Editorial: Advancing on the road to nuclear abolition in 2017

This March, negotiations to establish a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons will commence for the first time at the United Nations. It may prove to be a historic step for eliminating nuclear arms.

There is no doubt that nuclear weapons are inhumane. But to date no international law has been made that explicitly prohibits them. If these negotiations are successful, it would be a significant turning point on the road to abolition since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the nuclear age.

The people of the A-bombed cities, who have long called for the abolition of nuclear weapons with the wish that “No one else should ever suffer as we have,” now hold high hopes for the treaty negotiations.

However, the trend toward nuclear disarmament has arrived at a crossroads. A deep gulf still divides the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear nations, which are demanding a legal ban on nuclear arms. The vision of “a world without nuclear weapons,” advocated by U.S. President Barack Obama, is eroding as he completes his eight years in office. Last year, Mr. Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, but the situation involving nuclear weapons may change drastically under the administration of the next president, Donald Trump. As the new year begins, we would like to convey our deep concern.

The rising anger of the international community toward the nuclear powers is what underlies the pursuit of this new treaty. Under the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the five nations that include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia have been permitted to possess nuclear weapons. However, these nuclear nations have been reluctant to move forward with the goal of nuclear disarmament, an obligation stipulated by the NPT. This is why non-nuclear countries are now taking the lead and seeking to forge a path for nuclear abolition by establishing a treaty that would make them illegal.

Creating a viable treaty

As the details for such a treaty are still being worked out, it is not clear how much progress has been made toward establishing a viable pact. But, for now, we can suggest several ideas.

The first option would be to press ahead with the nuclear ban treaty, even without the involvement of the nuclear powers. In the past, this strategy was used in the efforts to ban landmines and cluster bombs. Treaties to legally ban these weapons were established first, then more nations came on board and ratified them.

But in reality, this choice would face challenges, too. If the treaty completely outlawed the production, development, and use of nuclear weapons for intimidation or attack, not only the nuclear nations but also some non-nuclear nations like Japan, which rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, would find it difficult to sign the document. So, even with such a treaty in place, the trend toward nuclear abolition might arrive at another impasse. Would a treaty that bans nuclear arms really be of benefit if Japan, the only nation to have suffered nuclear attack, refused to ratify it? This could become a controversial aspect of the upcoming discussions.

Or is it possible to adopt the idea of softening the scope of the treaty? In other words, the treaty could be a framework agreement for outlawing the use of nuclear arms, while the specific timing and measures for achieving the goal of abolition would be determined by other documents, like a protocol. This alternative has the advantage of allowing nations like Japan to more easily consider ratification. But we cannot deny the possibility that such a choice could risk obscuring the road to nuclear abolition.

Inhumanity of nuclear weapons must be discussed

The treaty negotiations that begin in March won’t be able to avoid a tough discussion that takes these views and considerations into account.

What matters most, though, is engaging in deeper discussion on the inhumanity of nuclear arms. There are still some 15,000 nuclear weapons on the earth today. If a nuclear weapon is used, it would kill civilians indiscriminately and produce radiation exposure that spills across national borders. As this is a weapon against humanity itself, it is not acceptable to inhibit the discussion concerning this treaty due to gamesmanship among nations.

Dark clouds over global conditions

In particular, these negotiations will test the Japanese government’s stance. Japan voted against the resolution to start negotiations on a nuclear ban treaty when it was proposed. Then, as soon as the resolution passed by majority vote, Japan immediately changed course and expressed its intention to take part in the negotiations. Some worry that Japan’s true motive for participating in the discussion is to water down the contents of the treaty. If Japan declares itself to be the “mediator” between the nuclear and non-nuclear nations, its initiative is needed to present concrete measures to advance the goal of nuclear abolition.

Of increasing concern are the dark clouds that seem to be gathering over the global state of affairs concerning nuclear issues. Donald Trump, who will soon become president of the United States, has spoken out on Twitter about greatly strengthening the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also signaled his interest in enhancing Russia’s nuclear arms. If the two nuclear superpowers enter a new arms race, tensions could quickly rise around the world.

What would ultimately be the outcome of pursuing more nuclear weapons in this competition of nations? The result could only be a bad dream where countries view one another as threats, and the whole human race is in danger of destruction.

With this in mind, we call for Mr. Trump to visit the A-bombed cities, following Mr. Obama’s lead. If he cannot do so right away, we ask that he at least listen to the voices of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the A-bomb survivors, in order to be fully aware of the terrible harm nuclear weapons could wreak on all of humanity. We hope he will recognize that countries threatening one another with nuclear weapons is the primary cause of instability in the world today.

(Originally published on January 4, 2017)