Japan’s vote at the United Nations last week to oppose a resolution to start talks on a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons is regrettable. It contradicts the nation’s long-standing call for the elimination of such weapons as the sole country to have suffered nuclear attacks. Tokyo’s latest move — which reflects the government’s reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for the nation’s security — not only runs counter to the wishes of survivors of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings but will weaken its voice in international efforts to rid the world of nuclear arms.
On Oct. 27, the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly, which deals with disarmament and international security, adopted the resolution, with 123 nations voting in favor, 38 against it and 16 abstaining. Six nuclear powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Israel — voted against it, backed by U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea, Germany and Australia. Three nuclear powers — China, India and Pakistan — abstained. Surprisingly, North Korea, which recently carried out a fifth nuclear weapons test, voted in favor.
Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa played leading roles in drafting the resolution and a total of 57 nations co-sponsored it, citing deep concerns about “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.” The resolution, which seeks to set up a U.N. conference in March to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination,” will be put to a General Assembly vote in December.
Even if it is adopted by the General Assembly, the nuclear powers that opposed the resolution will most likely refuse to join the negotiations. Even if such a treaty comes into force, it is unlikely to have any practical effect of immediately eliminating nuclear arms because of the absence of cooperation from the nuclear powers. Yet it will be significant to legally stigmatize nuclear weapons — which could serve as a strong force to start concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament.
The nuclear powers should pay attention to the frustration of non-nuclear states about the lack of progress in global nuclear disarmament efforts. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has yet to come into force 20 years after it was negotiated. Among countries that have either not signed or ratified the treaty are the U.S., China, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and India. The world still has a stockpile of more than 15,000 nuclear weapons — most of them in the military arsenals of the U.S. and Russia.
Explaining Tokyo’s opposition to the resolution, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said it did not suit Japan’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons-free world through cumulative concrete and practical measures and that negotiating a treaty banning nuclear arms when security in Northeast Asia is confronted with North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and threats from China would deepen a schism between the haves and have-nots. But he also said that Japan is ready to join the U.N. talks on the treaty. In essence, Japan wants a gradual approach to eliminating nuclear arms through cooperation between the nuclear powers and non-nuclear states.
It is clear, however, that the U.S. put pressure on its allies, including Japan, to oppose the resolution. The U.S. government reportedly sent a letter dated Oct. 17 to NATO member nations urging them to “vote against negotiations on a nuclear treaty ban, not to merely abstain” and “to refrain from” joining talks on such a treaty. The letter said such a treaty, if enforced, “could have a direct impact on the U.S. ability to meet its NATO and Asia/Pacific extended deterrence commitments and the ability of our allies and partners to engage in joint defense operations with the United States and other nuclear weapons states.” A government official has disclosed that Washington made similar representations to Japan.
It would be logical to assume that Japanese officials believed they cannot resist such pressures given Japan’s dependence on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But did it not occur to them that opposing the resolution would deprive Japan of moral credibility in its repeated calls for creating a nuclear weapons-free world, or could they not at least have considered abstaining from the vote — just like the Netherlands, a NATO member, did — even merely as a gesture? It is absurd to think that the U.S. would not care about Japan’s unique and special position as the only country to have experienced nuclear attacks.
Japan submitted a resolution calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons for the 23rd time in a row this year and it was adopted the same day as the one to begin talks on the nuclear weapons ban treaty cleared the same U.N. committee — with 167 nations in favor, four countries — China, North Korea, Russia and Syria — voting against and 17 abstaining. The U.S., which abstained from the vote last year, joined in co-sponsoring the resolution. The development raises suspicions that Tokyo opposed the resolution for the nuclear weapons ban treaty as a quid pro quo for Washington’s support of Japan’s resolution.
Given its contradictory behavior, it will be extremely difficult for Japan to regain the trust of other nations in U.N. efforts to seek the elimination of nuclear weapons.