Speaking at a conference on the potential and current humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, a two-day event which drew the participation of 150 nations and media from around the world but which has been largely ignored in the United States, a representative of the Holy See questioned the persistence of deterrence as the ethical underpinning of the geopolitical strategy of the world's nuclear powers. "We all know the risks of nuclear weapons, not least that of the instability they cause," said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi as the Holy See took its turn during a round of international statements on nuclear weapons. "Is it reasonable to think that the balance of terror is the best basis for the political, economic and cultural stability of our world?" he asked.
Archbishop Tomasi, the permanent Representative of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, said, "The status quo is unsustainable and undesirable. If it is unthinkable to imagine a world where nuclear weapons are available to all, it is reasonable to imagine a world where nobody has them."
Reminding conference members of the church's long commitment, dating back to 1963's "Pacem in Terris," to a world liberated from the menace of nuclear annihilation, the archbishop said, "the Holy See continues to question the ethical basis to the so-called doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Ethical and humanitarian consequences of the possession and use of nuclear weapons are catastrophic and beyond the rational and reasonable."
Acknowledging that achieving nuclear weapons abolition will be a difficult task, especially as conflict in Ukraine stirs cold war memories, Archbishop Tomasi added, "the goal of a world without nuclear weapons" is "even more necessary in this time of international tensions." The archbishop said that a reduction of the nuclear threat and disarmament require "a global ethic"of solidarity.
"The role of churches and religious communities, civil society, academic institutions is vital to not let hope die, to not let cynicism and realpolitik take over." he said. "An ethics based on the threat and mutual assured destruction is not worthy for future generations. Only an ethic rooted in solidarity and peaceful coexistence is a great project for the future of humanity."
He expressed the Holy See's frustration with the pace of disarmament. "Some positive steps have been made towards the goal of a world without nuclear weapons," he saod. "The Holy See, however, still thinks that these steps are limited, insufficient and frozen in space and time. The institutions that are supposed to find solutions and new instruments are deadlocked. The actual international context, including the relationship between nuclear weapons states themselves, does not lead to optimism."
As if to confirm that assessment, a U.S. delegation took pains to lower expectations before it arrived in Vienna. In a State Department release announcing U.S. plans to participate for the first time in the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference, U.S. officials reiterated the nuclear super-power's commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as "the focus of our efforts on disarmament" and cautioned "this conference is not the appropriate venue for disarmament negotiations or pre-negotiation discussions and the United States will not engage in efforts of that kind in Vienna."
All the same, delegates from other nations applauded the arrival of the Americans for the first time at HINW. The U.S. was joined by another delegation of first-timers from the United Kingdom. Other nuclear powers India and Pakistan already participate in the HINW process. Nuclear powers Russia, China, North Korea and suspected nuclear power Israel did not send delegations. To many who seek a rapid nuclear weapons disarmament, nuclear superpowers such as the United States and Russia have come to be perceived as foot-draggers, but U.S. officials insist that the administration's commitment is real, but that it can only proceed with appropriate security assurances in place. "Underpinning all of our efforts, stretching back decades, has been our clear understanding of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use," Ambassador Adam Scheinman, the Obama administration's Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, said. "We will not relent in the practical and responsible pursuit of our disarmament goals and we are glad to be among so many who share these goals."
The participation of the Americans is significant as it signals the global arrival of a new civil society movement against the bomb which the United States apparently feels it can no longer ignore. Reminding conference members of its commitment to disarmament and progress so far—the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been reduced by 85 percent since the end of the Cold War—Ambassador Scheinman said, "The United States stands with all those here who seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. The United States has been and will continue to work to create the conditions for such a world with the aid of the various tools, treaties and agreements, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime."
Ambassador Scheinman added that the United States remained willing to continue negotiations with the Russian Federation toward further nuclear force reductions, then seemed to acknowledge the growing international sentiment, emboldened by recent successes on land mines and cluster bomb, supporting a complete nuclear weapon abolition with or without the cooperation of the world's nuclear powers. "As we can see from this conference," he said, "we collectively have the growing political will to pursue a practical disarmament agenda," the ambassador said. "We must also have a practical way to do it." The ambassador announced a new effort to improve "verification and monitoring tools," the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, as "a critical key to progress."
He added, "Verification will become increasingly complex at lower numbers of nuclear weapons, while requirements for accurately determining compliance will dramatically increase. Everyone here and around the world who shares our goal of a world free of nuclear weapons should join us in devoting ample time and energy to address this challenge right now."
Beyond the potential and continuing threats nuclear weapons pose—accidental detonation, acquisition by terrorists and the ongoing contamination of the environment and workers within the nuclear weapons industry—Archbishop Tomasi challenged the reasonableness of the resource sacrifices that the maintenance of nuclear arsenals require, particulalry in light of force modernization plans in the United States and Russia. "The world faces enormous challenges—environmental problems, migration flows, military conflicts, extreme poverty, regular economic crises, etc.. Only cooperation and solidarity among nations is able to confront them. To continue investing in expensive weapon systems is paradoxical. In particular, to continue investing in the production and the modernization of nuclear weapons is not logical. Billions are wasted each year to develop and maintain stocks that will supposedly never be used. Can one justify such a high cost only for reasons of status?"
Archbishop Tomasi spoke favorably of reinvigorated civil society efforts to pressure the world's nuclear powers to accelerate disarmament efforts and shore up non-proliferation regimes. "We are now witnessing a renewed awareness after two decades lost to the cause of nuclear disarmament," he said. "The 'humanitarian initiative' is a new hope to make decisive steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. The partnership between states, civil society, the ICRC, International Organizations, and the UN is an additional guarantee of inclusion, cooperation and solidarity. This is not an action of circumstance. This is a fundamental shift that meets a strong quest of a large number of the world’s populations which would be the first victims of a nuclear incident.
"Now more than ever the facts of technological and political interdependence cry out for an ethic of solidarity in which we work with one another for a less dangerous, morally responsible global future. The response that the international community gives will affect future generations and our planet."