Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s entry in the visitors’ book at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum last month may not sound so astonishing or dramatic. His words — “Let the world resolve afresh, from the ashes of this city, to work together for the common mission of peace for this Asia-Pacific century, and for a world where nuclear weapons are no more” — sound like many other entries written in the visitors’ book after people learned the truth of the effect of the use of nuclear weapons against humanity.

But Rudd is different. He is the first Australian prime minister to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. And he acted on his words in a way that many other visitors have not. In large part as a reaction to his visit to Hiroshima, Rudd announced the establishment of a new nuclear disarmament commission on June 9 in a speech at Kyoto University. The commission will be co-chaired by former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans. Rudd went on to praise Japan’s longstanding initiatives in the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation arena, and called for Japan to take a significant role in the commission.

The Australian proposal comes at a critical time. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, more than 20,000 nuclear warheads remain in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, 10,000 of which are actively deployed. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime faces the greatest challenge in its 40-year history. New proliferation threats have emerged from Iran and North Korea. The possible acquisition of nuclear material or weapons by terrorist groups and clandestine nuclear networks poses a serious threat to the international community. The Bush administration has pushed hard for new nuclear weapons, while China has been modernizing its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, because of the expansion of missile defense systems in Europe and Asia, a new arms race in these regions looms.

The NPT regime came close to collapse at the 2005 Review Conference, which magnified the divergence of opinion between nuclear haves and have-nots with regard to treaty obligations. Against this backdrop, however, the global nuclear disarmament movement has regrouped and even regained some of its previous momentum. One of the most prominent developments in the area of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament is the initiative of four former high-ranking U.S. officials – George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn – to establish a world free of nuclear weapons. These realists who once supported nuclear weapons have come to understand that the existence of nuclear weapons is counterproductive to national and international security.

Rudd’s new initiative represents an international effort to realize this vision. The new commission will assess progress made toward the goal of nuclear elimination, and what still needs to be done. Moreover, the commission will develop an action plan for the future to help pave the way for a successful NPT review conference in 2010. But this effort will only succeed with the support of the major nuclear powers and more assertive stances from non-nuclear powers like Japan.

Australia plus Japan Initiative

Both Japan and Australia are strong supporters of nuclear nonproliferation regimes. In his speech in Kyoto, Prime Minister Rudd stated that “Japan and Australia working together can make a difference in the global debate on proliferation. We are uniquely qualified. Japan remains the only state to have experienced the consequences of nuclear weapons. Japan today has a large nuclear power industry. Australia has the largest known uranium reserves in the world. We can, therefore, understand the concerns that countries bring to this debate. And we share a view of the importance of the NPT.”

Not surprisingly, then, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda initially welcomed Rudd’s proposal to establish a new nonproliferation and disarmament commission. Given the leading role that it has played in the global disarmament movement, however, Japan needs to do more to support Australia’s bold initiative. Every year since 1994, Japan has submitted a draft resolution on nuclear disarmament to the annual UN General Assembly. After the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, Japan redoubled its efforts and gave its resolution the new title of “Renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.” Japan’s draft resolutions have received almost unanimous support. In the past few years only the United States, India, and North Korea voted against it.

Despite its declared policy for nuclear disarmament, Japan is struggling between two seemingly contradictory security principles. On the one hand, Tokyo is protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. On the other, the country strongly supports the movement toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Australia is in a similar position. In the current international security environment, alliance with the United States for both countries may well be necessary. But this security arrangement may also constrain both countries from taking a more vocal position for nuclear abolition. For instance, neither country has officially supported a specific time frame for disarmament backed by the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Addressing Challenges

Given the Rudd proposal, the initiatives of Shultz and company, and growing support for these efforts, the world stands at a rare and extraordinary moment of opportunity to pursue nuclear disarmament. But the major nuclear powers need to take the first steps.

This February, UK Secretary of State for Defense Des Browne introduced a technical cooperation initiative between the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and the Norwegian government to develop technology to verify warhead dismantlement. As a next step, the UK offered to host a technical conference on nuclear disarmament verification before the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

However, this British initiative will not mean very much if the United States and Russia don’t engage in serious nuclear reductions. Many challenges related to global nuclear weapons and nuclear nonproliferation regime can be attributed to the U.S. security policy over the last eight years. A change of U.S. administration could be a turning point. Both presidential candidates embrace binding and verifiable arms control treaties. The United States and Russia, which possess almost 90 % of world nuclear weapons, need to reduce their arsenals through such a treaty.

