"It is imperative the world move systematically and relentlessly toward nuclear disarmament," Bishop Oscar Cantu, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote in a May 12 letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
"For most Americans, there is an assumption that the nuclear threat receded with the end of the Cold War," he wrote. "Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth."
Reports indicate a sense of pessimism at the conference as there have been no disarmament breakthroughs during the gathering. World nuclear disarmament efforts appear to have stalled.
Kerry told the conference last week that the U.S. currently has 4,717 nuclear weapons in its stockpile. Only 500 warheads have been cut from the U.S. nuclear stockpile since President Barack Obama took office. This compares with 3,500 warheads that were removed in the five-year period before Obama took office.
Arms control observers say disarmament moves are being shaped by powerful weapons manufacturing interests, a more aggressive Russian military posture, and an arms-control-hostile U.S. Congress.
In fact, the fear among arms control advocates is that moves toward disarmament have reversed and nuclear-weapons-possessing nations are now involved in a new nuclear arms race: the modernization of their arsenals.
The U.S., for its part, has allocated $350 billion to upgrade its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. Plans also call for spending close to $1 trillion to build newer weapons and delivery systems over the next three decades.
Meanwhile, 2,500 nuclear warheads in the U.S. and Russian arsenals remain on "hair-trigger" alert, meaning they can be launched in less than 30 minutes. Critics see this as a dangerous remnant of the Cold War.
Cantu appeared to underscore the importance of U.S. leadership in any disarmament effort, writing in his letter that "it is critically important that the United States do its part to ensure the success of the NPT Review Conference." Article VI of the treaty commits the U.S., as a nuclear-armed nation, to nuclear disarmament; Article II, in exchange, commits non-nuclear-possessing nations to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The fear is that if the nuclear possessing nations end serious disarmament efforts, nuclear proliferation will accelerate.
Cantu reiterated a Vatican statement, made at the outset of the conference last month, underscoring the complexity -- and necessity -- of the disarmament task: "We are all aware that the goal of a world without nuclear weapons is not easy to achieve. ... But this is neither a reason nor an excuse not to implement the obligations undertaken in conformity with the NPT. ... Ethics based on the threat of mutually assured destruction is not worthy of future generations."
Cantu expressed his disappointment that there "has not been enough [disarmament] progress [by] the nuclear possessing nations," adding: "We urge bold and concrete commitments to accelerate verifiable nuclear disarmament, including taking weapons off 'launch on warning' status to prevent a catastrophic accident, deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to bring it into force, serious negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty and other prudent measures."
We share the view of the Holy See, he wrote, that "the erosion of the credibility of the NPT could have catastrophic consequences for all countries and for the future of humanity as a whole."