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Views and Opinions

Presidents Obama and Medvedev

Reuters RTR25K1H by Tony Gentile

US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, 11 July 2009.

Canada’s Role in Promoting International Security Through Arms Control and Disarmament: Capitalizing on a New ‘Climate of Change’

by Gordon Vachon

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Shortly after the arrival of President Barack Obama’s Administration, enthusiasm concerning the familiar campaign mantra of ‘change’ had already extended well beyond the important issue of climate change. It soon included encouragement to members of the international community to take advantage of an expectation of a new ‘climate of change’ in multilateral arenas dealing with other issues of common concern.1 News reports appeared quickly about how the Obama Administration might address nuclear issues, including ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).2 Outer space was also mentioned in news reports. All of this was both refreshing and indicative of a fresh look at where arms control and disarmament (ACD) fits into the broader international security agenda. The question is: Where does Canada fit into the re-emerging debate?  Before coming to grips with that question, it is useful to look briefly at where Canada has come from in order to get some idea of where we might be going.


Canada has a long history of contributing to international security in a variety of ways, through participation in alliances to counter threats of (or actual) conflict, and through what was long seen as its ‘signature’ involvement in peacekeeping.  However, those were, and are, only the most visible elements of a broad spectrum of activity embracing many different kinds of contributions. Human rights, international justice, and developmental assistance all preoccupy Canadian authorities as well, and all have security dimensions. Perhaps not well appreciated by the public at large, except during the final Trudeau Government years, and for a decade or two thereafter, including during the Mulroney Governments, is the role that Canada can play in efforts to constrain the instruments of war through ACD agreements. These are not abstract notions, and they run the gamut from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) through landmines and cluster munitions and small arms. They bear on the way that war may impact upon Canada and other countries and their populations, and, in the front lines, on our armed forces when deployed on peacekeeping or combat operations. If there was really any doubt, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster from more than two decades ago highlighted the point that ‘collateral damage’ from WMDs will not respect distance or national boundaries; and the anthrax incidents of less than a decade ago in the United States demonstrated just how vulnerable our societies are – physically, psychologically, and economically.3 In the news on a day-to-day basis, we can count the toll on human life of conflict using more ‘basic’ weapons, still widely available in the international marketplace.

The Role of the United Nations (UN)

Since the Second World War, the UN, through its Charter, has assumed a particular responsibility for international security, and, by extension, for ACD efforts.  Much, although not all, of Canada’s efforts have been directed toward projecting its values and its security aspirations upon the international stage through UN-related and other security forums. The Conference on Disarmament (and its predecessors) in Geneva, the UN Disarmament Commission in New York, the UN General Assembly and its First Committee are all venues where Canadian diplomats have been engaged in these global endeavours, sometimes successfully in achieving international consensus and conclusion of a Treaty or Convention, sometimes painfully distant from such goals, even after many years of consideration or negotiation.

These are also forums and issues where military officers and defence scientists have been much involved, stretching from League of Nations times, to the UN and General E.L. M. Burns, with his Seat at the Table,4 through to the present day. They have served alongside diplomats in the pursuit of treaties on nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons. The Department of National Defence (DND) has played its part in such matters in New York, Geneva, Stockholm, Vienna, and elsewhere, reflecting the fact that DND has particular expertise to contribute to consideration of the issues, without ignoring the fact that military personnel may be the first ones affected in time of conflict.

The successful establishment of treaties or conventions requires more than engaging rhetoric and wishful thinking in the pursuit of constraining recourse to war, and the nature of violence and suffering of those most directly involved. It requires detailed knowledge of the issues, gained over years of involvement and study and research, and an understanding of the ways and means to gain consensus, according to the rules of procedure of the various forums, and the normal way of doing diplomatic business. The key is a combination of study and experience, neither alone sufficient to move the agenda forward. It can involve, and has involved, careful political and expert assessment by Canadian authorities of when and how to step ‘outside the box,’ if necessary, to break through a lengthy impasse.


UN photo 408257 by Eskinder Debebe

UN Headquarters in New York City, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rings the Peace Bell in observance of the International Day of Peace, 21 September 2009.

Canada’s Place

The questions arise as to what these efforts achieve. Do they have a real impact?  Can Canada really play a constructive role? Do we have any particular role to play?

