Editorial: Japan’s attitude toward U.N. working group on nuclear disarmament is questioned

A new United Nations working group in Geneva, Switzerland is scheduled to start discussions today on promoting nuclear disarmament. It will be a landmark achievement if the working group can produce advances in the discussions on legal provisions that are needed for eliminating nuclear weapons.

The group has been established in line with a resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 2015. The resolution was put forward by Mexico and other non-nuclear weapon states that have been calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Japan had abstained from voting on the resolution and gave evasive answers as to whether it would join the group.

The Japanese government finally made the sensible decision to take part, though the decision was made only last week, just barely in time. Japan, as the nation that experienced the atomic attacks, should take the lead in promoting nuclear abolition.

Behind the establishment of the working group is international public opinion that the use of an inhumane nuclear weapon would result in devastating casualties that transcend national boundaries. To date, nuclear disarmament efforts have been made mainly under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Under the NPT, five major nuclear powers, including the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom, have an obligation to pursue negotiations on nuclear disarmament. In reality, however, the progress in nuclear disarmament is stagnant, and the non-nuclear nations are experiencing mounting frustration.

It seems only natural, then, that some nations have become more eager to conclude a convention that will legally ban nuclear weapons rather than continuing to rely on the NPT. The five major nuclear weapon states have not indicated that they will join the working group. It appears that the non-nuclear states are seeking to increase international momentum toward the elimination of these weapons and contain the nuclear powers.

Under these circumstances, the Japanese government’s stance has not been made clear. While the face-off between the nuclear and non-nuclear nations has grown more bitter, the Japanese government is apparently intending to take the initiative in discussions as it believes Japan can serve as a bridge between the two sides. This is understandable, but on the other hand, Japan is dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and has been opposed to the creation of a nuclear weapons convention. The government’s honest feelings must be that a rapid advance toward a convention of this kind is undesirable.

The government’s view on the management of the working group reveals its stance.

This session of the working group will last five days. The group will hold meetings in May and August, eventually making a recommendation and a report to the U.N. General Assembly in September. Japan insists that the recommendation be supported not by a majority but by a unanimous vote. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan argues that, while it seeks the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament must be moved forward in phases, with the involvement of the nuclear powers.

At the working group, strong advocates of a nuclear weapons convention will lead the discussions. Japan will merit criticism if it attempts to slow the discussion by continuing to insist on unanimous approval.

In this way, Japan would dampen momentum toward nuclear abolition. This would not be fulfilling the “bridge” role that Japan hopes to play, but would instead make Japan the mouthpiece of the nuclear weapon states.

Citizens’ groups and other organizations have been critical of the Japanese government’s attitude. The fact that doubts have been stirred about its intentions, when the working group is just getting under way, is unwelcome. The Japanese government must not cast cold water on the discussions by insisting on a unanimous result.

North Korea’s nuclear tests are now a symbol of the hard reality that nuclear weapons are spreading unchecked. It is also of concern that there is talk in South Korea about pursuing countermeasures against its rival and equipping itself with nuclear arms. Another worry is a possible nuclear domino effect in the Middle East.

A framework that bans nuclear weapons must be made in order to put an end to the idea of nations seeking to match one another in nuclear might. During this meeting of the working group, the legal framework, the steps involved in the process, and the methods of verification must be discussed in concrete terms.

(Originally published on February 22, 2016)