Nobel nomination keeps 'focus on disarmament'

Douglas Roche

The nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize of a longtime advisor to the Vatican on nuclear disarmament has special significance for Catholics, and represents a call to push more firmly on nuclear arms issues since the awarding of the prize to U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009, said several experts.

Douglas Roche, a former chairman of the United Nations’ Disarmament Committee, was nominated for the prize Feb. 1 by the International Peace Bureau, an international coalition of 300 member organizations in 70 countries.

Previous Nobel Peace Prize winners, members of national governments, and academics are among the individuals and organizations able to submit nominations. The International Peace Bureau won the prize in 1910.

Roche, who has served as a member of the Holy See’s delegation to treaty conferences at the United Nations, was a member of the Canadian parliament for 12 years. He later founded the Middle Powers Initiative, a coalition of eight international organizations working to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Nominating Roche “was a way to keep the focus on disarmament” and would also “be recognition of a lifetime’s consistent and highly principled work,” Colin Archer, secretary-general for the International Peace Bureau, told NCR in an e-mail exchange.

“If he wins, it means that a strong message goes out that the whole disarmament field ... needs to be taken more seriously by our leaders,” Archer said.

The nomination also represents an “exciting moment for Catholics,” said Pax Christi USA’s executive director Dave Robinson.

“It recognizes the leadership of the Holy See and of the Catholic community -- at least on the international level -- for its very clear and emphatic position on nuclear disarmament,” Robinson said.

Archer, who is based in Geneva, said that Obama’s prize was given “in large measure” for a 2009 speech the president gave in Prague, Czech Republic, in which he promised that the United States would “take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.”

That speech “is now beginning to sound like a ‘flash in the pan’ or at best, pious hopes,” Archer said.

Since Prague, Obama succeeded in getting the U.S. Senate to ratify the new START treaty, which limits the number of nuclear weapons launchers Russia and the U.S. can have and sets forth an inspection and verification scheme for both countries. The treaty was signed into law Feb. 5.

However, Archer noted, to win Senate approval Obama agreed to spend $85 billion over the next decade to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. An additional $100 billion is expected to be spent on strategic nuclear delivery systems.

That support of nuclear weapons funding, taken with Obama’s defense of the continuation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in his Nobel acceptance speech, constitutes the “worst insult ever to Nobel’s idea,” said Fredrik S. Heffermehl, a Norwegian scholar of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who founded the prize.

“There is no doubt that Nobel had the movement for a new and disarmed world order in mind. [An order] where the power of law would replace the law of power,” said Heffermehl, author of The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted.

If Roche wins the prize, Archer said, “it could be interpreted” that the awards committee has “begun to take on board the criticism that it has failed to respect the terms of Nobel’s will.”

No matter the outcome of the award, Robinson said the nomination reminds Catholics of the importance of working for the elimination of nuclear arms.

Said Robinson: “We’re at a teachable moment in the nation that reminds all of us as Catholics of what our commitment is and that the arms race itself is a theft from the poor.”

[Joshua McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

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