Hiroshima Memo: Japan should take the lead in pursuing negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention

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

"It's time for governments to begin negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban all nuclear weapons."

Championing this message, citizens staged anti-nuclear events and made appeals, on June 5, from more than 50 cities in 25 nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Norway. On that evening, in Hiroshima, too, nearly 100 citizens gathered on the bank of the Motoyasu River across from the A-bomb Dome. In candlelight, they prayed for the souls of the A-bomb victims and vowed to pursue efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth.

About a week has passed since the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference ended with the adoption of the final document on May 28. Citizens were quick to launch an international campaign in time for the U.N. "World Environment Day," as the end of the conference is "just a new start toward the elimination of nuclear weapons." The campaign was led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Australia and other locations.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also sent a video message to citizens of the world in support of the campaign: “The tide is turning. People everywhere are rejecting nuclear weapons. ... The movement to abolish nuclear weapons is on the right side of history. We will continue to fight for this great cause."

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which experienced the indescribable devastation of nuclear war, have been appealing for the realization of "a world without nuclear weapons" at the earliest possible date for the past 65 years. The mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as representatives of A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) from both cities, also did their utmost to convey this wish to state representatives and others at the recent review conference at United Nations headquarters, and at other venues, in New York.

As if reflecting their wish, the earlier drafts of the final document contained groundbreaking proposals with regard to nuclear disarmament: Concerning a road map for nuclear abolition, the nuclear weapon states will convene consultations no later than 2011, create the road map in 2014, and present it to the 2015 NPT Review Conference; the start of negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention will be considered; the nuclear weapon states will undertake to cease the development of new nuclear weapons and the qualitative improvement of existing nuclear weapon systems; discussions about pledges of mutual no-first-use of nuclear weapons will begin; the removal of all nuclear weapons from high alert status will be considered.

The arguments made by many non-nuclear states and NGOs in the world were initially incorporated into the drafts. However, the nuclear weapon states regained lost ground in the last stage of the conference, rejecting or significantly watering down the contents of the final document.

The NPT Review Conference of 2010 revealed anew the nuclear weapon states' desire to preserve their nuclear weapons. While the nuclear powers verbally agreed on the goal of realizing "a world without nuclear weapons," they objected to being bound by the international community with regard to a variety of action plans that would assuredly lead to the promotion of nuclear disarmament, including a deadline for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is the responsibility of the nuclear weapon states to eliminate nuclear weapons. However, nuclear abolition cannot be realized by taking a wait-and-see attitude. One effective measure for forcing the nuclear powers to abandon their nuclear arms would be a nuclear weapons convention which emphasizes the inhumanity and illegality of these weapons. Such a treaty could also apply to India, Pakistan, and Israel, which have not joined the NPT, yet hold nuclear arms. It can be said that the first inclusion of language in the final document that refers to a nuclear weapons convention -- which is also supported by U.N. Secretary-General Ban -- is one of the conference's significant achievements, despite the weak phrasing which "notes" a proposal to "consider negotiations" on a nuclear weapons convention.

Rallying international public opinion, including the views of citizens and NGOs in the nuclear weapon states, is indispensable in the quest for nuclear abolition, since the leaders of the nuclear powers will not voluntarily abandon their nuclear arsenals.

What more can be done to rouse stronger public opinion against nuclear weapons so that nuclear abolition is advanced? First of all, as the government of the A-bombed nation, the leadership of Japan bears a solemn responsibility. It is already clear to everyone that Japan's appeal for nuclear abolition under the protection of the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" is contradictory and hardly convincing. If it is difficult for Japan to bring up the subject now in light of current Japan-U.S. relations and the situation in East Asia, the government should exert further efforts to quickly establish a security environment that will then enable it to raise the issue.

Maintaining amicable relations with the United States is important. But such relations should not be rooted in a continuing reliance on military might. Japan should develop relationships of trust with its neighbors and with other nations through economic, cultural, and human exchange and follow the path of peaceful coexistence. The direction indicated by the vision of the "East Asian Community," which was advocated by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, is not misplaced.

Japan should earnestly promote mediation efforts in order to help ease ongoing conflicts in South Asia and the Middle East through peaceful diplomacy. If a country is sincerely engaged in efforts to make international contributions through peaceful means along with its citizens and NGOs, and begins to earn respect from the international community, who would think of attacking that nation?

Another path forward is to make a strong effort for "education for disarmament and non-proliferation," as stipulated in the final document of the NPT Review Conference.

I wonder how many Diet members in Japan have ever visited the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, toured their peace museums, and listened to the experience of hibakusha. How many young people and children in Japan, who represent the next generation of the nation, know the reality of the damage caused by the atomic bombings and the current nuclear situation? When it comes to people in other countries, too, we can easily imagine the answer.

Hibakusha, local governments, and citizens of both A-bombed cities, and those involved in NGOs in the A-bombed cities and other prefectures, among others, have, at home and abroad, strived to spread information about the reality of the A-bomb damage by, for instance, holding A-bomb exhibitions. Efforts have also been made in various artistic fields, including music, fine art, theater, and film. Still, the whole picture of the A-bomb damage and the message of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the quest to rise above bitterness and reach reconciliation, can only be conveyed to a limited audience.

A sizable number of hibakusha, NGO workers, and local government officials express such wishes as "I want to share my A-bomb experience at home and abroad as long as I have strength" and "I want to hold A-bomb exhibitions and initiate an effort to provide A-bomb testimony in the nuclear weapon states." But all of them lament the lack of funding for such activities, saying, "If we had the funds, we could launch a more active campaign."

The Japanese government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan have begun to recognize the need for cooperation with civil society in order to promote education for disarmament and non-proliferation. The government should, after holding discussions with the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hibakusha-related organizations, various NGOs, and others that have been engaged in efforts for nuclear abolition, provide measures to support them with government funds if they can present a solid plan for disseminating the reality of the atomic bombings. There are times, it seems, when the central government is unable to step to the fore in such efforts due to diplomatic considerations. It is precisely at times like these that NGOs and local governments can fill the gap.

New Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who began his political career from the citizens' movement, will probably have no objections to the use of "civilian power." The A-bombed nation of Japan has a significant role to play in order to achieve nuclear abolition, a major goal for human beings. Japan, not another nation, should take the initiative in creating an environment conducive to starting negotiations to establish a nuclear weapons convention. Japan should never become a "force of resistance," contending that the proposal for the nuclear weapons convention advocated by Secretary-General Ben, a large number of non-nuclear states, and NGOs in the world, is "premature."

(Originally published on June 8, 2010)

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