An Open Letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Behalf of Science for Peace

We write to you today as one last attempt to convince your government to adopt a policy in line with the preference of the vast majority of your citizens, with respect to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into effect last year. It was only a few months ago that the P5 countries (all nuclear powers including China and Russia) issued a joint statement that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. Nonetheless, as I am sure you are aware, the danger of a nuclear war has never been greater than at this moment and none of the current nuclear states, or Canada, have signed on to the treaty. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has kept its Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight (the closest we have ever been to nuclear self-destruction of our species) since January 2020, in response to the abrogation by the U.S. of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement and the Open Skies Treaty — after the administration of George W. Bush abandoned the U.S. commitment to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. As Angela Kane, the former UN High Representative for Disarmament and Undersecretary General starkly put it: “The arms control architecture which constituted a strong pillar of strategic stability even in the highly rivalrous Cold War environment has crumbled.” 

All of this was before Russia invaded Ukraine, raising tensions between the two largest nuclear powers on the planet to unprecedented levels. With president Putin warning of “consequences the likes of which have never been seen” for any country doing what NATO is currently doing: arming Ukraine, how long until a tactical nuclear weapon is deployed or a NATO country supplying arms is attacked, leading to a tit for tat escalation to a full nuclear exchange? We are in fact already in a nuclear war if we accept that the mere threat of nuclear attack (implicit in Putin’s warning) is use of nuclear weapons. We would argue that a state’s mere possession of nuclear weapons is an implicit threat to use them. Neither the use, threat or possession of nuclear weapons are in keeping with existing international humanitarian law or basic morality. International law unambiguously outlaws the targeting of civilian populations. Clearly nuclear weapons, by the scale of their destructive powers are contrary to this prohibition, quite independently from the TPNW.

If ever the precautionary principle was appropriate, this would seem to be the time: it advises that in the context of a potentially catastrophic risk, reducing that risk must take precedence over all secondary considerations. It is this concern, in particular the call of humanitarian empathy, that prompted the international community to negotiate the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while having slowed the spread of nuclear weapons, has clearly failed in getting the existing nuclear powers to live up to their commitment to work toward the elimination of their stockpiles. While the TPNW is unlikely to compel nuclear states to surrender their arsenals, it is an important step in delegitimizing nuclear weapons as a tool of statecraft and making those holdout states pariahs.

Canada is not a nuclear state. Does your government really believe that the possession of nuclear weapons by other powers around the world makes Canada safer? If so, how? If not, what possible reason would prevent Canada from signing on to the TPNW? More than 70% of Canadians support doing so. The claim that our NATO membership precludes signing the treaty has already been debunked by an extensive study by Harvard Law School. While none of the NATO members have signed the treaty, several are at least attending the first meeting of parties to the treaty rescheduled for June 21-23. It is your duty, dear ministers, to assure the safety of our country and its citizens and to reflect the opinions of the majority of those who elected you. Both of these duties compel you to reconsider your rejection of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.