December 16, 2017
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Vatican Conference on Nuclear Disarmament Highlights False Sense of Security

by Sarah Bueter, University of Notre Dame ‘18


On November 10-11, 2017, the Holy See hosted the first international gathering on nuclear disarmament since approval of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, signed by 122 countries at the United Nations in New York on July 7, 2017. Eleven Nobel Peace Laureates attended the “Perspectives for a World Free From Nuclear Weapons and For Integral Disarmament,” conference, including Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. They were joined by high-level representatives and experts from civil society, academia, churches, states, and international organizations, as well as students to discuss a variety of related issues, including a path forward on the ban, which was not supporeted by NATO or the countries that now hold nuclear weapons and would still require ratification to take effect.

Integral human development

In his address to the conference, His Holiness Pope Francis denounced the use and possession of nuclear weapons, stating that “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.” In light of the Catholic Church’s mission in service of development, peace, and disarmament, this position draws particular attention to the humanitarian and environmental effects caused by such weapons. On the occasion of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2014, Pope Francis affirmed, “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.”

The Church’s focus on the possession – not only the use – of nuclear weapons furthers the profound connection between disarmament and human development. Foremost in the Pope’s statement was the condemnation of the possession of nuclear weapons themselves, regardless of intent; such a declaration of the moral wrongness of possession is, as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego noted, “new and, of course...very significant.”  In effect, the Church is saying that to invest in the fallacy of weapons is to divest from the poor, squandering the earth’s resources and the intelligence of scientists and neglecting healthcare, education, and development for our fellow human beings. A commendation of nuclear weapons is a condemnation of our planet and our humanity.

Let’s be realistic

Conference participants unanimously agreed that working towards a world without nuclear weapons is not naive and utopian but represents the mostrealistic, sustainable alternative in light of the unstable environment in which we find ourselves. Nuclear weapons are, Pope Francis has repeatedly said, no basis for peaceful coexistence. Indeed, they provide only a false sense of security.

As Nobel Laureate Mohamed El Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, shared, “A peace that hangs on a doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction is based on the anachronistic premise that ‘some are more equal than others’; is underpinned by human fallibility; and, in addition, [is] irrelevant to extremists.” Rather, an ethic of solidarity and responsibility is the only realistic and sustainable foundation: one based on respect and dialogue, as well as strict verification and transparency measures, that would allow all people to flourish. This, Pope Francis has said, will “foster a climate of trust and sincere dialogue.”

Everything is connected

There’s no question that a large task lies ahead, one that requires both the renowned experts and the young activists. At the same time, Nobel laureates testified to the ability to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Despite the apparent indomitability of the task at hand, we found hope in their diversity of experiences aimed at building a peaceful and just world. For to work towards nuclear disarmament is also to work for the flourishing of every human being, and commits us to resolve other problems in society such as poverty, food insecurity, education, healthcare, and care for the environment.

It was sobering to know that this conference was sandwiched between two shootings in the United States, one in Texas followed by one in northern California. These issues are not disconnected. A climate of violence affects every level of our lives, and a deep sense of the wrongness of the possession and use of nuclear weapons is inseparable from a deep compassion for our fellow human being. We are all connected.

So where do we begin as students and activists? We can begin with a disarmament of the heart: recognizing that our fraternity with one another drives us to dialogue and to reject indifference and resignation. Peace begins within each of us, manifested by the choices we make every day in our lives, and is directed towards building up a more just and peaceful world aimed at the common good of all.


Originally published in NuclearThreatInitiative.Org