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75 years after Hiroshima, I wonder if the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons is just a dream

The Globe and Mail, 1 August 2020

At 8:15 on the fateful morning of Aug. 6, 1945, as the Second World War was drawing to a close in the Pacific, an American atomic bomb exploded 580 metres above the heart of Hiroshima, Japan. Thermal rays emanating from a gigantic fireball charred every human being in a two-kilometre circle. Old and young, male and female, soldier and civilian – the killing was utterly indiscriminate and, in the end, 140,000 people were dead. Three days later, similar atomic carnage obliterated Nagasaki.

That was the beginning of the nuclear age, 75 years ago.

I was 16 at the time and I remember sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio news about “a new kind of bomb.” The destruction was so massive that government officials were predicting the war in the Pacific would be over in a matter of days. My parents sighed with relief: I would be spared having to go to war.

There’s a dwindling number now of hibakusha – the name for Japanese people who survived the attacks – which means there are few left with direct memory of the horror of mass destruction. Soon Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be but history.

But they are not history for me. With 13,400 nuclear weapons possessed today by nine countries, they are a living reality. The United Nations’ top official on disarmament affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, visited Ottawa recently and said that the risk of use of nuclear weapons deliberately, by accident or through miscalculation, “is higher than it has been in decades.”

The contrast between nuclear realities and aspirations is stunning. Arms control and disarmament treaties, painstakingly constructed over many years, are crumbling. All the nuclear weapons states are modernizing their arsenals. The three major states on the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia and China – are the very ones ratcheting up tensions.

On the other hand, the International Court of Justice has ruled that states have an obligation to conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament. Pope Francis and many other spiritual leaders have condemned the possession of nuclear weapons. A new prohibition treaty, signed by 122 states, outlaws them.

Yet the nuclear states spent US$72.9-billion last year on nuclear weapons (the U.S. spent more than the next eight states combined). Not even the ravages of COVID-19, painfully illustrating the need for huge sums of money to be redirected to health needs, has deterred the nuclear planners. And the political leaders appear impotent against the demands of the military-industrial complex for more weapons of mass destruction.

Seventy-five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have to ask ourselves: Is the long-sought goal of the abolition of nuclear weapons but a dream? This is a question that haunts me.

In the early years of my life, I never thought about nuclear weapons, except perhaps around the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But as a young parliamentarian in the 1970s, I visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and talked to the hibakusha and saw the horrors depicted so vividly in the museums. It hit me forcibly that continued spending on these instruments of death was directly stealing from the poor of the world whose security depends not on weaponry but food, health, housing and education.

I started campaigning for nuclear disarmament in order to expedite the development processes. The UN became a second home for me as I struggled with the political machinations that have contorted security to mean that I am safer if I am able to bomb you out of existence.

I have approached the problem of abolition as a parliamentarian, diplomat and civil society activist. Why can there not be a time-bound program of mutual and verifiable nuclear disarmament? The models exist. Secretaries-general of the UN have repeatedly called for progress. Is not the logic of abolition overpowering?

The answer to the elusive question of abolition lies in the power nuclear weapons give their possessors. Abolition can only be achieved by slowly convincing the powerful that their security will be enhanced as they gradually reduce their stocks to zero.

Obviously, international confidence must be built at every successive step along the way. This is an area where Canada could shine in fostering a new international dialogue. But to do this, we would have to care enough about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hibakusha have never given up their call for abolition. And neither will I.

Canada must acknowledge our key role in developing the deadly atomic bomb

The Globe and Mail, 1 August 2020. Setsuko Thurlow is a member of the Canadian Pugwash Group.

On Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, the largest bell in the Peace Tower at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa will ring 75 times to mark the dropping of the two atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The arrangement was made by the Green Party’s Elizabeth May and Canada’s Speaker of the House, Liberal MP Anthony Rota. The bell ringing by the Dominion carillonneur Andrea McCrady will be livestreamed by the Peace Tower Carillon website so that it may be heard across Canada and around the world.

As someone who witnessed and experienced the consequences of nuclear war, I very often have brutal images in my mind of the atomic bombing.

As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, incinerated in the heat of 4,000 degrees and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb. A bright summer morning turned to dark twilight with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud, dead and injured covering the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care. The spreading firestorm and the foul stench of burnt flesh filled the air.

In this Aug. 6, 1945 picture made available by the U.S. Army via the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a mushroom cloud billows into the sky about one hour after an atomic bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, Japan.

As a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing, I was honoured to jointly accept the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

To mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings, I have written to all the heads of state and governments across the world on behalf of ICAN, asking them to ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This included a special letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

My brief to Mr. Trudeau pointed to the Mackenzie King government takeover of Eldorado Gold Mines Ltd. in 1942 and the nationalization of its uranium mine at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories by the government in January, 1944. Eldorado’s refinery in Port Hope, Ont., refined all the uranium ore from Canada and the Belgian Congo used by the Manhattan Project to produce the first nuclear weapons for the U.S. Army.

