Let's come out of the closet: Canada is a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Today, the fate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hangs in the balance as representatives from 188 countries begin a month-long review conference in New York. Canada could make a decisive contribution to saving the NPT by officially declaring itself a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
In 1970, the NPT codified a bargain between the five states that then possessed nuclear weapons (Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union and the United States) and the rest of the world, whereby countries ratifying the treaty as non-nuclear weapon states agreed not to develop or acquire such weapons. In return, those states would have access to the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy. They also obtained a commitment that the nuclear-weapon states would "pursue negotiations in good faith on general and complete disarmament."
The NPT has been remarkably successful, to the extent that none of the 183 ratifying non-nuclear weapon states has subsequently acquired nuclear weapons. The only three countries to have acquired nuclear weapons since 1970 - India, Pakistan and Israel - exercised their sovereign right to stay out of the treaty.
The NPT has, however, failed to achieve general disarmament. More than 30,000 nuclear weapons remain, most of them belonging to the five original nuclear weapon states. Many of these weapons have explosive yields far exceeding those used to flatten Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago. Increasingly, other countries are questioning the willingness of the powerful to keep their side of the bargain.
At the last NPT review conference, in 2000, the five original nuclear-weapon states made an "unequivocal commitment" to take 13 steps towards a nuclear-free world. Since coming into office in 2001, the U.S. administration of George W. Bush has systematically backed away from that commitment. It has opposed a verifiable fissile-material cut-off treaty, failed to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, renounced the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, initiated ballistic missile defence and sought Congressional funding for a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons. It also plans to put weapons systems in space.
At the same time, the U.S. delegation in New York will push for new measures to enforce the obligations of non-nuclear weapon states, including strengthened export controls and improved mechanisms for interdicting weapons shipments on the high seas. In other words, the United States expects to be excused from its obligations under the NPT, while holding the non-nuclear weapons states strictly accountable.
The excuse for the shift in U.S. policy is, as always, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "We think the international situation with regard to non-proliferation has changed so radically that the review conference should not be looking backward at the past final document," one U.S. official has been quoted as saying.
The U.S. position, squarely opposed by many developing countries, means that even an agenda for the conference has yet to be agreed. The NPT could unravel, the latest - and by far the most important - international legal instrument to fall victim to George W. Bush.
Canada is uniquely positioned to prevent this outcome. It is an original signatory to the NPT, a major supplier of nuclear technologies, and the world's largest producer and exporter of uranium and medical isotopes. Canada, which has long had the technological capability to build nuclear weapons, has set an example for other countries by not doing so. It has also played an active role in the annual United Nations conference on disarmament.
At the same time, Canada is a member of NATO's nuclear-planning group which, in apparent violation of the NPT, maintains the option of engaging in a nuclear first-strike against any aggressor country. Membership in the nuclear-planning group, which is not a requirement of NATO membership, places Canada in the awkward position of supporting disarmament with its words but opposing it through some of its actions.
This tension is revealed in Canada's position going into this month's NPT review conference. Canada seeks to improve civil society participation and reporting and review mechanisms under the NPT, in a "bridging strategy" between the opposing camps of the developing countries and the United States.
Instead of sitting on the fence, Canada should join the "new agenda coalition," a group that includes Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden. Together, these countries are seeking to decrease the political legitimacy of nuclear weapons and persuade the nuclear powers to move decisively towards disarmament.
Canada should also declare itself a nuclear-weapons-free zone, a possibility encouraged under Article VII of the NPT and already seized upon by many other countries. Currently, nearly half the Earth's surface and one third of its population - in Latin America, South East Asia, the South Pacific and elsewhere- fall within officially declared nuclear-weapons-free zones.
As a nuclear-weapons-free zone, Canada would be forbidden to produce, test, store, acquire or deploy nuclear weapons, or to have nuclear weapons deployed on its behalf by other countries. As it happens, Canada currently does none of these things. We are, in practical terms, already nuclear weapons free.
In its foreign policy statement, the federal government asserted that Canada should present itself as a "model country." Models don't hide their finest attributes away in a closet. Let's be frank about our nuclear-free status, and show some leadership on the world stage.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Ross Neil is a former nuclear non-proliferation officer with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.