The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released this month, has received much attention for declaring that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear weapon states. As an NGO representative involved in an ongoing debate between Japan and Australia over this issue, I must say the NPR declaration falls well short of what is needed.

The nuclear weapon states, including the U.S., already declared in 1995 that in principle they would not use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear weapon states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The George W. Bush administration, going against this “negative security assurance,” adopted a strategy that greatly expanded the role of nuclear weapons. In essence, the Obama administration’s new strategy does no more than return to the 1995 policy.

A recent international report recommended going a step further by limiting the role of nuclear weapons to the “sole purpose” of deterring nuclear attacks — thus rejecting any role for nuclear weapons against nonnuclear threats, including biological and chemical weapons. In December last year, the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), led by Japan and Australia, recommended that all nuclear weapon states make such a “sole purpose” declaration. However, the new Obama doctrine failed to adopt this recommendation.

Japan’s current foreign minister, Katsuya Okada of the Democratic Party of Japan, has frequently expressed his personal support for a doctrine of nuclear “no first use.” He has also repeatedly stated that he is favorably disposed to the ICNND’s “sole purpose” recommendation. In February this year, over 200 members of the Diet sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama supporting the recommendation. However, Japan’s bureaucracy is very cautious. Security experts, whose thinking is still fixed in Cold War mode, have great influence. Within the Japanese government, and reportedly within the U.S. government too, there is a struggle between those in favor of nuclear disarmament and those who want to retain the status quo. Contrary to the wishes of civil society, the influence of those who wish to retain the status quo is very great.

This resistance to disarmament was behind the decision of the governments of Japan and Australia to omit “sole purpose” from the joint nuclear-disarmament package, which they announced in March. As if Japan and Australia had coordinated their policies with the U.S., “sole purpose” was not adopted in the U.S. government’s NPR either.

Nevertheless, these countries’ policies give no quarter to countries suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Under the Obama administration’s new strategy, the U.S. may still use nuclear weapons against countries that are not in compliance with the NPT. Suspicions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program are certainly serious, but who will determine whether Iran is in compliance? Is the U.N. Security Council, in which the five nuclear-weapon states hold a right of veto, a body capable of making a fair decision on the matter? And what of determining compliance with another duty under the NPT, namely the nuclear weapon states’ duty to disarm?

The Japanese government, which currently holds the presidency of the U.N. Security Council, is very polite to the nuclear weapon states, but is eager to impose additional sanctions on Iran.

We must go back to basics. No matter whose hands they are in, the consequences of a nuclear weapon’s use would be so inhumane that we must never allow it to occur. The people of the country that experienced the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki know this very well.

The NPT has its limitations. It is soft on countries that have nuclear weapons and strict on those that do not. Nuclear weapons must be outlawed outright. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has proposed discussions on a nuclear weapons convention, a treaty to ban nuclear weapons across the globe. Japanese civil society will not hesitate to cooperate with any country or organization that takes the initiative on this.

Akira Kawasaki is a member of the Executive Committee of Peace Boat and NGO Adviser to the ICNND co-chairs.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.