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Landmark Vatican Conference on Nuclear Disarmament Brings a Breeze of Expectation

By Ramesh Jaura

Photo: The Vatican Conference in session. Credit: Katsuhiro Asagiri | IDN-INPS.

The following article is based on an interview with Hirotsugu Terasaki, the Director General of Peace and Global Issues of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI), in Tokyo, Japan. SGI was the sole Buddhist organization that participated in the Vatican Conference on nuclear disarmament on November 10-11, 2017.

BERLIN | ROME (IDN) – There was an air of surprise when religious leaders and representatives of civil society, officials of State and international organizations, eminent academics, Nobel Laureates, and students, gathered in the Vatican City against the backdrop of an escalating face-off between the U.S. and North Korea.

Surprise because for the first time the Vatican's newly created Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development was hosting a Conference on the 'Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament'.

 Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General of Peace and Global Issues at the SGI headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun.Since the two-day Conference, officially described as International Symposium, concluded on November 11, 2017, there has been a breeze of expectation. A senior official of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI), Hirotsugu Terasaki explains why. He is Director General of Peace and Global Issues at the SGI headquarters in Tokyo, Japan.

The SGI – a community-based association with 12 million members around the world and a 60-year record of peace activities aimed at the abolition of nuclear weapons – was the only Buddhist organization among 13 groups that joined the landmark Vatican conference.

Other cooperating organizations were the Embassy of Italy to the Holy See, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Germany, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan, the Interdisciplinary Center “Sciences for Peace” (CISP) at the University of Pisa, Georgetown University, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies of the Keough School of Global Affairs, Mazda Motor Europe GmbH, Notre Dame University, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Senzatomica, and the Italian Union of Scientists for Disarmament.

The significance of SGI's participation in the Vatican conference is underlined by the fact that it has been actively partaking in the initiative launched by Faith Communities Concerned about Nuclear Weapons. It issued overall eight joint statements to the UN General Assembly, the NPT Review Conference, and the negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban, which resulted in the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) urging the prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Likewise, Pope Francis issued a statement to both the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and the TPNW negotiating conference.

Expectation is also sparked by the fact that the Vatican Conference was the first major global gathering on disarmament since July 7, 2017 when 122 countries adopted the TPNW. The Treaty springs from unrelenting efforts of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awardee, backed by 468 partner organizations in 101 countries including the faith-based organizations (FBOs).

Honouring Nobel Peace Laureate ICAN

In a message on the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony in honour of ICAN in Oslo on December 10, 2017, SGI Director General of Peace and Global Issues Terasaki said: "Since 2007, the SGI has been proud to work as an international partner of ICAN toward our common goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

Terasaki's expectation also derives from the fact that TPNW has clearly defined the ultimate goal of humankind – the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. SGI is convinced that, to achieve this goal, there is no option but to continue to move forward with undeterred persistence while strengthening effective linkages with the NPT regime – the cornerstone of international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts.

Besides, the Vatican Conference was held at a point in time when a robust push is vital to mobilising at least 50 countries to ratify the TPNW, which opened for signature on September 20, 2017, noted Terasaki in an interview with IDN-INPS, adding that the Conference was part of the Catholic Church's resolve to achieve that goal.

A Vatican source said, the Conference was intended to sensitise archbishops across the globe about the devastating impact of nuclear weapons. With this in view, the conference programme had been designed as an educational tool. Not the least because the role of peace and disarmament education is referred to in the Preamble to the nuclear weapon ban treaty. Article 12 calls for efforts to universalize the Treaty.

"Making the voices of civil society heard is the only way to influence policy makers so as to bring about change. For this, disarmament education is necessary," said Terasaki. "Unless people are informed about disarmament issues enabling them understand the reality of the nuclear issue and raise their voices, politicians would not change their mind sets," he added.

He said he had asked SGI Italy members about Italy’s nuclear sharing policy with the U.S. But he was told that almost no one knew about the two locations where the NATO (American) nuclear weapons are stored in Italy.

