The appeal, which was 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 the weapons to be "inherently immoral," and expressed particular concern over US plans to develop a new generation of nuclear bombs.
"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 Reverend Robert Edgar, general secretary of the NCC, which represents some 140,000 Protestant congregations in the United States, "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," particularly in light of new nuclear planning by the George W. 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 about 10,000 tactical and strategic nuclear weapons each. Together, they account for more than 95 percent of the world's arsenal.
According to recent estimates by the Washington-based Center for Defense Information (CDI), China is next with an estimated 400 warheads, followed by France (350); Israel, (perhaps 200); Britain (185); India, (60 or more); and Pakistan, (as many as 48). The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) 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 United Nations Security Council.
But since the Bush administration took power in 2001, Washington has been ambiguous on the question, and its opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – seen as a key step toward eventual disarmament – has fanned concerns it 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 from blast and radiation, according to their proponents.
Democrats in Congress tried to prevent the administration from going forward with that research by denying funding for development, but officials succeeded in prying loose 7.5 million dollars for the project late last year.
Critics have strongly assailed the administration for these efforts, arguing they not only dramatize the value of having nuclear weapons, but they also undercut the NPT by demonstrating that the world's strongest nuclear power has no intention of giving them up.
At the same time, Washington, with 15 of its allies, has launched the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) outside of the U.N. and NPT frameworks to intercept ships on the high seas believed to be carrying material or technology that might be intended for illegal nuclear programs.
"The US follows a double standard that allows it to develop and threaten to use nuclear weapons while denying them to smaller countries," Hussein Haniff, Malaysian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – which monitors compliance with the NPT – told the Los Angeles Times recently. "We do not know whether the (NPT) can survive with these policies," he added.
That is also a major concern of the backers of the new appeal, which contains three main parts: all nuclear states must pledge not to use nuclear weapons and reiterate their commitment to eliminate them; all non-nuclear states with ambitions to develop or acquire them must "cease this quest"; and all members of the international community must carry out an enhanced nonproliferation program to prevent any nation or organization from obtaining the weapons.
On the last point, Jonathan Dean, a veteran arms-control diplomat who signed the appeal on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said the PSI could be helpful, but, "if they're really serious about it, they would go to the UN Security Council to get authorization."
"Opposition to terrorism requires a strong, integrated program of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament," the appeal states.
Other scientists and weapons specialists who signed the document stressed that the administration's insistence on retaining a nuclear arsenal and developing new weapons not only risks undermining the NPT and global nonproliferation efforts, but also makes little military sense in an era when smaller, more precise conventional weapons 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 (FAS). "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."
Indeed, eight years ago, the former commander of US strategic forces, General George Lee Butler, joined with 49 other top-ranking retired US, Soviet and West European military to call for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Nuclear proliferation, warned Butler, "cannot be contained in a world where a handful of self-appointed nations both arrogate to themselves the privilege of owning nuclear weapons and extol the ultimate security assurances they assert such weapons convey."
The latest appeal is based more on questions of morality than on utility, according to its signers, who 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 reelected, within 10 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)," Caldicott added; "it is true that it is evil to have the power to destroy life on Earth."
Marie Dennis, who serves on the executive committee of Pax Christi International, noted the US Catholic Bishops' Conference recently endorsed a global ban on nuclear weapons as a policy goal, and called on Washington to issue a no-first-use policy on their use. As recently as one year ago, in the run-up to its attack on Iraq, the Bush administration refused to do so.
Non-U.S. signatories of the appeal include representatives of churches and civic groups in Russia, Britain, Wales, Germany, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Nigeria, South Africa, Gabon, the Congo, the Philippines, Haiti, Australia and New Zealand.
Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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