Following every pope since Pope Pius XII, Pope Francis pushes the peace agenda as tensions between world leaders arise. Pope Francis, top, addresses the UN General Assembly in New York in 2015. At right is Setsuko Thurlow of Toronto, who survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb attack in 1945. Top photo a CNS photo/Paul Haring

Nuclear meeting is a 'cry to humanity'

  • November 9, 2017

As the Vatican gathered 11 Nobel peace laureates, plus NATO officials, ambassadors and peace activists to discuss nuclear disarmament at a Nov. 10-11 summit, there was no doubt about the Church’s position.

Even before the first atomic bomb was detonated during the Second World War, every pope since Pius XII has decried the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons. The escalation of the Cold War prompted Pope John XXIII to demand an end to the arms race in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris,. Pope Francis cheered on, signed and ratified the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty in September as U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un lobbed alarming threats at each other over North Korea’s nuclear arms testing.

For more than 70 years, papal pleas have fallen on the mostly deaf ears of the nuclear juggernauts, with at least one exception.

Will this Vatican conference be any different? Yes, says Canadian peace activist and retired senator Doug Roche.

“This is not more of the same. This is going to be a cry to humanity to put political pressure on the political systems to decelerate and come down from the nuclear mountain that has been created — before it is too late,” he said.

Roche will be at the Vatican conference — titled “Perspectives for a world free from nuclear weapons and for integral disarmament” — in his capacity as advisor to the Holy See’s United Nations delegation on peace and disarmament.

While Roche is supportive of the Vatican’s message, he is equally critical of Canada’s weak, ambiguous subservience to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Canada’s refusal to sign or even show up for negotiations on the new treaty was dictated by Washington in an October 2016 letter to NATO country leaders. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s eager compliance represents an abdication of Canadian responsibility and tradition on the issue, Roche said. 

“Canada has turned its back on a long tradition of fairly deep involvement in nuclear disarmament issues,” said the former Canadian ambassador for disarmament at the UN. “It is today shameful that Canada is dissociating itself, turning its back and denigrating a treaty signed by the majority of nations of the world.”

Roche bemoans Trudeau’s betrayal of his own father’s legacy, contrasting the present prime minister’s position to Pierre Trudeau’s 1983 Mission for Peace that took him to the capitals of all five nuclear powers to press for disarmament.

The UN treaty that Canada won’t sign or even talk about is the same one the Vatican signed and ratified in one day.

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“They put their weight behind the treaty,” Roche said.

That weight came into play at another infamous moment — the  Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Pope John XXIII played a crucial role in brokering a peace of sorts in the stalemate between Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John Kennedy. After hearing from Kennedy, the pope penned a message to both the U.S. and Soviet embassies, then read it on Vatican Radio. The message was printed in newspapers around the world, including the Soviet Union, prominently proclaiming the pope’s plea: “We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity.”

The crisis passed, and the pope has since been credited with keeping the superpowers away from the brink of war.

One bright light in the current nuclear debate is a Canadian citizen, Setsuko Thurlow, who is part of a delegation that will be accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10 on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Thurlow, a Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor, is part of the network of activists that pushed the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty through the UN.

The 85-year-old retired Toronto social worker, who saw 30 of her classmates incinerated beside her when she was in Grade 7, is asking for a meeting with Trudeau to discuss the treaty. In the House of Commons, Trudeau has called the UN agreement outlawing nuclear weapons “useless.”

The prime minister praised Thurlow to reporters, but has not committed to meeting her.

The argument against the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty is that the balance of nuclear threats established during the Cold War has so far prevented war between the major powers, said University of Toronto political scientist and expert in comparative foreign policy Arnd Jurgensen.

“We have not had a major confrontation or major war like World War I or World War II since the arrival of nuclear weapons,” Jurgensen said. “And nuclear weapons are partially responsible for that.”

Roche worries that we’re sleepwalking into nuclear armageddon. 

“The world in the past couple of years has shifted into the most dangerous period for humanity since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962,” he said. “(Disarmament) has been pushed right to the top of the political ladder now by the egregious and outrageous comments and stands taken by President Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea.”

There’s nothing naive or pie-in-the-sky about negotiating among nations for the elimination of nuclear weapons, said Project Ploughshares executive director Cesar Jaramillo.

“The naiveté lies elsewhere,” he said. “It is more disingenuous to believe, if they truly believe it themselves, that we will ever reach a world without nuclear weapons when these countries are spending billions of dollars on modernization of their nuclear arsenals, rejecting good-faith efforts of the international community to advance nuclear disarmament.”

Roche finds Canada’s position against a multilateral treaty signed at the UN inexplicable.

“This rejection of the will of the world community is astounding for a country that seeks a seat on the United Nations Security Council,” he said. “The Canadian government badly needs a wake-up call.”

Ottawa is touting its position chairing a high-level UN group developing a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, intended to choke the supply of raw materials for bomb making to countries like Iran and North Korea. Jaramillo said that doesn’t get Trudeau off the hook for tackling the central problem.

“The problem with the existence of nuclear weapons is the existence of nuclear weapons. People aren’t buying it anymore, that their approach is working. They are investing billions of dollars to modernize — the exact opposite of what disarmament would mean to any reasonable person. Canada, on this issue of human existence, is on the wrong side.”

The Church position on nukes is even clearer.

“Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate rejection of creation,” said Atlantic School of Theology professor David Deane.

In a March letter to the United Nations as negotiations began on the treaty to ban nuclear weapons, Pope Francis asked: “How sustainable is a stability based on fear, when it actually increases fear and undermines relationships of trust between peoples?”

They are words with a long echo. Pius XII, shaken by the atom bomb’s devastation of Hiroshima, said in 1948 that the nuclear bomb is “the most terrible weapon that the human mind has ever conceived.”

In the end, he said, “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast inhabited areas is a crime against God and man.”

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