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Working Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons

Aiko Doden

Aug. 26, 2015

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet the road to abolish nuclear weapons remains a long one. The Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, or APLN, is trying to advance the cause. The members are former foreign and defense ministers and academics from Asia-Pacific countries. Though they are no longer in office, they still act on behalf of their respective governments.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans convened the group in Hiroshima earlier this month. Attending the meeting were 27 representatives of 12 countries, including ones holding nuclear weapons such as China, India, and Pakistan. The group hammered out a joint statement intended to persuade their governments to act.

Evans made a rousing call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, saying “movements toward disarmament should not be held hostage to improvement in the overall geopolitical situation within a worldwide context or in particular regions.”

The conference delegates attended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on Aug. 6, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city. Evans said Hiroshima was the logical place to hold the meeting because this year is the 70th anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons.

He first visited Hiroshima in 1964 as a student. He recalls the powerful impact the experience had on him, saying "when you see the victims, the impact, the horror of it all so extraordinarily laid out, when you feel the atmosphere of this place, you really understand it emotionally, not just rationally, that these are the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and they must be expelled from the face of the earth."

An estimated 140,000 people had died from the atomic bomb or its aftereffects by the end of 1945. The Peace Memorial Museum displays artifacts and documents from the time of the bombing to help people understand the horrors of nuclear weapons.

Evans says a striking photograph of steps bleached white by the blast and the outline of a human figure believed to be sitting there led him to join the struggle to abolish nuclear arms. “It made a huge impact on me,” he recalls. “And I told myself, if ever I had the chance in any capacity in the rest of my life to do something about these weapons, I would try to do so.”

Conference delegates talked about creating a roadmap for nuclear disarmament. There was heated discussion concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and some members questioned the role of China, which is believed to have influence over North Korea.

In global discussions on nuclear disarmament, two different schools of thought prevail. Many non-nuclear weapons states call for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons because of their inhumane consequences. But nuclear weapons states oppose on the grounds of nuclear deterrence. They say the only realistic option is a step-by-step reduction.

Evans wanted the joint statement to include a call to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons. “The reliance on nuclear deterrence is really misconceived,” he says. “There's no evidence that the existence of nuclear weapons has ever stopped countries going to war with each other. The final objective must be nuclear weapons conventions that ban everything, not just use but also possession, manufacture, acquisition.”

Attendees of the meeting debated the practicality of nuclear weapons conventions. Evans said he doubted they could be effective without the support of nuclear weapons states, saying “whatever the force of humanitarian impact movement so far, the traction is not so far extended to the states that ultimately really matter.”

The discussion at the conference came down to whether such conventions should ban not just the use, but also the possession, of nuclear weapons. Evans took a count of hands to get a sense of where delegates stood on the issue, and found some were against his position.

Evans persevered over the course of two days the final version of the Hiroshima Declaration on Nuclear Weapons includes wording calling for a ban the possession of nuclear arms. He said the group needed to send a clear message to the public to advance the cause. The delegates will now present the document to their respective governments and international institutions.

Evans recognizes there is still much work to do, saying “the most immediate need alongside that particular strategy is to educate policy makers and the public about the absolute lack of utility of nuclear weapons, about their terrible humanitarian and environmental consequences. We can help get that message across to a much wider range than it’s getting across at the moment."

Aiko Doden, NHK’s Senior Commentator who covered the conference joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: To me, banning the possession of nuclear arms, let alone their usage, seems like a logical choice to make, but even at a non-governmental meeting like this, it's still a sticky issue.

Doden: One school of thought contends that the world may not be peaceful, but its stability is maintained by having a nuclear deterrence. There are more than 15,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled around the world. The US and Russia account for 90% of them. Countries like China and North Korea are increasing their atomic arsenals. Non-nuclear weapon states call for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons because of their inhumane consequences, but nuclear weapons states oppose, stating the only realistic option is a step-by-step reduction. This difference has always been a hard one to bridge. So it is a step forward for the members of APLN, including the nuclear weapon states, to have endorsed the declaration in spite of the divide.

Beppu: There are initiatives such as the Austrian Pledge of December, 2014, which focuses on the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Will these measures lead to a breakthrough?

Doden: APLN members hope they will. That's why Mr. Evans and the members decided to have a paragraph articulating the humanitarian consequence of the nuclear weapons. The Austrian Pledge or as it's also known, the Humanitarian Pledge, focuses on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and calls on all parties to cooperate in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. Although none of the nuclear states have signed, 114 other countries have. This demonstrates a shared sense of urgency. It could be a ray of hope, however faint it may be.

Shibuya: Could you explain what the members will do with the declaration?

Doden: They will be bringing the declaration to the attention of decision makers. Since the APLN is a network of former foreign ministers and defense ministers, the leaders will listen. But Gareth Evans says that the general public has a role as well. He said he knows how important it is for the politicians to feel bottom up pressure from people in their own societies. The support we see building around the Austrian Pledge and the renewed attention on the humanitarian consequence of nuclear weapons demonstrates the extent of people’s commitment in wanting to have a say on this issue. As Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrate to this day, the consequence of nuclear weapons is inflicted upon the people themselves, and people do have the right and the responsibility to raise their voices.