Photo/Illutration Alexander Kmentt, the director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Department of the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who will chair the first meeting of signatories to the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This photo was taken on June 19 in Vienna. (Gakushi Fujiwara)

VIENNA--Reminding the world of the “humanitarian consequences and risks” of nuclear arms will be crucial at the upcoming first meeting of signatories to the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

That’s according to Alexander Kmentt, the chair of the gathering, which will start on June 21 in Vienna. 

In a recent online interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Kmentt called the TPNW a key treaty on an “extremely serious issue” of what would happen if nuclear weapons were used.

Kmentt, the director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Department of the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the situation surrounding nuclear arms as the most “dangerous” in recent decades with many nations discussing their nuclear arsenals and nuclear deterrence.

He said the issue is drawing more attention than ever as Russia threatened to use nuclear weapons following its invasion of Ukraine.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: What is the main purpose of this meeting? What are the key messages?

Kmentt: It is the first time that states parties have come together after the treaty entered into force. So we are in a different situation. The treaty is now in force, and we are meeting to take the necessary decisions of how we’re going to continue working in this treaty.

How are we going to implement the legal obligations that we have undertaken? There are several decisions, some of them are procedural, some of them are technical and some of them are very substantive. But all of this is the first time that we get together and decide on it. So it’s a very important meeting for this treaty.

This is a very serious treaty on an extremely serious issue. And we, the states parties of this treaty, are very serious about this work. We have been meeting now for many months preparing this meeting as best as we can because of the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose.

And specifically at the current context, geopolitical context, it is extremely important to refocus the attention on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons, what would actually happen if nuclear weapons are used. And, of course, you in Japan you understand that very well, but maybe it’s the rest of the world that needs more reminding.

Q: When we interviewed you in June last year, you said that the overall situation is extremely bad. And the situation is very dangerous and geopolitical tensions are very bad. And now Russia has invaded Ukraine. How would you assess the current situation regarding disarmament?

A: We are in the most dangerous nuclear situation for decades, maybe going back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sixty years ago, we were very close to a nuclear conflict, and I hope I’m wrong but maybe today it’s very dangerous again.

So the situation, the nuclear risks, are higher than they have been for decades. If I said the situation was difficult last June, it has become significantly more challenging now.

And, of course, the problem is that because of the sense of insecurity, many states are discussing nuclear weapons and discussing nuclear deterrence. But of course, if the conclusions from the Russian aggression and threat of use of nuclear weapons is a stronger emphasis on nuclear weapons, it actually means an invitation to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

So this is a very dangerous moment, we have to be extremely prudent with the conclusions that we draw.

Q: How do you see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine potentially affecting this meeting?

A: Well, of course, it’s very apparent the nuclear threats from Russia have certainly brought this issue very much to the center of the attention, which it probably wasn’t so much before.

In Europe, for example, most people did not think very much about nuclear weapons and this is different now, this is certainly different. So it will be a very important aspect for this meeting.

But certainly the countries that support the TPNW, their conclusion is if you see nuclear threats being made, the way they have been made, it only underscores how fragile and how dangerous the theory of nuclear deterrence is; so is the reinforcement of the need to make progress on nuclear disarmament.

Q: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has, in some context, has reaffirmed the power of the nuclear threat. What can you tell those countries that are more hesitant to ratify the TPNW since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

A: I think we are at a very important threshold moment. And the conclusions that we draw from this dramatic situation are extremely profound. Either we conclude that because of security concerns, we need more nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence is more important ... but if we conclude this, then this conclusion is valid for everybody.

So how are we going to convince Iran? How are we going to convince other countries that also have security concerns that they should not develop these weapons? So it’s very, very important, this is an extremely important moment for proliferation.

Or we look at these threats and we understand how dangerous this situation is and how dangerous nuclear weapons are, and we redouble our efforts to find a way out of this trap, of this paradigm. And if we want to do this, then obviously understanding the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons is what helps you come to this conclusion.

I would just argue with those who say that now we see how important nuclear weapons are, that they actually think about what does this really mean in the final consequence: it means that we will end up with a world full of nuclear weapons that is better for security, or are we using this as an opportunity to redouble our efforts?

Q: Related to this question, Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister of Japan, mentioned the concept of nuclear sharing and said we must not make it taboo to discuss the reality of how the world is kept safe.

A: This is an internal discussion for Japan to have. I don’t want to comment on this. Parties of the NPT have a legal obligation under Article 6 to work toward nuclear disarmament and this obligation applies to nuclear weapons states and applies to non-nuclear weapon states. So that would be my answer.

Q: How do you explain the significance of holding a meeting of nuclear disarmament in this timing, when the nuclear weapon states are actually ignoring the TPNW and are not expected to participate in it?

