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Striking a 1-2-3 blow at the NPT

George Abraham (Canada Connection)
Filed on September 10, 2007

CANADA will soon have to weigh in on a recent US-India nuclear agreement that places the South Asian nation in a league of its own, outside the bounds of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). At stake will be not only Canada’s relationship with the American imperium and an Asian great power, but also the steadfast faith that Canadians have placed in the integrity of the NPT.


The so-called 123 agreement (named after a provision of the US Atomic Energy Act) will allow American companies to sell nuclear reactors and technology to India in return for safeguards that will be specific to these exports. Contrary to convention, it places India in a stand-alone category that straddles the NPT-defined distinction between the five acknowledged nuclear powers —all UN Security Council members —and the 183 others who since 1970 have pledged not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Strangely, the US has refused to admit India into the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states —and also refused to endorse its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council —while coming to terms with India’s repeated nuclear tests and its decision to remain a non-signatory of the NPT. In both 1974 and 1998, India tested nuclear weapons, thus becoming the first state to challenge the NPT and the first to defy the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that went into effect in 1996.

For Canada, the 123 deal is but the latest chapter in a long, tortured nuclear relationship. India was one of Canada’s earliest nuclear customers as an importer of our CANDU reactors. But, India’s decision to test a nuclear weapon in 1974 changed all that, transforming Canada into a leading critic, most recently announcing a three-year diplomatic disengagement in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests. The then foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, was unsparing: “India’s military and strategic analysts have consistently overestimated the strategic value of nuclear weapons, both militarily and for national prestige. It would appear that India has not learned the lessons Cold War participants learned by the mid-1960s —that nuclear weapons have no tactical value.” Perhaps prophetically, Mr Axworthy added that India had done “irreparable damage” to its case for a permanent seat on an expanded UN Security Council.

However, Canada’s opposition to nuclear weapons pre-dates India’s tests. At the dawn of the nuclear age in the mid-1940s, Prime Minister Mackenzie King described the bomb that had just been dropped over Japanese cities as a “Frankenstein” and a “threat to humanity.”

These principles did not come in the way of Canada announcing a “re-engagement” with India in March, 2001, but keeping nuclear sanctions in place. This brief diplomatic history would be irrelevant today but for our seat at the table at both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. As an exporter of nuclear technology and a staunch supporter of non-proliferation, Canada’s vote at both forums will be crucial. Both these international organisations have to approve the deal —with the US agreeing to act as “sherpa” —before it can be considered by the US Congress.

The deal is expected to face opposition in both organisations, not the least because it puts to the test one of the world’s most successful normative agreements. According to Joseph Cirincione, vice-president for national security at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, and author of the recently published Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, “The NPT itself is widely considered one of the most successful security pacts in history, with every nation of the world a member except for Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.”

Although not the closest of allies, the US and India are known to swim against the tide on occasion. As Strobe Talbott, the senior American diplomat who was tasked by former president Bill Clinton to rebuild bridges with India post-1998, has said, “India and the US have both shown a penchant for going it alone —India in defying the international community (including the US) with its tests, the Bush administration in attacking Iraq over the objections of the UN and many of its closest allies.”

As a rock solid supporter of the NPT, Canada will have quite a dilemma on its hands. Without Canada’s support, the deal will fall through; preventing what India says will be major boost to its attempts to harness nuclear power, while still keeping a part of its reactors beyond the prying eyes of IAEA inspectors. Foreign Affairs in Ottawa remains non-committal, conceding only that it is “carefully examining” the recent deal.

It could be fine balance. India can be a lucrative export market for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s CANDU reactors. Asked if AECL was talking to the Indians, a spokesperson said talks could only happen after a green light from the government. “A policy decision is required by the Canadian government to enable Canadian nuclear cooperation with India.”

It is obvious that the world’s largest democracies have furthered their “strategic partnership” while dealing a blow to the common international good. But, the NPT may yet be saved, thanks to a group of leftists in India who are part of the ruling coalition but see the deal as compromising India’s sovereignty and placing New Delhi squarely in the American camp. They may thus stop the deal from reaching Canadian shores, avoiding a contentious internal battle that would pit our interests against our time-honoured values.

George Abraham is a journalist based in Ottawa, Canada




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