Mushroom cloud from nuclear weapons test in the Pacific Ocean
I am Pax Christi, Nuclear Disarmament, Our Stories, Peace

Putting Hope to Work: The Pax Christi Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament

By Jonathan Frerichs, UN representative for disarmament, Geneva, Pax Christi International

Pax Christi’s working group on nuclear disarmament is an embodiment of hope born with Pax Christi 75 years ago—the hope for a world free of nuclear weapons.

The working group was formed at a propitious time, in 2016.  Three seminal conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons had changed the dynamics of disarmament.  A growing majority of the world’s governments and a broad range of civil society organizations were united behind a singular conviction: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again under any circumstances”.  Pax Christi had the further good fortune that this new group was formed during the current papacy.  The Holy Father’s prophetic admonitions to free the world of nuclear weapons have encouraged and guided us from the start.

Here are some of the convictions and experiences, opportunities and challenges the group brings to a critical task.

Conviction.  In Japan’s symbolic cities last November, Pope Francis condemned not only the use of nuclear weapons, but also their possession.  His words inspired concerned citizens around the world.    Some of our group had heard him make the same point before 400 peace workers, diplomats and church leaders in 2017 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which includes Pax Christi.  We also worked and prayed for his message to be heard in Japan.

At Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial, the Holy Father called nuclear weapons “a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home”.

At Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Hypo-Center Park, the pontiff said nuclear weapons breed “a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust”.  The pope challenged the theory of nuclear deterrence which has defined the nuclear era and continues to hold the entire planet at risk.

Before and after the papal visit, we took heart from actions of the Canadian and Japanese bishops’ conferences.  Both conferences urged their governments to sign and ratify the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.  It will become international law when 12 more states ratify the agreement.

The bishops in Canada along with leaders of other churches urged the Canadian government “to work with allies and to engage would-be adversaries to formulate security arrangements that do not rely on the threat of nuclear annihilation.”

The Japan Catholic Council for Justice and Peace and the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan complemented the pope’s visit by calling on the leader of Japan, the only country to experience atomic warfare, to lead the international community in abolishing nuclear weapons.

These calls from the church have significant implications: Key nations must abandon the mutually assured destruction which has defined the 20th century and embrace the mutually assured security on which life in the 21st century already depends.

The working group’s members are familiar with such dilemmas.  They are mostly from countries which have, or rely on, nuclear weapons. But the language of “having” and “relying on” nuclear weapons can hide harsh realities.  For much of the past 75 years our countries have threatened humanity with indiscriminate destruction and practiced nuclear apartheid in international affairs.

In reality, today and every day, our leaders stand willing and able to destroy hundreds or even thousands of Hiroshimas and Nagasakis. Our governments insist they would use nuclear weapons only in extremis, but this does not alter the fact that they would be committing mass murder in other countries and mass suicide in their own countries at the same time.  What is more, they stand ready to take such actions with only a moment’s notice. This caveat alone makes a mockery of the entire nuclear regime and the doctrine of deterrence by which it justifies itself.

The work of peace requires conviction.  These are but a few examples.  Pax Christi’s diverse membership knows from experience that every true work of peace is much more than opposition to something evil.  It is also positive engagement for something of great good.  The case of nuclear weapons leads us to what Pax Christi’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative calls a wider engagement with the suffering of our world, the forms of violence which spawn that suffering, and the love and determination to end it together.

Experience. The working group is blessed with the wide range of skills, vocations and commitments of its members.  One member, a national coordinator of Pax Christi, came from a career in teaching, speech therapy and clinic management.  She had always worked for justice and peace with the church.

Another member of the group practiced law for 35 years, specializing in civil litigation, before working with Pax Christi.

One member is a life-long advocate of nonviolent methods for dealing with conflicts. He became a foreign service officer during the Cold War and then helped establish the Nonviolent Peaceforce.  A toolkit he designed for Pax Christi provides faith communities with ways to address ethnic and racial conflict.

Another member was a mathematician in Germany’s Space Operation Center. His local Pax Christi section, which he joined 40 years ago, focuses on arms exports, Middle East peace and interreligious dialogue.  His priorities include removing the nuclear bombs based in Germany and opposing the growing threat of lethal autonomous weapons.

