The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will finally come into force after the 50th country (Honduras) ratified it over the weekend. The treaty will make the development, testing, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons illegal for those countries that have signed it.
This is an extraordinary achievement for those who have suffered the most from these weapons — including the hibakusha (survivors) of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the islanders who lived through nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
Since 1956, the hibakusha in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and elsewhere have been some of the most strident campaigners against the use of these weapons. Among them is a group of Japanese Catholics from Nagasaki whom I interviewed as part of my research collecting the oral histories of atomic bomb survivors.
A 92-year-old hibakusha of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and a brother in a Catholic order, Ozaki Tōmei, explained the significance of the treaty to survivors like him. He was orphaned from the bombing at 17 and never found his mother’s body.
The Germans made tools for war including poisonous gas, which was [eventually] banned […] However, when the USA made an atomic weapon, then they … wanted to try it out. It was a war […] they were human.
And so this is why we say we have to eliminate nuclear weapons […] They said they did it to end the war, but for the people who were struck, it was horrific […] there was no need to use it.
The treaty was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by a vote of 122 nations in favour, one against and one abstention.
Sixty-nine nations, however, have not signed it, including all of the nuclear powers such as the US, UK, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea, as well as NATO member states (apart from the Netherlands who voted against), Japan and Australia.
Since the treaty was adopted, it needed ratification by 50 countries to come into force. This will now happen in 90 days.
The campaign for the treaty has relied heavily on civil society and organisations such as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
And from the beginning, it has exposed political fault lines. The United States has been particularly outspoken in its opposition to the treaty, warning last week the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the 50-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT sought to prevent the spread of nuclear arms beyond the five original weapons powers (the US, Russia, China, UK and France). It has been signed by 190 countries, including those five nations.
The head of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, says the new treaty banning nuclear weapons merely builds on the nonproliferation treaty.
There’s no way you can undermine the nonproliferation treaty by banning nuclear weapons. It’s the end goal of the nonproliferation treaty.
States like Japan and Australia have opposed the treaty on the grounds their security is boosted by the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has said the treaty
was created without taking into account the realities of security.
Making the bomb illegal turns an old US justification for the weapon on its head. Harry Stimson, the former US war secretary, argued in 1947 the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to compel the Japanese to surrender at the end of the second world war.
The atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.
At the forefront of the campaign to support the nuclear weapons ban treaty have been the voices of hibakusha who experienced the carnage firsthand.
Another Catholic hibakusha, Nakamura Kazutoshi, told me the stockpiling of nuclear weapons enables states to carry out genocide.
In war, we are at a level below animals. Among monkeys, or chimpanzees, there are no animals who would carry out a genocide.
A third hibakusha, 90-year-old Jōji Fukahori, told me about how he lost his mother and three younger siblings in the Nagasaki bombing.
His younger brother, Kōji, died an excruciating death around a week after the bombing, walking in the hot ash with no shoes and complaining to his brother, “I’m so hot!”
At the site where Fukahori’s brother was exposed, the temperature was about 1,000 degrees Celsius. Fukahori said,
You would have thought everyone would have turned into charcoal.
For Fukahori, the lasting effects of radiation exposure is a major reason why nuclear weapons must be banned. He continued:
the terror of radiation has to be fully communicated … The atomic bomb is unacceptable. I still cannot get over it.
Since 2009, Fukahori has been speaking out at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and on the Peace Boat, a non-governmental organisation that organises cruises where passengers learn about the consequences of using nuclear weapons from hibakusha.
The Japanese government is now under mounting pressure to ratify the treaty. Major Japanese financial institutions and companies have said they will no longer fund the production of nuclear weapons and nearly a third of all local assemblies have adopted proposals calling on the government to act.
The government, however, has been unmoved. In August, Abe gave a speech at a memorial service in Nagasaki, in which he suggested the effects of the bombings had been overcome.
Seventy-five years ago today, Nagasaki was reduced to ashes, with not a single tree or blade of grass remaining. Yet through the efforts of its citizens, it achieved reconstruction beautifully as we see today. Mindful of this, we again feel strongly that there is no trial that cannot be overcome and feel acutely how precious peace is.
A Japanese atomic researcher, who knows how Fukahori and other hibakusha have not been able to move on, told me Abe’s words don’t go far enough:
Rather than placing a ‘full-stop’ at the end of damages such as this, we have a necessity to make our claim that the damages are not finished.
