Hiroshima and the World: Envisioning the abolition of nuclear weapons by 2020

by Aaron Tovish

Aaron Tovish
Born in Rochester, New York in 1949, Aaron Tovish is now based in Vienna, Austria. Since 2004, he has served as Executive Advisor to the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation with responsibility for the 2020 Vision Campaign advocated by Mayors for Peace as well as the International Director of the 2020 Vision Campaign Secretariat located in Ypres, Belgium. Mr. Tovish has a long background in issues involving peace and security, assuming a range of roles with European organizations. He first met Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba while serving as Deputy Secretary General of Parliamentarians for Global Action and Mayor Akiba was a member of the Japanese Diet. Mr. Tovish received a B.A. in Humanities from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; an M.A. in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the University of California at Los Angeles; and did post-graduate studies at Oxford University.

Envisioning the abolition of nuclear weapons by 2020

In 2004, Mayor Akiba invited me to come to Hiroshima to kick start the 2020 Vision Campaign. I have been working on it from different locations ever since.

That winter I was living in Ushita and would bicycle to and from work past the Nigitsu Shrine. My work hours were rather strange. We were planning a delegation of mayors to New York so I had to adjust to New York time. I would arrive at the Peace Museum around noon and headed home at two or three in the morning. The ride home through the cold, empty streets provided time for reflection. The emptiness sometimes triggered a sense of sadness that seemed to stretch all the way back to 1945. And yet, the rebuilt city told another story of inextinguishable resilience. It was a haunting contrast, personified in every Hibakusha I have met.

How much easier it is to destroy than to build!

There are many challenges facing our species, but certainly one of the greatest is "How do we build a nuclear-weapon-free world?" We do not know how much time we have to tackle this challenge, because we know at any time, by accident, by terrorism, or by crisis and war, we could be confronted with utter defeat. It is therefore essential to identify the most direct possible path and do our utmost to have nations take that path. A great act of sustained will power is required. As Mayor Akiba said in the 2006 Peace Declaration, "The time has come for all of us to awaken and arise with a will that can penetrate rock and a passion that burns like fire."

But success often depends upon more ingredients than just will power. Sometimes plain luck can make a big difference. The world is very lucky right now to have a US President and a UN Secretary General who are both keen to see the world rid of nuclear weapons. Even before Barack Obama was elected President, Ban Ki-moon came forward with an outstanding five-point plan for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world. I hope one day soon that President Obama will throw his support behind the Secretary-General's plan.

The world is also very lucky that, while many of us were licking our wounds after the nuclear disarmament setbacks of 2005, a diplomat from Sierra Leone, Sylvester Rowe quietly pressed ahead with a proposal to declare 2010 to 2020 an International Decade for Disarmament. In 2006 the UN General Assembly voted to adopt the proposal. And in 2007, the General Assembly unanimously tasked its Disarmament Commission with drafting a declaration for the decade. The Commission aims to complete this task in April 2010.

This Decade perfectly conveys the sustained dedication that will be required to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world. The luck is that it perfectly coincides with the final ten-year period of the Mayors for Peace 2020 Vision Campaign. This gives us a convenient way of supplying the key missing element in the Secretary General’s five point plan: a time frame. Our stance is that the Plan should be fully implemented during the International Disarmament Decade, in line with the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol and the 2020 Vision.

Why is a target date so important? If, on the one hand, I tell you, "Someday you are going to receive a million yen," you might think, "That's a pleasant thought." Or if you are more cynical, "I will believe it when I see it." If, on the other hand, I tell you, "On this precise date next year, you will receive a million yen," you might even start planning how you could use it. The non-nuclear-weapon states have been repeatedly told by the nuclear-weapon states, "Someday!" Even in his otherwise marvelous Prague speech, President Obama dampened hopes for a timely liberation from the nuclear threat by injecting the phrase, "…perhaps not in my lifetime."

But is that what is in his heart-of-hearts? At the end of the same paragraph, he spontaneously (it was not in the original text of the speech) revived his stock campaign rallying cry, "Together we can do it!" This tells me two things: he wants to do it, but his leadership (based on a moral obligation stemming from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is not enough: we have to do it together.

Mayor Akiba has captured this truth in one word: Obamajority. We, the majority, have to demonstrate that we are prepared to see this through to completion, in our lifetimes, indeed within the Disarmament Decade: ten years, three thousand six hundred and forty two days, of dedicated sustained effort. "Together we can do it!"

I am no expert on Japanese politics, but it strikes me that the Obamajority has just come to power in your country. The days of inflating the North Korean nuclear threat and begging the US for a larger nuclear umbrella are over; now is the time for Japan to say North Korea may be lost somewhere back in the mists of time, but we know the future is a nuclear-weapon-free world. Plans are afoot for Hiroshima to host, around the time of the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing, a major international conference of national and local governments and international and non-governmental organizations. The conference will adopt an action plan on nuclear disarmament for the International Decade for Disarmament. I sincerely hope the Hatoyama administration will throw its support behind this historic gathering.

Is it presumptuous for a city to be playing such a remarkable leading role in international affairs? As you know, Hiroshima does not stand alone. Through Mayors for Peace it has over 3000 partners around the world. We ought to have done it years ago, but recently we calculated how many citizens were represented by the cities in Mayors for Peace. To our surprise and great pleasure the figure surpassed six hundred million, a tenth of humanity! At the recent General Conference in Nagasaki, it was decided to recruit 2000 new members between August and May 2010.

This is a daunting task, in which Japan will play a crucial role. Since the membership rolls of Mayors for Peace were opened to Japanese cities other than Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2007, over 300 have joined. The aim is to more than triple that number in the next eight months. How is this done? There is no magic to it; it happens by cities corresponding with cities and citizens talking to their mayors. It is done the same way around the world, country by country, and city by city.

If Japan and the rest of the world deliver and we reach 5000, then it is likely that Mayors for Peace will represent over one billion people. That will make us one of the largest direct-democracy entities in the world. Surely that qualifies the mayors not just for a place at the table but a place in the leadership.

Who knows, perhaps in 2010 a US President will finally visit Hiroshima. If so, perhaps jetlag will awaken him in the very early hours and he – and his security contingent! – will go for a jog through the deserted streets of Hiroshima. Perhaps the sadness of Hiroshima will reach into his heart from the distant past, and perhaps the resilience of the city will inspire him to think about the decade ahead. More likely, it will be when he listens attentively to the Hibakusha that he will decide for certain that the moment has come to commit US leadership, and his life, to this great, essential cause.

(Originally published on Sept. 28, 2009)

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