Editorial: 25 years passes since ICJ’s advisory opinion about legality of nuclear weapons. It is now clear nuclear arms violate international law.

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued the epoch-making advisory opinion, which ruled, “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law.”

To Hiroshima and Nagasaki, contents of ICJ’s opinion were not completely satisfactory. Because it avoided providing a clear-cut judgment for the use of nuclear weapons in self-defense for the survival of a nation, stating it couldn’t conclude definitively whether the use of nuclear weapons under such circumstance would be lawful or unlawful. As a result, some room has been left for the nuclear powers to make excuses for their nuclear possessions. It makes sense the A-bombed cities raised objection to the court’s opinion at that time, by arguing it was an indecisive conclusion.

Nonetheless, it was the first judicial judgment given in the international community about the illegality of nuclear weapons. The ICJ’s opinion led to laying a foundation for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which came into effect this year. Although the opinion doesn’t have any legal binding power, its historic significance shouldn’t be neglected.

Nuclear disarmament efforts don’t seem to be making progress as fast as A-bomb survivors have desired. But the message from the two A-bombed cities about how nuclear arms are inhumane weapons has been steadily penetrating the international community.

Also, voices from the A-bombed cities were reflected into the advisory opinion. When both mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made a statement in the hearing, they argued nuclear weapons violate international laws under all conditions. Without giving in to the pressure from the Japanese government relying on the nuclear umbrella of the United States, the mayors made their plea boldly.

Takashi Hiraoka, then Hiroshima Mayor, claimed nuclear weapons are crueler and more inhumane than any other weapons. Showing a photo of a boy’s body charred by the atomic bombing, Iccho Ito, then Nagasaki Mayor, emphasized that innocent children had been sacrificed.

Because there were such appeals made by the A-bombed cities as well as support from many nations, citizens and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which sympathized with the appeal, they were able to elicit ICJ’s advisory opinion, which was worth praising even though there was a limit.

Cooperation among the A-bombed cities and international NGOs played a key role as driving force to urge the international court called ICJ to draw judgement regarding the inhumane characteristics of nuclear weapons.

In addition, it bore fruit in the form of TPNW, which was adopted four years ago. As the treaty has banned not only use or threat of nuclear weapons but also possession and development of nuclear arms, we have now reached the stage that nuclear weapons violate international laws in any case. It is possible to say that TPNW has embodied the long-time plea from Hiroshima and Nagasaki by breaking through the limit of the advisory opinion.

In January this year, TPNW finally became effective despite interferences from nuclear-armed nations. Nuclear weapons are not necessary for the future of humans. On the contrary, the presence of such weapons are harmful to the earth’s environment. Given that concept, those who seek a world without nuclear weapons account for the majority of the international society now. TPNW has proved it.

In accordance with end of the Cold War, U.S. and Russia have reduced their nuclear stockpiles drastically. But there are still an enormous number of nuclear weapons on earth, which is enough to extinguish the human race multiple times. Potential risk of nuclear weapons’ misuse caused by a one-time accident or human error cannot be reduced to zero, unless they are totally abolished.

Just last month, the leaders of both the U.S. and Russia reaffirmed the principle that a nuclear war couldn’t be won. If that is the case, they should join the circle of people aiming to achieve the world without nuclear weapons. It’s unacceptable that they continue to hang onto their privileges of owning nuclear arms.

Like nuclear-armed nations, the Japanese government’s reliance on the nuclear umbrella doesn’t have a global-level perspective either. Why isn’t it possible for Japan to sign and ratify TPNW in order to realize a world free from nuclear arsenals? The first thing it needs to do is to listen seriously to the voice from the A-bombed cities.

(Originally published on July 9, 2021)