Editorial: Nuclear abolition, 20 years after historic opinion by International Court of Justice

The day July 8 marked the 20th year since the International Court of Justice (ICJ), located in The Hague, the Netherlands, issued its historic advisory opinion: “The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law.”

It may be true that voices of discontent were heard from Hiroshima, which has long called for these weapons to be made illegal, over the ICJ decision, which went on to state: “The Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake.” But the weight of the decision by the ICJ in judging that “The use or threat of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law” still stands to this day.

This international judgment, which emphasized the need for nuclear disarmament, should have been the direction traveled by the world in subsequent days. The speech made by U.S. President Barack Obama in Prague in 2009, advocating “a world without nuclear weapons,” sounded the same call to action.

ICJ’s bold advisory opinion is believed to be linked to the historical backdrop of the time. The Cold War, where East and West faced perilous conditions, had ended and the international community began feeling new urgency over the ballooning numbers of nuclear weapons in the world. The idea that nuclear arms are a threat to all of humanity became a widespread concern and sparked a surge in global calls for their abolition.

The appeals made from the A-bombed cities, as the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki voiced in the Hague court, were surely fuel for this decision.

Over the past 20 years, however, the situation surrounding nuclear weapons has degenerated, flying in the face of the advisory opinion. North Korea has pushed ahead with its missile development and nuclear ambitions while efforts for nuclear disarmament have stagnated with the United States and Russia remaining at loggerheads. Meanwhile, Islamic extremists have grown in strength and the risk of nuclear terrorism is rising.

In this milestone 20th year since the advisory opinion, President Obama paid a visit to the A-bombed city of Hiroshima and again mentioned “a world without nuclear weapons.” In better circumstances, the international community, including the nuclear weapon states, would feel more strongly compelled to spotlight the significance of the ICJ judgment. But a month and a half has already passed since Mr. Obama’s historic visit and it appears that vital discussions for abolishing nuclear weapons are only creeping forward.

The international call for a nuclear weapons convention remains strong. At the same time, the gap between the views of those who support such a treaty and the nuclear weapon states, which stand in the way of this convention becoming a reality, has not narrowed to any degree, as highlighted by the difficulties faced by the nuclear disarmament working group at the United Nations.

Moreover, in the United States, which is the main driver of this issue, the de facto presidential candidate of the Republican Party is Donald Trump, who has even condoned a nuclear-armed Japan. The Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, has yet to say anything about nuclear weapons. If this trend continues, the notion of a roadmap toward nuclear abolition will not be discussed in the presidential campaign and the possibility of expressly promoting “a world without nuclear weapons” will be very slim after President Obama leaves office.

In a sense, the situation in Japan is the same. Following the president’s visit to Hiroshima, the only voices heard are those stressing the significance of the visit itself. The needle has not moved at all with respect to international conditions involving nuclear weapons.

In Japan’s Upper House elections, it is regrettable that the debate between the ruling and opposition parties regarding the abolition of nuclear weapons was negligible, despite the vow made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Hiroshima to pursue this goal.

In particular, the ruling party seems to have taken the visit to Hiroshima by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe as a symbol of a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance. But the party never mentioned the contradiction of Japan huddling under the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States.

To advance toward the goal of nuclear abolition, a new strategy must be devised.

It is time to take the advisory opinion to heart, as this judgment is virtually the origin of the international trend for highlighting the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima, too, must contribute to strengthening international public opinion by conveying the true consequences wrought by the atomic bombing to the people of the world.

(Originally published on July 9, 2016)