The United Nations open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament held its second session this month in Geneva, following its first gathering in February. What emerged from the latest meeting is a schism between countries seeking to create a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and those nations opposed to the idea, including nuclear weapons powers and those states relying on the protection of a nuclear umbrella.
While the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty recognizes five countries — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — as nuclear weapons states, it requires all parties to the treaty to pursue negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. Given the potential dangers posed by the accidental use of nuclear arms and nuclear terrorism, all states should support the effort to ban nuclear weapons.
The undercurrent of discussions in the working group’s meetings is the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The consequences of a nuclear explosion would spread beyond national borders and have regional and global effects. It would indiscriminately kill or injure numerous civilians. Radioactive contamination would devastate the environment for generations, causing cancer and other deadly diseases. No nations would have the capability to adequately respond to the human suffering caused by nuclear weapons.
This aspect of nuclear weapons has raised concerns among many non-nuclear weapons states and civil society groups and led to the holding of three international conferences — in Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014 — to discuss the humanitarian consequences of nuclear arms. The discussions at these conferences served as the basis for the talks in the latest meeting in Geneva.
The Humanitarian Pledge, issued at the 2014 Vienna conference and endorsed by 127 states, calls for filling the “legal gap” in which nuclear arms are the only weapons of mass destruction that have not been explicitly banned by a treaty. The failure of the 2015 NPT review conference to adopt a final document also increased the concerns of non-nuclear weapons states over the lack of progress being made toward achieving nuclear disarmament. This situation has given birth to a movement to legally ban nuclear weapons on grounds of the humanitarian consequences of their use.
What is disappointing is that none of the five nuclear weapons states under the NPT and none of the four other nations that possess nuclear arms — India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — took part in the working group. The five nuclear weapons states maintain the position that nuclear arms play a role in the sphere of security and that parties calling for a ban on these weapons ignore that role’s significance.
Those states’ seeming indifference to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has prompted the formation of a majority opinion that discussions should be initiated on a legal framework to prohibit nuclear arms even if the nuclear weapons powers refuse to join the talks. At the Geneva meeting, 10 countries — Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Zambia — proposed that a conference be convened in 2017 to negotiate a legally binding instrument and that progress on the negotiations be reported to the U.N. high-level international conference on nuclear disarmament.
The nuclear weapons states need to realize that frustration and dissatisfaction are building over their unwillingness to abandon nuclear deterrence and start a process of disarmament as mandated by the NPT. There are more than 15,000 nuclear warheads worldwide and more than 1,500 of these are deployed for possible use at any time. The risk of human error or hackers triggering accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear arms and the danger of terrorist attacks utilizing radioactive materials cannot be eliminated. In addition, since nuclear deterrence entails preparing for nuclear warfare, the risk of nuclear arms being used cannot be eliminated. Therefore nuclear weapons powers should change their thinking.
Many nuclear umbrella states, including Japan, attended the Geneva meeting. Efforts by Japan — the only country to suffer nuclear attacks — to bridge the gap between nuclear weapons powers and non-nuclear weapons states produced no tangible results. In deference to the U.S. position, Japan takes a negative view toward the proposal to begin negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons, stating that such moves could divide nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons states. Other nuclear umbrella states including NATO members, Australia and South Korea took a similar position.
Japan instead called for a “progressive approach” that entails a gradual reduction of nuclear weapons while heeding their security role. Japanese officials should realize that the nation’s position of calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons while accepting the nuclear deterrent theory and relying on America’s nuclear umbrella is contradictory and undermines its persuasive power. If Japan is truly serious about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, it should formulate a long-term security policy that doesn’t rely on them.