The United Nations adopted a historic resolution last month calling on member states to start negotiations in March on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Despite the multitude of problems confronting the world today, the goal of abolishing nuclear arms should not be sidelined. All countries, in particular Japan — the sole nation in history to have suffered a nuclear attack — need to take the resolution seriously and enter the talks to lay the foundation for building a world without nuclear arms.
As he assumed the office of U.N. secretary-general on Jan. 1, Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and U.N. refugee agency chief, issued an “Appeal for Peace,” urging citizens, governments and leaders of the world to join him in making one shared New Year’s resolution: “Let us resolve to put peace first.” His call was most fitting in view of continuing emergencies such as the civil war in Syria, which has caused humanitarian crises and sowed the seeds of terrorism, and fears of possible genocide in South Sudan, where U.N. peacekeeping forces, including Self-Defense Forces troops, are deployed.
Guterres’ statement also carries importance when placed against the rising tendency among leaders to put their countries’ interests first, as symbolized by the campaign vows of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Particularly worrisome is Trump’s remarks on issues related to nuclear weapons. Last month, he said in a Twitter message, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” The next day — the day the U.N. resolution for talks on nuclear arms ban was adopted — he followed up by saying: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” His statements represent an antithesis to what the U.S. and Russia, which together own much of the world’s nuclear arms stockpile, have done for more than three decades — to cut back on their arsenals.
As if in response to Trump’s words, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that his country has nuclear warheads that can penetrate any missile defense system in the world. He said: “We have made progress in improving our nuclear triad systems, including in terms of bypassing missile defense systems. And this system is much more effective than the U.S. missile defense system.”
Their statements mark a clear regression from what outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama professed and tried to achieve in his eight years in office — promoting nuclear disarmament — although he failed to change U.S. nuclear weapons policy and initiated a $1 trillion overhaul of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The leaders of the two most powerful nuclear weapons states must not forget the special responsibility they bear — along with other key nuclear powers Britain, China and France — to push nuclear disarmament under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Given the questionable positions of Trump and Putin on the issue, it is all the more important for all the U.N. member states to make strenuous efforts to drive the upcoming negotiations to a successful conclusion.
Proliferation is an ongoing threat in Asia. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s Day speech that with its two bomb tests last year, his country “soared as a nuclear power” and is now a “military power of the East that cannot be touched by even the strongest enemy.”
Such a situation makes the Dec. 23 resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly to start talks on a treaty banning nuclear arms all the more significant. A clear majority — 113 member states — voted in favor of it, with 35 voting against and 13 abstaining. The resolution was initiated by Austria, Mexico, Brazil, Ireland, Nigeria and South Africa, which take a serious view of catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons — the point stressed by survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Regrettably, Japan, along with the five permanent Security Council members, which are nuclear weapons states, voted against the resolution. Japan, which relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, explained that the negotiations will deepen the confrontation between states that possess and those that do not possess nuclear arms. A government official reportedly confided that Tokyo cannot immediately say it is willing to take part in the talks due to its considerations to the U.S. But Japan has the duty to take part and play a meaningful role in the negotiations as a nation that knows firsthand what are the consequences of a nuclear attack.
Japan’s security alliance with the U.S. may make it difficult to clearly side with the non-nuclear powers that voted for the resolution. But government leaders should realize that Japan’s position in the international community could be undermined if it ends up defending the interests of nuclear weapons powers. If it is committed to serving as a bridge between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, it needs to play a constructive role in the talks that will be convincing to both camps.