The first meeting of parties to the U.N. nuclear weapons ban treaty held in Vienna has closed after adopting a statement aimed at achieving the abolition of nuclear arms. In the declaration, the parties expressed strong concern over nuclear powers and those under the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” continuing their dependence on nuclear deterrence and failing to work on reducing that dependence. The nuclear-armed states and Japan must take this seriously.
The meeting was held amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hint that he may use nuclear arms in mind, the declaration stated that the parties “condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats.”
Of the 65 parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 49 countries and regions participated in their first meeting. Another 34 states took part as observers. The nine countries with nuclear weapons including the United States, Russia and China have not joined the treaty, and some even asked their allies not to participate in the meeting as observers.
— It’s time nuclear-weapon states learn to compromise
The nuclear weapons ban treaty came about in the first place against the backdrop of sluggish disarmament progress by the nuclear powers. While the Conference on Disarmament headquartered in Geneva and led by nuclear-weapon states has fulfilled its role in creating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), it hasn’t produced obvious results in recent years.
Meanwhile, the NPT framework has been fraying at the edges for years, and the parties failed to adopt a final declaration during the 2015 review conference. The CTBT, on the other hand, hasn’t even taken effect because the U.S. and other countries have failed to ratify it.
With China’s rise, nuclear disarmament negotiations between the U.S. and Russia have stalled, resulting in the expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The five nuclear powers — the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France — need to reflect on how they have neglected their arms reduction responsibilities while enjoying their privileged positions, and should meet non-nuclear states halfway.
The deterrence theory held by the nuclear-armed states is premised on the logic that if one party tries to use a nuclear weapon, it must expect a nuclear attack by the other party, and so each party holds back.
However, as the U.S. and Russia are developing more “useable” low-yield nuclear warheads and the possibility of terrorist groups getting their hands on nuclear technology is increasing, the true efficacy of nuclear deterrence is in question.
Furthermore, the International Court of Justice has ruled that any threat to use nuclear weapons violates international humanitarian law. The deterrence theory cannot serve as an excuse to turn one’s back on the nuclear weapons ban treaty.
The position taken by Japan, the only country in the world to have been attacked with nuclear bombs in war, was also called into question. The country did not join the Vienna meeting as an observer despite calls from signatories and peace organizations. Japan maintains that any framework without nuclear-weapon states’ participation is ineffective.
On the contrary, NATO member states Germany, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands that are also, just like Japan, under the U.S. nuclear umbrella took part in the meeting. While delegates from Germany and the Netherlands explained their positions, with the former saying that the treaty “would collide with our membership in NATO,” these countries’ presence showed that they believe ties with non-nuclear states are important.
— Japan abandoned its role as a “bridge”
Nuclear abolition is Japan’s goal, too. At the same time, the country, surrounded by nuclear-armed states China, Russia and North Korea, is faced with a severe security environment, and it has no choice but to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
It is precisely because Japan is under these circumstances that many hoped Tokyo would bridge the divide between nuclear and non-nuclear states. Japan’s choice to opt out of the Vienna meeting was nothing short of an abandonment of this role, and it is extremely regrettable.
Meanwhile, efforts to set up an intermediary role for discussions with nuclear powers were agreed upon during the nuclear weapons ban treaty meeting, and the establishment of officers in charge of seeking cooperation with the NPT signatories was included in its action plan.
It is true that if the NPT — signed by most countries including nuclear powers — does not function properly, nuclear disarmament will not progress. Rather than seeing the nuclear weapons ban treaty as a rival framework, nuclear states must have the wisdom to use it for arms reduction.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to attend the NPT review conference in August, and has also decided to hold next year’s Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima. The next nuclear weapons ban treaty meeting is slated for November-December 2023. If Kishida is serious about working on nuclear arms issues, he has a responsibility to have Japan participate in next year’s treaty meeting as an observer.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others coauthored a 2008 article in an American newspaper describing a path towards a world without nuclear weapons. In it they wrote: “… the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very tall mountain. From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can’t even see the top of the mountain … We must chart a course to higher ground where the mountaintop becomes more visible.”
The nuclear weapons ban treaty should be developed as one of the hiking paths to that higher ground, and used as an opportunity for the international community to work together towards the mountain’s peak: nuclear abolition.