Gallagher: Dialogue for a world free of nuclear weapons

The Vatican Secretary for Relations with States speaks with Vatican Media about the Holy See's commitment to the TPNW that goes into force on January 22: "International peace and security cannot be based on the threat of mutual destruction".

By Andrea Tornielli

“Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering”, the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is “immoral,” as is the “possession” of nuclear weapons. On November 24, 2019, from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Pope Francis raised his cry for a world free at last of atomic weapons. Eleven months later, last October, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was ratified and now goes into force on Friday, January 22. We discussed it with Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States.

Your Excellency, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons represents the first legally binding agreement that prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling and transfer of nuclear weapons, as well as their use. Why is this important?

As you know, nuclear weapons fall under the broader category of weapons of mass destruction, as do chemical and biological weapons. These are weapons that have an indiscriminate impact, that can kill a large number of people in a short time and cause even irreversible or long-term damage to ecosystems, even within a radius of hundreds of kilometers. These devices have been developed especially since the last century and can also be used by non-state actors for terrorism. Faced with such serious consequences and concerns, the international community is strongly committed not only to preventing their proliferation, but also to promoting a real ban on their use, as well as the possession of such weapons. To this end, a number of legally binding multilateral instruments have been developed and implemented that seek to achieve this goal.


But a treaty was missing that addressed atomic weapons ....

Until the adoption in 2017 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), there was no international legal instrument explicitly prohibiting such weapons. The entry into force of TPNW on January 22, 2021, closes this "gap" between the different types of weapons of mass destruction.

Why was the Holy See especially committed to its ratification?

The main objective of the Treaty is to prohibit nuclear weapons in an unequivocal manner, placing them in the same category as other weapons of mass destruction which are already prohibited, such as chemical and biological weapons. In this way, it also groups nuclear weapons with those weapons whose use and possession must be continually disapproved and delegitimized. This is one of the reasons why the Holy See has been committed to the entry into force of the Treaty and actively participated in the drafting process. Many of its provisions recall directly or indirectly the centrality of the human person, the humanitarian paradigm and the Treaty's close connections with peace.

What is the relationship between this treaty and the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons?

The TPNW is the first legally binding instrument banning nuclear weapons, while the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) essentially has three objectives: the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, the gradual disarmament of such weapons and cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology. The NPT, which came into force in 1970, is undoubtedly a fundamental element, a pillar of the international infrastructure for combating nuclear weapons. But it is not the only component of this structure; other elements are, in fact, part of it: in addition to the NPT and the TPNW, legal instruments such as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), the delineation of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, the safeguards agreements that the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has signed with numerous States, and bilateral treaties such as START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the USA and Russia, which expires next month) should also be considered. These are complementary instruments, and each of them represents a piece of the mosaic that makes up the picture of a "world free of nuclear weapons".

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States

It seems like a mosaic whose realization still seems far away....

Let's say that it is a mosaic, unfortunately, still rather "blurred", because some of the instruments mentioned, some of those "tiles", have yet to be well "shaped", because they have not come into force or are not implemented consistently. On these "tiles" it is necessary to continue to work with the commitment of all, governmental and non-governmental players; it is necessary to intensify efforts to counter the pressures against multilateralism and overcome the dynamic of suspicion and distrust. The correct implementation of these tools represents, in fact, a fundamental step on the "path" towards a world free of nuclear weapons. There is, then, another significant aspect that this "path" requires; an aspect that is fully recognized in the TPNW: the importance of both education for peace and disarmament in all its aspects, and of raising awareness of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons for the present and future generations. These two aspects cannot be underestimated: education and awareness-raising also represent two other important pieces that contribute to composing the mosaic of a world free of nuclear weapons and that require a commitment to significant initiatives aimed at promoting a culture that rejects such weapons, a culture of life and peace, a culture of care.

A process in which the Holy See has always been in the forefront, as also witnessed by Pope Francis in his addresses given during his journey to Japan.

The Holy See has always been committed to pursuing this direction, as demonstrated by the fact that it has ratified all the main Nuclear Treaties (TPN, CTBT, TPNW, Safeguards Agreements with the IAEA) and by its continuous efforts to promote a concrete culture of peace, based on the dignity of the human person and the primacy of law, favoring a responsible, honest and consistent collaboration with all members of the family of nations. All this requires careful mediation to facilitate an effective political dialogue, with particular attention to the importance of using all the tools at our disposal to build trust, to go beyond the "theory of fear and the enemy", to emphasize how nuclear deterrence represents a false sense of security and stability, to anchor the issue of security to that of development, to leverage the concept of "memory" and dialogue. On the other hand, as the Holy Father said in Hiroshima on November 24, 2019: “We cannot allow present and future generations to lose the memory of what happened here. It is a memory that ensures and encourages the building of a more fair and fraternal future”.