A: They’re not ignoring the TPNW at all. Importantly, some of them are extremely strongly opposed to it, this is not ignoring. If they would be ignoring it, then the TPNW would not be important. The fact that they are, at least some of them, extremely strongly opposed to it, demonstrates the transformational potential of the TPNW.

Very often what are the answers about the evidence that we have on the humanitarian consequences and risks? What answers can nuclear weapons states give to non-nuclear weapon states who are concerned about humanitarian consequences and risks? So I think the TPNW is a very strong treaty. It’s a young treaty, and we are slowly building it, of course, but the arguments on which the treaty is built are extremely powerful.

Q: What will be included in the final document of the meeting? Specifically? What can be key sentences?

A: I cannot give you that because it’s still being negotiated. I can tell you what we are currently discussing is a final document with all the decisions, an action plan with a number of concrete actions that we want to take in implementing the treaty and the declaration, but I cannot tell you yet what’s in the document, because, of course, it will be negotiated until the end. It’s the states parties that will decide

Q: What could you provide for a few significant elements of the Working Papers you have prepared?

A: There are several papers, several aspects related to the elimination of nuclear weapons and verification. Some decisions that we have to take, and we are mandating further work on those aspects.

A very important aspect of the treaty is the positive obligations on victim assistance, environmental remediation, which is Article 6 of the treaty. So it is addressing the humanitarian harm of past nuclear weapons use or nuclear weapons test explosions, on people and communities, and I know this is an issue that is followed closely in Japan as well.

We have several states parties that have been very severely affected by nuclear weapons testing: Kazakhstan, for example, or the Pacific island states, or Algeria, and you have in those countries, communities who are to this day, over several generations now, very heavily impacted in a social sense, in an economic sense, in an environmental sense, in a health aspect.

So we are putting a lot of emphasis on this to develop a culture of working together in a cooperative spirit, to address the humanitarian legacy of those aspects. Then, of course, universality of the treaty is an important aspect.

So we will make decisions on several plans and actions of how we will continue to promote this treaty. We are taking some decisions on getting scientific advice for the TPNW, we are taking some decisions on the complementarity of the TPNW with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) and the old regime.

And then there are a whole range of issues related to the organization of our work, from the rules of procedure to how we are setting up intersectional work between the meeting of states parties now in the next meeting of states parties. So how state parties are going to work together with civil society partners to implement the treaty. So there’s a whole set of decisions that we have to make in those three days.

Q: How many countries are expected to participate as observers at this time?

A: Every state that has not yet ratified and that is not a signatory can participate as an observer. So all U.N. member states have been invited to participate. So there are several states that are supportive of the TPNW that have not yet ratified it, they will be observers.

And then there are several states who have not supported the TPNW who have also said that they will participate and you’re probably more interested in this last category.

So I don’t know for sure, because it is still being discussed in several countries. I can tell you, those states that have made it public that they will participate, which is Germany has said they would participate. Norway, I believe, has also said it publicly and Finland and Sweden have said so, and so has Switzerland. But there are several other countries that are currently discussing.

The TPNW was negotiated by 122 states, 138 are supporting the TPNW in the U.N. General Assembly resolution. So if you have 61 state parties and everybody else participates as an observer, that will be many more but I don’t know yet.

Q: Do you expect Japan to participate as an observer?

A: It’s not what I expect, of course, Japan has been invited, and it’s exclusively the sovereign decision of the Japanese government to decide whether or not they want to participate.

I would only say that there are several other countries who probably have a similar position as Japan who have decided to participate and, of course, Japan has a long tradition of being very active on nuclear disarmament issues.

If you participate at the meeting as an observer, you do not do anything else but observe. And if you want to, you can contribute to a discussion that’s going on. So I would say the way we have prepared the meeting of states parties, we have been extremely careful to be very responsible and we have not given any reason to any state not to participate.

So I would say there is really no reason specifically for countries that are supportive of nuclear disarmament not to engage in this discussion in this new treaty, specifically, since the treaty is based on some very important arguments on humanitarian consequences and risks.

So we have rules of procedure that are very open for observers much more than in other treaties. Observers have the right to speak, observers can distribute documents if they want to. And the only thing they are not allowed to do is to take part in the decision making, which is only for the states parties, of course.

So there are many, many ways for observers to engage on aspects of the treaty if they want to.

Q: If Japan participates, what positive implications do you think it would have?

A: It would signal the readiness to engage in a dialogue with the states parties of the TPNW. And since there are no other implications from participating as an observer then, you don’t take any legal obligation if you participate as an observer.

So it’s a readiness to engage, and I would say that specifically in the current context everybody who is worried about where the regime is moving should be looking for ways of working together.