When Pope Francis came to the United States he brought with him not only his spirituality, but his courage, compassion and commitment to creating a more decent world. He urged the people of the US and their representatives to live by the Golden Rule and to respect nature that sustains us all. Despite a full schedule, he found time to share a meal with the homeless, dialogue with prisoners, and bless those in need. He commented that the children are the most important among us. He taught us with his smiles, his warmth, his words and his deeds.
The Pope did so much during his six-day visit that many Americans may have missed his remarks at the United Nations on September 25th on the “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.” The Pope asks us not only to desire such a world, but admonishes us “to work” for it. In order to achieve this world, one must work to replace apathy with empathy, conformity with critical thinking, ignorance with wisdom, and denial with recognition of the threat these weapons pose to humankind and the human future.
Pope Francis calls upon us to recognize that there is an “urgent need” for such work. It is not work for a distant day, or work that can be put off to another time. The matter is urgent, the need is great. He also calls for the “full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in letter and spirit.” The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, requires the parties in Article VI of the treaty “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament….”
The five nuclear-armed countries that are parties to the NPT (US, Russia, UK, France and China) are not at present following either the letter or spirit of the treaty. Rather than ending the nuclear arms race, they are engaged in costly and dangerous “modernizing” of their nuclear arsenals, while ignoring their obligations to negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament. The four nuclear-armed countries that are not parties to the treaty (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) are bound by customary international law to these provisions of the NPT, and are also ignoring their obligations under international law.
Pope Francis is clear that the goal to be achieved is the “complete prohibition” of nuclear weapons. Partial measures are not enough. As the spiritual leader that he is, he must be keenly aware that all of Creation, including humankind, is placed at risk by the more than 15,000 nuclear weapons still on our planet. The Pope effectively dismisses nuclear deterrence as a justification for nuclear weapons. He states, “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.’”
As someone who has worked for the abolition of nuclear weapons for more than three decades, I am greatly encouraged by the Pope’s resounding call for “complete prohibition.” He did not mince his words. He was clear and direct and spoke of the urgency that is necessary to accomplish the task. Many others throughout the world seeking a world free of nuclear weapons must also be elated by Pope Francis’ call for nuclear weapons abolition, including the 117 countries that have signed the “Humanitarian Pledge,” initiated by Austria, to fill the legal gap that currently exists regarding possession of these weapons. The tiny Republic of the Marshall Islands must be particularly encouraged by the Pope’s call for abolition as it is in the process of suing the nine nuclear-armed countries in the International Court of Justice and in US federal court for their failure to fulfill their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law.
Pope Francis is a wise and decent man. His words of support for a “complete prohibition” of nuclear weapons should give heart to all who seek a world free of nuclear weapons, a goal that those of us now alive owe to our children and grandchildren and all generations that will follow us on the planet.
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