Vienna, Austria: Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Compass – December 8, 2014

Emphasizing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons continues to gain momentum as a viable approach to advancing nuclear disarmament. As part of this momentum, the Austrian government held the Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, December 8- 9, 2014, following the previous successful conferences organized by the governments of Norway and Mexico. 

On the opening day of the conference, as nearly 160 states and scores of civil society groups and international organizations gathered in Vienna, the Global Security Institute joined once again with the Permanent Mission of the Philippines, the United Religions Initiative, the World Evangelical Alliance, and Religions for Peace, to amplify religious voices asserting the moral imperative of nuclear disarmament. 

The Vienna event, entitled “Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Compass,” featured a distinguished panel of religious leaders and representatives including: Madam Ela Gandhi, Religions for Peace andgranddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi; Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Former Grand Mufti of Bosnia and leading scholar of Islam; Tyler Wigg Stevenson, World Evangelical Alliance; and Dr. William Vendley, Religions for Peace. The event, which was co-chaired by Philippine Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, President of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute, was the latest such endeavor among the co-sponsors, who have been working together to create an effective, informed, and engaged coalition of religious voices addressing the impropriety of nuclear weapons.

The panelists each affirmed the growing consensus among the world’s diverse religious communities regarding the moral imperative for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

In the opening remarks, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan emphasized the importance and timeliness of having an event to underscore and amplify the moral argument against nuclear weapons.

“All along, in the many years that I have been involved in nuclear disarmament, I always thought that maybe we had to go beyond what we usually do – get out of the box,” he said. “We have not achieved what we would like to achieve, and that’s why this is not an ordinary or traditional side-event. We must call to a higher moral conscience.”

Special Prayer offered by Bishop William Swing at “Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Compass,” December 8, 2014:

The beginning and the end are in your hands, oh creator of the universes, and in our hands, you have placed the fate of this planet. We, who are tested by having both creative and destructive power in our free will turn to you in sober fear and intoxicating hope. We ask for your guidance and to share in your imagination in our deliberations about the use of nuclear force. Help us to lift the fog of atomic darkness that hovers so pervasively over our earth. Your earth, so that soon all eyes might see life magnified by your pure light. Bless all of us who wait today for your presence and who dedicate ourselves to achieve your intended peace and rightful equilibrium here on earth. In the name of all that is holy and all that is hoped, amen.

Jonathan Granoff likened human endeavors without the “compass” of moral guidance to driving an automobile without a steering wheel.  

“There could be nothing more hazardous for our global community than to propose that policies could be made without reference to our moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of our humanity,” said Mr. Granoff in his opening remarks. “Every single tool of humanity must be utilized to constrain the great existential danger that we ourselves have created with the unleashing of the destructive force of nuclear weapons,” he said. 

Dr. William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace International, began his remarks by citing a commandment—“thou shall not kill” —to draw a parallel and make a case for the immorality of nuclear weapons. 

“The simple, categorical, ‘thou shall not kill’ is never elevated into ‘it’s good to kill sometimes,’” Vendley asserted. “Although ‘thou shall not kill’ holds even under situations where, tragically, killing is seen as the least worst thing, in those situations it is deemed always as a kind of failure.” 

Like the commandment, he said, the use of nuclear weapons is categorically wrong and immoral, even in the case of retaliation. 

Vendley continued by noting that when it comes to deterrence, there exists a diversity of religious views—ranging from a proscription against deterrence entirely to its limited acceptance (the offensive threat to use a nuclear weapon, he added, is completely beyond morality and accepted as such in the religious community). And while acceptance of the supposed “utility” of limited deterrence may exist in several religious communities, he argued that deterrence is objectively morally disordered and thus cannot be normative. 

“Deterrence represents a form of gross moral failure that can be at best tolerated while states resolutely and methodically disarm themselves,” he said. “The inaction of nuclear states regarding disarmament is tantamount to elevating deterrence to the de facto norm and this is, I would argue and many religions would argue, morally disordered.” 

Vendley concluded his remarks by emphasizing a need to update our ideas of security: 

“Yes, we need state security because of the integrity of the borders must be respected, but that is not enough. Yes, we need human security because the wellbeing of people within borders must be honored, but that too is not enough. Today we need to advance and implement shared security – your well being is mine, we are no more secure than the most vulnerable around us. This is true in practical terms but it is also true in religious and moral terms as well.” 

