International symposium held in Hiroshima to discuss use of the law to eradicate nuclear weapons, crimes against humanity

The international symposium “Towards a World Without Nuclear Weapons and Crimes Against Humanity” was held at the International Conference Center Hiroshima, in the city’s Naka Ward, on December 15. Legal experts and those working in the field exchanged views about serious human rights violations being repeated in overseas conflict zones and the possession and use of nuclear weapons. About 280 people attended the conference, which was held under the auspices of Hiroshima City University, the Chugoku Shimbun, and the Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA) at Nagasaki University.

Keynote speech

Taking interest in the suffering of victims

Kuniko Ozaki, Former Judge, International Criminal Court (ICC)

The ICC, based on international law, makes rulings on individuals who commit specific crimes. That is the difference between the ICC and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the latter of which deals with conflicts between nations. The ICC should therefore be considered something like Japan’s district courts.

The ICC has jurisdiction over four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The court’s main focus includes crimes of a sexual nature and other violence against children and women, who are the most vulnerable populations in times of conflict.

Two historical factors lie behind the establishment of the court. First was World War II, which caused severe suffering among civilians in both victorious and defeated nations. For the first time in history, criminal charges were brought against responsible individuals at the Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Tokyo Trials as part of the post-war resolution process.

Second was conclusion of the Cold War, which made it possible for the international community to unite against serious human rights violations. On the other hand, however, regional and domestic conflicts involving humanitarian crises have arisen with some frequency. People have begun to share enhanced awareness that ending the cycle of reprisals, promoting reconciliation between groups, and establishing the rule of law are effective in preventing conflicts.

Conflicts result from a lack of the rule of law or of respect for fundamental human rights. In many cases, judicial systems have broken down and cannot provide justice. It is amid such circumstances that the ICC can function as a court of law. Currently, the ICC prosecutor’s office is examining 11 cases, including human rights violations by Kenya’s president. Thus far, 34 arrest warrants have been issued.

There are still challenges. First, the military superpowers of the United States, Russia, and China have not joined the ICC. The ICC’s authority does not extend to some powerful countries in the Middle East and Asia, in which serious human rights violations have been committed, because those countries also are not members. Since many of the cases handled by the ICC involve Africa, criticism is sometimes leveled at the court for being colonialist.

Japan joined the ICC in 2007 and is the largest financial contributor to the court. Japanese judges continue their work on the court. Nevertheless, there are only a few Japanese staff members.

The ICC aims to punish crime appropriately to deter the recurrence of similar offenses. The first step toward that goal is having not only nations and governments but also individuals take an interest in serious human rights violations happening on the other side of the world and about the suffering of victims. Crimes against humanity affect society overall. It is thus important for all of us to consistently do what we can do in this regard.

Kuniko Ozaki
Ms. Ozaki was born in the city of Fuchu, Hiroshima prefecture. She graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo and entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1979, serving in its treaty bureau as the person in charge of international law at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations. After serving as head of the division for refugee status determination at the Japan Ministry of Justice, she was appointed to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Court in 2010. She served as the ICC’s vice-president from 2015 to 2018.

Special lecture

Now is the time to reaffirm the principles of law

Takashi Hiraoka, Former Hiroshima Mayor

Pope Francis stated clearly in November in Hiroshima that the use or possession of nuclear weapons was immoral. In 1942, the United States secretly launched the Manhattan Project in an effort to produce atomic bombs. The following year, the pope at that time warned that nuclear chain reactions must never be generated in explosions. American scientists also expressed their concerns.

Shocked by the immense devastation caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese government lodged a protest against the United States on August 10, 1945, in which Japan demanded “strongly that the Government of the United States give up the use of such an inhumane weapon instantly.” However, the United States has continued to stress that the use of the atomic bombs was legitimate.

Attorney Shoichi Okamoto was the world’s first to question the legality of nuclear weapons in a court of law. In 1955, he brought a complaint in the Tokyo District Court regarding the inhumanity and cruelty of nuclear weapons. This is known as the Shimoda Case, named after one of the plaintiffs. I covered the story as a newspaper reporter. The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for compensation, but in the court ruling the presiding judge condemned the atomic attacks as violating international law. He called the atomic bombs “truly cruel weapons.” This led to new recognition of the need for a legal judgment on this issue.

In 1994, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution asking the ICJ to render an advisory opinion about whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons was permitted under international law. The next year, I went to the ICJ in my position as Hiroshima mayor and, detailing the devastation caused by the atomic bombings, declared that nuclear weapons were crueler and more inhumane than other weapons whose use was banned by international law.

