Reflections on the ICNND meeting in Hiroshima: Failure to set a higher goal

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

The International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) concluded its three-day discussion in Hiroshima on October 20. Former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, ICNND co-chairs, appeared satisfied at a press conference held on the evening of October 20 at a hotel in Hiroshima. "We came up with a realistic approach to the elimination of nuclear weapons" and "These are realistic and ambitious recommendations" were the sort of statements they made.

A-bomb survivors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in and out of Japan had strongly desired that the ICNND recommend adoption of a "no-first-use" policy and an early start of negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention. But those goals, ideally achieved by 2025, were compromised. The final report will not provide a specific time frame for nuclear abolition, either. The co-chairs repeatedly used the expression "realistic approach" at the press conference.

But what exactly is a "realistic approach"? "Reality" depends on where you stand and how you look at the subject in question. Even if something seems overly idealistic or improbable, it may appear more realistic if you look at it from a different angle.

The ICNND was established in June of last year as a joint initiative of the governments of Japan and Australia, when Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, after visiting Hiroshima, suggested the establishment of such an entity to then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. When the ICNND held its first meeting in Sydney last October, conditions in the world were very different. Barack Obama had not yet been elected president of the United States. The Japanese coalition government led by the Liberal Democratic Party, hand in hand with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, strongly objected to a policy of "no-first-use" since they felt it would weaken the power and protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

But the situation has changed dramatically since then. Barack Obama, who advocates a world without nuclear weapons, assumed the U.S. presidency in January. In his speech in Prague, the Czech Republic in April, Mr. Obama pronounced a grand vision, calling on all nations of the world to unite in the demanding pursuit of a nuclear-free world, despite being well aware of the challenges involved. I believe his speech made many people feel, including the A-bomb survivors, that nuclear abolition is now a feasible quest, not an impossible dream.

President Obama commenced negotiations to reduce strategic nuclear arms and missiles with the Russian Federation, and an agreement was reached in July, though the reduction is modest. In September, the UN Security Council Summit unanimously adopted a resolution to pursue conditions for a nuclear-free world. And the other day, the U.S. announced that it would cut its nuclear arsenal by half by 2012.

In Japan, a coalition government led by the Democratic Party of Japan assumed power in September. In his address at the UN Security Council Summit, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pledged that Japan would lead the world in its efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons since Japan has the "moral responsibility…as the only victim of nuclear bombings." Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while he was visiting Japan, that Japan is considering calling on the U.S. to adopt a "no-first-use" policy.

However, Ms. Kawaguchi and three Japanese advisory committee members, two of them former foreign ministry officials, have continued to contend that the nuclear umbrella is a necessity. They reportedly expressed strong opposition to the idea of urging nuclear weapon states to adopt the "no-first-use" policy, a proposal advocated by Mr. Evans and others.

The ICNND committee members include former senior government officials and experts on security from nuclear powers, including India, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China. Although they were not representing their countries and were attending the meetings as individuals, it's easy to imagine how they would find it difficult to give no weight to their own nations' interests. I have observed this situation a number of times in covering such international meetings on disarmament. As a journalist based in Hiroshima, who understands how strongly the A-bomb survivors are praying for the early elimination of nuclear arms, I cannot but feel disappointed and frustrated.

Mr. Evans, in fact, stressed the illegality of nuclear weapons at the International Court of Justice as the Australian government's representative in 1995. He also made an important contribution in compiling a comprehensive report on abolition when he joined the Canberra Commission on Eliminating Nuclear Weapons, sponsored by the Australian government. For the ICNND report, he may have been reflecting upon the fact that previous recommendations, such as taking all nuclear weapons off alert status, have not been realized as swiftly as he had wished.

Still, a so-called "conference of wise elders" should set a higher goal for the "common good of all humankind" that can provide inspiration to the world's political leaders and citizens.

Both ICNND co-chairs appeared confident about the content of the commission's final report. "The report will provide realistic suggestions and a guideline for policy makers," they said. From my perspective, though, news of the final report was nothing short of a disappointment for the citizens of Hiroshima, NGOs in and out of Japan, and citizens around the world.

The actual conditions surrounding nuclear arms may be a step closer to a nuclear-free world than the ICNND recommendations suggest. To accelerate the process, what is now needed is the power of people from all corners of the globe, including the A-bombed cities, the vigor of NGOs, and the strong leadership of politicians of great vision, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama.

(Originally published on October 22, 2009)