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Statement on nuclear disarmament, NATO policy and the churches

Document No. PI 5

06 February 2001

World Council of Churches
CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Potsdam, Germany
29 January - 6 February 2001

The global threat posed by the existence of nuclear weapons did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. The May 2000 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference ended with an "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals." Many other developments of recent years however - the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the US Senate, the nuclearization of South Asia, the retention of Cold War-era nuclear postures by the United States and Russia - have tended in the opposite direction: towards the indefinite retention and even the spread of nuclear capabilities. The looming prospect of missile defense deployment threatens further damage to nuclear arms control and disarmament efforts. The opportunity that now exists to make dramatic advances toward the elimination of nuclear weapons is at risk of being lost. Partly due to the significant new agreements on nuclear disarmament after 1987, but more particularly as a result of pressing new challenges posed by non-nuclear conflicts since 1991, nuclear arms have been given comparatively low priority on the churches' disarmament priorities in the last decade of the twentieth century. It is again important that the voice of the churches be heard on this question at a decisive moment.

The nuclear disarmament agenda

Among the most positive disarmament developments of recent years has been the renewed attention given to the desirability and feasibility of abolishing nuclear weapons. The debate over the future of nuclear weapons is far from resolved, and the Nuclear Weapon States are still far from committed to immediate action towards abolition. But the broad outlines of the global nuclear disarmament agenda are now widely accepted.

The Final Document of the recent NPT Review Conference, adopted by consensus, incorporated a substantive set of principles and measures to guide future nuclear disarmament activities. These included "an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals" (though without specifying when that might be accomplished), and support for a number of interim steps such as "concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems" (commonly known as "de-alerting"), and "a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination."

The "New Agenda" resolution adopted by an overwhelming majority at the last session of the UN General Assembly (2000) was directly based on the NPT Final Document. Countries that voted in favor of the resolution included China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and every NATO member except France, which abstained. Only three countries, Israel, India, and Pakistan - the three nuclear-armed countries that are not signatories of the NPT - voted against the resolution. A handful of others abstained.

These decisions demonstrate that a near-consensus now exists on the outlines of the global nuclear disarmament agenda. It remains to be seen, however, how rapidly and completely that agenda will be translated into action.

NATO nuclear policy

Crucial decisions being taken individually and collectively by the member states of NATO will do much to determine the future success or failure of the nuclear disarmament agenda.

In its new Strategic Concept in 1999 NATO formally restated its position that nuclear weapons are "the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies," pledging to retain them "for the foreseeable future." The Alliance also agreed, however, to conduct an internal review of its nuclear policies, including "options for confidence and security-building measures, verification, non-proliferation and arms control and disarmament."

The results of this review were presented to the North Atlantic Council in December 2000. The report maintained the status quo with respect to nuclear weapons policy, reiterating that NATO deems nuclear weapons to be "essential" to Alliance security, and asserting the need to retain them "for the foreseeable future." The report also says that "There is a clear rationale for a continued, though much more limited, presence of substrategic nuclear weapons in Europe." Significantly, however, the report states that "Alliance nations reaffirm their commitment under Art. VI of the NPT to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." It also declares NATO's support for the thirteen action items agreed during the 2000 NPT Review Conference and reiterated in the "New Agenda" resolution. These are positive steps.

Unfortunately, however, the report gives no indication of how NATO intends to go about implementing these commitments, or how the decision to retain its present nuclear policies can be reconciled with such steps. There is no specific provision for the review process to continue, yet it is crucial to the future of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts that NATO's nuclear policies be revised to conform to the global nuclear disarmament agenda.

The report takes no position on the US National Missile Defense (NMD) program, though other NATO members have protested vigorously against it and are known to be consulting now on its implications. President Clinton's decision in September 2000 to delay deployment of the system has been reversed by the new US Administration that has declared its intention to proceed with it. Such an action could inflict serious damage on the existing arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation regime.

Up to now NATO discussions on nuclear policy have been conducted mainly behind closed doors. The recent report now acknowledges that there is a need for greater openness and transparency, promising that "the Alliance will continue to broaden its engagement with interested non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and the general public and will contribute actively to discussion and debate regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear arms control and disarmament issues."

The voice of the churches

The churches have a long history of addressing nuclear weapons issues, and in recent years the European and North American churches have worked together on NATO nuclear policy questions. In April 1999 the Canadian Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches, and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA sent a joint letter to all NATO members declaring that "Contrary to NATO's current strategic concept, nuclear weapons do not, cannot guarantee security. They deliver only insecurity and peril through their promise to annihilate life itself and to ravage the global ecosystem upon which all life depends."

