Is it time to start work on banning nuclear weapons? “Yes” says a growing majority of governments and civil society groups. “No” insists a tiny nuclear-armed minority. “Premature” say some of their closest allies.
That is the barest summary of what happened at the United Nations when 189 countries met recently on what to do about nuclear weapons. Churches seeking specific steps to stop nuclear arms shared long-standing disappointments – plus a few new grounds for hope – with many governments and most of the 120 civil society organisations in New York during May for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference.
A World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation met with a cross-section of the governments at the conference to promote first steps toward a legal ban, a critical set of 10-year-old arms control steps, the nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and other issues from six decades of ecumenical opposition to nuclear armaments.
The tiny minority of treaty states with nuclear weapons – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France – showed little of the will that would be required to actually eliminate their arsenals and end their status as nuclear-weapon states. But the US and UK provided new information about the size of their nuclear arsenals, and all five governments were subjected to the majority will on several fronts.
The pressures included a growing demand for a legal ban on nuclear weapons, an unmet promise to keep nuclear weapons out of the Middle East, a stronger stigma against nuclear weapons use, and increasing international impatience with the nuclear-weapon states over their treaty obligations. After much debate, each of these issues gained a new lease of life via the conference action plan.
Compared to the same review conference five years ago, such references are a kind of success. Compared to the recently rekindled vision of a world without any nuclear weapons, the decisions are modest nods in the right direction.
Demonstrating grassroots and global concern, the WCC delegates presented the United Kingdom delegation with a joint petition backed by eight major British churches.
WCC delegate, the Rev Dr Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, cited the call of sister churches in the UK for their government to support the negotiation of “a nuclear weapons convention that would make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal”.
He noted that the WCC was bringing similar requests from churches in Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas to their governments at the conference.
In twelve government meetings, the WCC delegates also raised a set of practical steps agreed by the NPT conference of 2000.
“The steps need to be updated to address current disarmament challenges. But this time there must be a timeline for implementation of the steps,” WCC delegate Dr Ninan Koshy said.
Dr Koshy is an analyst, commentator and former WCC advocacy director from India. After four weeks of civil society groups and governments making the same point, steps with some deadlines were included in the conference action plan.
Two-thirds of the governments and most of the 120 non-governmental organisations present called for a process leading to negotiation of a convention banning nuclear weapons. The nuclear-weapon states insisted on watering down the reference to simply “note” the idea and omit the proposed timelines, but even that was seen as progress.
“The high aspirations which churches place on achieving critical long-term goals like nuclear disarmament have proved themselves in various fields,” moderator of the European Council of Religious Leaders, the Rev Dr Gunnar Stalsett, former bishop of Oslo and member of the WCC delegation, said to one government. “Such hopes can play a vital role in supporting incremental steps toward the ultimate goal.”
The WCC delegation supported an agreement to open talks on a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, which became one of the conference’s most important achievements.
“The Arab and Israeli positions are not mutually exclusive – there cannot be peace without security, or security without peace. Therefore we call on regional state delegations to make a clear commitment to parallel peace and arms control tracks,” said a joint civil society paper on the issue, which the WCC helped prepare.
In its final document, the NPT conference welcomed the establishment of new nuclear-weapon-free zones in Africa, which churches helped realise, and in Central Asia. Prior to the conference, the WCC presented church activities to a meeting of civil society groups and governments from five nuclear-weapon-free zones that cover the Southern Hemisphere and adjacent countries north of the equator.
(c) Jonathan Frerichs is World Council of Churches programme executive for peace building and disarmament, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
For more information on the WCC project 'Churches engaged for nuclear arms control' go to: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/programmes/public-witness-addressing-power-a...