The Isaiah Wall at the United Nations, New York. ©Marcelo Schneider/WCC

The Isaiah Wall at the United Nations, New York. ©Marcelo Schneider/WCC

Nearly 70 percent of the world’s countries have now begun negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. One-hundred-thirty-two governments from all regions took part in the first-ever such talks at the United Nations on 27-31 March. There is concerted opposition to the talks from nuclear-armed governments and their allies.

“This treaty can and will change the world,” an 85-year-old survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, Setsuko Thurlow, told the negotiators. Her impassioned plea evoked sustained applause in the normally undemonstrative setting of nuclear conferences.

Ecumenical advocates mobilized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas are lobbying their governments to pursue the ban. The WCC endorsed such a ban at the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea, in 2013. The nuclear ban talks will resume in June.

“Governments, civil society and religious organizations all helped get these historic talks off to a strong start,” said Dr Emily Welty, vice-moderator of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and one of the ecumenical delegates present. “Key elements of a legally binding prohibition are now on the negotiating table. There is considerable agreement that the new treaty will prohibit development, possession and use of nuclear weapons.  It will probably require victim assistance and environmental cleanup as well.”

“The prospect of this much-needed treaty is uniting people of faith and people of goodwill.  It will protect the gift of life and God’s creation,” said CCIA commissioner Adebayo Kehinde of the Church of the Lord Aladura, Nigeria, who also attended the conference.

“Our respective faith traditions advocate for the right of all people to live in security and dignity,” the WCC said in a joint statement to the conference with representatives of world religions. “There is no countervailing imperative…that justifies the continued existence [of nuclear weapons], much less their use.”

As the talks began, the United States ambassador to the UN staged a protest outside the door of the UN General Assembly.  She asserted that a ban was would favor “bad actors” and that nuclear powers “keep peace in a way that does not harm”.  She was joined by ambassadors from two nuclear powers, the United Kingdom and France, and from several US allies that accept its nuclear protection. Of the countries that rely on nuclear weapons, only Japan and The Netherlands took some part in the proceedings.

“This conference is an act of defiance against the logic of fear,” the Holy See told the negotiators. “We may not immediately see it as an act of love, but surely it is a moment when together we live our collective humanity…honoring our commitment to our contemporaries and keeping our promise to generations yet unborn.” Pope Francis sent a message which was read at the start of the conference.

The large-majority support for the treaty and the opposition of a small group of big powers and their allies is reflected in a world map of ban support issued by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which includes the WCC.

Ecumenical delegates are urging their governments to adopt a “human-centered” treaty: the new law should be robust, have strong majority support with or without the nuclear-armed states, and build on existing legal commitments including international humanitarian law.

Each morning of the talks, an interfaith vigil took place at the Isaiah Wall facing the United Nations.

Setsuko Thurlow, the Hiroshima survivor mentioned above, addressed the WCC’s International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in 2011. Calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons figure in WCC policy since 1948.

Learn more about how the WCC is engaged for nuclear arms control

Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace