Address by Minister Freeland to High-Level Segment of Conference on Disarmament


February 27, 2018 – Geneva, Switzerland

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

I am happy to speak today to the Conference on Disarmament and to discuss how we can reinvigorate our efforts to advance global standards on non-proliferation and disarmament.

One of Canada’s core foreign policy priorities is to uphold the rules-based international order that has endured for the past seven decades by working with our partners to promote peace, security and prosperity in the world.

An essential part of this order is the work that we undertake to advance non-proliferation and disarmament. A critical component of this work is also done in collaboration with civil society and our communities at home.

For many years, Canada has been a leader in developing the global disarmament architectures, including the one focusing on nuclear disarmament.

We are currently chairing a UN expert group on the development of a fissile material cut-off treaty [FMCT] to help halt the production of nuclear weapons. This follows a Canada-sponsored UN resolution that brought together 159 states. Crucially, this expert group includes all five Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] nuclear weapons states, India and 19 non-nuclear weapons states.

Throughout the FMCT preparatory group process, Canada has pursued two objectives: first, to counteract growing international divisions by uniting nuclear and non-nuclear armed states in continuing to work toward our shared non-proliferation and disarmament goal; second, to make real progress toward the long overdue negotiation of this treaty.

FMCT votes in the UN General Assembly show support for the FMCT is nearly universal. Moreover, both proponents of the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and treaty skeptics are on board.

There has never been a better time for an FMCT to contribute positively to nuclear disarmament. We see its great potential for building cohesive action in the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons review cycle, for revitalizing the Conference on Disarmament and for restoring its credibility. If the conference cannot address even those issues most ready for negotiation, such as the FMCT, skepticism about the conference’s continued relevance will deepen, and questions will be raised about why we invest so heavily in this institution.

In these difficult times, we need to redouble our efforts to find a concrete path forward, lest the non-proliferation and disarmament norms embodied by the NPT be further eroded, with destabilizing consequences for international peace and security. Canada views the work toward the FMCT as an essential step to bridging the divide between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states.

We appreciate that many partners in this room are working to create the conditions for continued progress on nuclear disarmament. Canada remains committed to constructively advancing this process. All states, especially those possessing nuclear weapons, must take responsibility, individually and collectively, for creating a more conducive environment for disarmament.

Over the past year, we have seen leaders from the global disarmament community drive the negotiation and signing of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The popularity of this initiative speaks to the desire of countries, activists and communities to accelerate the work toward disarmament. It also reflects frustration and disappointment at the pace of global efforts so far. We believe that this is a legitimate criticism.

In Munich two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons [ICAN], which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and for its efforts on the prohibition treaty. She received the prize on behalf of ICAN along with Setsuko Thurlow, a Japanese-Canadian activist who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. The leadership of these women and of their movement for nuclear disarmament must be recognized. It must be saluted.

In Canada, the work of civil society, of opposition parties and of our government has also led us to raise our level of ambition when it comes to arms control.

We are proud that our legislative process of acceding to the Arms Trade Treaty [ATT] is well under way. Properly regulating and restricting the flow of arms around the world is critical. In addition to this legislative effort, we are also funding projects to address illicit weapon flows and to help states accede to and implement the Arms Trade Treaty.

It is long overdue that Canada join the international community in acceding to the ATT.

I recently announced my government’s decision to further strengthen the Canadian legislation that implements the ATT and regulates Canada’s arms exports.

We had originally planned to place the criteria by which exports are judged, including human rights, in regulation. But we heard from parliamentarians from several parties, including our own, as well as from civil society, that they would like to see the Arms Trade Treaty criteria placed directly in legislation. These criteria would include considerations of peace and security, human rights and gender-based violence. And this is a change we are committed to implementing.

Going even further than that, our government announced that we will support the inclusion of a substantial risk clause in Canadian law. This means that we will place directly in our domestic law the requirement of the Arms Trade Treaty that we not allow the export of arms where there is a substantial risk that they could be used to commit serious human rights violations. We need to have a strong level of confidence that our controlled exports will conform with the criteria of the ATT, and this clause is an essential part of that commitment.