The record shows that Canada has directed considerable effort over many decades to promoting ACD, with peaks and troughs reflecting national political agendas as well as other security and economic preoccupations. The period 1980-2000 was probably a high point, with non-governmental and academic circles interacting regularly with Government leaders and officials to consider ways in which Canada could promote progress. Indeed, there was much progress during those years, involving the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC),5 the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT),6 The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE),7 the Open Skies Treaty,8 and the ‘Ottawa Convention’ with respect to banning anti-personnel landmines,9 to name some of the success stories. Nor do efforts cease once a treaty is negotiated.10

Canada can take some pride in helping to ‘move the goal posts’ in these successful ventures, and no less for its efforts with respect to other initiatives which have yet to reach their full potential.11 For example, outer space was an environment believed by Canadian authorities to be of great significance for the future of international security, and it was not neglected in official research and efforts undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s, although we are still a long way today from any international consensus. ‘Back channel’ (or ‘track two’) efforts, including confidence building in the strife-torn area of the Middle East, were also considered suitable domains for Canada to make contributions by ‘priming the pump’ in the search for common ground. 

Canadian diplomacy, significantly, did not try to go it alone. Its efforts were always directed toward promoting an inclusive approach to progress, laying the groundwork – even in difficult times – so that consensus could gather once prospects for success improved. Seldom, if ever, did Canada promote an ‘all or nothing’ approach to an issue, with a ‘step by step’ or an incremental approach being seen to offer a better alternative than no progress at all.12 In addition, Canada and a number of others resisted unilateralism in multilateral disguise, seeking ‘win/win’ solutions – another reason why many are hopeful for change in the way that some countries conduct their ‘multilateral’ business.13

It is not uncommon to hear assessments of the early years of this millennium that are less-than-enthusiastic about its ACD achievements and prospects,14 some going as far as suggesting that the ideological divide was purposely widened during much of the first decade in order to lead to the deconstruction of the ACD infrastructure that had been put together over preceding decades. Seen from a Canadian perspective, other urgent international issues, from needing to respond to terrorist attacks and threats through to actual conflicts – some of the latter involving Canada and some not – seem to have preoccupied policymakers and analysts. Many reasons can be offered for this state of affairs, each reasonable in its own immediate context:

  • too many security imperatives, including the costly deployment of troops into combat situations, and related follow-on costs;
  • other non-security-related competing demands and limited budgets;
  • a change in political interest, perhaps wanting to be seen to be pursuing a different foreign policy agenda from that of a previous government;
  • an inauspicious negotiating climate, most notably after 9/11; and
  • a desire to avoid disagreement with the US on any security matter of a multilateral nature that could then spill over and create tensions on a bilateral level.

Indeed, this last point requires serious qualification. Canada did disagree, quite markedly and visibly, with the US on one very significant security issue, and that occurred during the Iraq-related debate at the UN, especially in 2002 and beyond. And it would be safe to say that dissent was not well received in the Bush Administration circles. For the same reason, it would be safe to assume that a conscious decision was taken in Ottawa to avoid other occasions where differences of viewpoints might rise to the surface, and, perhaps more importantly, might permeate into the public domain. The ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ message had real ‘bite,’ and it had real security and economic implications. In the climate of the day, those politicians and officials understandably concerned about Canada-US bilateral relations, with their prospect for immediate impact, could easily trump those concerned with the longer-term goal of ‘making the world a safer place,’ especially when seen against the backdrop of lengthy and fractious ACD negotiating records. And yet, these need not be seen as alternatives, but more properly as part of a cohesive whole; and that latter Canadian perspective, presumably, has never changed.

There is no doubt that Canada is, and will continue to be, an active player on the international scene, as Canadians have realized from the country’s very earliest days as a nation that others near and far can directly affect not only our material well-being, but also our national security. However, it is more than that, as the ‘Pearson-plus’ years have demonstrated. It may seem self-serving, and even embarrassing, to say so publicly, but many foreign diplomats see fairness in Canadian negotiating behaviour that is far removed from the perceived zero-sum approach of a number of significant other nations. 

