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On Friday, the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will enter into force. The agreement, ratified last October, is the world’s most ambitious treaty on nuclear weapons yet — 86 nations have signed it and 51 state parties have ratified it. But nuclear weapons states, as well as Japan, have refused to sign the treaty, preferring nuclear arms control treaties that they hope will eventually lead to the elimination of all weapons.

What are the treaty’s main obligations?

State parties that join the treaty must agree not to develop, test, produce, acquire, transfer, possess, stockpile or threaten to use nuclear weapons. The treaty also specifically prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons on national territory and forbids providing assistance to any other state that tries to carry out any of the above activities.

Furthermore, parties must work to prevent or suppress forbidden activities mentioned in the treaty in territories under that state’s jurisdiction or control. Finally, treaty members have an obligation to assist individuals affected by nuclear testing and to deal with environmental damage in areas under their control that were damaged by the testing or use of nuclear weapons.

States that have ratified the treaty will, from 90 days beginning Friday, be required to submit a declaration to the U.N. Secretary General. The declaration will include whether the state owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons devices. The state will also have to report whether it has eliminated its nuclear weapons program, if it has or had one.

What is the current status of the treaty?

Nuclear-armed states, or those believed to have nuclear arms, including China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, have not signed the treaty. However, some states that once had nuclear weapons programs, such as Libya and South Africa, have.

Members of NATO, which includes 30 countries in Eastern and Western Europe, have not joined the treaty. NATO includes the nuclear states France, the U.K. and the U.S.

What about Japan?

Despite a longstanding domestic lobbying campaign by Nihon Hidankyo (Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations) and other groups to convince the Japanese government to join the treaty, and even though one NHK poll in December 2019 showed 65.9% of respondents support it, Japan elected not to sign.

The reasons have to do, first, with the U.S.-Japan security treaty and America’s protection of Japan under its nuclear umbrella. In February 2017, before the U.N. began treaty negotiations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump issued a joint statement saying that the U.S. defense of Japan through the full range of American military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, was unwavering.

But there are also doubts, and not only in Japan, about how effective a treaty banning nuclear weapons that does not include nuclear weapons states will be in practice. During March 2017 U.N. negotiations over the treaty, Japan warned that a treaty that failed to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal would be of little significance. In fact, Japan warned, such a treaty could make things worse, deepening the division not only between nuclear and non-nuclear states, but among non-nuclear weapons states.

Student peace ambassadors hold letters they will send to countries supporting the nuclear weapons ban treaty in Nagasaki Prefecture on Jan. 8. | KYODO
Student peace ambassadors hold letters they will send to countries supporting the nuclear weapons ban treaty in Nagasaki Prefecture on Jan. 8. | KYODO

What is Japan’s preferred way of achieving a world without nuclear weapons?

As the only nation to have ever had atomic bombs used on it but also as a nation under the U.S. nuclear deterrent, Japan has long promoted policies to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear material. It has played a leading role in international efforts to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation and further disarmament, the ultimate goal being the elimination of nuclear weapons from all countries, including current nuclear states.

Domestically, it established the Atomic Basic Energy Law of 1955, which restricts nuclear energy use exclusively for peaceful purposes. In 1968, Japan declared its three non-nuclear principles of not manufacturing, possessing or permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons.

Internationally, Japan joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1976 and works to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials through stronger multilateral nonproliferation efforts. To that end, Japan ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1997. It also supports a proposed new treaty, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

If ever enacted, the FMCT would prohibit production of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. But there has been no progress in negotiations since 2009, when, at a conference on disarmament, the Japanese government expressed hope that negotiations would soon begin.

Japan’s most recent efforts at international disarmament came at a January NPT-related meeting in Stockholm. Japanese representatives emphasized the need for realistic and concrete measures to achieve nuclear disarmament while taking into account a worsening international security environment and different views among state parties on nuclear disarmament.

At the Stockholm meeting, Japan also pointed to a resolution on nuclear disarmament it submitted that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly last year with the broad support of 150 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K.

Among other things, the resolution calls on NPT members to take actions to reduce the risk of nuclear detonations due to miscalculation or misunderstanding, and to work for better transparency on nuclear doctrines and postures, military-to-military dialogues, hotlines and data exchanges. In addition, the resolution called for all NPT states to declare and maintain moratoriums on fissile material production.

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