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  • Brayden McDonald (Student Editor)

Bringing the Criminal Law of States to Winnipeg: A report on Robson Hall's Recent Nuclear Confe

Robson Hall - An Intellectual Hot Spot in Nuclear Non-Proliferation Scholarship

Winnipeg recently played host to an important international academic conference: Regional Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament: Controls, Defence and Diplomacy. The Conference ran from September 20 – 21 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It was co-hosted by the University of Manitoba’s Law Faculty and the Committee on Nuclear Weapons, Non-Proliferation and Contemporary International law of the International Law Association, in conjunction with the Round Table Strategic Forum on Nuclear Non-Proliferation in International Law.

Organized and chaired by Robson Hall’s own Dean, Dr. Jonathan Black-Branch, and by Dr. Dieter Fleck, the conference invited academics, professionals and students to participate in panels discussing issues relating to nuclear technologies, disarmament and non-proliferation. I had the privilege of participating in the conference myself, alongside three of my fellow Robson Hall students, and can say with certainty that it was both an exciting and meaningful experience.

The Criminal Law of States

What does this conference have to with criminal law, after all, issues of nuclear weapons reside, ostensibly, in the realm of international law? This is Robson Crim after all, a blawg dedicated to criminal law topics. However, much of international law, especially as it relates to issues of nuclear weapons and defence policy, could be considered the criminal law of states. The law surrounding issues such as the use of force, warfare, and individual or collective self-defence in particular can be likened to the criminal law prohibiting and strictly regulating violence.

Nuclear weapons are unique: they have the capacity to destroy civilizations, our species and the world itself. The resolution of the legal issues surrounding these potentially apocalyptic devices should be of the utmost importance. There can be no criminal law system if there is no society.

The Scope of the Presentations: Opposing Views Welcomed

The Conference consisted of five panels. Each panel included three or four panelists, who gave individual presentations before taking questions and comments. The panelists presented on a wide array of topics. There were many presentations on the legal aspects of nuclear weapons and associated defence strategies, and on treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Other presentations went in very different and interesting directions. One panelist offered a variety of potential deals for settling the sanctions issue between Iran and the US. Another presented on environmental assessment issues relating to Canada’s domestic nuclear power industry. There was even a presentation on financial institutions and the monetary side of nuclear proliferation.

As diverse as the presentation topics were the people in attendance. There was an immigration lawyer from Florida, an academic from Spain; there were several German scholars. At one point a presentation was given from South Africa via Skype. Some even came from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. The common denominator was their interest in nuclear issues. This was often the focus of presenters’ research or careers. Many also brought great passion with them. Dr. Black-Branch said, at one point, that he considered his work towards nuclear disarmament to be the most important of his life. He gave a very impactful panel presentation which included disturbing images of victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, underscoring his arguments for the need to disarm by highlighting the human price.

An equally passionate response was made to this by a European defence official (attending in a personal capacity, not an official one) who supported nuclear deterrence. While Dr. Black-Branch reminded everyone about the very real horrors that nuclear weapons can inflict if used, the official spoke to the real suffering of conventional war which nuclear deterrence helps to avert. The official grew up under the threat of Soviet invasion, which arguably was held back only by the threat of the Bomb. Dr. Black-Branch later told me that this opposing view was one of the reasons that he had made sure to invite the official; it was important to him, and to the integrity of the Conference, that both sides of the issue were voiced and considered.

This back and forth was often reflected in the question periods following other panels. Questioning was at times intense: there were several discussions between panelists and audience members, where ideas were challenged, challenges were responded to, and further challenges made. All of it was done with absolute respect, however. I think perhaps my favourite part of the conference was being grilled on my own presentation by several of the attending experts. They asked difficult questions, challenging us students just as they challenged each other. While this might have been intimidating, I appreciated it greatly, as it was a mark of respect. In treating me and the other students as they treated each other, these experts were indicating that we were equals in their eyes. They were never dismissive or condescending: it was all about academic rigour. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with many of these individuals on breaks and after the conference had concluded. I can honestly say that I enjoyed meeting every one of them.

Introducing: The Winnipeg Declaration

The culmination of the Conference was the first drafting of a legal document: the Winnipeg Declaration. Perfecting of the document is ongoing; however all of us who remained at the Conference’s conclusion took part in its creation. It is the intention of Drs. Black-Branch and Fleck to present this document to the governments of the world, in the hopes of getting them to sign it and commit to its precepts. The Winnipeg Declaration has thirteen pillars, corresponding to the thirteen phases of the moon that were described in a blessing that was given by an Indigenous Elder at the outset of the Conference. It asks states to recognize that all should be able to live free from fear of nuclear weapons, to undertake disarmament, to take responsibility for and aid those suffering as a result of nuclear technologies, and more. I have my doubts about the efficacy of the document. There have been similar declarations made in the past, and all have been ignored by the nuclear powers. However, I also do not think that the Winnipeg Declaration is about succeeding as a legal document. It is about adding the voices of its contributors to the discussion. It is about making a gesture, indicating that there are many out there who are no longer satisfied with the status quo, and who are willing to challenge it. Time will tell.

An Annual Event: Participants Welcomed

For academics and those working in nuclear-related fields, the conference offered an opportunity to bring their ideas before like-minded and knowledgeable peers capable of testing them. For students, it offered an opportunity to participate in and be exposed to a rigorous academic environment. Drs. Black-Branch and Fleck were keen throughout to provide panelists the opportunity to contribute to a book that they are writing which, for students especially, is a great opportunity in and of itself. Even for the layperson, who may not know much about nuclear issues at all, this conference provided a chance to learn about this topic and engage with it critically. This is important because nuclear technology, whether weaponize or for peaceful purposes, affects the entire world and everyone in it. These are issues that everyone has a stake in. This is an opportunity for everyone to get involved.

This conference was held last year, and I am quite confident that it will be held again next year as well. I would encourage anyone reading this to look into it, either as a participant or attendee. The problems with which the Regional Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament conference grapples are arguably some of the most important in the world. The Conference is a place where everyone can come to offer their views on these problems, and where they can learn about and engage with them.

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