ICAN champions grass-roots efforts to persuade Japan and others to support a nuclear-free world

by Patrick Parr

Contributing Writer

ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, has made significant progress in the last year, but according to core member Akira Kawasaki the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winning coalition is just getting started.

ICAN, based in Geneva and launched in 2007, now has around 450 partner organizations in nearly a hundred countries. The process of building itself into a force for peace has had its challenges, but on July 7 last year, this “grass-roots civil society coalition” took one big step toward its mission of “worldwide nuclear disarmament,” Kawasaki said in an interview. On that day in New York, after years of persuading other countries to support the endeavor, ICAN worked with the United Nations and passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, initially supported by over 135 countries.

In order for the treaty to become international law, however, it must be signed and ratified by at least 50 nation-states. So far, 60 nations have signed the treaty but only 14 have officially integrated the treaty into their constitution. None of the world nuclear powers have joined and neither has Japan, which relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Millions will recognize the 73rd anniversary on Monday of that horrific morning in Hiroshima. Public support for the treaty is strong in Japan, with over half of the municipalities pledging their support. The Japanese government, however, has decided to take a passive stance on the matter, stating that “since no nuclear weapon states are involved, the treaty is not practical … (instead) Japan will bridge the divide.”

Kawasaki disagrees. “The uniqueness of the treaty was that it prohibited nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds.” Since Japan is the only country in the world to have experienced the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons on its own soil, “Japan should take the lead in advancing this humanitarian discourse,” he said. By not signing the treaty, Kawasaki believes the government is “undermining the credibility of Japan as a nation.”

According to Kawasaki, it is only a matter of time until ICAN’s treaty achieves the 50-nation requirement. Ninety days after that final nation-state signature, the treaty will officially replace the Cold War-negotiated 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The irony of the name is not lost on Kawasaki, since the half-century-old agreement actually “perpetuated” the proliferation of nuclear weapons and caused nations such as India, Pakistan and North Korea to go rogue — or, in Kawasaki’s words, “mirror” the behavior of the United States and Russia — and set up their own nuclear weapons programs.

Once ICAN’s treaty becomes international law, the pressure will then shift to countries such as the U.S. and Russia. “In the past,” Kawasaki says, “nuclear weapons were a symbol of power. But now, with a treaty that rejects compromise, nuclear weapons will be a symbol of shame.” Economic sanctions can be enforced, and banks could begin a divestment process similar to what occurred after the Convention on Cluster Munitions Treaty was put into effect in 2008. Kawasaki also mentions the “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” campaign, and says that since the signing of the treaty, “as many as 30 banks ceased to invest in nuclear weapons producers.”

As of Sunday, ICAN had secured the ratification of their treaty from Mexico and Austria — the 15th- and 28th-ranked GDP economies in the world, respectively — and Brazil, which is ranked ninth, has also signed to indicate its support. In order for the treaty to gain any traction as far as future sanctions are concerned, ICAN is going to need the help of countries such as Japan, the third-largest economy, if they are to continue to have success.

In order for the Japanese government to change its stance, Kawasaki believes several factors will need to be addressed — the first being the continued nuclear disarmament of North Korea. “If both North and South Korea join the treaty, the North will feel obliged to disarm, and the South will be bound by law not to deploy, keep or assist U.S.-related nuclear weapons.” While Kawasaki welcomes the recent peace talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, he said “international law will bind the country to their commitment.”

Kawasaki urges anyone who lives in a country that has not signed the treaty to spread the word and become involved in their local city councils. In Japan, especially, it will take a grass-roots effort to change what some see as a one-sided government approach. “A vast majority of Japanese people believe they are victims,” Kawasaki says, “and we are calling for a nuclear-free world. But when you look at the behavior of the government … it shows that they are considering the issue only superficially.”