ROME – After an opening day dedicated largely to the ideal of complete global disarmament, speakers at a Vatican summit Nov. 11 got down to brass tacks, bringing a dose of political reality to the debate surrounding nuclear weapons.
As U.S. President Donald Trump visits the Far East to rally support against a backdrop of rising tensions with the regime in North Korea, the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development hosted an international symposium, “Prospects for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament,” with many opinion leaders decrying the “insanity” and “senselessness” of nuclear armaments.
On Saturday, representatives from Israel and Russia, both nuclear armed states, pointed to the complexities of disarmament in the context of increasingly strained relations between states and new and blurred forms of warfare and terrorism. They respectively underlined the unique realities in the Middle East and the long history of dialogue and friction between Russia and the United States.
While the impassioned contributions brought some healthy realpolitik, it was the witness of a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb, offering a first-hand account of the devastation of nuclear warfare, who drew a standing ovation from the crowd of dignitaries and peace-builders from around the world.
Regional complexities and ‘nuclear peace’
Nine countries in the world are in possession of nuclear arsenals, but according to one speaker at the Vatican international summit, it would be a mistake to consider them all in the same way.
“It’s the states, not their weapons, which are the key to a peaceful prospective,” said Emily Landau, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and Head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program in Israel.
“World nuclear disarmament must be assessed in context, who holds them and for what purpose,” Landau said.
“For Israel, it’s presumed nuclear deterrent has played a hugely significant role of helping to ensure its survival in the face of existential threats,” she said. “And make no mistake, Israel has faced existential threats.”
Landau stressed that the threat of nuclear carnage doesn’t stem mostly from established nuclear powers, but from countries that violate treaties and develop their own weapons, such as Iran and North Korea.
“These weapons in the hands of irresponsible states can be used to wreak havoc and kill indiscriminately,” Landau said.
In her speech, she also commented on the word “insanity” used by previous speakers in reference to the amassing of nuclear weapons.
“About the insanity, looking at the Middle East, what’s insane is the hatred between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and towards Christians who are persecuted across the Middle East. The only place where they [Christians] feel safe is Israel. And of course, there’s the insanity of the intense and deeply rooted hatred toward Jews and toward Israel.”
Landau proposed the creation of a framework that would consider regional contexts and issues, in order to achieve security and peace. “We will never get world nuclear disarmament of nuclear weapons right if we buy into the fallacy that when discussing nuclear issues it doesn’t matter what states, or state we are dealing with, that there are no differences between states.”
Russian Alexei Georgevish Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security and the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), started off by stating, “I hate nuclear weapons.”
Despite his personal feeling, after more than a decade in dealing with nuclear weapons both at a policy and academic level, Arbatov said the consensus outside the walled Vatican state is that nuclear weapons have saved the world from global war for the past seventy years.
“Probably only God knows what is true, and what is wrong. I consider that even if nuclear weapons had some role [in deterrence] in the past, this will not continue in the future.”
Although nuclear armaments have been reduced by 80 percent over the recent decades, Arbatov said the possibility of a nuclear conflict has only increased.
“The new arms race, which is about to begin, in many resects will be worse than the one we have experienced during the Cold War,” Arbatov said. “New weapons systems are blurring the line between nuclear and conventional systems, between defensive and offensive systems, between global and regional systems.”
If one adds into the mix space and cyber warfare, he added, the situation becomes even more complex.
Arbatov emphasized that Russia and the United States have been enveloped in diplomatic relations regarding nuclear weapons for the better part of sixty years, a phenomenon that he described as being the exception rather than the rule among nuclear-armed states.
“The new American administration’s attitude toward joint comprehensive action may deliver a serious blow at the non-proliferation regime,” Arbatov said, lamenting the fact that for six years, the two nuclear powerhouses have not addressed medium-range nuclear weapons treaties.
“For the first time in 50 years, we will find ourselves in a legal vacuum related to the most destructive types of strategic nuclear weapons,” he said.
