I want to start my remarks by affirming the proposition expressed in the title of this forum: “A world free from nuclear weapons is possible!” But more than possible, a world free from nuclear weapons is necessary if we are to avoid one of the greatest man-made threats to the human community and the environment – to God’s unique living Creation on this planet. And Christian engagement for this purpose is essential if we really take seriously our God-given responsibility as stewards of that living Creation, if we honour the Biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbour’, and if we apply the moral discernment to which God calls us.
Nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately and catastrophically destructive category of weapons ever created by human beings. They are designed to destroy entire cities, along with everyone and everything in them, and their use poisons the environment for thousands upon thousands of years. If military forces these days are proud of their precision-targeted ‘smart’ weapon capabilities, nuclear weapons are truly the ‘dumbest’ weapons.
I had the honour of being present – representing the World Council of Churches – at the November 2017 conference where Pope Francis became the first pontiff in the nuclear era to take a categorical stand against nuclear weapons, describing even the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral. The World Council of Churches has also adopted a position of categorical opposition to nuclear weapons – already since its founding Assembly in 1948, when the WCC described the prospect of war with nuclear weapons as a “sin against God and a degradation of man.”
And in 1950, the WCC Executive Committee declared that “[t]he hydrogen bomb is the latest and most terrible step in the crescendo of warfare which has changed war from a fight between men and nations to a mass murder of human life. Man’s rebellion against his Creator has reached such a point that, unless staved, it will bring self-destruction upon him.” The WCC has continued to call for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons since that time, through its governing bodies, functional commissions, and member churches.
In the intervening years WCC has also given special attention to the situation of peoples suffering from the toxic legacy of nuclear testing programmes in the Pacific and elsewhere – and to the racism and colonialism inherent in nuclear weapon States’ choices of locations for their tests. With this focus on the impacts of such weapons – even in peace time – on the lives of people and communities and on the environment, WCC was naturally a strong supporter of the ‘humanitarian pledge initiative’ and of the advocacy which led ultimately to the drafting and adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). We endorse the TPNW’s comprehensive approach (prohibiting not only the use but also the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, and threat of use of nuclear weapons), and its introduction of specific obligations for victim assistance and environmental remediation. And during the last 15 years we have been active participants in the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
Of course, many will say that unless and until nuclear-armed States join the TPNW – which is obviously not likely to happen any time soon – the treaty is effectively meaningless. I beg to differ. The TPNW – adopted by the General Assembly in July 2017, entered into force on 22 January 2021, and with currently 92 signatories and 68 ratifications – has already succeeded in creating a new normative principle in international law that challenges the ‘normalization’ of the continued possession of such weapons by established nuclear-armed States, to which we have hitherto collectively acquiesced. And the salience of that new normative principle will only grow with each new signature and ratification of the TPNW, especially as we approach the threshold of a majority of UN member States joining the treaty. The WCC’s 11th Assembly, which took place in Karlsruhe in September 2022, specifically urged “all states that have not already done so to sign and ratify the [TPNW], especially nuclear umbrella states and nuclear-armed states that are the source of this global threat.”
Unlike the TPNW, most nuclear-armed States are party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – Article VI of which obliges States parties to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to 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". However, mere lip service has been paid to that obligation, while nuclear-armed States continue to use the NPT as a ‘fig leaf’ under which to maintain their arsenals and to develop ever more powerful weapons systems, while not actually doing a very good job of preventing proliferation of such weapons. On the contrary, none of current nuclear weapon States achieved that status without the assistance of one or more of the P5 members of the UN Security Council.
While the absolute number of nuclear weapons has declined since its height during the Cold War, it only amounts to a reduction in the number of times that the world’s population centres could be destroyed. It is estimated that today's nuclear arsenals globally – even after the reductions achieved through all the arms control treaties to date – exceed the combined explosive force of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs together with ALL the weapons used during World War II by almost 400 times. Meanwhile, new and more powerful weapons continue to be developed, and the threshold of nuclear engagement has been lowered through the development of ‘tactical’ battlefield weapons. And now, especially following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, almost all the remaining nuclear arms control guardrails and taboos have been dismantled, and even simple communications between the world’s largest nuclear powers have been reduced to dangerously negligible levels.
The basis on which nuclear-armed States have typically justified their continued possession of these weapons of mass destruction, especially in such times of heightened geopolitical tension as we face now, is the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In the WCC we are grateful for the Holy Father’s clear denunciation – in the same November 2017 conference – of nuclear deterrence as morally unacceptable. We concur. The WCC 11th Assembly invited “reflection and discussion within and among the member churches of the WCC fellowship on Christian principles and perspectives with regard to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.” Because nuclear deterrence presumes that the population of a nuclear weapon State or a ‘nuclear umbrella’ State would actually contemplate nuclear weapons being used on their behalf to annihilate entire cities, entire populations and entire ecosystems, under any circumstances. From a general ethical point of view – and certainly from a Christian moral perspective – this warrants close interrogation.
Indeed, in addition to the moral/ethical question, there is a democratic deficit at the heart of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. I do not believe that the government of any nuclear-armed State has ever been elected explicitly on the basis of its nuclear weapons policy. And unbiased survey evidence – such as that elicited by the Nuclear Knowledges project at Sciences Po – does not support claims of popular consensus in favour of current nuclear weapons policies in European nuclear-armed and nuclear umbrella States. Whether the same is true in United States remains to be tested.
History shows how close, on several occasions, the world has come to nuclear conflagration not by design but by accident or simple human or technological error. This history demonstrates that there are no safe hands in which such weapons can be entrusted. Moreover, the possession of nuclear weapons by some, and the political power leveraged as a result of possessing such weapons, actually serves to incentivize nuclear proliferation and to increase risks of nuclear war.
The reliance on nuclear weapons must no longer be accepted as ‘normal’, but must be stigmatized. These weapons must be eliminated from the face of the planet, not at some distant future point, but now, as soon as possible. The legal instrument for these purposes is now available, in the form of the TPNW.
I believe that churches, as moral voices and representing significant constituencies, can help achieve these objectives by continuously making the ethical humanitarian case for the elimination of nuclear weapons, as against the prevailing political/military/strategic grounds for their continued retention.
Director, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, WCC