The Councils called on the governments of all NATO members to ensure that NATO policy:

  • affirms NATO's support for the rapid global elimination of nuclear weapons and commits the Alliance to take programmatic action to advance this goal;
  • commits NATO to reducing the alert status of nuclear weapons possessed by NATO members, and to pursuing effective arrangements for the rapid de-alerting of all nuclear weapons possessed by all states; and
  • renounces the first-use of nuclear weapons by any NATO members under any circumstances, and commits NATO to the pursuit of equivalent commitments from other states possessing nuclear weapons.

As part of the same initiative, the World Council of Churches sent a similar letter to the governments of all non-NATO nuclear-weapons states.

Brussels Consultation

More recently, the WCC helped to organize an international gathering of church representatives to explore effective church responses to the NATO nuclear review. American, Canadian, and European church staff with responsibility for public policy issues, individuals from related denominational and ecumenical committees and institutions, and representatives of the Canadian Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and the WCC attended this event, which took place in Brussels on 5-6 October 2000. They were assisted by researchers in security and arms control, and benefited from a session with a senior NATO official. The consultation agreed:

  • to recommend to the ecumenical community that it should engage directly with the current NATO review process with a view to encouraging NATO states and NATO itself to conform to the obligations undertaken in the Non-Proliferation Treaty; and
  • to impress upon churches the need to re-energize their peace witness and, within the framework of the Decade to Overcome Violence, to undertake education, public awareness activity, and advocacy regarding the continuing threat of nuclear weapons.

Ecumenical action

Renewed debates now on the future of nuclear power plants and on the health effects on civilian populations and military personnel of the use of depleted uranium weapons stir public opinion again, raising new, serious questions. The collective efforts of the churches are needed now, and could make an important contribution to raise public awareness of the crucial nuclear-related decisions facing NATO countries, to encourage greater transparency in NATO's decision-making processes, and to reinforce public demands for real progress toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

One means for the ecumenical community to engage directly with the NATO review process would be to send a delegation of church leaders from representative WCC churches to meet with government ministers and officials in key non-nuclear NATO states. The purpose of these coordinated visits would be to encourage those states to work to ensure that NATO nuclear policies conform to the nuclear disarmament obligations undertaken in the Non Proliferation Treaty and reaffirmed and elaborated upon in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference and in the recent "New Agenda" resolution in the UN General Assembly. These meetings could also be used to encourage greater transparency and public access to NATO's decision-making processes on nuclear issues. In addition, such a tour could help to raise public consciousness of the continuing importance of nuclear disarmament both within the ecumenical community and beyond it.

Statement on Nuclear Weapons Disarmament
The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Berlin, 26-27 January 2001,

Reiterates its deep and long-standing concern at the continued risk to Creation posed by the existence of nuclear weapons,

Welcomes the successful outcome of the Sixth Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in May 2000,

Welcomes the Final Document of the Review Conference, which established a new global agenda for nuclear disarmament,

Expresses its satisfaction at the overwhelming support received by the "New Agenda" resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in its 55th Session (Millennium Assembly, 2000), which reaffirmed states' commitment to the pursuit of this disarmament agenda,

Notes the significance of continuing deliberations within and among the member states of NATO on NATO nuclear policy and the future of nuclear disarmament,

Stresses the vital importance of ensuring that the policies of NATO members and NATO itself conform to the obligations undertaken by states in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and are consistent with pursuit of the global nuclear disarmament agenda, and

In the light of the recommendations made at the international gathering of church representatives in Brussels in October 2000,

Calls upon the member states of NATO and NATO itself to ensure that their nuclear weapons policies conform to the obligations undertaken by states in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and are consistent with pursuit of the global nuclear disarmament agenda, and in particular:

  • to affirm NATO's support for the rapid global elimination of nuclear weapons and to commit the Alliance to take programmatic action to advance this goal;
  • to commit NATO to reducing the alert status of nuclear weapons possessed by NATO members, and to pursuing effective arrangements for the rapid de-alerting of all nuclear weapons possessed by all states; and
  • to renounce the first-use of nuclear weapons by any NATO member under any circumstances, and to commit NATO to the pursuit of equivalent commitments from other states possessing nuclear weapons;

Encourages the member states of NATO and NATO itself to provide greater transparency and public access to NATO's decision-making processes on nuclear weapons issues;

Asks the WCC, in consultation with the Conference of European Churches, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and the Canadian Council of Churches, to organize a delegation of church leaders to meet with government ministers and officials in key non-nuclear NATO states to encourage those states to support these policies;

Asks the WCC further to organize comparable processes on the role of nuclear arms and the ways toward nuclear disarmament in other regions of the world, like North East Asia or the Middle East, and

Calls upon member churches in the context of the Decade to Overcome Violence to renew their witness for peace and disarmament through education, public awareness building and advocacy to overcome the continuing threat of nuclear weapons.