NEW YORK — As tensions continue to mount between the United States and North Korea, the Vatican is hosting a conference November 10-11 on nuclear weapons. In the United States, the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations is playing a critical role in the efforts to avoid war between the two countries — and also work toward the long-term goal of nuclear disarmament. Prior to the Vatican conference, Crux spoke with Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the current apostolic nuncio to the United Nations, to discuss these ongoing efforts.
Crux: The situation between North Korea and the United States looms heavily in the background of this conference taking place at the Vatican. What is happening at the United Nations to prevent nuclear war between these two nations and, specifically, how is the Holy See engaged on this front?
Auza: The Conference being held this weekend in the Vatican was in the works before tensions between the U.S. and North Korea heated up, but the problems on the Korean Peninsula certainly make the Conference take on added relevance and importance.
At the United Nations, there is a universal will that North Korea stop its nuclear weapons program. The peoples of the world are justly concerned that those with nuclear weapons may one day be insane enough to use them. There is a logic to the use of nuclear weapons after all: they are developed not just to sit in a bunker as a theoretical deterrent; they are developed in light of possible use. Thousands of people are regularly trained to use them on land, on boats, on submarines. National leaders of nuclear possessing states travel with launch codes even on vacation. Thanks be to God they haven’t been used yet, but we need to face the fact that several countries already have a complex, well-honed system trained to deploy fire from hell on a moment’s notice.
During the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, people were well aware that nuclear weapons were developed toward possible use, and foreseeing that horror and even practicing for it in grade school, no doubt helped develop a sense of urgency for nuclear non-proliferation and the reduction of stockpiles. Since the end of the Cold War, however, many have lost that necessary sense of urgency. What is bringing it back is the possibility that nuclear weapons can and probably will fall into the hands of terrorists who would not hesitate to use them, or states led by those whom people fear have apocalyptic delusions.
Since the emergence of the nuclear age, the Holy See has not ceased to raise the moral and prudential argument against the possession and use of nuclear weapons. The incalculable and indiscriminate humanitarian consequences of such weapons make their use clearly against international law and international humanitarian law, and we have worked and continue to work for a world without them. The Conference taking place in the Vatican these days is just one of the numerous initiatives of the Holy See and the Catholic Church.
Here at the United Nations, the Holy See participated actively in the negotiations for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons over the last year and was one of three States both to sign and ratify it on September 20, the first day doing so was possible. In the last six weeks, in various debates at the UN, the Holy See has spoken out five separate times on the subject of nuclear weapons in various debates on the effects of atomic radiation, the push to general and complete disarmament, the general debate of the First Committee dedicated to disarmament, the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and the General Debate of the UN General Assembly, during which Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, recalled Pope Francis’s words at the same rostrum in 2015, about the “urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Talk of a world without nuclear weapons is often dismissed as idealistic and lofty. Why does the Holy See believe that this is actually an achievable goal and what positive actions can you point to as evidence this could one day become a reality?
Naysayers have been with us since time immemorial. And so it is when it comes to nuclear weapons. Many states and individuals continue to claim that nuclear disarmament is essentially utopian. But why would South Africa and Kazakhstan have given up their nuclear weapons if it were impossible? We are aware of small but many steps that have already been taken to make what is deemed by some as impossible more and more possible.
The United States and the Russian Federation have substantially reduced their stockpiles. The vast majority of states in the world, including the Holy See, willed to enshrine their collective will against nuclear proliferation and to work toward nuclear disarmament in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, only two years after it was adopted in 1968. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted in July this year by 122 of the 124 States participating in the negotiations, was signed by fifty states the moment it was opened for signature on September 20, and simultaneously ratified by three signatories, including the Holy See.
As I have said several times in various settings, the Holy See signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons because it is a step forward toward nuclear disarmament, one more piece in forward-looking and patient strategies to promote the goals of just peace and stability that would render nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction less and less attractive and make countries feel less and less the need of such weapons for their security. States who have been critical of this treaty claim that it is a distraction from the NPT. The Holy See does not share this view.
On the contrary, it sees the treaty as a very important step in the achievement of nuclear non-proliferation, given that each state party to the treaty “undertakes never under any circumstances to,” inter alia, “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Moreover, the treaty is a significant contribution to the overall effort toward complete nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, and to negotiating a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control, as provided for by the famous Chapter VI of the NPT.
