Editorial: Time is ripe for starting negotiations for nuclear weapons convention

The United Nations working group on nuclear disarmament recently met in Geneva, Switzerland and compiled a report that can be called epoch-making. This report will be an important step toward realizing the earnest desire of the A-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The report adopted by the working group, concerning a legal framework to prohibit nuclear weapons, recommends to the General Assembly that negotiations to outlaw nuclear weapons begin in 2017. The report says widespread support exists for the start of such negotiations. While the process involved a vote, rather than consensus, it is significant that the report refers to a specific year.

In 1997, a model Nuclear Weapons Convention was submitted by Costa Rica, a peaceful Central American country. For some time now, the convention has been only a vision, but it is cause for rejoicing if the idea is finally starting to take shape at the United Nations.

The nuclear powers and nations that cling to nuclear deterrence have always taken a negative view of banning nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the start of negotiations is said to be supported by more than 100 countries, including Mexico and Austria, which led the establishment of the working group, and some nations in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. This illustrates that momentum for a treaty banning nuclear weapons is growing stronger.

It also shows that the intrinsic inhumanity of nuclear weapons has become common knowledge shared around the world. The inhumane nature of nuclear arms is precisely what Hiroshima and Nagasaki have long been trying to make the world realize.

Based on the recommendation of the working group, countries that support the elimination of nuclear weapons will submit a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly this fall calling for the start of negotiations for a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. In principle, resolutions are adopted by majority vote at general assemblies. It is highly likely that such a resolution will be adopted.

However, it is too early to be overly optimistic. In the first place, the nuclear powers refused to join the discussions at the working group. It is not hard to anticipate that the gulf between the nuclear and non-nuclear states will grow wider if moves toward a treaty banning nuclear weapons are made without involving the concerned parties. The report was adopted through a vote at the last moment, based on a request from Australia, which is an ally of the United States, and other countries, probably to show that there were opposing views. As a result, the report included a statement that nuclear disarmament should be promoted in connection with global security.

Some say that if a treaty banning nuclear weapons ignores the nuclear powers, and does not include them in this process, it will not be effective. But it is also clear that the discussions on nuclear disarmament, which have put priority on the will of the nuclear weapon states, are at an impasse. We must remember that the working group was established because of the disappointment over the failure of the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which broke down without producing results.

With regard to the convention on the prohibition of anti-personnel mines, this was first concluded at the initiative of nations and non-governmental organizations that shared a desire to ban landmines and was then ratified by an increasing number of countries. The Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates the trade in conventional weapons, was adopted by a majority at the U.N. General Assembly, although some nations were opposed to the treaty.

Time is ripe for starting negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The ideas for this treaty will be shaped mainly by non-nuclear nations and their efforts should not be hampered. The United States and other nuclear powers must back this process, and this is where Japan, as the nation that experienced nuclear attack, can really fulfill it’s role as a bridge between the nuclear and non-nuclear countries.

However, Japan, which makes no secret of the fact that it relies on nuclear deterrence and does not support an immediate ban on nuclear weapons, abstained from voting. Furthermore, Japan appears to be against the idea of the United States declaring a policy of “no first use,” now being considered by President Barack Obama. The attitude of the Japanese government toward nuclear disarmament is wholly disappointing.

The Japanese government must face up to the reality that, with its support for a “step-by-step approach” to nuclear disarmament, Japan is being left behind by the world trend. For 22 years in a row, Japan has submitted a resolution on abolishing nuclear arms at the U.N. General Assembly. But if Japan sticks only to its present approach, the significance of this long-running effort will be badly tarnished.

(Originally published on August 21, 2016)