On the multilateral front, a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FCMT) are essential to cap the development of nuclear weapons both qualitatively and quantitatively. But the U.S. Senate voted not to support the CTBT in 1999, and the Bush administration continues to oppose the treaty.

The unstable regional security situations in the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia also negatively affect progress in nuclear disarmament. The opaque intentions of Iran, complicated by its refusal to fully comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Security Council resolutions, suggest that Iran may soon be able to develop nuclear weapons. Speculation of a possible U.S. attack has increased as Iran continues to defy demands that it halt its uranium enrichment program.

We have seen a variety of disarmament initiatives to tackle these challenges. The ultimate influence of such initiatives, including the Australian proposal, remains unclear. These initiatives could create a norm against nuclear weapons and generate massive opposition against nuclear weapons from civil society, which could eventually influence the governments of nuclear weapon states. In addition, Japan and Australia could work more closely with the EU member states and non-nuclear NATO countries including Canada. Since all of these countries support the CTBT, they may be able to collectively apply pressure on the United States to ratify the treaty.

Nuclear disarmament should also be considered in the context of enhancing regional and global peace and security. In this regard, it is essential for Japan to increase its efforts to enhance regional security in East Asia through confidence-building measures and improving relations in the region, especially with China.

Participation of Civil Society

Civil society is a key to harmonizing the various disarmament efforts. Japan can be a leader in this respect. As the only country that experienced atomic bombings, Japan has the invaluable asset of the hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings. Their average age is now over 74. It is important for the next generation to come to understand the importance of nuclear disarmament by learning through the first-hand accounts of the hibakusha witnesses about the effects of nuclear weapons on human beings.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are vigorously setting up atomic bomb exhibitions and sending hibakusha to share their testimony to many countries, especially to the United States. They are not traveling all around the world to dwell on the past but to talk about the future based on their experience. Given the age of the hibakusha, the 2010 NPT Review Conference may be the last opportunity for them to see any development in nuclear disarmament. Testimony based on the experience of hibakusha, and their aspiration to share the truth of the effect of the use of nuclear weapons on human beings, is one of the strongest and most compelling messages for a world free of nuclear weapons.

There have been several noteworthy events in the history of civil society’s involvement in nuclear disarmament. For instance, the World Court Project, initiated in 1992, led the International Court of Justice to issue its advisory opinion regarding the legality of the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons in 1996. In the early stages of the nuclear arms race, a large number of people protested against what were then ubiquitous nuclear weapon tests. Without these steadfast protests from civil society there might have not been a conclusion to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Civil society’s activities for nuclear disarmament are transnational. The question is how influential and significant civil society can be in making progress in nuclear disarmament. Civil society has participated in the multilateral arms control processes in a variety of ways. The consistent activities by civil society could increase momentum toward nuclear disarmament and reframe the debate over nuclear weapons policy.

What Tokyo Should Do

Tokyo should not miss this opportunity to seize the moment and revitalize the disarmament movement. Even under the nuclear umbrella, Japan should be more assertive. To break the dilemma of being under the umbrella and yet calling for disarmament, Japan must spread the facts of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons by sharing more of the hibakusha experience. This initiative can be a great opportunity to create a stronger momentum in nuclear disarmament involving civil society.

Under the current U.S. administration, particularly after September 11, the United States has placed more emphasis on “coalitions of the willing”, unilateral initiatives, and preemptive action, and less on formal multinational institutions shaped over the past decades. Due to Japan’s increasing role in international security and the U.S.-Japan alliance, Japan has faced an increasingly complicated dilemma in the last few years between its support of multilateralism and its reliance on the alliance with the United States.

However, with the coming change in the U.S. administration, which may see Washington restore support for multilateral institutions, the next few years could provide a great opportunity for both Japan and the United States to explore a new way to work together to strengthen multilateral nonproliferation and disarmament regimes. Japan and the United States have been already working together in the field of nonproliferation, counter-proliferation, and even counter terrorism. However, cooperation in the field of nuclear disarmament has been virtually nil. With a new U.S. president, perhaps one who unequivocally supports CTBT, Japan and the United States may enter a new phase of cooperation to strengthen the NPT regime and to achieve a goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Masako Toki is a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, California and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus ( The views expressed in this article are purely personal and do not necessarily reflect those of her organization.

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