Dealing with this issue, and with growing concerns with Iran, are paramount to promote global disarmament, Arbatov said.
“Nuclear weapons states, foremost Russia and the U.S., have to go beyond nuclear deterrence to address this issue,” he said.
Referring to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, supported by Francis and adopted in July, Arbatov criticized the attitude that nuclear states took to the document.
“They should have thanked the United Nations for reminding them of their obligation under the article 6 of non-proliferation treaty,” he said. “They should have assured the UN that they would immediately move toward a non-nuclear world.”
He concluded by underlining that nuclear weapons will not save the world from conflict in the future.
“Human civilization, which is facing insecurity from its capability to destroy itself within several hours of exchange of nuclear strikes, does not deserve its title of civilization,” he said.
Beyond politics: story of a Nagasaki survivor
Masako Wada, Assistant Secretary General of “Nihon Hidankyo,” a group advocating for global disarmament, was only 22 months old when the atomic bomb destroyed her town of Nagasaki. She, along with her mother and grandfather, survived because they were shielded by the nearby mountains.
Wada has made it her life’s mission to tell her story to as many as possible, in order to collect millions of signatures documenting humanity’s desire to be rid of nuclear armaments.
On August 9, 1945 at 11:02 a.m., her mother was making lunch when she heard the sound of a loud explosion. The entire family lost their senses for a while, before waking up to the devastation and ruin of the bomb. All the glass windows and sliding doors of the house lay shattered, and an orange pulverous fog made it difficult to see the city.
Wada’s mother told her she saw a crowd of people, looking like ants from the house’s viewpoint, as they tried to escape the fire. They were brown-colored due to the burns on their body, and their hair was crisped and covered in blood.
About 200,000 people died as a result of the bomb, up to 90 percent civilians, including elderly people and children. Wada said the surrounding area became “cremation grounds,” and her mother fainted when seeing the terrible burn wounds on the victims.
“Everyone soon became numb to the growing number of corpses and the stench of human bodies,” Wada said, including her mother who was tasked with using a broom to remove the numerous “thumb-sized” maggots from the wounded.
“Under the U.S. occupation, press reporting on the atomic bomb was banned,” she added. “Nagasaki was left abandoned by occupying forces and by the Japanese government.”
Wada’s mother died six years ago after a lifetime spent in and out of hospitals due to heart complications, lung and stomach cancer. “Nuclear weapons are inhuman weapons,” she said, adding that as survivors of the nuclear attack are growing older it is up to the younger generations to raise their voices.
She expressed her gratitude for the Vatican’s leading role on this issue played on many platforms, as it was one of the first governments to sign the treaty against nuclear weapons. She called the July UN treaty a “ray of light” coming from behind a “heavy and rusted door,” and called all nations, including Japan, to ratify it.
Reaching for the Moon
Mairead Corrigan–Maguire, an Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner, called participants to “reach for the moon” when talking about disarmament, advocating not only for the destruction of nuclear weapons but also for the abolition of militarism.
“We must never underestimate the capacity of the human person to overcome human tragedy,” she said, adding that from tragedy there is a possibility for healing and for peace.
“A peace treaty on North Korea is possible if there is the political will of governments to sit down and negotiate,” Maguire said, drawing from her experience when Ireland was on the brink of civil war and enveloped in violence in the ’70s.
“Non-violence doesn’t work because people haven’t tried it enough!” she continued, calling the Catholic Church to promote its message of peace and renounce the “just war theory.”
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate insisted on the abolition of NATO, as well as a halt both to the armament of Europe and to sanctions imposed by the West on other nations, which, she said, cause the death of thousands.
“Nuclear weapons are a fallacy, a lie,” Maguire concluded, saying that nuclear weapons are only a piece of the puzzle and that the real goal is the abolition of militarism.
“Let’s make the quantum leap,” she said.