There are peaks and troughs to such affairs, just as there are to the efforts Canada has generated over the years. Perhaps the key, taken from some of the financial commentaries observed over these past months, is to adopt (or to re-enforce) a counter-cyclical investment strategy: invest when the going gets tough, so as to be able to capitalize when the climate improves. Part of that investment could be in research, in foreseeing and attempting to answer questions before they arise and stymie progress.  Such an approach was followed in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade through its Verification Research Programme conducted during the 1980s and 1990s, as part of the Trudeau legacy, but also actively supported during the Mulroney years. While that approach has mutated over time, it might be worthwhile to have another look at what it did right, and to build upon it.

Change is coming. The question is: Will we be ready to capitalize on it?
Put differently: Do we have a long-term plan to contribute to making the world a safer place?

The specialist journals are replete with articles covering the broad nuclear agenda – embracing concerns with respect to proliferation, arsenal renewal and testing, deterrence, missile defence from a variety of venues, including outer space, and arms control. Writers began well in advance to speculate about President Obama’s views on nuclear issues, but, clearly, that is not the only area of concern. In December 2008, shortly before the US Presidential inauguration, the congressionally-mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released a report which, by now, must be the subject of detailed examination by the Administration.15 Therein, for example, the Commission focused a good amount of attention on biological weapons, and on concerns with respect to biosafety and biosecurity in the handling of pathogens. On the same subject, an ACT article mentions that Senator Bob Graham, a Co-Chairman of the Commission, commented on 11 December 2008 that although the anthrax letter attacks of 2001 killed five people, they also cost the government and the economy billions of dollars due to the panic and investigation that followed.16 Such is the vulnerability of modern societies.

This is not a new issue. It is worth noting that the 2008 annual meetings of the States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) focused upon national, regional, and international measures to improve biosafety and biosecurity, and also upon codes of conduct. These efforts continue to be built upon in 2009 with a view, inter alia, to enhancing international cooperation and assistance, as well as promoting capacity building in regard to disease surveillance, detection, diagnosis, and containment of infectious diseases.17 It is well recognized that there are opportunities to explore, and mutual benefits to derive, from interaction with international organizations that have a direct mandate to deal with matters of global health. Quietly, systematically, progress has been made in this regard.

Although chemical weapons-related issues are generally considered to be well in hand at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)18 in The Hague, there is the potential for considerable controversy when the already-extended deadline of 2012 for destruction of declared chemical weapons will not likely be met by all the possessor states.19 Nonetheless, it is a sterling example of an ACD treaty with a verification regime that works, and which its drafters foresaw as continuing to have a preventive role to play long after the chemical weapons have been destroyed.

Nuclear issues have already been mentioned, including matters related to proliferation, arsenal renewal and testing, and missile defence. All touch heavily upon Canada’s security, not least through implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), including deployment issues that some view as still having the potential to stretch into outer space. Canada’s direct interests in outer space account in part for its efforts in the Conference on Disarmament during past decades to promote an agenda for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) –  although without really yet getting into, let alone past, the starting blocks. We shall undoubtedly hear more on this subject, though one cannot help but wonder if events might well overtake us. Such concerns were expressed in the past on the issue of anti-satellite weapons, yet it fell by the ACD wayside in spite of efforts, only to re-emerge more dramatically in recent years.20 It is a short step beyond fiction to imagining that this ‘high ground’ could become the next major battleground, and serve as the catalyst to a much wider conflict – providing another valid motive for energetic, peaceful, preventive action.

Thus, challenges abound, and Canadian interests are engaged – including in areas such as the Arctic, which is beyond the confines of this short article. Canada has consistently attempted to be part of the international security solution, not part of the problem. This has included trying to foresee problems that could be avoided through timely, and, if necessary, far-reaching ACD agreements, although this direction has not always been welcomed by others focusing upon unilateral solutions. While sometimes caricatured as being naïve, Canada’s approach to such issues has favoured consultation and mutual agreement over imposed solutions, in the recognition that neither approach is immune to challenge or upheaval. The difference has always been seen to be that one is grounded in international law, with a range of related recourses understood (and justifiable) if necessary; while the other rests upon power alone and the historically-disproven assumption that one can remain indefinitely at the ‘top of the heap’ in all the key areas of competition.

Does Canada have a role to play? The answer over the decades since the Second World War has consistently been a resounding ‘yes.’ Is the effort, often over many years, worth it?  Clearly, they must think so who were concerned about chemical weapons, massive deployed forces across a divide in Europe, anti-personnel landmines, or, more recently, cluster munitions.