The TPNW has been ratified by around fifty countries, among which the traditional great nuclear powers are not present, nor those that have developed an atomic bomb, and not even countries that host these weapons as allies of other countries that possess them. What hope is there that this treaty will lead to concrete results?

I would like to take up a reflection of Pope Francis, taking my cue from the video message he sent on September 24, 2020 to the last session of the UN General Assembly: “We are faced [...] with a choice between two possible paths. One path leads to the consolidation of multilateralism as the expression of a renewed sense of global co-responsibility, a solidarity grounded in justice and the attainment of peace and unity within the human family, which is God’s plan for our world. The other path emphasizes self-sufficiency, nationalism, protectionism, individualism and isolation [...] That path would certainly be detrimental to the whole community, causing self-inflicted wounds on everyone. It must not prevail.” The nuclear issue is strongly connected to this dual perspective. On the one hand, we are concerned that the nuclear powers often seem to be turning away from nuclear multilateralism and the negotiating table, as evidenced by a certain erosion of the nuclear weapons architecture, highlighted by the abandonment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the weakening of the Iranian JCPOA (Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action), the uncertainty of the future of the aforementioned START, and increasing military spending not only on maintenance but also on the modernization of nuclear arsenals. On the other hand, we must be motivated and proactive by remaining steadfast in our efforts to work towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The promotion and implementation of TPNW and the 10th NPT Review Conference, scheduled for August of this year, are two clear opportunities to advance a world without nuclear weapons.

The decisions are in the hands of states, but what can be done by the people who do not sit in the "control rooms," by those who dream of a world free at last of these weapons?

I respond with the words of Pope Francis in Nagasaki on November 24, 2019: “A world of peace, free from nuclear weapons, is the aspiration of millions of men and women everywhere. To make this ideal a reality calls for involvement on the part of all: individuals, religious communities and civil society, countries that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not, the military and private sectors, and international organizations. Our response to the threat of nuclear weapons must be joint and concerted, inspired by the arduous yet constant effort to build mutual trust and thus surmount the current climate of distrust.”

In your opinion what are the approaches to be avoided in this effort?

In this endeavor we must avoid those forms of recrimination and mutual polarization that hinder dialogue rather than encourage it. Humanity has the capacity to work together to build our common home; we have the freedom, intelligence, and ability to guide and direct technology, to set limits on our power, and to put all this at the service of another kind of progress: more human, social, and integral (see Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato si' On Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015, no. 112). As I mentioned, the 10th NPT Review Conference will take place in New York next August. This is a critical moment in which the international community, and in particular the nuclear powers, will be able to show a real will to promote international peace and security and their ability to understand the important lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has confronted us with what we can call a real "security crisis."

Does it still make sense today to talk about "deterrence"? And what does the world’s experience of the coronavirus teach us about it?

The Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us a lot: in fact, one of the lessons we can learn is the importance of reconsidering our concept of security. International peace and security cannot be based on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation, nor can they be based on maintaining a balance of power or regulating relations by replacing "the force of law" with "the law of force." Peace and security must be built on dialogue and solidarity, on justice, on integral human development, on respect for fundamental human rights, on the care for creation, on the promotion of educational and health facilities, on building trust among peoples. In this perspective, it is necessary to go beyond nuclear deterrence. The international community is called upon to adopt forward-looking strategies to promote this goal of international peace and security and to avoid short-sighted approaches to national and international security problems. Achieving a world without nuclear weapons fits into this forward-looking strategy, based on the understanding that "everything is connected," in that perspective of integral ecology so well outlined by Pope Francis in Laudato si' (see n. 117 and n. 138). TPNW goes in this direction. This strategy can only be constructed through a dialogue solidly directed to the common good and not to the protection of veiled or particular interests.

What concrete steps can be taken to achieve the goal of a world free of these deadly weapons that endanger the very existence of humanity?

The ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons is both a challenge and a moral and humanitarian imperative. A concrete approach should promote reflection on a multilateral and cooperative ethic of peace and security that goes beyond the fear and isolationism that dominate many debates today. The common destiny of humanity demands the pragmatic strengthening of dialogue and the construction and consolidation of mechanisms of trust and cooperation capable of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.

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21 January 2021, 14:30