Backstories

Pursuing a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

    NHK World
    Chief International Correspondent / Executive Producer
    Every year on August 6th, thousands of people come to Hiroshima to remember the day the city was devastated by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II.

    This year, Tim Wright was among the visitors. He is one of the founding members of ICAN, a global coalition of civil groups working toward a world free of nuclear weapons. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

    He spoke to NHK World's Miki Ebara about the award and how the group is pushing forward.

    Nobel Peace Prize Medal to Hiroshima and Nagasaki

    You brought a replica of Nobel Peace Prize to Hiroshima, and it is going to travel to Nagasaki. What do you think this will mean to the people of the two cities?

    It's our great honor to loan the medal to those two cities, and we hope everyone who visits the museums will be inspired to take action for a world free of nuclear weapons. They will learn the impacts of the bombings and they will learn about the movement globally to eliminate these weapons. It was really nice to see school students in Hiroshima looking at the medal and understanding why it was awarded to our campaign.

    I think that seeing something like that as a student can plant ideas in their minds about what they should do with their lives. I hope even if it inspires one person to take action, that’s really meaningful.

    What do Hiroshima and Nagasaki mean to you and ICAN?

    I remember learning about the bombings as a child and being horrified that people would inflict such suffering on other human beings and I was shocked to learn also that there are still thousands of these weapons in the world.

    I couldn't quite comprehend how we could witness such misery and understand what these weapons could do, but yet still countries would cling to the weapons. So for me it was very moving to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first time in 2010. And I have been back on a number of occasions and every time I hear from survivors of the bombings, I am horrified again and it never ceased to shock me what they went through.

    "Pushing countries to work faster"

    7 years after your first visit to Hiroshima, ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty came into being. Did you think all this was possible in such a short period of time?

    I was very optimistic we could bring about change. We launched our campaign in 2007 in Melbourne, which is where I am from. I thought we could get this treaty very quickly--it took longer than I had expected.

    But this was a very special moment in 2017. When 122 countries finally adopted the UN Weapons Ban Treaty, many of the hibakushas commented that they had been waiting for that day for more than 70 years. And they were overjoyed that it had finally arrived. It has tremendous meaning for them and they have high expectations for the results that this treaty will produce.

    We as a campaign owe it to them to make sure this treaty is effective, to make sure that we will work as hard as we can to bring every last country on board.

    The treaty has been ratified so far by 12 countries. What do you think of this pace?

    I think the pace of ratification today is quite normal. I wouldn’t describe it as slow or as fast. If you look at the pace of ratification for the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is exactly the same as it is for the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. Same for the biological weapon convention.

    At the 10 month mark, where we are now, the chemical weapons convention had only 4 ratifications, and the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty had just 4 ratifications. We are doing much better than those treaties. But we will be pushing countries to work faster and faster. So we can bring it into force next year.

    You have been working as ICAN's Treaty Coordinator and traveling the world, lobbying lawmakers for their support. Can you tell us about your work?

    Most of these countries supported the treaty. That was evident in the vote of adoption and they are now in the process of ratifying it.

    We know it's before the parliaments, but it takes time to go from one parliament to the next. Often it's reviewed by a committee and then open to public debate as well. They are going through the process.

    My job as Treaty Coordinator is to ensure all the campaigners around the world have the necessary resources and means to operate in their countries to speed up the ratification process. I think there's a strong will by most countries to get this treaty into force quickly.

    "Take direction from their own people, not from foreign powers"

    Do you feel countries that are under a nuclear umbrella, or are members of organizations like NATO, are under pressure from nuclear armed-states?

    There's a lot of pressure in NATO for all of the countries to stick together in opposing this treaty. But we know there are prime ministers, foreign ministers in NATO countries who would personally like to see their countries join the treaty and then pushing internally to make that happen. And it’s a matter of time before a country breaks from a pack.

    It doesn't mean abandoning NATO, it just means they are taking a different position on nuclear weapons among NATO. Once one country breaks from the pack, others will follow. And there's very strong public support in most of these countries for nuclear disarmament. We conducted polls in a number of these countries in Europe that host US nuclear weapons on their territories and about two-thirds of the people said they want their countries to join the treaty.

    We've also got a pledge that parliamentarians in their country are taking to work to get their country to join. And hundreds are signing up to this pledge. Change is inevitable. These are not acceptable weapons. Look what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's impossible for these politicians to justify to their citizens why they are currently opposing the treaty.

    You said you would like to reach the 50 country-mark by next year for the treaty to enter into force. (* Ratification by 50 countries is needed for the treaty to come into effect. As of July 25 2018, 12 countries have ratified.)

