As talks began last week at the United Nations on a treaty that would outlaw nuclear weapons, Japan announced that it will not take part in the negotiations — which is most regrettable. The move could be taken as an indication that Japan is giving up its moral responsibility as the world’s sole victim of nuclear attacks to play a proactive role in global efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, and it will come as a great disappointment to people, including survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and non-nuclear states. At the very least the government needs to explain in concrete terms how it otherwise intends to work toward its stated goal of making the world free of nuclear arms.

Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa and Sweden took the initiative in submitting to the U.N. a resolution calling for starting talks on such a treaty. Despite opposition from the United States and other nuclear weapon powers, the U.N. General Assembly in December adopted the resolution with 113 member states voting for it, 35 countries voting against and 13 others, including China, abstaining from voting. Proponents of the talks on such a treaty cited the International Court of Justice’s 1996 advisory opinion that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” The first round of the talks took place last week and the second round is set to be held from mid-June to early July.

In addition to the nations possessing nuclear arms — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, Japan and most members of NATO also oppose the negotiations on the treaty because they are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump is reported to have expressed strong opposition to its allies participating in the U.N. talks.

In explaining its position, Japan said if the negotiations on a nuclear arms ban treaty proceed without the participation of the nuclear weapon powers, a schism would deepen within the international community, making it difficult for Tokyo to take part in the talks “in a constructive manner and in good faith.” It also said that a pragmatic viewpoint of the issue is indispensable given that the world faces a serious security threat as exemplified by North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches, and that efforts toward nuclear weapons reduction should be pushed in a gradual manner while avoiding a division between nuclear weapon powers and non-nuclear weapon states.

If the Japanese government says so, it needs to first explain in specific terms how it can help the international community carry out step-by-step reduction of nuclear weapons in a manner that will eventually lead to their total elimination, and then take concrete steps to accomplish the goal. It has all the more duty to do that because it declared that it would pursue pragmatic and effective disarmament measures and would work to create a security environment conducive to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Countries opposing a nuclear arms ban treaty hold that such an accord would impede efforts for nuclear reduction under the U.N. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). They must understand that behind the push for the negotiations for the nuclear arms ban treaty is the frustration felt among many non-nuclear weapons nations over the lack of progress in efforts under the NPT regime. They also believe that the nuclear weapons states and some members of the international community have underrated the risks posed by nuclear weapons and that nuclear weapons constitute a destabilizing factor in the world’s security environment.

Opponents to a ban on nuclear weapons say a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons without the participation of nuclear weapons powers would bring about no tangible results to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons. But Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida declared that Japan’s position has been and will be consistent, and that there is no contradiction between its nonparticipation in the U.N. talks and its intent to work toward elimination of nuclear weapons.

To prove the integrity of his words, Japan needs to seriously consider ways to help the 115 countries taking part in the negotiations work out flexible provisions that might induce nuclear weapons states to join the treaty, and then take concrete actions in accordance with its idea.

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