This is a turning point for Canada.

Canadians are rightly concerned about how arms could be used to perpetuate regional and international conflicts in which civilians have suffered and lost their lives. We must be confident that our institutions are equipped to ensure we are not perpetuating these conflicts. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Canada has committed to doing exactly that, and we continue to promote disarmament efforts globally.

In 1997, many of you came together in Ottawa and committed to rid the world of landmines. Since then, we have achieved significant results, including the destruction of 51 million landmines. There is still hard work left to do. I would like to call on all states who are not signatories to the Ottawa Convention [on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction] to join this global movement and join us in stopping the scourge of landmines. My friend, former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, led the Ottawa Convention process with international civil society and with the support of numerous countries internationally. Thank you, Lloyd.

Small arms and light weapons are used daily for terrorist attacks and gender-based violence in conflict zones, and landmines continue to kill and maim civilians and prevent children from going to school. I am therefore pleased to have just expanded the mandate for Canada’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat Reduction Program to also support the universalization of treaties on anti-personnel mines, cluster munitions and small arms and light weapons. This will allow us to continue this crucial work and fund new types of projects.

Nuclear disarmament, implementing a more rigorous system of arms exports and “finishing the job” on landmines are all intrinsic to Canada’s feminist foreign policy. Prevention of conflict and advancing the international disarmament agenda are among the commitments included in Canada’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which we launched on November 1, 2017.

Last fall in the First Committee [the UN General Assembly Committee on Disarmament on International Security], Canada, Sweden and 41 other states issued a joint statement on the need for gender perspectives in disarmament efforts. We said then that maintaining international peace and security is a task for all states and equally for both women and men. International institutions need to be representative of society and to recognize that their gender balance affects how disarmament issues are discussed and addressed.

While men and boys are often disproportionately the direct victims of mines and explosive remnants of war, women often bear the primary responsibility for caring for survivors and indirect victims. The loss or incapacitation of spouses or other male family members can result in women facing persistent discrimination and hardship. Survivors in communities ravaged by war, often women, as in northern Iraq, are left to lead stabilization efforts once the fighting has ended. We must support and work with women and girls in our demining work.

A feminist foreign policy is an essential, because we understand that unregulated transfers of weapons fuel armed violence that has especially adverse effects on women.

Though inevitably incomplete, the international frameworks that exist with respect to disarmament must be upheld. This is not simply about ensuring accountability. It is also about making concrete progress toward a safer world. There can be no faith in a system that does not produce results, especially when we talk about peace and security.

It is not only governments behind these laws, treaties and institutions. Our dynamic civil societies, Nobel Prize winners and activists are our collective force. They must be applauded for their leadership.

The North Korean nuclear threat shows that the need for disarmament is more salient now than ever before. In January, the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and I co-hosted the Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula. Twenty countries sent representatives to discuss the common objective of seeing a secure and stable Korean Peninsula.

Supporting the international non-proliferation architecture is one reason why Canada stands so strongly in support of Ukraine and its sovereignty. Ukraine contributed to the peace and security of the entire world in 1994 when it gave up its nuclear weapons. In exchange, Ukraine’s territorial authority was guaranteed by the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. What message are we sending on non-proliferation if we allow those guarantees to be trampled?

Globally, Canada is very conscious of the risks the Non-Proliferation Treaty faces as it approaches its 50th anniversary review conference in 2020 with little progress on the disarmament pillar.

Canada remains deeply committed to protecting and promoting the rules-based system and the norms that we have established together over many decades. I remain personally convinced that by working cooperatively within this system, we can continue to make real progress on disarmament.

But I also urge us all to do more.

We owe it to future generations; we owe it to our children. 

Thank you.


Adam Austen
Press Secretary
Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Media Relations Office
Global Affairs Canada
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