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Why the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty Matters to Unitarian Universalists

By Jerald Ross

Negotiations are underway at the United Nations to ban nuclear weapons. That is a remarkable statement.

Last October, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to begin negotiations in 2017 on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. Today, 123 nations are involved in an intricate process to bring about such a treaty. The nine nuclear weapons states and most of their military allies have refused to participate. This follows nearly forty years of no serious progress toward disarmament, a process to which most nations, including the United States and then Soviet Union, legally bound themselves under the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970.

So why is this important?

  • Because “Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, ….in the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.” – International Committee of the Red Cross
  • Because “Human beings and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.” – the Hibakusha, the Atom Bomb Survivors of Japan
  • Because “We are closer to a nuclear war than at any time during or since the cold war.” – former Defense Secretary Adm. William Perry
  • Because “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be waged.” – the late President Ronald Reagan
  • Because “Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the values upheld by our respective faith traditions.” - Faith Communities Concerned about Nuclear Weapons (endorsed by UUA)
  • Because the very first resolution adopted by the General Assembly in 1946 called for “the elimination of atomic weapons’ and today there are approximately 14,900 nuclear weapons held by a small number of nuclear armed states, threatening the security of the entire world, and all of them are expanding and/or modernizing their nuclear arsenals.
  • Because the Challenger disaster, Fukushima, and the events leading to World War I demonstrate that complex systems fail, unexpected conditions occur, and human judgement is faulty, leading to the unthinkable.
Demonstrator wearing an anti-radiation mask and an outfit that says "No More Nukes"

Demonstrator calling for "No More Nukes" and "End the Arms Race" at the Women's March to Ban the Bomb.

But what is the point of a nuclear weapons ban if the nuclear weapons states are not participating? The United Nations has succeeded in implementing world-wide prohibitions on most weapons of mass destruction (e.g., chemical and biological), and on other especially horrific weapons systems (e.g. cluster bombs and land mines). This treaty will be passed --- there is no veto in the General Assembly. It commits the signatories to a future without nuclear weapons and lays out a pathway for the nuclear weapons states to join them. The belief is that the treaty will lead to the stigmatization of nuclear weapons and generate world-wide pressure toward their elimination.

Past disarmament efforts have focused on strategic issues. Although the treaty will address monitoring and enforceability, the foundation of this treaty rests with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. It seeks to establish a comprehensive framework to deal with both the past severe and long-lasting consequences of the development, testing, manufacture and use of atomic weapons, as well as preventing the horrific consequences of any future use.

Jerry Ross at the Women's March to Ban the Bomb in New York City June 17th, 2017

Jerry Ross at the Women's March to Ban the Bomb in NYC.

On June 17th, I participated in the Women’s March to Ban the Bomb organized in New York City by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the oldest women’s peace organization in the world. It was one of 150 solidarity actions taking place around the world in support of these treaty negotiations. The WILPF has been one of the prime movers among the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society that have generated the impetus leading to this extraordinary ban treaty effort. You can go to the Reaching Critical Will website to learn more about the treaty and what is going on at these negotiations on a day by day basis. Then contact your Congressperson, talk to your friends, neighbors, anyone who will listen: tell them the United States must participate in these negotiations and join this treaty. On at least three other occasions, the world has missed the opportunity to remove these weapons from our midst forever. We cannot let this chance pass us by.

At the Ban the Bomb Rally in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, demonstrators hold a banner showing support from almost 3 million Hibakusha to ban nuclear weapons.

At the Ban the Bomb Rally in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, demonstrators hold a banner showing support from almost 3 million Hibakusha to ban nuclear weapons.

At our Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) Intergenerational Spring Seminar this April (shortly after the treaty negotiations began), nuclear disarmament was one of the main themes. Earlier, I worked with our UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts to encourage the UUA to endorse an interfaith statement supporting the treaty effort, which they did. Since 1962 there have been thirteen (13) Social Witness Statements adopted by the UUA on the restriction or elimination of nuclear weapons, along with the sign-on of innumerable related letters to public officials, open statements, shareholder letters, and amicus.

International peace issues are a priority of the UU-UNO. As Director, Bruce Knotts has been a leader among NGOs focusing on peace and justice issues, and for over four years has served as chair of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security. Bruce has been active during these treaty negotiations helping to lead interfaith prayer services and discussions. It is an extraordinary gift for us to have the voice of the UU-UNO supporting our values within this representative body of the world community. What a priceless instrument we’ve been given to work toward the realization of our 6th Principle: the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.