Towards a nuclear weapons free future

By Jonathan Frerichs
29 Jan 2009

Prepare for some good news in 2009. Despite the terrible start in Gaza and other endemic conflicts, governments committed to shared security are set to reach an historic milestone this year. Specifically, the number of countries protected by nuclear-weapon-free zones is set to jump to 110 countries from 56 at present.

The change will come from an African capital, like Windhoek or Bujumbura, as soon as two more governments ratify the treaty making Africa a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Churches are promoting the step, and linking Africa's action to the need for similar progress in the Middle East.

"This will be good news on the nuclear front for Africa and the world," notes Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat, a senior African statesman. Kiplagat is leading a World Council of Churches (WCC) initiative to help bring the Africa Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty into force, with church action nationally to support an international goal.

A recent ecumenical delegation to Namibia received a positive response from top government officials there. Ratification of the Africa treaty will mean that the whole southern hemisphere and adjoining regions are protected. Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Central Asia have also set up zones that exclude nuclear arms and related activities.

The focus on collective international security has been growing for months, with ecumenical participation of different kinds. "The commitment of world religions to shared security means bringing governments to make good on their promise to free the world of nuclear weapons," WCC president for Asia Soritua Nababan told a summit of world religious leaders in Japan on the eve of last year's G-8 meeting.

The advent of a new administration in the United States has already helped push nuclear treaties higher on the world agenda. Curbing nuclear fuels and banning all nuclear tests will be central issues at major United Nations conferences the WCC will attend in Geneva and New York in 2009. For churches, the trend means that 60 years of disarmament policies reinforced by all WCC Assemblies have a future again after years of frustration.

"You will see fundamental transformation of US nuclear policies," an adviser to President Obama during his election campaign, Joseph Cirincione, told groups including the WCC at a European Parliament conference last month. "These will include reaching out early to the Russian government and negotiating deep cuts in nuclear arsenals," said Cirincione, who is president of a fund that builds civil society capacity in the field, the Ploughshares Foundation.

In a major address late last year, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon called the abolition of nuclear weapons "a global public good of the highest order". He said progress would come via the rule of law, including treaties establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones in Africa and, unavoidably, the Middle East. The UN leader noted the essential role of the main nuclear arms control treaty (known by its acronym, NPT) and the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Ecumenical and interfaith delegations attend both forums regularly.

To promote the nuclear-weapon-free zones in Africa and the Middle East, the WCC has established contacts in 50 countries with representatives of governments, civil society and religious groups.

The Middle East project is based on cooperation among the three Abrahamic faiths, including some of the signatories of a historic letter from Muslim to Christian leaders in 2007 which condemned weapons of mass destruction. Both the Africa and Middle East initiatives implement WCC Assembly and governing body resolutions.

Uranium, a dangerous resource

"Africa has enormous nuclear resources as well as a calling and commitment to disarmament and to keeping out nuclear weapons," says Ambassador Kiplagat. Namibia, for example, is on course to become the world's largest exporter of uranium. Its leaders are eager to protect the resource from outside control.

The Africa nuclear-weapon-free zone would provide countries like Namibia with safeguards over security, environment and commerce. Without such regulation, a country with this rare and dangerous mineral may face a situation where uranium is traded like blood diamonds, United Congregational Church in Southern Africa president Andre September noted during the WCC meetings in Namibia.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, chairperson of the South Africa Council of Churches, told the WCC delegation that in Africa nuclear energy and armaments have to be seen "through different lenses – in relation to a 'people's budget', for example, and against the need for human security and for environmental protection." South Africa is the only African state that has had nuclear weapons.

"It is an exercise of faith to meet the common threat that nuclear arms pose to human life, to all forms of life and to the stewardship of God's creation," WCC president Nababan told the world religious leaders summit in Japan last year.

Nababan noted that reducing the nuclear threat now will bring benefits in different fields. He said that churches see the nuclear crisis as a political, economic, environmental, and spiritual crisis.

It is political, he said, because the world is divided into a few nuclear "haves" and many nuclear "have-nots"; economic, because nuclear weapons programs are the costliest items in the world's largest military budgets; environmental because, like climate change, nuclear weapons are a misuse of energy that is sufficient to threaten life on the planet; spiritual and psychological because nuclear weapons demand of their owners the opposite of what God intends for the human community.

Recent moves against nuclear weapons also include a global civil society initiative to eliminate nuclear arsenals, called "Global Zero"; 500 cities in 2008 joining an anti-nuclear coalition called Mayors for Peace which now links 2,600 city governments; a new European Union proposal for a global ban on nuclear testing and on fissile material production; UK churches lobbying against their government's renewal of its nuclear arsenal; and a recent ecumenical conference in Seoul that challenged churches to respond globally to nuclear threats against nations.

Churches and related groups that work against nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are contributing to the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence, to its final regional focus on Africa and to the 2011 International Ecumenical Peace Convocation. The 2011 event takes place in the Caribbean, which is part of the world's first nuclear-weapon-free zone.

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(c) Jonathan Frerichs. The author is World Council of Churches programme executive for nuclear disarmament and the Middle East, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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