#WPSAdvice: Put Canada back in Humanitarian Disarmament

By Erin Hunt, Mines Action Canada, and Isabelle Jones, Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

This advice to the Canadian government from Erin Hunt and Isabelle Jones can apply to many governments around the world.  Their blog originally appeared on the website of the Women, Peace and Security Network—Canada

There are some things that are just associated with Canada; maple syrup, hockey, Mounties in red serge, toques, peacekeeping, and being polite, eh? One of those examples of Canadiana is disarmament. Canada was the first country who had the materials and the know-how to create our own nuclear weapons program but opted not to. We have a long history of pushing for disarmament that spanned the Cold War. Through the Ottawa Process, Canada led the world to ban anti-personnel landmines because of their humanitarian impact. We created the humanitarian disarmament approach. 

Unfortunately, recent Canadian governments have forgotten this aspect of our international identity. Funding to disarmament programs has declined. While Canada is always present in international disarmament fora we seldom champion initiatives.  

Our advice to the new government is to embrace our historical leadership role and move forward towards a safer world for us all by stepping up on humanitarian disarmament. 

When we talk about humanitarian disarmament we mean an area of work where the humanitarian impact of weapons is the primary concern. It puts people at the centre of security and is characterized by collaboration and substantive partnership between states, international organizations, and civil society. The aims of humanitarian disarmament are quite simple: prevent further civilian casualties, avoid socio-economic devastation, and protect and ensure the rights of victims. All of these goals align with Canadian values and foreign policy objectives. The actions needed to take back Canada’s position as a leader on disarmament are simple but the impact will be significant. 

Actions to support existing and developing international norms 

previous blog in this series addressed the Arms Trade Treaty, but there is more that can be done on conventional weapons. The Ottawa Treaty banning landmines has brought the international community close to ending the suffering caused by these insidious weapons. States parties to the Ottawa Treaty have set 2025 as the goal for completing landmine clearance; this ambitious target is achievable with political will and increased funding by states, including Canada. The next government could be the one to finish the job on landmines.

Similarly, the Convention on Cluster Munitions is making progress towards a world without cluster munitions. Currently, only a small number of states are using cluster munitions but when they are used, research shows that over 90% of the casualties are civilians. Additional diplomatic effort is needed to bring more states onboard the Convention and Canada is well placed to promote such a humanitarian issue.

Funding landmine and cluster munition clearance activities will save lives. It will free up land for agriculture, economic development and tourism while supporting victim assistance activities that strengthen local health care systems and help those injured rebuild their lives so they can contribute to their communities. These mine action activities are crucially important to sustainable development. A study from Lebanon published earlier this year found that every dollar invested in mine action activities generated a benefit of $4.15. That is an excellent return on investment. 

Canadian Hiroshima Survivor Setsuko Thurlow addresses the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons while Canadian members of civil society look on. Credit: ICAN|Ralf Schlesener.

Turning to weapons of mass destruction, the new government will face a new international legal framework regarding nuclear weapons. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is expected to enter into force (become binding international law for its states parties) during the 43rd Parliament. The TPNW, which fills a long standing legal gap by prohibiting nuclear weapons, has already shifted the international conversation about disarmament. The new government should review the TPNW to assess the possibility of Canada’s signing. During this review, Canada needs to be participating as an observer in all treaty meetings and supporting the implementation of its victim assistance and environmental remediation provisions. 

This government will also be confronted with new and emerging disarmament issues. Of urgent concern is the development of fully autonomous weapons, which have been under discussion at the United Nations since 2014. The majority of experts agree that these “killer robots” would increase risk to civilians, and disproportionately impact vulnerable groups due to targeting based on characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, and ability.  Proliferation of remotely piloted systems (armed drones), cyber warfare, and weaponization of space are other emerging technologies that may deepen inequalities and have specific gendered impacts. With technology developing at a rate far out-pacing the establishment of new regulations and norms, Canada should support the ongoing discussions on drones, cyber, and space within relevant international and regional forums; and support negotiation of a new treaty banning autonomous weapons. It is worth noting that at the time of writing, two of Canada’s political parties, the Liberals and the Greens, have released campaign platforms supporting a ban on autonomous weapons.

Women as full and equal partners in disarmament 

Like the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, humanitarian disarmament looks to ensure the inclusion of those who are often overlooked in international security. There is increasing recognition that weapons affect men, women, girls and boys differently due to biological sex and due to socially-constructed gender roles. Alongside that recognition is the realization that women’s participation in disarmament results in better outcomes for all. Those improved outcomes add further weight to most basic reason to include women in disarmament – we are members of our communities with unique experiences and perspectives. 

For example, the Arms Trade Treaty requires states to consider whether the arms being sold are at high risk to be used to carry out gender-based violence. It recognizes that there are strong links between the arms trade and gender-based-violence. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons explicitly calls for the participation of women in the treaty’s implementation. 

The voices calling for strengthening gender equality through humanitarian disarmament are not just coming from civil society. In his Agenda for Disarmament, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres wrote: 

All States should also incorporate gender perspectives in the development of national legislation and policies on disarmament and arms control, including consideration of the gendered aspects of ownership, use and misuse of arms; the differentiated impacts of weapons on women and men; and the ways in which gender roles can shape arms control and disarmament policies and practices.

Canada: it’s time to lead

When it comes to gender equality and humanitarian disarmament, Canada has been more vocal recently. In Canada’s statement to the First Committee of the 73rd session of the United Nations last year they talked the talk, recognizing that, “Advancing international peace and security depends on our collective ability to recognize and account for the gender dimensions of non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament.” We hope that the new government will take this a step further, and walk the walk on gender and disarmament. 

There are already tools to do this work: the National Action Plan on WPS includes specific targets for disarmament and gender mainstreaming; peace and security is an action area in the Feminist International Assistance Policy; and Strong, Secure, Engaged recognizes the destabilizing impacts of weapons proliferation. But without redoubling efforts on addressing the past and future harm of indiscriminate weapons systems, Canada will not be able to achieve its vision of a feminist foreign policy. 

What is needed is political will and courage. It is hard to be a leader but in this case, Canada has the history, the policy and the values to do it. As a leader on humanitarian disarmament Canada has the potential to make lasting and measurable improvement to the lives of people around the world. At a time when global problems seem large and answers are complicated, humanitarian disarmament offers lasting solutions that are achievable. All we need is Canadian leadership. 

Please note that the views in these blog posts are those of the authors and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.

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