22 March 2021, The Tablet

Vatican can be 'game changer' in nuclear debate

Vatican can be 'game changer' in nuclear debate

Pope Francis at Mass in Rome last week.
Grzegorz Galazka/Alamy

Pope Francis and the Holy See can play a critical role in attempts to eliminate nuclear weapons and control the global arms trade, according to one of Britain’s leading experts on disarmament. 

Professor Dan Plesch, the director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University, London, is taking part in an online event with the Holy See tomorrow focussing on how to control the production of destructive weaponry. 

“The Vatican can be a real game-changer on this issue,” he told The Tablet ahead of the event. “Pope Francis has shown consistent leadership here. It would be excellent as secular leaders could be as forthright in their approach as Pope has been.”

Professor Plesch pointed to the “huge global reach” of the papacy, its work at the United Nations and its ability to reach out to other religions. He said the event on Tuesday 23 March was a natural follow up to Francis’ visit to Iraq where he met Shia leader Ayatollah al-Sistani and saw the devastation reaped by Islamic State in the northern part of the country. 

“I asked myself (during the trip), ‘who sold the weapons to the terrorists? who sells weapons to terrorists today who are carrying out massacres elsewhere, for example, in Africa?’ ” Francis said. “It is a question that I would like someone to answer.”

Throughout his pontificate, Francis has condemned the global arms trade and developed church teaching by ruling that the possession, and not just the use, of nuclear weapons is immoral. In 2017, the Holy See cast its first-ever United Nations vote in favour of abolishing nuclear weapons and last year the Pope backed a UN call for a global ceasefire so the world can focus on tackling Coronavirus.

Organised by SOAS and the Vatican dicastery for promoting integral human development, the event will be attended by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, and address “international law and concrete methods to pursue disarmament.” Unusually for the Holy See, the webinar will be conducted entirely in English. 

It also takes place as the UK government signals its intention to lift the cap on the number of nuclear warheads following an overhaul of foreign policy. Professor Plesch described the move as “an extremely retrograde step” which he suggested was designed to appeal to the “government’s political base” and distract attention from the decision to cut 10,000 troops from the Army. 

“The policy goes entirely in the wrong direction,” he said. “It is a piece of Billy Bunter bravado.” The UK’s nuclear capabilities, the academic added, are not truly independent and effectively controlled by the United States.

During the event, Professor Plesch hopes to offer some policy tools his team have developed on how to “freeze, track, control and eliminate” weapons and to open a dialogue with the Holy See on how they can achieve their objectives in this area. His institution has also compiled a treaty draft to control or eliminate all weapons. Professor Plesch argues that dealing with weapons is less complicated than tackling climate change with new technology making it easier to track arms and ensure agreements are upheld. 

“With new technology, we are demonstrating that it is not too technically difficult,” he explained. Action is needed, he said, given the unstable state of the world which had been made worse by the pandemic. “We may be in a pre-war situation,” he warned. 

Professor Plesch hoped that, following the webinar, he would be able to raise issues on disarmament with high-profile Catholics in the Boris Johnson administration. 



“I look forward to having a dialogue with Jacob Rees-Mogg on following the Pope’s lead."



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