Statement by H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the
Seventy-third Session of the United Nations General Assembly
First Committee Thematic discussions: Nuclear disarmament
New York, 22 October 2018
A nuclear war would be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. Even a limited nuclear weapons use would kill untold numbers of people, cause tremendous environmental damage and famine. The Secretary-General of the United Nations recently warned: “We are one mechanical, electronic or human error away from a catastrophe that could eradicate entire cities from the map.” My Delegation thus believes that the continued existence of over 14,000 nuclear weapons held by a handful of countries is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time.
The Catholic Church’s opposition to nuclear weapons has a long history. In 1943, two and a half years prior to the Trinity test in 1945, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), alerted to the discovery of nuclear fission, voiced deep concern regarding the violent use of nuclear energy. Since then, the Holy See has been warning of the increasing dangers to humanity posed by nuclear weapons. In his 1963 Encyclical Letter Peace on Earth, a few months after the October Crisis of 1962, Pope St. John XXIII called for the banning of nuclear weapons. Subsequent Popes have consistently called for the abolition of these evil instruments of warfare that create both a false sense of security and foster distrust and disharmony.
In a landmark document in 1965, the Catholic Church declared: “The [nuclear] arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one that injures the poor to an intolerable degree.” Today, the maintenance of nuclear weapons continues to siphon off immense resources that could be devoted, inter alia, to the implementation and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.
During the Cold War, the Holy See gave limited acquiescence to the military strategy of nuclear deterrence on the strict condition that it would lead to disarmament measures. In recent years and especially in our days, however, the major powers have instead persisted in their reliance on nuclear deterrence and begun the modernization of their nuclear arsenals.
Pope Francis has made clear that this nuclear escalation is morally unacceptable: “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence.” Speaking at an international symposium in 2017, the Pope voiced grave concern over the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of nuclear weapons use and noted the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, and said, “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”
Unfortunately, the Nuclear-Weapon States have not fully respected their legal obligation, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to pursue in good faith negotiations towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. More than two decades ago, the International Court of Justice unanimously ruled that negotiations for nuclear disarmament must not only be pursued but concluded. The NPT will soon be fifty years old, and no comprehensive negotiations for nuclear disarmament have ever taken place. The reductions in numbers from Cold War highs are important steps in the direction of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, but they should not be cited to mask the modernization of nuclear weapons that some Nuclear-Weapons States are undertaking.
Expressing great concern at the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapon use, a significant number of non-nuclear States and civil society groups joined efforts, under the auspices of the United Nations, to produce the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted at the UN Headquarters on 7 July 2017. The Treaty prohibits the use, threat of use, development, testing, production, manufacturing and possession of nuclear weapons. Though some States have argued that it is a distraction from the NPT, this historic Treaty could be, on the contrary, a major step towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
The Holy See was one of the first States to sign and ratify the Treaty. It will enter into force when ratified by fifty States. My Delegation strongly encourages all Governments of States who adopted the Treaty to sign and ratify it.
Today, with so many informed analysts warning against the extreme dangers posed to the world by the moves away from further progress in nuclear disarmament, and the vigorous condemnation of their possession by Pope Francis, the time for action is not only ripe but pressing. We need a worldwide dialogue, including both the nuclear and non-nuclear States and the burgeoning organizations that make up the civil society, “to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all to the benefit of our common home.”
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
1. António Guterres, Remarks at the University of Geneva on the launch of the Disarmament Agenda, 24 May 2018.
2. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, 7 December 1965, 81.
3. Pope Francis, Message on the occasion of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, 7 December 2014.
4. Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the International Symposium “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament”, 10 November 2017.
5. Pope Francis, Message on the occasion of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, 7 December 2014.