Striking a similar chord, Madam Ela Gandhi, parliamentarian and granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, began by quoting her late grandfather, who contended in 1946 that “[the] atom bomb mentality is immoral, unethical, addictive, and only evil can come from it.”  Sixty-seven years later, Madam Gandhi said, her grandfather’s words ring even truer—more powerful in their implications and perhaps more relevant in our fight for nuclear disarmament.  

“There is no moral justification for nuclear weapons,” she said. “The combined nuclear arsenal in the world can indeed have the effect of not only destroying humanity as a whole, but also destroying any possibility of future generations being able to survive and lead a normal life,” she said. “Leaders, therefore, have a moral duty to bring an end to the possession and production of nuclear weapons.” 

Dr. Mustafa Ceric, former Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, began by invoking the Biblical story of the brothers Cain and Abel—in which the peaceful Abel is killed by his brother Cain because of the latter’s greed for power—and argued that today, the story might be more readily understood as the battle between humanity and nuclear weapons, and that we mustn’t let Abel, or humanity, be conquered and destined for ruin by Cain, or nuclear weapons:  

“It is because of this universe of divine moral law that I, Abel, of this time, say to Cain, of this time, that the acts of uranium mining, refinement and enrichment, production of nuclear weapons or nuclear fuels, nuclear testing, use of nuclear weapons, the operation of nuclear weapons, power plants, nuclear power plant accidents, reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, storage and disposal of nuclear waste, and use of depleted uranium weapons are humanly disgraceful, legally unsustainable and morally unacceptable.” 

 Dr. Ceric continued: “I am here to remind my fellow Muslims that we must be people of faith, who are the messengers of peace, who are the peaceful men as our name calls us to be. Hence, we need to join forces with other people of faith to play the needed vital role in helping to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world.”  

“This time,” Dr. Ceric concluded, “I pray that Cain will disappear and that Abel will win.” 

Vienna Moral Compass panel December 2014Tyler Wigg-Stevenson illustrated what he believed to be an important distinction in the building of the moral case against nuclear weapons: that between power and authority. Power, he argued, is the ability to coerce violently, whereas authority is a far more ephemeral quality—the right to be heard, listened to, and taken seriously. Authority distinguishes itself from power in that the former is a moral quality. 

“[Authority] is claimed and given alike based on a particular group’s sense of right and wrong, the purpose of life, the nature of the human person,” he said. It therefore follows that while states may have the power to use nuclear weapons, “no state has the authority to use nuclear weapons; the only legitimate goal for such weapons is that they never be used, under any circumstances.” 

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Granoff called on the United Nations Security Council to explicitly prohibit the targeting of cities with nuclear weapons and argued that such a position needs to be formalized in consistency with existing humanitarian law. 

In conclusion, he argued, “nuclear weapons are immoral; therefore we must work together to eliminate them.” GSI will continue to work with our co-sponsors in this initiative, and welcome the cooperation and contributions of others toward advancing its aims. 


Watch the full video of the event here:


Read the Global Security Institute’s statement on occasion of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons 

Read the event report from our first event of this initiative, on April 30, 2014

See the flyer for the upcoming and third event of this initiative, scheduled for April 9, 2015

For more resources on nuclear weapons, ethics, and the law, see:

“Are We Safe Yet? Vulnerability and Security in an Anxious Age.”

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A United World or Divided World? Reflections and Policies for Human Unity

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Moral, Ethical, Practical, and Spiritual Global Responsibility in the Nuclear Age” 

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June 18-20, 2012

Inner Courage and Love: The Path to Disarmament” 

Tikkun Magazine

Winter 2011

The Call to a New Moral Imperative” 

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Spring 2009

A Call of Conscience: Nuclear Disarmament

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Rome, Italy

November 17-19, 2006

Power Over the Ultimate Evil

Tikkun Magazine

Nov/Dec, 2003

The Power Over the Ultimate Evil: In the Footsteps of Gandhi and King

Presented at the closing ceremony of the 2002 Gandhi and King Season for Nonviolence

United Nations, New York

April 9, 2002

Nuclear Weapons, Ethics, Morals and Law

Brigham Young University Law Journal

December 9, 2000

Call to Conscience: A Ban on Nuclear Weapons

This is a working group within the world’s largest interfaith organization, United Religions Initiative

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