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U.N. body call for end to atomic weapons puts disarmament pressure on nuke powers

Nuclear powers are facing mounting international pressure to work toward nuclear arms reductions as a United Nations working group adopted a report on Aug. 19 urging the global community to pursue a world without atomic weapons.

A total of 107 non-nuclear powers that are not under the U.S. nuclear umbrella are aiming to launch negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. However, talks at the U.N. working group highlighted a rift between these nations and U.S. allies such as Japan and European countries covered by the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Unofficial talks on the wording of the report had originally been scheduled to end on Aug. 18, but lasted until the following day.

An ambassador representing a pro-ban country pointed out on the evening of Aug. 18 that Japan, Europe and other nations wanted to state in the report that not all participating countries agree with starting negotiations on such a treaty.

Japan, which relies on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, faces a severe security environment in northeastern Asia, such as North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. U.S. tactical nuclear missiles have been deployed to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members Italy and Germany. Fellow NATO nation Poland and other Eastern European countries also regard Russia as a serious threat.

As such, Japan and the NATO countries underscored the need to achieve a balance between nuclear arms reductions and concerns about their national security, and to gain consensus from nuclear powers on arms reductions.

However, these countries have come under fire from nongovernmental organizations for speaking for nuclear powers' interests. Some countries promoting a nuclear weapons ban treaty argued that the security and safety of human beings should be prioritized over national interests. At the end of the negotiations, Japan expressed its willingness to cooperate in forming a consensus on the issue among relevant parties.

Japan and European countries initially opposed a phrase in a draft report stating that a majority of countries support the start of talks on a nuclear arms ban treaty by the end of next year. However, countries in Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and other regions expressed support for an early start to negotiations.

On Aug. 19, an Australian official spoke on behalf of 14 countries that oppose the start of negotiations, but Japan did not join this group.

Treaty supporters gained momentum as recent discussions on the issue shed light on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, and nuclear arms reductions are now widely recognized as an issue important to not only nuclear powers but all countries, as Mexican Ambassador to the U.N. Jorge Lomonaco pointed out.

Setsuko Thurlow, 84, an atomic bombing survivor living in Canada, told a U.N. working group meeting in May that the group's mission is to warn the world of the inhumane reality of nuclear weapons, and that nuclear disarmament will enable human survival. Her message gave many non-nuclear powers a supportive push.

The move to adopt a nuclear weapons ban treaty began in 1997, when Costa Rica submitted a model plan to the U.N. The Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was held in Oslo in 2013. It was then decided at a U.N. General Assembly session in December last year to hold the latest working group meeting.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), emphasizes that moves to adopt a ban treaty will force all countries involved to choose whether to accept nuclear weapons or not.

Sri Lanka expressed support for the start of negotiations on Aug. 17, bringing the number of those in favor of a treaty to 107. However, officially recognized nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- as well as India, Pakistan and others that possess or are believed to possess such arms did not participate in the working group meeting. Even if negotiations were to be launched, a ban could end up a pie in the sky as nuclear powers are highly unlikely to participate.

Therefore, Japan and Germany have warned that the international framework for nuclear non-proliferation, arms reductions and security arrangements based on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) could be undermined.

In fact, nuclear arms reductions depend on nuclear powers. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted in 1996, but has not come into force because the U.S. and other countries have not ratified the pact. Nuclear arms reductions between the United States and Russia have stalled because of differences over the Ukrainian crisis and the Syrian civil war.

Still, countries promoting an atomic weapons ban view the current situation as an opportunity for non-nuclear powers to take the initiative from nuclear powers. This is because non-nuclear powers, through efforts to hammer out a ban treaty, can pressure nuclear powers to reduce their atomic arsenals.

Coalitions of willing nations and citizens groups have played a leading role in arms reductions in recent years, such as the 1999 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which took effect in 2010.

However, the situation of nuclear weapons owned by a handful of countries is different from that of landmines and cluster munitions, which are held by numerous nations.

Still, ICAN's Fihn has expressed hope that support for a nuclear weapons ban will spread, pointing out that many countries that had initially been skeptical of treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions now support these pacts.

However, the adoption of the U.N. working group report is just the beginning of efforts toward a world without nuclear weapons, as Mexican Ambassador Lomonaco says. The report cites the possession, use, stockpiling, deployment and extension of loans for the development and production of nuclear weapons as possible actions that would be banned by such a treaty.

Numerous challenges must be overcome, such as how to strengthen international opinion in favor of a nuclear arms ban towards actual treaty negotiations.

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