NEW YORK – The inclusion of a phrase outlawing the threat of using nuclear arms in the world’s first-ever treaty to ban such weapons gives the accord teeth — but also makes it harder for allies of nuclear-armed countries to support the pact.
“Nuclear umbrella states” — countries like Japan and the Netherlands that receive an extended security deterrent from their nuclear allies — have so far indicated no willingness to join the treaty, which was adopted July 7 by the United Nations, though activists hold out hope this will change someday.
“Ever since the U.S. bombed the two cities in Japan in 1945, nuclear weapons have been central to military postures,” John Burroughs, executive director of the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms, said on the sidelines of the conference that ended with the treaty’s historic adoption.
He was referring to the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ushered in the nuclear age.
The centrality of these weapons to military strategy is demonstrated by the fact that “governments convey through their doctrines, and sometimes through their statements, that they are ready to use nuclear weapons if the circumstances require,” Burroughs explained. “So there is an ongoing threat of use of nuclear weapons that is at the core of doctrines of nuclear deterrence.”
It is through that threat that the five nations with the most nuclear weapons — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — continue justifying their nuclear deterrence policies. By extension, they also claim to protect their allies from potential attacks.
These arguments seem to have been buoyed in light of North Korea’s first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4.
Supporters of the treaty are quick to point to new dangers as Pyongyang’s technology brings the U.S. within missile range and Pyongyang unflinchingly pursues its nuclear ambitions, which it says are for self-defense.
The five key countries, as well as allies including Japan and other countries with nuclear arms such as North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel, all skipped the conference in New York.
The only participant among NATO members was the Netherlands, which voted against the pact.
Expressing their opposition, Britain, France and the U.S. issued a joint statement claiming they would not “sign, ratify or ever become a party to it.”
“Japan continues to seek a world without nuclear weapons and we feel that in order to do that we need the cooperation between the nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states,” Japanese Ambassador to the U.N. Koro Bessho said, adding that the ban treaty is not the best way to bridge this divide.
Yet supporters see the treaty’s value in setting a new norm by stigmatizing nuclear weapons, as was the case with biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster bombs in the past.
At the core of the treaty, which was backed by 120 countries, as well as Palestine and the Vatican, was the agreement that never “under any circumstances” will they develop, test, produce, acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons.
Alongside this concession in Article 1 is the agreement never to “use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other explosive devices.”
The phrase “threaten to use” was only added in the text’s third revision. After much debate, some European delegations in particular seemed hesitant to include it, fearing it would dampen support from other members, especially the Netherlands.
It was kept and its significance was not lost on activists like Cmdr. Rob Green, who served for 20 years with the British Royal Navy, where he once flew nuclear strike aircraft.
“The most important words in this treaty are that it is prohibited to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, that is the heart of the power of this treaty,” Green, now co-director of the Peace Foundation’s Disarmament and Security Center, said during a recent panel discussion. “I do believe that nuclear deterrence has nothing to do with security. It promotes insecurity and proliferation.”
Akira Kawasaki, a member of the international steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said that even if the threat-of-use phrase had been deleted, it would not have made a difference as the Dutch rejected the pact due to other wording as well.
Other requirements, such as agreeing not to “assist, encourage or induce” prohibited activities, and refusing to station, install or deploy nuclear weapons on its territory, posed additional hurdles.
The Dutch representative cited “incompatible” Article 1 obligations that did not line up with the Netherlands’ NATO commitments as among reasons for casting the only “no” vote.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey do not have their own nuclear arms, but as NATO members they collectively host about 180 U.S. nuclear warheads, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“Nuclear alliance is all about assisting, encouraging and inducing the use of nuclear weapons, even if those states do not directly possess or use nuclear weapons by themselves,” said Kawasaki, who also serves as an executive committee member of Peace Boat, a Japan-based nongovernmental organization.
The term “nuclear umbrella,” he said, “has a nuance of protection and defense, but in fact it is to assist others to use nuclear weapons.”
Going forward, Kawasaki and others have vowed to carry on by educating the public, as well as lawmakers and bureaucrats, in the hope of changing perceptions. The treaty has no expiration date, he pointed out, and therefore “leaves the door open” for other nations to later join. He hopes to encourage Japan to at least attend future meetings.
“A major task lies ahead of us, which is ensuring that everybody comes into the fold of the treaty,” said Nozipho Joyce Mxakato-Diseko, South Africa’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, and a key negotiator whose country renounced nuclear weapons in 1991. “They have a moral duty to join. We have a moral duty to bring them in.”
Conference President Elayne Whyte Gomez likened the effort to sowing “the first seeds” in a process she admits will take time. The Costa Rican ambassador to Geneva pointed to how even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation — was not universally backed at first by the five original nuclear weapons states. It was only in 1992 that China and France acceded to it, long after it entered into force in 1970.
For Japanese atomic bomb survivors like Setsuko Thurlow, known for giving rousing U.N. speeches, and Toshiki Fujimori, assistant secretary-general of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, who both witnessed the landmark adoption, the journey continues.
“It is the beginning toward the total ban of nuclear weapons, so it is not over yet, the fight is not over,” Fujimori emphatically said at a news conference.