VATICAN CITY: The Vatican today hosted Nobel laureates, UN and NATO officials and a handful of nuclear powers at a conference aimed at galvanising support for a global shift from the Cold War era policy of nuclear deterrence to one of total nuclear disarmament.
Pope Francis was to address the conference, adding his voice to the campaign that produced a new UN treaty calling for the elimination of atomic weapons, and a Nobel Peace Prize for the small advocacy group that was instrumental in pushing the treaty through.
Among those speaking at the two-day meeting were Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and Masako Wada, who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and has gone onto become a prominent disarmament activist.
The conference comes amid mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula and heated rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang.
But organiser Cardinal Peter Turkson told the audience hall today that the gathering was planned well before President Donald Trump began his Asia trip, where the North Korean nuclear threat has been at the forefront of his agenda.
Drawing laughs from the largely secular audience, Turkson said it was "divine providence" that the conference and US president's trip coincided.
Opening the debate, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told the conference that the time had come for world powers to do away with their policy of nuclear deterrence.
"International peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on a threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation or simply maintaining a balance of power," he said.
And if nuclear weapons were to be used, the effects would be devastating for humanity and future generations, warned Francois Bugnion, of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"As the ICRC learned in Hiroshima, there are no effective means of assisting survivors while protecting those delivering assistance," he said. "The majority of victims will be denied the medical assistance they need." The conference is the first major international gathering since 122 countries approved a new UN treaty in July calling for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
However, none of the nuclear powers and no NATO members signed on. They argued the treaty's lofty ideals were unrealistic given the rapid expansion of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
The United States was being represented at the conference by its deputy ambassador to the Holy See, while Russia was sending a top nuclear expert. China and North Korea were invited, but organizers said they didn't know if they would attend. Neither has diplomatic relations with the Holy See.