Seventy-Fifth Session of the United Nations General Assembly
First Committee General Debate
United Nations, New York, October 19, 2020
I would like to congratulate you on your election and for the work that you and the bureau have completed thus far to allow us to pursue the Committee’s vital work to advance international peace and security, despite the difficulties of the moment and the logistical challenges that these present.
During his visit to Japan last November, Pope Francis underscored that “one of the deepest longings of the human heart is for security, peace and stability. The possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this.” These words underscore how important the work of this Committee is: it far transcends our deliberations and responds to humanity’s deepest longings. Seeking security through arms, however, only makes us progressively more insecure, filling us with “a mentality of fear and mistrust, one that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue.” To pursue arms is contradictory to advancing dialogue.
For three-quarters of a century, general and complete disarmament has been an objective of the international community. The General Assembly’s first resolution called for “the elimination of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction,” and Resolution 41 called for treaties “governing the general regulation and reduction of armaments.” In 1958, the General Assembly unanimously approved Resolution 1378, voicing the hope that “measures leading towards the goal of general and complete disarmament under effective international control [would] be worked out in detail and agreed upon in the shortest possible time.” In 1970, Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) made State Parties’ pursuit of “negotiations in good faith … on a treaty on general and complete disarmament” a binding legal obligation. Such principles of the international community remain and, as such, should be high on this Committee’s agenda.
For some time, an array of treaties helped the international community make progress in reducing and controlling both nuclear and conventional weapons, concluding with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 2011. Those advances have unfortunately given way in recent years to backsliding on prior agreements and to growing rivalries on the part of both global and regional powers. The Holy See strongly urges the parties to the New START to conclude the steps necessary to extend the treaty for a further five years, while they develop the framework for broader bilateral or multilateral undertakings, with the objective of moving closer to a world without nuclear weapons.
With this dismantling of some aspects of the disarmament architecture, tensions in interstate behavior and the increased risks posed by artificial intelligence and cyber technology, the present geostrategic environment is an exceedingly dangerous one. Now is the time to break the impasse blocking progress toward general and complete disarmament.
Whereas the current limitations on the arsenals of the two chief possessors of nuclear weapons were adopted nearly a decade ago, time has not been devoted to working out the next steps. Such work must proceed with greater urgency. There are many issues for consideration, such as establishing overall limits on a State’s weapons and delivery systems, constraints on the deployment of nuclear weapons, entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the verification of agreed undertakings. The evolution of technologies that may find application to nuclear weapon systems, such as nuclear-powered missiles, torpedoes, and hypersonic vehicles, adds further urgency to taking up immediately negotiations for limitations and reductions.
The strategic doctrines of the Nuclear-Weapons-Possessing States have contributed to fomenting this “climate of fear, mistrust and hostility” afflicting the world today. A major step toward general and complete disarmament should therefore begin with a renunciation of defense strategies that blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons. If it is immoral to threaten to use nuclear weapons for purposes of deterrence, It is even worse to intend to use them as just another instrument of war, as some nuclear doctrines propose. The renewed awareness of our common vulnerability and the pre-existent woundedness which the pandemic has laid bare, not least the urgent crisis caused by climate change and the need to recommit to care for our common home, make modernization programs underway, that imply decades more reliance on instruments of death, even more incongruous and take us further away from the noble goal of complete and general disarmament.
Beyond renouncing doctrines of nuclear warfare, Nuclear-Weapons-Possessing States should make a No-First-Use pledge. When the postponed NPT Review Conference convenes, recommitment to general and complete disarmament under Article VI of the Treaty, with a firm calendar for negotiation, ought to be of the highest urgency. It is far past time for Nuclear Weapons States to meet their disarmament obligations under the Treaty. The Treaty provides a global framework toward the elimination of nuclear weapons – weapons of mass destruction – so that they do not constitute the existential threat to humanity they pose today.
A positive development has been the 2017 adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which gives full recognition to the enormous humanitarian consequences that would follow from a conflict in which nuclear weapons were used. The Holy See was among the first to sign the TPNW and to deposit its instrument of ratification.
As we await the day for the TPNW to enter into force, it is imperative to continue encouraging, through concerted diplomatic activity, the participation of all Nuclear-Weapon-Possessing States in negotiations to establish ceilings, if not reductions, regarding their nuclear weapons. These States could also join with TPNW parties to develop the “competent verification authority or authorities” called for by paragraph 6 of Article 4 of the Treaty. The objective of such an authority is “to negotiate and verify the irreversible elimination of nuclear weapon programs, including the elimination or irreversible conversion of all nuclear-weapons-related facilities.”
The fiftieth anniversary of the entry into force of the NPT, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of its indefinite extension, are important milestones that must be recognized as remarkable achievements of the international community. The rescheduled Review Conference needs to be marked by positive engagement, resolute commitment and concerted action by all States to make our world free of nuclear weapons.
As Secretary-General Guterres has emphasized in his spearheading the humanitarian movement for disarmament, there is a need for a new tone for dialogue, among both nuclear and conventional military powers. States should avoid recriminations, heated rhetoric and impossible pre-conditions for dialogue, and, instead, build trust, and commit to civil exchanges and goodwill initiatives.
As accurate statistics and investigative reporting have played a significant role in creating accountability for governments and their militaries for human rights violations, so the Secretary-General’s proposal to record casualties in collaboration with UN human rights and peacekeeping operations and to establish “civilian casualty mitigation cells” within UN and Member State militaries are steps in the right direction. Given the rather limited success of the Secretary-General's call for a universal ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly important to limit the introduction of small arms and light weapons (SALW) into conflict zones.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the grave challenges that will follow us for the coming years. Genuine progress toward general and complete disarmament should free up much-needed resources “that could be better used to benefit the integral development of peoples and protect the natural environment”. As we embark on the Decade of Action for sustainable development, the Holy See urges renewed consideration the establishment of “a Global Fund,” as first urged by Pope Paul VI, “to assist those most impoverished peoples, drawn partially from military expenditures”: a contemporary and much-need expression of ‘turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks’, to which the words of Isaiah, inscribed across the street from the entrance to the United Nations, never cease to summon us.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Pope Francis, Message on Nuclear Weapons, Nagasaki, 24 November 2019.
UNGA, 17thPlenary Meeting, 24 January 1946.
Cfr. Pope Francis, Message on Nuclear Weapons, Nagasaki, 24 November 2019.
Cfr. Pope Francis, Address to the Participants in the International Symposium “Prospects for a world free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament”, Vatican, 10 November 2017.
See the 2018 Report of the Third United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects. A/CONF.192/2018/RC/3 especially paragraph 31.
Pope Francis, Address to the Seventy-fifth Meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, 25 September 2020.
Pope Francis, Message on Nuclear Weapons, Nagasaki, 24 November 2019; cf. Pope Paul VI, Declaration to Journalists, 1964.