Vatican, secular leaders: Global action needed to prevent 'nuclear holocaust'

By Elise Harris

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Nuclear missles. Credit: overcrew / Shutterstock.

On Friday, leading Vatican and secular diplomats urged world leaders to freeze investment into nuclear arms production, and to instead fund peace and development initiatives.

“Every day we are bombarded with bad news about the atrocities that we humans can do, harming each other and nature, about the increasing drumbeat of a possible nuclear conflagration and the fact that humanity stands on the precipice of a nuclear holocaust,” Cardinal Peter Turkson said Nov. 10.

Fears over a potential global catastrophe are rising to a level not seen since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he said.

Ongoing discussion about nuclear weapons is “critical,” Turkson said, adding that the decisions made by global leaders about peace and war in the coming months and years “will have profound consequences for the very future of humanity and our planet.”

Head of the Vatican's dicastery for Integral Human Development, Turkson gave the opening keynote speech at a Nov. 10-11 conference on nuclear disarmament that his department is organizing.

He noted that the conference overlaps with U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to Asia – which includes stops in South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines – as the U.S. faces heightened tensions with North Korea.

The Vatican conference has been in the works for several years, and was not intentionally planned to overlap with Trump's Asia visit. The timing, the cardinal jested, is a coincidence that could be seen as an act of “divine providence.”

The two-day symposium on nuclear disarmament is the first global gathering to address the topic since the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was passed in New York on July 7. Prior to the treaty, nuclear arms were the only weapons of mass destruction not explicitly banned by any international document.

The treaty passed with 122 votes in favor, with Singapore being the only abstention. However, 69 countries – all the nuclear weapon states and NATO members apart from the Netherlands – did not take part in the vote.

In addition to Cardinal Turkson and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who also spoke in the opening panel, other participants in the summit include Masako Wada, one of the last survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear attack, 11 Nobel Peace Laureates, representatives from the U. N. and NATO, diplomats from Russia, the United States, South Korea, and Iran, weapons experts and foundation leaders.

Representatives of bishops' conferences and other Christian organizations are also attending, including a delegation of professors and students from U.S. and Russian universities.

In comments to journalists on the opening day of the event, Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), said that despite elevated tensions, the signing of the July treaty is a sign of hope, showing that the majority of countries in the world reject nuclear weapons.

In 2017, Fihn’s organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its work drawing attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and for its effort to achieve the treaty.

Fihn said she believes it is possible to have a world without nuclear weapons. “We built these weapons (and) we can take them apart,” she said, adding that the world has given up certain chemical and biological weapons in the past.

Izumi Nakamitsu, U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said the U.N. is grateful to both Pope Francis and the Holy See for organizing the conference.

“Any gathering of world leaders and civil society actors and governments to discuss ways to pursue a nuclear weapons-free zone will be very helpful for the cause of U.N. disarmament activities,” she said, and voiced eagerness to discuss what can practically be done to eradicate nuclear weapons.

Nakamitsu said the U.N. believes the only solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is a political one, and that talks on disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation create much-needed “breathing space” for trying to find these political solutions.

“So we're not giving up at all on disarmament, but quite the contrary, because the situation is very difficult, we think disarmament discussions are more important.”

Cardinals Turkson and Parolin both emphasized the need for an integral development aimed at promoting human dignity and the common good as the solution to current nuclear tensions.

Quoting former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 speech after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Turkson said “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

International peace and stability, Cardinal Turkson said, cannot be based on “a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation, or on simply maintaining a balance of power.”

Rather, he said, peace must be built on justice, development, respect for human rights, the care of creation, participation in public life, mutual trust, support of peaceful institutions, access to education and health, dialogue and solidarity.

Cardinal Parolin echoed these ideas, emphasizing the role of education and dialogue in creating “a culture of life and peace based on the dignity of the human being and the primacy of the law.”

He added that “only a concerted effort on the part of all nations will stop these senseless rivalries and promote fruitful, friendly dialogue between nations.”

In a Nov. 10 statement addressed to Pope Francis on the occasion of the conference, five of the 11 Nobel Prize Laureates participating in the conference said they hope the event will help launch “a new international legal regulation and further stigmatize those weapons and the states that so far refuse to give them up.”

They praised the joint role of civil society, religious communities and various international organizations and states in advancing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which aims to put an end to weapons “that are capable of obliterating life as we know it in the blink of an eye.”

An “inclusive and equitable” international security system which leaves no country feeling that they must depend on nuclear arms is needed, they said, and stressed the necessity to ask oneself “what ethical and moral human beings can possibly believe that it is fine to give machines the ability to kill humans.”

In order to avoid an “impending third revolution in warfare,” the weapons must be eliminated before they ever make it to battle, they said.

And this requites prioritizing the human person over the creation of wealth and realizing that “real security comes from placing the focus on meeting the needs of individuals and communities – human security and promoting the common good.”

Signatories included Professer Mohamed El Baradei; Mrs. Mairead Maguire; Professor Adolfo Perez Esquivel; Professor Jody Williams, and Professor Muhammad Yunus.

In comments to journalists Nov. 10, Yunus, who is from Bangladesh, said Pope Francis' message on peace and nuclear disarmament is critical. The Pope's voice, he said, “is respected all over the world, and when he says something, people listen.”

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