At the direction of C.D. Howe, King’s minister of munitions and supply, the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Co. in Trail, B.C., also signed contracts with the Manhattan Project in November, 1942, to produce heavy water for nuclear reactors to produce plutonium.

In August of 1943, King hosted president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill in Quebec City, where they signed the Quebec Agreement to jointly develop the atom bomb. Howe, King’s most powerful minister, represented Canada on a Combined Policy Committee that co-ordinated the joint research by the United States, Britain and Canada on creating atomic weapons. King affirmed in his diary that the Quebec Agreement “made Canada also a party to the development.”

The National Research Council of Canada was heavily involved in the Manhattan Project and in the research by British scientists to develop the atom bomb. In April of 1944, King’s Cabinet War Committee approved expenditures for the National Research Council to design and operate nuclear reactors in Montreal and at Chalk River, Ont., whose discoveries about the production of plutonium would be shared with those involved in the Manhattan Project.

Yet Canada’s extensive role in the Manhattan Project and the development of the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been completely wiped from the collective Canadian consciousness and memory.

The Canadian government has never publicly acknowledged its participation in the Manhattan Project after gloating about it when the bombs were first dropped in 1945. There is little published about Canada’s contribution in the creation of atomic weapons and the subject is not taught in schools. Canadians of all ages believe Canada had nothing to do with the American atom bomb.

In my appeal to Mr. Trudeau, I asked that the government acknowledge Canada’s participation in the Manhattan Project and that the Prime Minister issue a statement of regret for the deaths and immense suffering inflicted on the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I am praying that the bell ringing in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill will occur at the same time that Mr. Trudeau issues a public expression of regret for Canada’s role and announces that Canada will ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

It would be terribly ironic to have an acknowledgement of the bombings of the two cities from the Peace Tower if inside the Parliament buildings the Prime Minister refused to acknowledge Canada’s role.

By the end of 1945, more than 140,000 people had perished in the nuclear strike against Hiroshima. Another 70,000 died in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

When Mr. Trudeau hears the bell in the Peace Tower strike 75 times on Aug. 6 and 9, I hope he will not wonder why. As John Donne wrote in his famous poem, “Any man’s death diminishes me . . . never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

UN peacekeeping works but Canada’s contribution falls to all-time low

Hill Times, 25 May 2020

UN peacekeeping is a good deal, by any relevant measure, especially at a time of crisis like the present. Now is not the time to step back. Missions are needed more than ever.

Canada’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations has fallen to only 35 personnel among the UN’s 82,000 uniformed peacekeepers currently deployed. This is the lowest point for Canada since the first peacekeeping force was created at the urging of (then) foreign minister Lester Pearson in 1956 to resolve the Suez Crisis.

This minimal contribution does not reflect the current government’s promises, nor what Canadians want, which is a strong United Nations in a rules-based international order.

Admittedly, the COVID-19 crisis provides a good reason to pause some military movements, and the UN has cautiously postponed its rotation of troops until July. Furthermore, the UN is adjusting and reprioritizing its field activities, while still meeting mission-critical requirements. And many other nations continue to provide substantive contributions. Both Ireland and Norway, our friendly competitors for a Security Council seat, have more personnel deployed than Canada (Ireland: 474; Norway: 65, at the end of April). The European Union is committed to increasing the contributions of its members in the coming months.

The world’s success in combating the virus will depend in part on UN peacekeeping because of the urgent need to provide health services in conflict-prone areas. Africa could become the future epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic and a reservoir for its continued spread if an effort is not made now. Peacekeeping requires that capable UN member nations commit dependably, especially to difficult missions.

Despite the comments of skeptics, UN peacekeeping has made a substantial difference in conflict areas and has helped end many wars, as described in our May 2020 essay, Peacekeeping Works: The UN Can Help End Civil Wars.

UN peacekeeping is demonstrably cost-effective and has helped save and improve lives.

Multidimensional peacekeeping operations have the most positive outcomes, dealing with a wide range of national problems, including epidemics like Ebola in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At least two-thirds of all missions since 1956 can be judged as mostly or partially successful. Fewer, if any, were unambiguous failures. But even some of those considered “disasters” have saved many lives. The UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda—led by Canadian general Roméo Dallaire—saved more than 20,000 people during the genocide, despite peacekeeper numbers being reduced to fewer than 300 personnel on the ground. Canada, to its credit, increased its deployment to Rwanda during the genocide.

Canada’s current decline in peacekeeping began under previous governments, despite continuing popular support for UN missions. There have been pressures to commit to alliance (i.e., NATO) priorities, to which Canada has responded far more promptly and generously. But this does not justify the lack of support for UN missions that are known to resolve armed conflicts. Studies show that armed conflicts are reduced by up to two-thirds compared to conflicts without UN involvement, and UN forces deploy at a fraction of the cost of other military missions (e.g., NATO).

