Interview with Professor Mitsuru Kurosawa: Japan must mediate conflicting opinions among nations on nuclear abolition

by Uzaemonnaotsuka Toukai, Editorial Writer

Negotiations to establish a treaty that would outlaw nuclear weapons will begin at the United Nations in March. Expectations are rising among non-nuclear nations and civil societies that welcome this development. On the other hand, the nuclear weapon states are opposed to such a treaty, saying that it would have a profound impact on the security of their countries. The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Mitsuru Kurosawa, 72, a professor at the graduate school of Osaka Jogakuin University and a leading expert on international disarmament law, on prospects for the treaty talks and the role that Japan is expected to play.

People in Hiroshima are pleased with this step toward banning nuclear weapons.
Actually, the situation concerns me. With attention on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons growing, a treaty of some kind can be concluded. But I’m a little apprehensive about the actual content of the treaty, whether it will be acceptable and truly bring the world closer to the elimination of these weapons.

What are the potential problems?
There are many possible treaties. Many non-nuclear nations support banning the use and possession of nuclear arms to start with, even if the nuclear powers don’t join the treaty. This is the most likely approach to be taken. The threat or the deployment of nuclear weapons is likely to be banned, which would make it difficult for Japan to join the treaty, since it is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If the nation that itself experienced nuclear attack doesn’t join the treaty, let alone the nuclear weapon states, the treaty’s effectiveness will be limited. This could deepen the rift between the nuclear powers and the non-nuclear nations, subsequently making the discussions on their elimination more difficult.

What approach should be taken?
I think a framework agreement is a good idea. This means that the general concept is crafted into law, and the specific obligations are then discussed in protocol negotiations that would follow. One example is the Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose parties meet every year. The United States has made a firm commitment to pursuing a world without nuclear weapons, and thus many countries would be able to join this type of convention.

Will that sort of loosely structured organization be effective?
Specific plans to eliminate nuclear weapons, how that would happen and by when, will not be determined straight away. But in international politics, it’s sometimes important to keep things moving without pitting countries against one another, by tolerating ambiguity. If a framework convention is concluded, we will then need to continue holding complex multilateral talks in the future. It will take a great amount of energy to map out a long-term strategy for involving the nuclear powers. Still, the key is to reconcile conflicting opinions over the nuclear issue among the nations of the world, and Japan should help by playing that role.

Will Japan, which was against pursuing negotiations for the treaty, be able to play this role?
If the Japanese government sees itself as a mediator between the nuclear- and non-nuclear nations, this is the time it should undertake significant efforts toward that end. It’s important for politicians to take the initiative. When discussions were held on the treaty that bans anti-personnel land mines in 1997, the Japanese government did not intend to endorse it, out of consideration for its relationship with the United States. But then Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi signed the treaty despite opposition from inside the government, and this move is said to have contributed to the international momentum for banning landmines. So Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima, should develop strategies for involving countries that are under the nuclear umbrella, in cooperation with the signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

What role should Hiroshima play in the future?
When former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in April 2016, he said that it was a gut-wrenching experience, and stressed the importance of pursuing a world without nuclear weapons. People tend to regard the nuclear issue as something that should be dealt with formally in the international political arena. But people’s personal sentiments can greatly influence this issue. When people see the artifacts at the museum, and come to understand the immense tragedy brought about by the atomic bomb, it changes their perspective dramatically. That’s the power of the A-bombed city.

With the advent of the administration of Donald Trump, uncertainty is spreading about the possibility of realizing a world without nuclear weapons.
Hiroshima was filled with excitement when Barack Obama visited the city last year. But people should not be complacent about it anymore. This is a crucial time, since backstage negotiations for the treaty are now taking place. Hiroshima should strongly urge the Japanese government to take the lead in these discussions.


Mitsuru Kurosawa
Born in Osaka and studied at the Graduate School of Law and Politics at Osaka University. Served as professor at Niigata University and Osaka School of International Public Policy of Osaka University before assuming his present post in 2008. Served as the first chairperson of the Japan Association of Disarmament Studies. Has written books which include Kakuheiki no nai Sekai e (Toward a World without Nuclear Weapons) and Issues in Disarmament: An Introduction.

(Originally published on February 1, 2017)