Reflecting on the UN speeches: 2009 as a turning point for nuclear abolition

Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

The elimination of nuclear weapons is not a vain dream. As I listened to the speeches made by U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, I felt my hopes grow more strongly than ever. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has stated, "Let this be the year that nations united to free our world of nuclear weapons. Let us make this year we agreed to banish the bomb."

President Obama was the first among the leaders of the nuclear nations to speak. Just as he did in his powerful speech in Prague this past April, Mr. Obama called for greater efforts in nuclear non-proliferation, further nuclear disarmament by the U.S. and Russia, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons.

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, another nuclear superpower, expressed his will to make mutual efforts with the U.S. in tackling the issues of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The announcement by the U.S. that the nation is abandoning plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe no doubt helped move him toward this decision. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that domestic procedures are being carried out to reduce the number of submarines carrying submarine-launched ballistic missiles from four to three. These submarines hold the only nuclear weapons that the UK possesses.

Reflecting a sense of crisis

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao did not go so far as to mention specific measures their countries will undertake in terms of nuclear disarmament, but they did approve the resolution for “a world without nuclear weapons” in the UN Security Council on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation held on September 24.

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, five nations are allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Cooperation between those five nuclear nations is a sign that there is mounting pressure from non-nuclear nations and non-governmental organizations around the world. On the other hand, it reflects a sense of crisis in that conditions, including those involving nuclear issues, may deteriorate further if nations do not join hands in urgently tackling the challenges now facing the human race.

The leaders of both nuclear and non-nuclear nations made special mention in their speeches of measures to counter climate change, the slowdown of the world economy, poverty and terrorism. A large number of problems must be addressed, including economic difficulties triggered by the financial crisis in the U.S. last year, the exacerbating state of global warming, extreme poverty in some African countries, the population explosion, and the new influenza virus which could spread into a global pandemic within a short period of time.

Stronger interdependence

There are mounting problems which cannot be solved with military power. To address these issues, we have no choice but to cooperate with other countries. With the advance of globalization, our interdependency is becoming stronger than expected.

Under the former Bush Administration, the U.S. launched a war on terrorism following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For eight years, the UN functioned poorly and the world fell into a vicious circle of violence and hatred. The situation was detrimental to nuclear disarmament and abolition.

But the American citizens, tired of war and a widening gap between the rich and poor, chose Mr. Obama as their president, a man who campaigned with promises of "change" and "a world without nuclear weapons." Nine months have passed since he took office. The world community has just begun to address such regional and global issues as the Afghan War, North Korea’s nuclear development, the problem of Israel and Palestine, and global warming.

Japan should take the lead

However, it is clear that international relations based on trust and cooperation, once undermined by the former Bush administration, are being restored, improving the conditions for resolving these issues. It is no exaggeration to say that much of this positive development is owed to President Obama.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made his debut on the world stage at this UN General Assembly. Mr. Hatoyama, whose political philosophy is "yuai" ("fraternity"), introduced an ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the so-called Hatoyama Initiative, which was highly praised by other members of the UN.

I wish he had gone further and, as the leader of an A-bombed nation, called on the nuclear powers to pledge the "no first use" of nuclear weapons. By doing so, he could have supported Mr. Obama's policy of "reducing the role of nuclear weapons" and demonstrated an ambitious initiative for pursuing the abolition of nuclear weapons as well.

(Originally published on September 25, 2009)