Chemical weapons destruction facility

Reuters RTXOWZT by Ho New

A worker prepares a chemical weapon for destruction at a special Russian facility located in the Urals town of Shchuchye.


To return to the question at the beginning of this article: Where does Canada fit into a re-emerging ACD debate? The answer seems obvious: We should be prepared to move quickly and to work diligently with those other countries willing to negotiate agreements to prevent actual or potential problems from impacting, now or in the future, upon the security of Canadians and others.  It is clear that the range of problems cannot be worked on in sequence; there is a need for a great deal of concurrent activity, not least because many of the problems are inter-related. Just on the basis of what has been discussed in this article alone, that implies a fair amount of effort, spread across an agenda that has significant potential to change under a new American Administration.   Indeed, the harbingers of change are already among us.

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Gordon Vachon recently retired as Head of the Inspection Review Branch of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), responsible for quality management in the conduct of international inspections. Formerly, he was Canada’s Alternate Permanent Representative to the OPCW; Deputy-Director of the Non-Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament Division, and Head of the Verification Research Programme, at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade; Assistant Professor of Strategic Studies at Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean; and a serving infantry officer in the R22eR.  He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, the University of Western Ontario, and the senior course of the NATO Defence College.


  1. See Louise Fréchette (former Deputy Secretary-General of the UN) in a news comment entitled “A new America, a new UN?”, in The Globe and Mail, 28 January 2009, p. A21.
  2. See “CTBT in the News” at www.ctbto.org, 21 January 2009; and confirmation hearings of US Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton, as reported on 14 January 2009. 
  3. It is noteworthy that military establishments were central to responding to these events in the respective countries.
  4. Lieutenant-General E.L.M Burns, A Seat at the Table: the Struggle for Disarmament (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1972).  See also by the same author, Defence in the Nuclear Age: An Introduction for Canadians (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin , 1976).
  5. Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, entered into force in 1997.  Details at www.opcw.org .
  6. Opened for signature in 1996, it has yet to enter into force, although an active Preparatory Commission has been established with its seat in Vienna.  Details at www.ctbto.org .
  7. Entered into force in 1992.
  8. The Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC) is the implementing body for the Open Skies Treaty, which entered into force in 2002 after much effort in the preceding decade (including early trial overflights conducted bilaterally in and by Canada and Hungary), meeting at the Headquarters of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna.  The 500th flight milestone was reached on 26 August 2008.  Details at www.osce.org .
  9. The actual title is: Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. It entered into force in 1999. More information at www.icbl.org  or www.unog.ch .
  10. DND personnel – military and civilian scientists – have played a part in ACD verification as well, for example, in conducting inspections and overflights in relation to the CFE and Open Skies regimes, respectively; and, in a different context, contributing up to 5 percent of the effort to inspections as part of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) [Source: F.R. Cleminson, formerly Commissioner to UNSCOM and its successor UNMOVIC].
  11. For example, from 1991 through 2001, efforts to negotiate a “compliance protocol” to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) were brought to a halt in 2001, though other useful work has continued since then and is commented upon later in the text of this article. It may be noted that the term “compliance protocol” was first coined by Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament in order to break out of a sterile debate that had arisen around competing definitions about adequacy or sufficiency of verification, thus changing the emphasis to the onus on States Parties to respond to any compliance concerns and to demonstrate their compliance with the provisions of the Convention.
  12. Contrary to what some in certain unilateral circles may contend, this has never equated to a mindset that ‘any agreement is better than no agreement.’
  13. Fréchette.
  14. A notable exception is the Convention on Cluster Munitions, opened for signature in December 2008, which will enter into force six months after 30 states have ratified it. Details at www.clusterconvention.org or www.unog.ch .
  15. See www.preventwmd.gov/report .
  16. Daniel Arnaudo, “WMD Commission Issues Findings,” at www.armscontrol.org/act , and specifically refer to January/February 2009 issue>News>United States of America.
  17. The Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Ambassador Marius Grinius, will chair the BTWC-related meetings in 2009.
  18. Information on the CWC and its activities can be found at www.opcw.org.
  19. The CWC entered into force in April 1997 and required destruction of all chemical weapons by 10 years after entry into force, i.e. by 2007, but it also allowed for a one-time extension to 2012 which has, in fact, been agreed upon by the Member States.
  20. Reuters news reports in January 2009 were already indicating that the Obama Administration was looking at this issue as well.

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