Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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Nuclear disarmament and the Francis factor

Since the beginning of his papacy three years ago, Pope Francis has repeatedly named nuclear disarmament as a major goal, alongside addressing climate change and welcoming migrants. All three issues are essential to Francis’ vision expressed in Laudato Si’, for a “culture of care which permeates all of society.”  The following article was published in the March-April 2016 issue of NewsNotes.

In the months leading up to and after his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Pope Francis has strongly advocated for a renewal of efforts for a world without nuclear weapons. This is despite the belief by many officials of Western governments and non-governmental organizations that disarmament and non-proliferation advocacy was a relic of the past.

In December 2014, the Vatican submitted a paper calling for total nuclear disarmament to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. On Easter Sunday 2015, Pope Francis publicly prayed that the prospective multi-nation deal to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be “a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.” And finally, in September, the pope issued a call to action in his speech to the United Nations, especially as that event happened to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s historic UN speech calling for “never again war, never again war.” 

“An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction – and possibly the destruction of all mankind – are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations, which would end up as ‘nations united by fear and distrust,’” the pope said in his speech to the UN general assembly.  “There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the non-proliferation Treaty, in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons.”

A few weeks after Pope Francis’ speech to the UN and the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement, the UN established the “UN working group on nuclear disarmament,” an open-ended working group to address concrete effective legal measures, provisions, and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.

Progress has continued in 2016:

In January, Pope Francis raised the issue again in his speech to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps: “[The Iran nuclear deal] represents for the entire international community an important achievement; it reflects a powerful collective realization of the grave responsibility incumbent on individuals and nations to protect creation, to promote a ‘culture of care which permeates all of society.’  It is now essential that those commitments prove more than simply a good intention, but rather a genuine duty incumbent on all states to do whatever is needed to safeguard our beloved earth for the sake of all mankind, especially generations yet to come.”

On January 28, in a surprising reversal of policy, Japan agreed to join the UN working group on nuclear disarmament, even though Japan still does not support a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction. The first session of the working group was held in Geneva in February, with two more sessions scheduled for May and August. The group plans to present a recommendation on nuclear disarmament at a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in October.

Another surprise came in February when the U.S government declassified the fact that the United States stored nuclear weapons on Okinawa during the Cold War. Although suspected for decades, the subject has been controversial because Japan’s leaders and U.S. officials consistently denied the presence of nuclear weapons on Japanese territory. It became a “known secret” in 2010 when the government of Japan admitted that previous administrations had lied to the public and confirmed the existence of secret Cold War-era agreements allowing the U.S. to bring nuclear weapons into the country in violation of Japan's non-nuclear policies.

A strange twist in the declassification is the existence of U.S. Air Froce photographs of nuclear weapons on Okinawa that have been publicly available for over 25 years. The National Security Archive of George Washington University posted the first formally declassified document, along with several of the photos originally released in 1990, which had gone unnoticed until now.

Looking forward, we continue to advocate for a halt to the construction of naval base to host nuclear submarines on Jeju Island in South Korea. And we support the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act, a bill that would scale down, delay, or cancel a variety of obsolete U.S. nuclear weapons programs.

Faith in action: Ask Congress to support the SANE Act by using this form created by Peace Action.