Members speak of milestones in their pursuits of peace. Theresa Alessandro of Pax Christi UK recalls: “As a teenager I read John Hersey’s book ‘Hiroshima’ and I have believed in getting rid of nuclear weapons ever since. Finding in Pax Christi others who feel the same has supported me and helped me channel my frustration over the continuing presence of nuclear weapons in the world.”

“A regional meeting in Jordan, followed by visits to members in Palestine and Lebanon, and to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, made a deep impression on me,” says Marie Dennis of Pax Christi USA and former co-president of Pax Christi International. She is connected to peacemakers around the world through the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative and has authored theological blogs against nuclear weapons.

“The work leading up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017 was highly gratifying—sessions at the UN, lobbying individual Missions and meeting creative, intelligent, passionate people from around the world, capped off by the Vatican conference on nuclear disarmament,” says Mary Yelenick of Pax Christi USA. Her work has led to new friendships with young peace-builders around the world.

Opportunities.  Working groups are a benefit to their members when opportunities in one place lead to new approaches in other places.  When one member shares their plans and purposes, it may help another member to see new options too.  Collaboration along these lines may even shape a kind of power map showing which actions work where.

For example, the new nuclear ban treaty is being signed and ratified at a healthy pace.  Only 12 more ratifications are needed before it enters into force.  But that process takes time.  The nuclear powers and various allies are going to considerable lengths to denounce, dismiss and ignore the accord.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will make nuclear weapons illegal.  Meanwhile, close at hand, are ways to make nuclear weapons even more illegitimate than they already are.  Thanks to the work of PAX Netherlands (formerly IKV Pax Christi), detailed information is available to the international community about which banks and investment funds are financing nuclear weapons and which corporations are involved in making them.  BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and the Norwegian Government Pension Fund are among the 77 financial institutions which have cut or ended their investments in nuclear arms.  Pax Christi UK is also advocating and facilitating responsible investments with an inter-faith project on Banks, Pensions and Nuclear Weapons: Investing In Change.

The most striking feature on our power map of Europe are the US nuclear weapons permanently stationed in five European countries.  Pax Christi’s nuclear disarmament working group has members in four of these countries—Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Italy.  Protests at the bases and lobbies of governments take place regularly.  A new project by Pax Christi Flanders would engage with parliamentarians opposed to nuclear weapons in each country and encourage inter-parliamentary initiatives for the weapons to be removed.

One of Pax Christi International’s other global priorities is to advocate with communities affected by mining, logging and other extractive industries in Latin America.  Pax Christi partners there and in Africa are aware that the economic and ecological injustices they face are also related to the nuclear threat.  The exploitation of strategic minerals is one example; the fact that virtually all nuclear weapons tests have taken place on the territory of indigenous peoples is another.  Pax Christi International is part of the worldwide effort by ICAN to have states sign and ratify the nuclear ban treaty.  This was explained to partners in Colombia and DR Congo.   They contacted their foreign ministries at home and worked through Pax Christi’s United Nations office to bring the same request to their missions in New York.

Challenges. The road to a nuclear-weapon-free world is paved with challenges.  Here are some current examples:

  • It is fitting that the members of Pax Christi’s nuclear disarmament working group are mostly from nuclear-weapon states and their allies. But since Pax Christi has 120 member organizations on five continents, it would also be fitting to welcome new members on the working group—especially from the global majority of countries which reject nuclear arms.
  • A new nuclear arms race has begun. Treaties which have limited nuclear arsenals for decades are expiring without being renewed. Nuclear-weapon states are modernising their arsenals.  The USA is spending more on its military than the next 10 military powers combined.  Such trends must be reversed.
  • Curiously, the nine states with the world’s most fearsome weapons have done a poor job of defending themselves against a microscopic coronavirus. New national priorities are needed— moving vast resources from threatening lives to saving lives.
  • The world is still at risk of nuclear annihilation 75 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 75 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pax Christi is still working for healing, reconciliation and peace.

The climax of Pax Christi’s anniversary year was to have been the movement’s World Assembly in Hiroshima, a much-anticipated opportunity for reflection, thanksgiving, fellowship and renewal.  There is reason to regret that the gathering was not possible but also to be grateful for the safety of foregoing it.

This 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings is a warning to a world newly reminded of its fragile, common fate.  Nuclear weapons have no place where security is truly shared.  Pax Christi’s anniversary motto – “Let’s build peace together” – is an invitation to the practice of hope.

Photo: US Government via the ICAN Flickr Stream CC BY-NC 2.0.

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