Dr. Emily Welty is an assistant professor in Peace and Justice Studies at Pace University in New York City (USA). She also serves as vice moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
As an advocate for banning nuclear weapons, Dr Welty is known both for her unwavering belief in a world free from nuclear weapons, and for her strategic thinking toward that goal. On 7 July at the United Nations, 122 governments adopted a treaty that makes nuclear weapons illegal, a treaty that bans the manufacture, possession and use of nuclear weapons and provides pathways for their eventual elimination.
Welty was among many advocates who have worked toward this new international law for more than four years. Even as she celebrates this milestone, Dr. Welty is thinking about the work still to be done.
A couple of months after the signing of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Dr Welty took time for an interview with WCC news at the WCC offices in New York City. Dr Welty, with a sense of honesty and warmth, shared a bit of her knowledge and experience, as well as an idea of how she is able to guide others in a vision for a nuclear-free world by keeping strong her own sense of hope.
Standing on the shoulders of the ecumenical world
Q: As vice moderator for the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs - and in your other roles - you have worked many years to bring justice for those affected by the use and testing of nuclear weapons. What are your strongest personal impressions of the recent nuclear ban treaty?
Dr. Welty: “I still feel so excited about it. On one hand, it feels unbelievable that we did it. At the same time it feels so obvious: of course nuclear weapons should be illegal - of course they should! For so many people, it’s common sense.
I have also been inspired and I feel so indebted to both my elders here in the USA and to some of our ancestors who dedicated their lives to on-the-ground advocacy. For example, to stand there the day the treaty was signed, and to be able to be in the room and watch longtime activists like Srs. Carol Gilbert and Ardeth Platte, Dominican sisters of Grand Rapids, Michigan. These two incredible nuns have worked their entire lives; they have spent years in prison. One of the first things I said to them was, “We did this for you.” Immediately they said, “We’ve got more work to do.” Now we will forever be able to mark what they sacrificed. The two of them boarded a plane for Germany two weeks later to take a copy of the ban treaty with them and presented it to the commander of Buchel Air Force Base in Germany where 20 USA nuclear weapons are based.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the tremendous giants in the ecumenical world, including them.
Q: With natural disasters, climate change, racial tension, conflict and many other challenges in today’s world, what is the biggest challenge you face in communicating an urgency to banning nuclear weapons?
Dr Welty: I try to think about these issues in an intersectional way. Without trying to raise the level of hysterical panic, I do think people should be panicking slightly more about nuclear weapons. At times I’ve been under a little bit of pressure from the broader advocacy community. People ask ‘why nuclear weapons?’ when climate change is looming or racial justice is so acute. That’s a hard question. These are interconnected issues. The devastation of the climate is not unconnected from nuclear weapons especially when we look at the way nuclear testing has decimated soil and water. I also see nuclear weapons as an issue related to decolonization, an issue around racial justice. For example, the impact of nuclear testing disproportionately affected the South Pacific, the indigenous populations in Australia. These are not completely unconnected issues, and making the connections in careful ways is important.
Q: How does the current collective desperation to feel “safe” sometimes impede our work toward a world free from nuclear weapons?
What does it mean to be safe?
Dr Welty: This is a distorted line of thought: “nuclear weapons make us safe.” If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought nuclear weapons were a pressing threat - I didn’t see them that way. This was not something I was mobilized around in college. I very much saw it as something that had happened in the past. I was aware that it was horrific. I was aware of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At that time, before I started working on this issue, I would have guessed the USA had 10 nuclear weapons. As of 2017, the U.S. has an inventory of 6,800 nuclear warheads. One nuclear weapon has the ability to wreak unimaginable destruction and suffering. I can’t imagine the number of times we have nearly avoided a nuclear launch due to human incompetence or machine malfunction. In fact, one of the campaign slogans is, “There are no safe hands for nuclear weapons.”
There may be more erratic decision makers today but nuclear weapons did not suddenly become a terrifying threat. There are no responsible human beings that should have access to that kind of sheer destructive power.
Responsibility to people, land, water
Q: What you do believe our responsibility is to those affected by the use and testing of nuclear weapons?
Dr Welty: The treaty commits the nations of the world to acknowledging that we have positive obligations towards survivors of both nuclear usage and nuclear testing. Survivors are entitled to support for addressing health concerns that have been going on for generations, living on in the bodies of those in the affected areas and in their children and grandchildren. The treaty also obligates the nations of the world to address environmental remediation to the land and the water as well as to the people.
This past spring I traveled to White Sands in New Mexico. You can’t go to the Trinity site but it was important for my spouse, Matthew Bolton, and I in the midst of working on this treaty to see firsthand the landscape that we are really talking about when we read and argue about nuclear weapons.
[Editor’s note: Trinity was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. It was conducted by the United States Army at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945 in the Jornada del Muerto desert about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico.]
It made me feel nauseous to be in the space. The southwestern part of this country has imprinted itself on my soul. I am quite bound up in the desert landscape. We drove through that area, and thought about the mythology that we have been told which is such a common colonial mythology, that is, that there was no one around. We tested weapons in these so-called “deserted places.” That’s simply not true. It’s a case of not seeing the human beings in the area as human beings. That really affected me on a physical level to see that space, to have the knowledge that this was the beginning of what was to come.
I’m also deeply affected by the religious language surrounding nuclear weapons. I find it deeply offensive on the most fundamental level that we have used religious language around nuclear weapons: Trinity. And people used to talk about the nuclear priesthood. The faith component is really critical here also. People of faith should view nuclear weapons as a sin, as a stain upon our conscious as people of faith. I don’t want people to live with a paralyzing sense of guilt but in the truest sense for me, it degrades my soul to live in and be a citizen of a country that possesses nuclear weapons. I don’t ever want to be okay with that. I teach my classes about what it means to be a bystander. When we think about violence it’s often about perpetrators and victims. It’s important we think about bystanders in a country that has thousands of nuclear weapons.
Believing in a nuclear weapon-free future
Q: What excites you the most about getting young people involved in working for a world without nuclear weapons? How can we inspire the next generation?
Dr. Welty: I talk about it a lot in classes. There are practical things that everyday people can do. Students especially want to know what they can do because they don’t have access directly to the UN. But you can ask your local city to become a nuclear free zone. That’s a very doable action.
You can also look at how your money is invested with banks. There’s a fantastic campaign called “Don’t Bank With the Bomb.” It looks at the ways financial institutions around the world have invested money in nuclear technology. You can go to your bank and ask that your money not be invested in nuclear weapons.
We have to be wiling to take hard action, to not live in a state of collective denial.
Q: Do you think we will reach a world free from nuclear weapons in your lifetime?
Dr. Welty: I have to believe that. Everyone said it would be impossible to pass a treaty banning nuclear wagons but we did. I believe I will live to see it.
WCC expresses support for Swedish ban on nuclear weapons (WCC press release of 19 September 2017)
Banning nuclear weapons, 122 governments take leadership where nuclear powers have failed (WCC news release 8 July 2017)