Editorial: Nuclear weapons ban treaty to come into force—Appeals from A-bombed cities bore fruit

Nuclear weapons and human beings cannot coexist—that appeal made by the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally pried open a heavy door. Yesterday, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was ratified by a 50th country/region. It will come into force on January 22 next year.

The treaty is the first international norm that comprehensively bans nuclear weapons, from the weapons’ development to their use. Although numerous problems still must be resolved, such as opposition from nuclear-weapon states and non-participation by the A-bombed nation of Japan, the TPNW certainly represents a historic step toward putting an end to the nuclear weapons era.

The Japanese government should take this opportunity to change its heretofore backward-looking stance by joining the treaty and urging the United States and other nuclear-weapon states to reveal a detailed path forward to the abolition of such weapons.

The treaty has embodied the pleas made over many years by the A-bombed cities. The TPNW goes further than the advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1996, in which the ICJ offered an advisory opinion that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to international law.” At the same time, however, the ICJ indicated it was “unable to conclude” whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons for the purpose of self-defense would be lawful in a crisis that called into doubt the survival of a nation.

In this regard, the TPNW does not permit the use of nuclear weapons even when a nation faces a crisis where its existence is at stake. Furthermore, it prohibits the possession of the weapons in what is a complete renunciation of the theory of nuclear deterrence.

Despite pressure from Japan’s national government, Hiroshima Mayor Takashi Hiraoka and Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Ito clearly stated at the ICJ hearings at that time that nuclear weapons, which inflict horrific indiscriminate destruction, violate international law. This stance drove an international groundswell of demands for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The ban treaty will finally outlaw nuclear weapons, a result the A-bombed cities sought for 75 years.

Whatever excuses nuclear-weapon states might use, the possession of nuclear weapons will be considered a violation of international law once the treaty comes into force. The United States has reportedly put pressure on several countries to reverse their ratification of the TPNW. The country might have been concerned about the possibility of an increase in international pressure following effectuation of the treaty, or perhaps it grew frustrated about being pushed into a corner in this regard.

In any case, the road to a world free of nuclear weapons will likely not at all be smooth, with nuclear-weapon states such as the United States, Russia, and China standing in the way. Far from fulfilling the “obligation to sincerely pursue negotiations for nuclear disarmament,” stipulated in the Article Six of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), some of the states have recently launched the development of low-yield nuclear weapons as “usable warheads,” a move that should not be overlooked.

Such countries publicly state that the weapons are for national defense, but in reality, they appear to simply hope to gain a competitive advantage over others by building up their military strength. Leaders of the United States, Russia, and China should realize that an expanded nuclear arms race would threaten all of humanity.

Japan’s role as the A-bombed nation would again be called into question. Although Japan’s national government says it will serve as a “bridge” between the nuclear haves and have-nots, the country seems to always be trying to gauge the reaction of the United States. One proof of that is the fact that the language used in the resolution on the abolition of nuclear weapons, which Japan submits to the United Nations each year, has been watered down since 2017, when the Trump administration took power.

The ruling coalition’s New Komeito party has requested that government consider participation as an observer in the Meeting of the State Parties after the treaty is effectuated. Japan has to seriously come to terms with the TPNW if it wants to fulfill its role as the A-bombed nation.

The treaty requires the provision of medical care, psychological support, and social and economic assistance to those affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as measures needed for the environmental remediation of contaminated areas as a result of such activities. The scientific knowledge and expertise that Hiroshima and Nagasaki have accumulated could be put to good use. We all need to consider what we can contribute.

(Originally published on October 26, 2020)