Japan should join negotiations to ban nuclear weapons

The second round of negotiations to create a global treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons started last week at the United Nations and is scheduled to conclude July 7. Japan, which relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, has boycotted the talks, apparently out of concern that its participation could complicate its relationship with the United States. The Abe administration should reconsider whether its stance is beneficial for Japan — the only nation in history to suffer a nuclear attack. Japan should take part in the negotiations and seriously seek ways to bridge the differences between the nuclear weapons powers, which oppose the treaty, and the non-nuclear weapons states that are pushing forward with the accord. A failure to take concrete action in this direction could imperil Japan’s credibility as a country serious about nuclear disarmament.

Last December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the start of the treaty talks, with 113 members voting for it and 35 others, including the U.S., Russia, Britain and France — all of which are nuclear powers — and Japan, voting against it. Thirteen other members, including China and the Netherlands — a NATO member that is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella — abstained from the vote. Following the first round of negotiations on the prospective treaty, Costa Rica, which serves as chair of the talks, submitted a draft treaty in late May.

It is significant that the planned treaty’s basic ideal is founded on “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons,” a phrase appearing at the outset of the preamble, and that it takes into consideration the pains of survivors of the nuclear-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who still suffer from health damage caused by the radiation and have played an important role in rousing global opinion against nuclear arms. The preamble says the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons “pose grave implication for human survival” and mentions “the suffering of the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (Hibakusha) as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons.”

The draft treaty binds state parties to “never under any circumstances … develop, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices … (or) use nuclear weapons.” It prohibits conducting nuclear weapons test explosions and transferring nuclear arsenals and control over them to any other state. It likewise bans receiving the transfer of nuclear weapons and accepting control over them.

Although the draft stops short of outlawing the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, it obliges state parties to “never … assist, encourage, or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a state party under the convention” — apparently with countries under a nuclear umbrella in mind. This part of the draft treaty can be taken as an effort to challenge the idea of extended nuclear deterrence, under which a nuclear weapons state seeks to prevent a nuclear attack against an ally by indicating its readiness to use its own nuclear weapons in retaliation.

Unfortunately, all states possessing nuclear weapons, including the U.S., Russia and China, have refused to take part in the treaty negotiations, and all countries relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, except the Netherlands, have followed suit. Explaining its nonparticipation in the talks, Japan said that if the negotiations proceed without the participation of the nuclear weapons powers, it would cause the schism in the international community to deepen, making it difficult for it to take part in the talks “in a constructive manner and in good faith.”

Japan also thinks that at a time when North Korea continues to carry out nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests, U.S. nuclear deterrence is as important as ever. But if Japan continues to oppose the treaty-based ideal of outlawing nuclear weapons and emphasizes the importance of nuclear deterrence as its security umbrella, North Korea has an excuse to rely further on its nuclear weapons as diplomatic leverage and even to justify their use.

Japan should immediately take part in the treaty negotiations and contribute to devising a system under which nuclear weapons states can join the treaty in the future and then begin a process of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons. It should not forget that given the large number of nations that support the treaty, it is likely to be adopted, and that if it enters into force it will have a global moral weight even without the participation of the nuclear weapons powers.

Opponents of the planned treaty have argued that it would weaken the regime of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the draft treaty characterizes the NPT as “an essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.” Japan should make sincere efforts to create a system under which both the NPT and the global treaty outlawing nuclear weapons can co-exist.