The advisory opinion put the brakes on use of such weapons, but nuclear-weapon states have not made progress in nuclear disarmament negotiations, even though they are mandated to pursue such negotiations in good faith by Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by the United Nations two years ago, but the rift between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear weapon states is profound, as the world nuclear situation continues to worsen.

From its draft resolution submitted to the United Nations in October this year, the Japanese government deleted the phrase “deep concerns about the devastating humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.” The very pillar supporting the principle of nuclear abolition is the fear of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, making the government’s stance deplorable. Now is the time for the government to remember the devastation caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reaffirm the principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Takashi Hiraoka
Born in the city of Osaka, Mr. Hiraoka graduated from the School of Letters, Arts, and Science at Waseda University. He started working for the Chugoku Shimbun in 1952 and took such positions as editor-in-chief, as well as president of RCC Broadcasting Company. He became Hiroshima’s mayor in 1991 and served two terms for a total of eight years. His writings include Kibo no Hiroshima (Hope in Hiroshima), published in 1996 by Iwanami Shoten.

Panel discussion

During the panel discussion, moderated by Tetsuo Sato, professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, questions were posed to each of the five panelists by Fumihiko Yoshida, director of RECNA, and Tomomitsu Miyazaki, chief editorial writer at the Chugoku Shimbun.

With the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecuting individuals responsible for crimes, not countries, what changes and results from a humanitarian perspective are anticipated? Ozaki: Many of the crimes handled by the ICC include murder, crimes of a sexual nature, and torture committed over a broad region or in an organized manner amid conflicts in which groups are pitted against one other.
It is a cycle of violence marked by the killing of friends or family and then retaliation for those murders. By identifying the people who directed, or agitated for, the violence and clarifying who is responsible, the group-vs.-group structure can be altered. I do not want to say that the actual perpetrators of the murders and other violence are without responsibility but that others might have more responsibility.

Because permanent members of the United Nations Security Council possess nuclear arms, we cannot expect too much from the council in matters of nuclear issues. Given such constraints, can’t the role and authority of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) be strengthened?
Mochizuki: The UNHRC was created as part of United Nations reforms. The body has the authority to investigate all countries. Sovereign states, however, loathe being criticized on their human-rights record. It is therefore more important to substantially enhance each of the organization’s functions rather than strengthen its overall authority.

If the Security Council were not able to function adequately, some wonder whether the U.N. General Assembly could be anticipated to play a role. In reality, however, this would be difficult, since different countries have different intentions. The General Assembly’s role is to serve as a venue at which international public opinion can be confirmed.

Nuclear-weapon states argue that “the nuclear umbrella” or nuclear deterrence is effective; how should the A-bombed cities respond?
Hiraoka: The “nuclear umbrella” is a myth. It cannot guarantee peace. In the first place, what country’s nuclear weapons pose a threat to Japan? Many would say North Korea. But it is the United States and North Korea that are hostile to one another. If Japan were to be targeted, it would be because Japan is perceived to be a partner of the United States.

The lifespan of nuclear weapons is longer than that of humankind itself. The weapons have the potential to affect human health and destroy the global environment. The number of people who can convey the message about the devastation wrought by such weapons is decreasing over time. Yet, we have to continue passing down such memories to successive generations and reminding people that true peace will come only after such weapons are eliminated.

You have said that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, even were it to take effect, would not affect non-signatory nations. Please share some of the details about the treaty’s legal and practical effects.
Mayama: The treaty does not put pressure on nuclear-weapon states from a legal point of view, but it might bring pressure from an ethical perspective. In what the ICJ called the obligation of nuclear disarmament, the demand that nuclear weapons be reduced does not allow for the idea that possessing such weapons is acceptable.

Japan has become a signatory nation to the ICC, as well as the Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1977, which includes the prohibition of reprisals in wartime. Nevertheless, Japan depends on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Some point out that this is contradictory, an acute observation that is only too true. No such discussion has been had publicly in Japan’s Diet. If the issue were to be raised, discussions around the legal aspects of this issue would likely move ahead.

As Japan’s international presence declines, world issues seem to be perceived as if happening in some distant location. What is your message to young Japanese?
Seya: To young people, things happening in the world are someone else’s problem. On the other hand, the nature of conflicts around the world has changed, with terrorist groups employing the latest technologies and recruiting members through social media networks. Workers from overseas bring with them diverse cultures to Japan, leading to intercultural communication in so many venues.

Problems that happen amid such circumstances will not be resolved peacefully if people are indifferent to the world and fail to understand how to communicate with each other to smoothly resolve or prevent issues. I hope young people open their eyes to the world in order to create as many opportunities as possible to build positive relations with others.


