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Amazing Grace: The Role of the Holy See in the Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons
Amazing Grace: The Role of the Holy See in the Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons

On July 7, 2017 a United Nations Conference approved a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Adopted by a vote of 122 for, 1 against, 1 abstention, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons requires that parties to the treaty “undertake never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” The Holy See participated in the negotiations over the treaty in March and again in late June and July. Due to the rule of the conference, the Holy See was able for the first time to cast a vote in favor of the treaty as a full State Member of the UN conference. This blog will examine the role of the Holy See in the creation of this treaty.

On September 20, the day the UN opened the treaty for signature, the Vatican’s Foreign Minister signed and ratified it on behalf of the Holy See. While 53 nations signed the treaty, only three took the next step of ratification, required for it to officially become international law: Guyana, Thailand, and the Vatican State. Since then, Mexico and Cuba have done so as well: when 45 more nations ratify it, it will enter into force as international law.

Here was Pope Francis’s reasoning. [The treaty] “gives hope to those now living and those still to be born that one day our world will be free from nuclear weapons ….States signing the Treaty have rejected the fallacy that ‘might makes right’ and its pernicious modern corollary that some nations have the right to nuclear weapons while others do not.” He questioned the pretension of nuclear-weapons States (NWS) that the weapons they hold as an historical legacy are theirs by right under the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty. He urged NWS, who are parties to that Treaty, to fulfill their obligations toward “a nuclear–weapon-free world” (which is explicitly stated in its Article VI).

Photo of Pope Francis addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations

Pope Francis addressed the General Assembly during a 2015 visit to the United Nations.

Let’s back up a bit to see how this all happened.

The first full week, from March 27-31, 2017, of negotiations among the countries wanting this treaty opened with three plenary addresses on the moral and humanitarian dimension of the conference’s work by Pope Francis; Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross; and Toshiki Fujimori, a Hibakusha/survivor of the US Hiroshima bombing in 1945.

Noteworthy was the presence of Civil Society along with the interested governments. Future blogs will continue to clarify the work of these important organizations. (Chief among them were the International Committee of the Red Cross; ICAN, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons; Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; Physicians for Social Responsibility; Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; and Princeton and Harvard Universities. They were joined by several active religious and secular disarmament groups including Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist pacifist group, and the Parliament of World Religions.) These groups had already been meeting in 2014 at three conferences on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, the last one in Vienna.

Pope Francis sent a message of strong encouragement to that December Vienna conference. Accompanying his message was a study document entitled: “Nuclear Weapons: Time for Abolition” whose “purpose ... was to encourage discussion of the moral case for nuclear disarmament, … [challenging] the belief that nuclear deterrence is a stable basis for peace.” [Instead it] “has created a less secure world. In a multi-polar world, the concept of nuclear deterrence works less as a stabilizing force and more as an incentive for countries to break out of the non-proliferation regime and develop nuclear arsenals of their own.” He emphasized the inequality between nuclear and non-nuclear states brought about by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. “What was intended to be a temporary state of affairs,” he complained, “appears to have become a permanent reality, establishing a class structure in the international system between possessing and non-possessing states.”

A Humanitarian Pledge, advanced by the Austrian host government, was a voluntary national commitment to seek to stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks. By the end of the May 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review, 77 states [up from 44] had signed, favoring the creation of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. To date 127 states have signed on to this commitment

The State Members of the conference consisted entirely of non-nuclear weapon States, impatient with the slow pace of disarmament, anxious over plans for modernizations by the NWS, and exasperated over the abuse of the NPT to prioritize non-proliferation over their own disarmament under the treaty’s Article VI. They included representatives of regions declared Nuclear Weapons Free Zones: Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, Central Asia, and Africa. Japan spoke at the opening session in March out of respect for its Hibakusha, but did not otherwise participate in the conference. The Netherlands fully participated, taking the critical view of a NATO member (NATO chose not to participate), and casting the sole negative vote against the treaty; Singapore abstained. Forty-nine UN members did not participate, and at the hour of the opening of the conference on March 27, US Ambassador Nikki Haley held a well-publicized press conference condemning the process.

Papal contributions continued through the process of drafting the treaty in the June-July meeting, offering recommendations to fill in the gaps that were recognized, like a role for a new autonomous agency to augment the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency in dismantling weapons, a voluntary fund to assist victims and environmental remediation of nuclear explosions and the need for Disarmament Education to help the future generations decide the future of disarmament efforts.

Commendations to Pope Francis for demonstrating amazing grace and consistent effort to move forward in disarming our planet. Thank you, Your Holiness.

The author wishes to express appreciation to Msgr. Simon Kassas of the Papal Office at the United Nations for his help in supplying information for this blog.

About the Author

  • Joanne Dufour is a Volunteer for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office completing a circle of connection with the office since 1968. She was introduced to it in her second year of teaching back then, maintained connections over the course of her career in education,...

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