly of limiting nuclear weapons planning and training.

Yet, it was protracted diplomatic negotiations that produced the 1997 treaty to ban land mines. Many countries using these hideous weapons weren’t at the table, at least at the start.

This past June a Prime Minister Trudeau referred to a treaty to ban nuclear weapons as “useless.”

Murray Thomson, Nobel Prize winner John Polanyi, former Conservative Senator Doug Roche and 970 other Order of Canada recipients have rejected this doomsday logic. We need Canada to show some leadership.