The nuclear weapons ban treaty offers a moment of hope for all the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still with us after 75 years. It is certainly their hope the ratification of the treaty now moves us one step closer to a world free of nuclear war.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended weeks of speculation about the state of his health by announcing his surprise resignation today.
The 65-year-old Abe was finally forced to concede to the ulcerative colitis intestinal disease that had brought his first brief term in office to an end in 2007.
After being treated with a new course of medication, Abe made a remarkable political comeback in 2012. He regained the leadership of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and led it back into government, three years after it was knocked out of power.
Abe easily defeated the weak and disorganised opposition parties in the 2014 and 2017 elections, and in 2018 secured an unprecedented third three-year term as LDP president, with his supporters speculating he could lead for yet another.
Abe kept up this political success based around his core economic policy, prominently marketed as “Abenomics”. This comprised the three “arrows” of record stimulus spending, quantitative easing (printing money to buy assets), and attempts at deregulation.
Abenomics was partially successful at restoring mild economic growth, but this started to wane after consumption tax hikes last October. The country then slipped into recession with the coronavirus pandemic.
In foreign policy, the nationalistic Abe reinterpreted Japan’s pacifist constitution, passing bills in the Diet in 2015 to allow collective self-defence with its US ally — despite a lack of public support and large student-led demonstrations.
Accompanied by a sharp increase in defence spending, Abe’s long-held desire to change the constitution to allow even more assertive use of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces was left unfulfilled. In 2019 Upper House elections, the LDP and its coalition partners lost the two-thirds majority required to allow any constitutional referendum.
Despite this setback, the lack of a strong challenger within the LDP — as well as the failure of the opposition parties to pose any credible threat — allowed Abe eventually to become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.
Abe energetically pursued foreign affairs throughout his tenure, maintaining the key US alliance through presidents Barack Obama to Donald Trump.
He sought greater Japanese participation in regional security by promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, and in doing so, deepened Japan’s strategic relations with India, ASEAN and Australia.
Abe managed largely stable relations with China, Japan’s largest trading partner, but territorial disputes with Beijing, as well as with Russia and South Korea, also went unresolved. Relations with South Korea, in particular, reached a low point over their wartime and colonial history.
Abe nevertheless built on his image as a senior world leader, culminating in hosting the G20 summit in Osaka last year.
Abe’s erratic response to the coronavirus caused a sharp decline in his authority this year. A massive stimulus spending program sought to limit the damage to the economy, but the overall public response by Abe’s government lacked clear direction.
Regional leaders such as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike pushed early for a national state of emergency, but Abe only reluctantly declared one in April — and it only lasted around a month. Abe also delayed making a decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until foreign delegations announced they wouldn’t attend.
While Japan has fared relatively well dealing with COVID-19, there have been other ill-considered responses by the government. These included the widely ridiculed “Abenomasks” and the “GoTo Travel” domestic tourism campaign, which entrenched the public’s impression Abe was failing to respond energetically enough to the crisis.
Persistent political scandals also continued to erode Abe’s legitimacy.
From mid-June, Abe held no press conferences for nearly 50 days, and made few public appearances until the commemorations around the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war in mid-August.
As his approval ratings dropped to their lowest levels since 2012, Abe made a series of hospital visits in recent weeks. This sparked media speculation over his health, which LDP officials vainly tried to downplay.
Abe will stay on as caretaker until the LDP’s Diet members elect a new president sometime over the next two or three weeks. This person will then be confirmed as prime minister by a vote in the Diet.
Speculation about his successor was already building in anticipation of the end of his term in September 2021, but this has now been rushed forward.
Prime candidates include his main old rival, former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who enjoys the highest public approval ratings as an alternative leader. Fumio Kishida, the LDP policy council chief and former foreign minister, is widely considered to be favoured by Abe as his replacement.
Another long-standing ally, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga may also be in contention, as could Defence Minister Taro Kono or Economic Revitalisation Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.
Whoever is chosen by the LDP is unlikely to greatly change the direction of Japan’s economic and foreign policy. The new leader will have the ongoing responsibility of dealing with the persistent “second wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to engineer a post-pandemic recovery, while still burdened with record public debt and an ageing population.
Japan’s next prime minister will also soon face the judgement of the electorate, as the next national election is due by October 2021. The end of this patrician era of conservative politics has dramatically brought Japanese politics into an suddenly uncertain future.