Nuclear weapons have been back in the news again. In the final few days before his inauguration, President Trump appeared first to challenge Russia to an arms race before then using nuclear weapons as bargaining chips in the ongoing debate over sanctions against Russia. In a climate where there is so much international posturing, it appears difficult to continue to push for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, as the Methodist Conference has done on many occasions. But we may now be at a point where there is a new, if little known, opportunity to act on the call to be peacemakers.
I grew up during the age of the nuclear arms race, and it was terrifying. The government information campaign, Protect and Survive, told us to plan for building an inner refuge in our homes and what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. We talked at school about nuclear sirens. Panorama showed what the consequences would be “If the bomb drops”.
In the last thirty years there have been various treaties on nuclear testing, with reviews of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty every five years, and a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. And yet we seem to be no closer to a world without nuclear threat.
There are still 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The humanitarian consequences of their use are horrific. Even a “minor” regional nuclear exchange involving a tiny proportion of warheads would likely result in, not only widespread death and destruction for those in the region, but also a disruption of the global climate which would put billions of people’s lives at risk. Surely we cannot accept that billions of pounds are spent on nuclear weapons that must never be used? As the former Archbishop of Canterbury said, “To plan a strategy around such weapons is to be defeated by them. To threaten such an outrage against humanity and its world is to begin to lose one’s moral and human dignity.”
In 1972 the world banned biological weapons. Since then we’ve banned chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions. So why shouldn’t nuclear weapons, the most destructive form of weapons of mass destruction, now be in our sights?
I believe that the humanitarian, security, environmental, economic and moral case for a ban treaty is overwhelming.
Perhaps 2016 saw a glimmer of hope here. Whilst debate in the UK has focused on the renewal of the Trident weapons system, the majority of the world’s governments have been discussing the use of international law to promote nuclear disarmament. Just before Christmas a vote in the United Nations General Assembly gave the green light to the negotiation of a nuclear weapons ban treaty. This would define the use, deployment and further development of nuclear weapons system as being illegal under international law. Negotiations on the treaty are to begin in March, and though it is unlikely that the UK Government will agree to take part, the majority of governments in the world will participate in the UN process.
Although this is still a controversial issue, even in our churches, I believe that the humanitarian, security, environmental, economic and moral case for a ban treaty is overwhelming.
The humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons would be devastating for the world’s population and our planet. As the International Committee of the Red Cross said: “Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time, and in the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.”
Some people believe strongly that nuclear weapons keep the peace. Yet in reality they breed fear and mistrust between the nations, and pose a constant threat, either by deliberate or accidental use. They do not respond to any of the world’s underlying security threats, such as terrorism, climate change and extreme poverty.
Environmentally, just 0.1% of the explosive power of the current global nuclear stock would bring about devastating agricultural collapse and widespread famine.
Money spent on nuclear weapons is not spent on health, education, disaster relief and conventional forces which are more strategic to building sustainable security. The nine nuclear-armed countries spend more than $105 billion each year maintaining and modernising their nuclear stockpiles.
Yet for me the most powerful argument is the moral one. In 2015 26 faith leaders, including the then President and Vice-President, stated that the use of nuclear weapons violates the principle of dignity for every human being that is common to each of our faith traditions. Basing our defence on the threat of mass destruction and the enjoyment of the status as a nuclear weapons “power” should concern us greatly as Christians. As the Moderator of the Church of Scotland said: “Attempts to sustain peace through the threat of indiscriminate mass destruction could not be further from the peace to which Christ calls us”.
But isn’t this just a pipe dream, impractical in the face of the realities of nine nuclear powers who would never want to surrender the power and status that these weapons provide? A ban treaty would not automatically result in the elimination of nuclear weapons, but it would create a clear international legal norm that they are unacceptable. Nuclear-armed nations can sign the treaty if they are committed to getting rid of their weapons, and timetables can then be agreed for stockpiles to be destroyed in a verifiable and irreversible manner.
Multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament have been deadlocked for two decades, and nuclear-armed nations have continued to invest heavily in upgrades to their nuclear forces. The proposed nuclear ban treaty insists that negotiations on disarmament should not be left to nuclear weapons powers alone: every nation should have a common status under international law and a stake in achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.
In the Beatitudes Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Making peace is not simple or easy. But it will never be built on fear and threats. It will only be achieved through relationships and justice. For me it is crucial that this international initiative is being led, not by the countries with the biggest sticks, but by those who have till now been excluded from attempts to eliminate nuclear weapons. We have the opportunity to pray and work creatively – and humbly – as peacemakers.