Individual responsibility in use of nuclear weapons

Akira Mayama, Professor (International Law), Graduate School of International Public Policy, Osaka University

Since the 20th century, international society has tried to implement international law to restrict countries from waging war. This goal was achieved by the Charter of the United Nations. The reality, however, is that when it is all said and done countries are on their own. With that in mind, how should we think about the use or possession of nuclear weapons?

The only treaties that include a ban on the possession of such weapons are the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. However, only their signatories are bound by the treaties. On the other hand, international humanitarian law acknowledges retaliation or reprisal in times of war, which makes it hard to deem as illegal the principle of “possession but not use” of such weapons. This idea forms the very foundation of the nuclear deterrence theory.

Nevertheless, indiscriminate damage that results from the involvement of civilians is a violation of international humanitarian law. In this sense, the illegality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks can be proven. That said, opinions differ on whether or not all nuclear attacks lead to indiscriminate results.

Can the use of nuclear weapons be considered within the context of individual responsibility? If indiscriminate effects or excessive devastation are caused, regardless of the kind of weapon, the charge of a war crime is possible. Not much debate has been conducted in terms of the weapons’ association with crimes against humanity, but charges against individuals should be possible regardless of the variety of weapon.

United Nations efforts and challenges

Yasue Mochizuki, Professor (International Law), School of Law and Politics, Kwansei Gakuin University

There is no fixed definition of crimes against humanity, but the international community has gradually come to formulate one based on a number of U.N. documents related to human rights. Let’s discuss how the United Nations has dealt with the issue of crimes against humanity.

The concept of “responsibility to protect” is based on the Charter of the United Nations. Nations are responsible for protecting their people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. However, when a country has clearly failed to protect its people, the U.N. Security Council is ready to act.

The United Nations also conducts peacebuilding activities. In East Timor before independence, a framework was established for imposing penalties for crimes against humanity. The U.N. Human Rights Council has investigated human rights violations in Myanmar, identifying criminals and collecting and archiving information on criminal acts. The ICC is preparing to prosecute criminal cases based on such evidence.

There are still challenges. For the United Nations to act, cooperation from nations is crucial, with U.N. Security Council measures unable to function absent unanimous approval. It is necessary for the United Nations and the ICC to strengthen their relationship. In the long run, preventive measures should be undertaken, such as the reform of national structures that result in crimes against humanity. Participation of local residents and support from the international community are essential.

Halting conflicts on the ground before they begin

Rumiko Seya, Director, Japan Center for Conflict Prevention

We have continued our efforts in the Middle East and Africa both to avoid conflicts from happening and prevent them from recurring. Until 12 years ago, I handled disarmament from diplomatic and other standpoints. What one has to be careful about when working with local populations is the use of language. “Peace” can mean different things to different countries. If calls are made for victims of conflict to aim to achieve peace, they could feel pressure to forgive the perpetrators. The same can probably be said when calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

So many crimes against humanity have been committed in conflict zones far from Japan—in Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and other countries. We watch the news in which it is reported that 100,000 to 150,000 people were victims, without feeling any doubt about these broad approximations. We should change our perspective and take more interest in such issues.

When young people cannot get an education because of dire circumstances, a hotbed of crimes against humanity is fostered. If there is no faith in their own country or in the international community, people can begin to sympathize with terrorist groups. When we support local communities, our message to them is, “We are watching over you. Let’s overcome the challenges together.”

We make efforts to train women to help resolve problems. Where the police do not function, skirmishes between ethnic groups can develop into riots or conflicts. We also train local residents with responsibility to resolve problems at early stages.

Proposing what young people can do

Junior writers

Five junior writers of the Chugoku Shimbun also took the stage.

The junior writers introduced newspaper articles they had written, projecting them onto a screen on stage. The articles involved a piano and a violin that had survived the atomic bombing—so called “A-bombed instruments”—as well as efforts to listen to the experiences of A-bomb survivors and preserve the memories for successive generations. The junior writers also made four proposals about what young people can do to realize a world without nuclear weapons, including communicating A-bomb survivors’ experiences through images or picture-story shows and creating opportunities to exchange ideas about peace with young people from Japan and abroad.


The International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ)
The ICC is a permanent court that prosecutes individuals responsible for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. Based on the Rome Statute, a treaty that took effect in 2002, the court was established in The Hague, the Netherlands. The court prevents criminals from evading responsibility for their actions, with the aim of deterring war crimes and genocide. The ICC has 122 member countries, including Japan.

The ICJ, also located in The Hague, works to resolve international disputes between nations based on the law and to state advisory opinions in response to requests from international bodies. In an advisory opinion issued in 1996, the ICJ ruled that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law.” At the same time, however, the ICJ indicated it was unable to conclude whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons for the purpose of self-defense would be lawful or unlawful in a crisis that called into doubt the survival of a nation.

(Originally published on December 23, 2019)