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Nuclear Weapons Use in Japan and the Status of Nuclear Disarmament

Dr Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 14, 2023

    The world is commemorating the 78th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August). The number of persons killed and badly affected as a result of the atomic bombings has been a subject of contention. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists states that “the most credible estimates cluster around a ‘low’ of 110,000 mortalities and a ‘high’ of 210,000”.1 Highlighting this wide gap in estimates, the author seems perplexed that the varied estimates are made by experts and credible institutions.

    Although the remembrance services are organised all over the world, the two bombed cities become the focus of tributes and speech-making every year. This year, too, speeches have been that term the bombings horrific. The release of the movie Oppenheimer is drawing more attention to the destruction caused to the two Japanese cities by the efforts of the ‘father of the atomic bomb’. The need for disarmament is repeated in the speeches of the Mayors of the two cities and statements of other organisations and groups involved in disarmament efforts.

    On these two dates, the world overwhelmingly realises the imperative need for a world without nuclear weapons. This annual ritual builds norms for nuclear disarmament, but the reality of nuclear disarmament is yet to be realised. On the somber occasion, it is imperative to assess the state of affairs of nuclear disarmament. How are the regimes and institutions along with other actors treating the idea of nuclear disarmament? Is the world serious about it? The stark reality is that the world appears paying only lip service to nuclear disarmament and the regimes and the institutions are not able to break the deadlock.

    The most-famed legal instrument, which includes the element of nuclear disarmament as part of a grand bargain, is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article VI of the treaty lays down provisions for nuclear disarmament. It asks the member countries of the treaty which are possessing nuclear weapons to start negotiations for not merely halting the nuclear arms race but also nuclear disarmament. The Review Conference of the NPT held from 1 to 26 August 2022, in which several grand ideas were exchanged, also had to pass through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing days. Nuclear disarmament also came up for discussion during the 2022 RevCon.

    At the 2022 NPT Review Conference (RevCon), the Group of the Non-Aligned States Parties to the treaty gave a presentation which emphasised nuclear disarmament. Similarly, the New Agenda Coalition consisting of countries from both the developing and the developed worlds, established in 1998, did express its concern about completely ignoring ‘the goal of total elimination of nuclear weapons’ by the nuclear weapon states of the NPT.  

    Nuclear Disarmament has been a contentious issue among the member states of the treaty. Some of the RevCons of the 21st century failed to agree to outcome documents and reports, predominantly due to differences on nuclear disarmament. Quite notably, the nuclear disarmament related article has been interpreted2 differently by and in the nuclear weapons states, especially the United States for a long period. A section of the policy community refuses to accept that Article VI obliges nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament. The US government though struck a reconciliatory tone at the 2022 RevCon by stating that the objective of the Non-Nuclear Weapons States and the Nuclear Weapons States was the same—‘a world free of nuclear weapons’.

    The outcome document of the 2022 NPT RevCon, though not adopted, underlines the fact that the treaty provides a ‘foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament’, and stipulates ‘legally binding commitments by the nuclear-weapon States to nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Treaty’. It further recognises the reality that nuclear disarmament can promote international peace and security. The ‘total elimination’ of the nuclear stockpile is considered the ultimate solution. The same document also mentions unilateral, bilateral, regional, and multilateral methods to cut, and finally end the nuclear stockpile. The roadmap to achieve it, however, is clearly missing in the document.

    Unfortunately, a section of the international community interprets that Article VI merely suggests negotiations in good faith to stop the arms race and to go for the reduction of nuclear arsenals and if possible, for nuclear disarmament. Some of them also maintain that as long as nuclear weapons exist, a nuclear weapons state may have to rely on nuclear weapons for its security.

    The Mayor of Hiroshima in 2023 once again asked the nuclear weapons states to move away from nuclear deterrence and go for nuclear disarmament. The state and the global civil society pay tribute to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but remain ineffective in realising nuclear disarmament.   

    Instead of going for nuclear disarmament, the dominant section of the international community appears to prefer arms control, nuclear proliferation, and reduction of nuclear risks. Even the 2022 NPT outcome document considers ‘miscalculation, miscommunication, misperception, or accident’ quite relevant. This is relevant because nuclear disarmament is not in sight.

    Quite significantly, arms control mechanism like New Start Treaty are struggling. The new Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty is also out of the horizon. Even the non-proliferation regime, which has the NPT as a mainstay, is under pressure. The leading powers and their allies do not vote on the key UN resolutions for reducing nuclear dangers.  

    The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are highlighted in different forums and documents. The 2022 outcome document too reflects the humanitarian angle when it affirms that

    the immediate, mid-and long-term consequences of nuclear weapon detonations, inter alia, on health, the environment, biodiversity, infrastructure, food security, climate, development, social cohesion, and the global economy are interlinked, and would not be constrained by national borders but have regional or global effects and that a nuclear war could even threaten the survival of humanity.3

    However, it seems that the humanitarian consequences, highlighted in different meetings and dreadfully experienced in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has had little policy impact on concluding a genuine nuclear disarmament convention.  

    The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is being touted as a nuclear disarmament convention. The treaty, which has been adopted and opened for signature in 2017, became operational in January 2021.4   Currently, it has 92 signatories and 68 of them are state parties which have ratified or acceded to the treaty.5 However, all the nuclear weapons possessing countries are outside the TPNW and did not even participate in the negotiations process of the treaty. Moreover, almost all the NATO countries stayed away from negotiations, and none of them have joined the treaty as yet.

    The TPNW was seen by many as undermining the NPT process and giving a backdoor exit to its nuclear member states and their nuclear disarmament commitment. Yet, for a country like India, ‘this Treaty does not constitute or contribute to the development of customary international law; nor does it set any new standards or norms’.6 Despite being a nuclear weapons country, India envisions a world without nuclear weapons. Quite touchingly, the Indian Parliament pays tribute to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki every year. 

    Negotiating the treaty in the Conference on Disarmament would have given it legitimacy, and it would have been negotiated probably with better expertise. A comprehensive convention could have required provisions for the proper implementation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention. As of now, the treaty looks ad hoc with several loopholes and limitations.

    The crisis generated by the Ukraine–Russia conflict is going to complicate the future nuclear disarmament scenario. The world does not seem to be realising the urgency of nuclear disarmament. The general apprehension is that the security of non-nuclear weapons states vis-à-vis nuclear weapons states may become a powerful tool for the spread of nuclear weapons if the doctrine of negative security assurance is not adopted by the nuclear weapons states.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.