Nuclear sharing is a concept in NATO's policy of nuclear deterrence, which involves member countries without nuclear weapons of their own in the planning for the use of nuclear weapons by NATO. In particular it provides for the armed forces of these countries to be involved in delivering these weapons in the event of their use.

Close observers of the situation suggest that most of the Italians are unaware of what nuclear sharing is all about, just as most Germans are about tactical nuclear weapons stored under U.S. command in the country.

Use and possession of nuclear weapons deserves condemnation

The SGI Director General of Peace and Global Issues is convinced that the Catholic Church is committed to spreading through civil society organizations and churches, the Pope’s clear message that the use and possession of nuclear weapons deserves condemnation since they are indiscriminate and disproportionate instruments of war.

"What we face, ultimately, is not a confrontation between the states that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not. Rather, it is the confrontation between the threat posed by nuclear weapons and humanity’s right to life. Nuclear weapons are dangerous from a security perspective," noted Terasaki.

"From an ethical and moral perspective, they are wrong. This renders them unacceptable in any hands. Today, with the geopolitical risks of nuclear conflict at almost unprecedented levels, it is vital that this awareness be shared widely by all people," Terasaki added.

From his perspective, the conference marked a starting point to provide a tailwind to robust civil societies for a push towards the abolition of nuclear weapons.

How did other Conference participants view the Buddhist organization SGI's participation? The SGI's Director General of Peace and Global Issues said: "Aware that the Vatican was hosting the Conference, we anticipated that there would be many Christian participants. Therefore, as the sole Buddhist participant, we decided to first introduce the Buddhist perspective of life and then explain how it is related to our movement regarding the abolition of nuclear weapons.

"We were told by many participants that they found SGI Vice President Hiromasa Ikeda's speech well-structured so that everyone could be empathetic about our approach." Ikeda described SGI approach as 'expanding the reach of empathy.'

Keen to enlist the support of the young generation for a nuke-free world, the Conference organisers – Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi – asked SGI to share its experiences.

Archbishop Tomasi, whom Terasaki first met at the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, when he was the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, is at present delegate secretary to the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

SGI, the youth, nuke-free world

As one of a few movements focusing also on the youth, SGI has been galvanising the support of the young generation for a world free of nuclear weapons.

In SGI's presentation to the Conference on November 11, 2017, Vice President Ikeda briefly explained how SGI has supported efforts by young people to record war experiences, in particular those of the hibakusha. This provides an opportunity for youth to learn about the realities of war and nuclear weapons. But even more, it is through such encounter and dialogue that young people can develop and grow as leaders.

"Through such activities, we have sought to involve a broad spectrum of participation and to develop youth leadership," Ikeda said in his presentation to the Conference.

He also stressed in his remarks the need to "help people awaken from the mad nightmare" of nuclear deterrence, by which the world’s citizens are held hostage and "peace" is maintained by a balance of terror.

"We need to awaken people from the present nightmare with the bright lights of a new vision. Concepts such as integral disarmament, human security and human development all indicate the orientation for such a vision," Ikeda added.

"Within the disarmament field, humanitarian concerns have provided such orientation. They have helped introduce a human perspective to the security discourse. The humanitarian discourse has led to an explicit recognition within the international community of the impermissible nature of nuclear weapons, contributing importantly to the realization of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)," he continued.

Ikeda's remarks underlined a broad-based commonality of views between the SGI and Pope Francis and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. This gives rise to the expectation that the encounter in the Vatican City has planted the seeds of cooperation between Nichiren Buddhism and the Roman Catholic Church to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 January 2018]

Top Photo: The Vatican Conference in session. Credit: Katsuhiro Asagiri | IDN-INPS.

Photo in text: Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General of Peace and Global Issues at the SGI headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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IDN videos and articles on the Vatican Conference:

Interview with Rick Wayman in Vatican City (Video)

Testimony as a Hibakusha by Ms Masako Wada at the Vatican Conference

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Vatican Conference on "Prospects for a World free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament" (Video)

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The Vatican Galvanizes Support For A Nuke-Free World

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