    I think we can make this treaty into force in 2019 based on the information that we have on the ratification process that is underway. I think that's achievable. We know there's a lot of pressure, particularly from the US, France, and UK. In many cases, that's the former colonies they are pressuring.

    When we meet African states, for example, and talk about this issue, they tell us about the pressure they are feeling. But they are sovereign nations and they should take direction from their own people, not from foreign powers. I think they feel a great deal of resentment and anger at the pressure they are receiving. That could have the opposite effect that nuclear armed states want, because it makes them more assertive.

    The best way for these countries to alleviate it is to join the treaty. There would be no reason the weapon states could pressure them.

    "Japan isn't a bridge builder on this issue"

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only two cities that have been attacked by nuclear bombings and yet Japan is not taking part in the treaty. How are you going to persuade the government to change its positions?

    Many of the hibakusha I met in Hiroshima said to me just how sad and disappointed they are in the Japanese government. They felt that they are betrayed by their government. Mayor Taue of Nagasaki said it's completely incomprehensible to the people in the A-bombed cities that Japan failed to participate in this historic treaty making process.

    There's only one reason why Japan is refusing to join this treaty and that's it believes the US nuclear weapons keep it safe. I don't think Japan's security is enhanced by US nuclear weapons. That's simply not the case--the existence of these weapons anywhere in the world really undermines the security of us all.

    The reason that countries negotiate this treaty is because they want to enhance the security of their own people. They want to enhance humanity so this is very much an initiative aimed at promoting security.

    I think that Japan will join the treaty. It may take longer than we would like. But there will be so much pressure from the international community and there will be so much pressure from hibakusha and other members of Japanese society that the government won't be able to ignore their voices. They need to respond to their people and not just take directions from the US or whoever it might be who is telling them what their policy is on the treaty.

    Some critics in Japan of the treaty will say, 'Look at the nuclear threat from North Korea--we are safe because we are under the US nuclear umbrella.' What's your response to that?

    Many countries around the world feel threatened by nuclear weapons but they don't claim protection of the nuclear umbrella but in fact they're doing the opposite which is really pushing nuclear weapons to be banned.

    That's how Japan can enhance its security. If Japan is concerned about the threat of North Korea, which it is, then they should be working for disarmament. I think the Japanese government is undermining the cause of disarmament by taking the approach it has taken. These are completely illegitimate weapons. And the Japanese government has not said that. They won't say that. Because that is contradictory to the policy of extended nuclear deterrence.

    That really weakens Japanese credibility on this issue. And it really prevents Japan from making meaningful contributions for a nuclear weapon-free world. So I would like to see Japan take a completely different approach to this and show leadership in Northeast Asia, show that it is the country in this region that is a leader on this issue that has stated clearly, 'Nuclear weapons are not acceptable for all.' I think that would be a much better way to promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as disarmament more broadly.

    The Japanese government claims that they want to be a bridge between the non-nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons countries.

    Japan isn't a bridge builder on this issue. Japan has sided with the nuclear armed states. That is very clear Japan isn't properly engaging with any of the countries that support the nuclear weapons ban treaty. In fact, most of the world's countries now perceive Japan as a big part of the problem, and that's really shocking to many of the hibakusha who would like their country to be seen by the international community as a force for good in the world on this issue. It’s got to change. This is not OK for Japan to be taking this position.

    "Active support, then the government needs to respond"

    Why do you think there is a huge gap, as you say, between what people in each country want and what their policymakers want?

    I think a part of the problem is that many of the people who support nuclear disarmament aren't speaking out. You know this passive support but they need to turn this into active support. Then the government needs to respond. They'll need to change the position.

    When I was in Hiroshima, I said to the people that any politician who refuses to support this treaty doesn't deserve your vote and if we all refuse to vote for opponents of the treaty, then that's how we will bring about change.

    I hope some of the young anti-nuclear activists in Hiroshima will run for parliament. They will be the politicians making the decisions on this in the future. I encourage them to do so. A lot of people don't realize how powerful they themselves are, that they do have agency and capacities to affect change.

    This is something I didn't realize when I was younger. I always thought it was simply beyond my capacity to change what my government thought or what other governments thought. But one of the things I learned is that persistent campaigning can bring about fundamental shifts.

    When we started this campaign so many countries told us that a total ban of nuclear weapons is simply unrealistic. We could never have a treaty adopted by the UN. We kept on pushing and pushing and they kept on saying no, no, no. But we got there and two-thirds of the intentional community are behind this treaty and I'm convinced that this is going to have a profound impact, and really put us well on the path to a nuclear free world.