By Daniel Högsta*
From May 19-21, the leaders of the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as well as high-level representatives from the European Union will meet in Hiroshima, Japan. Many of these leaders will be visiting the city, one of two where nuclear weapons were used in August 1945, for the first time. And since the nuclear threat is now higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War, they must not use this occasion to pass off the same decades-old non-proliferation measures as something new; rather, they must commit to concrete and credible disarmament measures based on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who comes from a Hiroshima political family and had relatives who died in the 1945 bombing, decided to hold the G7 Summit in the city precisely because of its history. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent nuclear saber-rattling, maintaining international peace and pursuing nuclear disarmament will rank high on the agenda. Kishida also has an eye on the Korean Peninsula, where, in the early months of 2023, North Korea continued to ramp up missile testing, and the US and South Korea mounted joint military exercises involving nuclear-capable aircraft.
The global threat posed by nuclear weapons cannot be overstated. In terms of the scale of the devastation they cause and their persistent radioactive legacy, they are the most destructive, inhumane, and indiscriminate weapons ever created. Their use would have a massive environmental impact, and even a limited nuclear conflict would trigger widespread famine. In recognition of these far-reaching consequences, five of the nine nuclear-armed states affirmed in January 2022“that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” – a statement echoed by G7 leaders in their communiquéfrom Elmau, Germany last year.
The casualties caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrate that any use of these weapons, even if it doesn’t lead to all-out nuclear war, could kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and injure many more. Moreover, as the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned, emergency-response systems and health infrastructure would be overburdened and unable to provide adequate assistance to survivors. Radioactive fallout would contaminate large areas, and widespread panic would cause mass movements of people and severe economic disruption.
The G7 foreign ministers issued a disappointing communiqué when they met in Nagano, Japan in April, and their superiors must do better at the summit. Specifically, they can and should take four steps to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again.
First, they must unequivocally condemn any and all threats to use nuclear weapons in terms as strong as those used over the past year by the parties to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the G20.
At last year’s summit, G7 leaders said they “condemn Russia’s provocative statements which signal the threat of use of nuclear weapons.” In Hiroshima, they need to condemn not only such statements, which have also been made by North Korea, but also preparations for using nuclear weapons, including nuclear exercises. This is particularly important as Russia’s suspension of the New START treaty has halted information exchanges on such exercises. A lack of communication on this front significantly increases the risk of accidental conflict, because both the US and Russia maintain a launch-on-warning nuclear posture.
Next, they must formally recognize the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons. While in Hiroshima, G7 leaders will meet with survivors of the 1945 bombing, who lived through “hell on Earth,” as one man described it. The American, French, and British leaders who will talk to the Hibakusha (as the survivors are called) possess the authority to launch even more powerful nuclear weapons. Consequently, they should publicly acknowledge that their use would condemn countless civilians to the same fate, rather than paying lip service to the ideal of a world without nuclear weapons.
Third, in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of plans to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, the G7 leaders must agree to end the practice of stationing such weapons in third countries and engage Russia in dialogue to discourage it from following through. This will require the heads of state to reflect on their own “nuclear-sharing” policies: Italy and Germany – both G7 countries – as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Turkey are currently hosting American weapons. This practice must be ended across the board, as it only increases the risk of a catastrophe.
Lastly, the G7 should make practical, actionable commitments to disarmament. Its leaders must respond to Russian and North Korean nuclear recklessness – and the rapidly escalating threat of confrontation – by developing a plan for engaging with all nuclear-armed states to negotiate the reduction and eventual elimination of their arsenals.
Fortunately, they do not have to reinvent the wheel: the TPNW, an internationally recognized multilateral disarmament framework, is already at their disposal. Almost half of UN member states have signed or ratified the treaty, and as more states get on board, the international norm against nuclear weapons will grow stronger. Eventually, they will be regarded as beyond the pale, just like chemical and biological weapons, landmines, and cluster bombs.
As a venue, Hiroshima is a powerful symbol. Hidehiko Yuzaki, the governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, has said that he hopes visiting the city will allow G7 leaders “to understand the reality of the atomic bombings, fully recognize the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, and understand once again that the only and certain way to escape the fear of their use is to abolish them.” The G7 summit offers an unprecedented opportunity to show true leadership at a time of heightened nuclear tensions. It would be foolish – and dangerous – to settle for empty promises.
*Daniel Högsta is Interim Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.