Doubling UN peacekeeping budgets alone would result in far less human suffering, fewer infant deaths, better access to hospital care, life-saving potable water, and fewer undernourished people. Imagine the huge financial, economic, and other community benefits that result when conflicted societies end violence early. Now accelerate this with Canada offering significantly more resources and personnel to realize ambitious UN peacekeeping mandates.

UN peacekeeping is a good deal, by any relevant measure, especially at a time of crisis like the present. Now is not the time to step back. Missions are needed more than ever. If anything, Canada should be promoting and contributing to multinational standby brigades and eventually a standing emergency capacity, with UN-hired peacekeepers, thereby proactively pinching off conflicts before they escalate. These are the kind of bold ideas that the UN needs.

At the Mali mission pledging conference this month, Canada should offer forces for the mission, including the Quick Reaction Force this country promised the UN back in 2017, at the peacekeeping ministerial Canada hosted. This may be the last opportunity before the June vote in the General Assembly for a Security Council seat in 2021–22 that our government has been lobbying for. A convincing commitment to UN peacekeeping is the kind of contribution to international peace and security that is expected for the award of one of the ten rotating UNSC seats.

Canada has maintained deployments of hundreds to the NATO missions in Latvia and Ukraine for many years, so why have we so much trouble providing a few hundred soldiers and police to UN missions, even for short periods? It seems a sad reflection on the government. In particular, the performance is at odds with the unfulfilled promises and lofty rhetoric in support of peacekeeping.

We can ask for more. Canada can do better.

Walter Dorn is a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College and the Canadian Forces College. He is also a consultant to the United Nations on peacekeeping technology. He serves as president of the World Federalist Movement–Canada. Robin Collins serves on the board or in committees of various civil society organizations, including the World Federalist Movement–Canada, the Canadian Pugwash Group, and The Group of 78.

Peacekeeping games, anyone?

So many people play online as warfighters but, in stark contrast, no one plays as peacekeepers. The immediate explanation is simple: there are no such games. But that is a mystery to me. Peacekeeping is more intellectually and ethically challenging, more deeply meaningful, more emotionally rewarding (saving people), and still includes the challenges (and excitement) of combat. So I began to explore the possibilities of peacekeeping gaming which led to publishing of a detailed paper recently: “From Wargaming to Peacekeeping: Digital Simulations with Peacekeeper Roles Needed” (pdf) in the journal International Peacekeeping.

I first asked myself and my research assistants, avid gamers who became my co-authors: what existing games come close to peacekeeping? A search online for “peacekeeping” games yielded some ridiculous results at first. For instance, the game Peacekeeper – Trench Defense describes itself this way:

Fight epic battles, slay endless waves of enemy hordes, and restore the peace! You’re the Peacekeeper, one of the world’s toughest elite soldiers. A relentless onslaught of enemy troops is invading your land. It’s up to you to restore the peace, and what better way to do that than with your huge arsenal of guns?!

Not exactly what we had in mind.

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25 Years After the Indefinite Extension of The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: A Field of Broken Promises and Shattered Visions

VIENNA (IDN) – Attending my second NPT review conference as a member of the Canadian delegation, I can still recall that early afternoon on 11 May 1995 when delegates from 175 countries, after four weeks of hectic negotiations that went late into the night in a small conference room at the United Nations in New York that reeked of an admixture of cigarette smoke, perfume and disgusting body odour, finally came together in the General Assembly Hall to make the world less dangerous from the overhanging threat of nuclear devastation and agreed without a vote to indefinitely extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

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From Wargaming to Peacegaming: Digital Simulations with Peacekeeper Roles Needed

A. Walter Dorn, Stewart Webb and Sylvain Pâquet

Originally published in International Peacekeeping, 27:2, 289-310 (2020). (pdf)


Militaries around the world have benefited from computerized games. Many recruits have been attracted to the military through military-style video games. After recruitment, games and simulations provide an important means of soldier training, including before actual deployments. However, electronic games are lacking for UN peace operations. The multidimensionality of peacekeeping has yet to be simulated in serious games to complement the many games that too often depict a binary battlefield of blue-team versus red-team (or, often in public games, good versus evil). Not only could soldiers benefit from nuanced and ambitious peace-related games, so too could civilian peacekeepers, and the public at large. Peacekeeping gaming should not be merely at the tactical level; the operational and strategic levels can be gamed as well. The decision-making in future peacekeeping simulations could help instruct conflict-resolution and critical thinking skills. The paper posits that such digital games could be an important tool for current and future peacekeepers, both military and civilian. Commercial games could also help educate the public on UN peacekeeping. The paper suggests that the United Nations partner with some member states and perhaps the video game industry to provide in-depth training simulations that mirror the challenges and complexities of modern peace operations.

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