WASHINGTON -- An international group of religious and scientific leaders Monday launched an appeal to the United States and all other nuclear states to pledge never to use nuclear weapons and re-affirm their commitments to achieving total nuclear disarmament.
The appeal, signed by the head of the U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC) and the president of the international Catholic peace group, Pax Christi, and 74 others--including four Nobel laureates--declared such weapons to be "inherently immoral" and expressed particular concern over U.S. plans to develop of a new generation of nuclear bombs.
My prognosis is, if nothing changes and Bush is re-elected, within ten or 20 years, there will be no life on the planet, or little. It's good to use the words 'sin' and 'evil' (in this context). It is true that it is evil to have power to destroy life on Earth.
Dr. Helen Caldicott
1985 Nobel Prize winner
"Even so-called 'mini-nukes' and 'bunker-busters' would have disastrous effects," the statement declared. "Threatened use of nuclear weapons in the name of deterrence is morally wrong because it holds innocent people hostage for political and military purposes."
"Why do we continue to construct weapons that have the power to destroy us," asked Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the NCC, which represents some 140,000 Protestant congregations in the U.S., "rather than build systems and structures that will save lives and help all persons reach the potential for which God created them?"
Edgar said the appeal was being made with a "sense of real urgency," in light of new nuclear planning by the Bush administration and the failure to date of any of the declared nuclear powers to substantially reduce their stockpiles.
More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia retain a total of about 10,000 tactical and strategic nuclear weapons each. Together, they account for more than 95 percent of the world's total arsenal.
According to recent estimates by the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, China is next with an estimated 400 warheads, followed by France, with 350; Israel, with perhaps 200; Britain, with 185; India, with 60 or more; and Pakistan, with as many as 48. The Central Intelligence Agency says it believes North Korea has had as many as two devices for several years.
Under the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), nuclear countries must not only halt the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear countries, but also agree to reduce their own arsenals to zero. In 1996, the International Court of justice at The Hague ruled that the NPT required eventual disarmament, a position that was formally reaffirmed in 2000 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Since the Bush administration took power in 2001, however, the U.S. has been ambiguous on the question, while its opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty--seen as a key step toward eventual disarmament--has fanned concerns that Washington does not intend to follow through on its earlier commitments.
Adding to these concerns are the administration's efforts to reverse a unilateral 1993 ban on research and development of low-yield atomic weapons, such as "mini-nukes" and bunker-busters" which Bush officials insist would provide greater flexibility in dealing with small-scale conflicts, such as last year's war in Iraq, or with terrorists holed up in remote regions. Such weapons could destroy small targets with much less damage in terms of blast and radiation, according to their proponents.
Democrats in Congress tried to prevent the administration from going forward by denying funding for development, but the administration succeeded in prying loose $7.5 million for the project late last year.
Critics have strongly assailed the administration for these efforts, arguing that they not only dramatize the value of having nuclear weapons, but they also undercut the NPT by showing that the world's strongest nuclear power has no intention of giving them up.
Scientists and weapons specialists who signed the Appeal stressed that the administration's insistence on retaining a nuclear arsenal and developing new weapons not only risked undermining the NPT and global non-proliferation efforts, but also made little military sense in an era when smaller, more precise conventional weapons using sensors and other systems are available.
"Military leaders don't see any military utility for making these weapons," according to Ivan Oerlich, a nuclear physicist at the Federation of American Scientists. "It's the civilians who want them," he said. "There is no military mission that cries out for nuclear weapons. These are weapons in search of a mission."
Monday's appeal, however, is based more on questions of morality than on utility, according to its signers, who also include Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Nuclear Policy Research Institute who shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
"My prognosis is, if nothing changes and Bush is re-elected, within ten or 20 years, there will be no life on the planet, or little," she said. "It's good to use the words 'sin' and 'evil' (in this context)," she added. "It is true that it is evil to have power to destroy life on Earth."
Marie Dennis, who serves on the executive committee of Pax Christi International, noted that U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference recently endorsed a global ban on nuclear weapons as a policy goal and called on the U.S. to issue a no-first-use policy on their use. As recently as one year ago in the run-up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration refused to do so.
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