Nuclear disarmament challenge

The recent conference in Hiroshima of foreign ministers from 12 nonnuclear weapons states highlighted the challenges in eliminating nuclear weapons. The statement adopted by members of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative urged world leaders to realize the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons use and to make multinational nuclear disarmament efforts — a veiled reference to the need to involve China.

The notable absence of targets for nuclear weapons cutbacks illustrated the divide between nations that advocate an outright ban on nuclear arms and those — including Japan — that rely on a “nuclear umbrella” for security.

The April 12 gathering of NPDI ministers was the eighth since the group was created in 2010 (at Japan and Australia’s initiative) and the first in Japan. The group also includes Canada, Chile, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Gathering in one of the two Japanese cities devastated by U.S. atomic bombings in August 1945, the foreign ministers said they “witnessed firsthand the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of an atomic bombing that last even to this present day.” They invited the world’s political leaders to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki to also witness the consequences. Attending part of the Hiroshima conference, Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, was the first official from a nuclear weapons power to join the NPDI meeting as an observer.

Five years after U.S. President Barack Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons during a speech in Prague, the momentum for nuclear disarmament has stalled. The NPDI members called for “deeper reductions” in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals beyond those stipulated in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But the Ukraine crisis clouds prospects for any new initiatives by Washington and Moscow.

In addition to condemning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the NPDI members said they are “deeply concerned about the reported buildup of nuclear arsenals, against the clear intent of the international community to achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear weapon.” This was an apparent reference to China as the only nuclear power suspected of increasing its nuclear arsenal. The group stressed the importance of multinational talks for eliminating nuclear arms.

Consensus among the NPDI members about specific ways to achieve the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons is elusive. Seven of the 12 members, including NATO member countries, depend on the nuclear deterrence provided by the United States; they call for a gradual phaseout of nuclear arms, while the others favor an outright ban. Their statement called for “a systematic and continued reduction … in a pragmatic and step-by-step approach aiming at their total elimination.”

By contrast, the chair’s summary at the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held in Mexico in February with delegates from 146 countries and several international organizations, called for a diplomatic process for a “legally binding instrument” to eliminate nuclear weapons.

The message from the Hiroshima conference reflects Japan’s dilemma as the only country to suffer a nuclear attack and yet dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for security. This quandary must be overcome if Japan is serious about taking stronger initiatives for the elimination of nuclear weapons.