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19:46 18 May 2016

OPINION: Listening to Obama and Abe in Hiroshima

By Richard Lennane
GENEVA, May 18, Kyodo

Since U.S. President Barack Obama's forthcoming visit to Hiroshima was announced, a thriving industry of media commentators and experts has sprung up to tell him what he should and shouldn't say. But much more important is how the people of Japan -- and the rest of the world -- should listen.

Whatever fine words Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have to offer when they visit Hiroshima together on May 27, those of us listening must bear in mind that both the U.S and Japanese governments are in fact backing away from their commitments to pursue nuclear disarmament.

In his celebrated speech in Prague in 2009, Obama stated "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Following this, at the 2010 review conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, both the United States and Japan joined the consensus outcome reaffirming "the unequivocal undertaking of the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament."

Yet when the Group of Seven foreign ministers met in Hiroshima in April, they issued a declaration that reaffirmed only their "commitment to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in a way that promotes international stability" and added that this task "is made more complex by the deteriorating security environment in a number of regions, such as Syria and Ukraine, and in particular by North Korea's repeated provocations."

In other words, an unequivocal commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons has quietly been replaced with a vague and heavily-qualified commitment to work only on creating unspecified "conditions" which the G-7 judge might later allow them to consider progress towards disarmament. Few in the Japanese and international media picked up on this disturbing shift.

Worse still, the change in rhetoric has been matched by behavior. Along with other nuclear-armed states, the United States voted last year against the establishment of a U.N. working group on nuclear disarmament, and has boycotted the meetings of the group. Japan, which abstained on the vote, has grudgingly participated in the meetings -- but only to insist on maintaining the status quo and to oppose a move supported by 126 countries to begin negotiations on a new treaty that would prohibit nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds.

Japan has also consistently failed to follow its own recommendation, made at the ministerial meeting of the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in Hiroshima in April 2014, for states to "start reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their security strategies and military doctrines." Japan has taken no such steps, and does not appear to be considering any.

World leaders should always be welcome in Hiroshima. But we must listen critically to what they have to say. We should measure their words against their actions, and speak up when their commitments to a world without nuclear weapons are quietly revised in favor of empty symbolism.

(Richard Lennane is a former United Nations disarmament official and Australian diplomat)




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