I am very well aware of the very unique status of nuclear weapons: until human genius invents something deadlier, it is the ultimate arbiter of military might and supremacy. But this does not prevent us from looking around for examples of how persistent efforts to ban other weapons of mass destruction have been successful, even if it took centuries. Let’s look, for instance, at the attitudes toward chemical and biological weapons. Chemical weapons have been used since time immemorial… poisoned arrows, poisoned smokes, even venomous snakes, food and drinks laced with poison, and much more recently, poisoned pellets fired from an umbrella into a dissident’s leg, or a cup of tea laced with polonium.
The horrors resulting from the wide use of chemical weapons during the two World Wars did not stop many countries from stockpiling chemical weapons during the Cold War. Yet it was not impossible to achieve the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, which entered into force in 1997. The total horror and the universal will to eliminate these deadly weapons have been strongly re-enforced by recent uses of chemical weapons. Perhaps those who fought hard toward the elimination of these lethal toxic and biological weapons of mass destruction were also considered naïve and seeking the impossible. This example should give us hope and added determination in our efforts toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons. It may take long, very long, but I would refuse to rule out surprises.
So far, what’s the relationship been like between the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations and the U.S. Mission to the UN, specifically with the Trump administration?
The Holy See has cordial relations with practically every Mission at the UN, and that is certainly and happily the case between the Holy See and the United States. For the last couple of years, we have been collaborating with the U.S. Mission in the fight against the scourge of human trafficking and on language in some UN resolutions. With the change in administration, we have been able to work more closely on other issues, like the protection of human life and the defense of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.
Last week, the Holy See sponsored a conference on peace, reconciliation and justice for those victimized by Daesh. Ambassador Kelley Currie of the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations not only participated but gave a very moving intervention emphasizing the desire of the United States to collaborate to bring justice to the victims, accountability to the victimizers, and help to repair the enormous damage to person, homes, schools and the region. As with every country, of course, we always work so that our collaboration can expand.
Where does nuclear disarmament rank in terms of the Holy See’s priorities at the UN?
It has been one of the Holy See’s constant and top priorities since even before the birth of nuclear weapons. One would recall that already in 1943, two years and a half prior to the Trinity test in 1945 and also two years and a half before the birth of the United Nations itself, Pope Pius XII, alerted to the discovery of nuclear fission, voiced deep concern regarding the violent use of nuclear energy. Already in 1954, Pius XII called for the effective proscription and banishment of atomic warfare and to avoid the arms race, which he aptly defined as a “costly relationship of mutual terror.”
The Holy See’s position on nuclear weapons has been both firm and consistent across more than seventy years, and it will remain so for as long as there are nuclear weapons. Some claim that peace cannot be maintained in the world today and tomorrow without the threat of “mutually assured destruction” by means of the possession and possible use of nuclear weapons. We know that is not real peace; it is just the absence of war based on reciprocal mistrust and fear. Real peace, as St. Augustine taught us, is a tranquility of order, a harmony that flows from fraternity, solidarity, mutual concern and trust. Popes, in particular from John XXIII to Francis, have always and consistently taught us this.
Can you speak more broadly about the moral authority the Holy See has at the United Nations, both historically and now?
We know that moral authority — for individuals, organizations, churches or even states — is always earned, not accorded by decree or resolution. The authority that sustains the Holy See’s words and action at the multilateral level, at the United Nations in particular, has not been earned once and for all, nor is it simply a result of the Holy See’s also being a religious entity in addition to a legal entity recognized by international law and by the Vienna Conventions, in particular. Rather, we have to earn it everyday. And so I’m grateful that at the United Nations we are “backed up” by both the universally recognized moral authority of the Holy Father and by the tremendous work on the ground of the Catholic Church throughout the globe.
When we speak about peace, or care for the poor, or the dignity of women, or education, or the defense of every human person, or any other of the panoply of important issues under consideration, those at the United Nations know that we echo the words of the Holy Father that are being put into practice by Catholics and Catholic organizations all across the world. And they know as well that the Catholic Church’s commitment in all areas of human concern — for nothing human is alien to us, as Gaudium et spes reminds us — is perennial and not according to what is en vogue; indeed, the Church has been doing these things for 2,000 years wherever it has been present. Thus also, in this sense, we are humbled to speak with a moral authority cumulatively earned by the Church across countries and centuries. Coupled with this bimillennial experience of humanity is our rich body of social teachings and extraordinary popes whose example have opened many doors.
We are always edified by how many Ambassadors and UN officials regularly cite the pope’s words and example on various topics, how many read and quote encyclicals like Laudato Si’, and how many approach us for opportunities to try to meet him. The pope’s moral authority and moral leadership profoundly influences the way people relate to us who represent him before the nations of the world.