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19 Sep, 1999

Weighing the causes and costs of global wars and conflict

Originally Published: 19 Sept 1999

Between the lines of the inspiring rhetoric on the International Year of the Culture of Peace that rang out at the UN Conference Centre this past week, there was one sobering conclusion: There is no consensus on precisely why global peace is proving so elusive, nor how precisely to start addressing it.

Five senior personalities, including a Buddhist monk, a Thai statesman, an educator and two UN chiefs, all spoke at ceremonies marking the launch of the “Culture of Peace” year, created by the UN to mark the start of the final general assembly of the 20th century and raise hopes that the millennium will bring more peace and stability to global societies.

But the sombre thought is that the world today is less at peace than at any time since the end of World War II. The UN, created precisely to help the world forever bury the horrors of conflict, seems to be now confronting a world with its vision in tatters.

Simply sending peace-keeping forces or trying to rebuild societies once the damage is done just does not cut it any more, said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Nor does conducting preventive diplomacy. “We must act at a more deeper level if we want enduring results,” he said, leaving it to our imagination as to what “deeper level” he was talking about.

Asia today has little time to contemplate ‘deeper’ things. The UN’s regional commission’s executive secretary Adrianus Mooy, an Indonesian, reminded Asians that the region suffered years of horrific wars, violence and destruction, is taking years to reconstruct what was lost and that it is still paying a heavy price, just to survive. “Clearly, there cannot be any development without peace,” Mr Mooy said.

So, why so much conflict? Some speakers attributed it to the lack of social justice. Others blamed ethnic differences and a lack of understanding for each others’ cultures and traditions. Some blamed the absence of democracy, the cult of consumerism, overheating economies, the speed of change, the dominance of greed over need, free trade rather than free and fair trade, the breakdown of family values, globalisation, the absence of human rights, the battle for natural resources, a desire for freedom, settling of old scores, rebellion against years of tyranny and oppression, and so on ad nauseum.

Indeed, when poring through all the reasons, and their impact on families, societies and communities, it appears obvious that too much change is taking place too fast, things have just gone much too far to be settled amicably, that some kind of explosion is virtually inevitable. In other words, for peoples unable to find either inner or outer peace, some kind of house-cleaning is not too far away.

It was perhaps Thai statesman and Privy Councillor Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, whose thinking is very much in line with that of His Majesty the King, who summed it up by asking whether it was time “to re-evaluate the importance and value of competition, of trying to be the best. Of winning.”

He explained, “This competitive drive may have brought about economic modernisation but it has also served as the root of many conflicts within societies and between societies. We may need to begin to ask the question as to whether being the best at everything is really worth it.”

He quoted a Buddhist saying which roughly translates into English as “He who loses is a saint, while he who triumphs is a demon.”

Now in his 70s, Gen Prem can perhaps look back and give today’s young this advice. He grew up in a generation that fought a different kind of war. Today, trade wars have replaced cold wars. All kinds of wars claim casualties. But under the curious rules of contemporary economic wars, we welcome back with open arms the “investment” of currency speculators who bankrupted our economies.

The same battalions of consultants and bankers who sent Asia spiralling into debt with cheap money, are now returning to cheaply pick up the spoils, and telling us that it was all our fault. Sounds the same as blaming a woman for getting raped because she was wearing revealing clothes; or the home-owner for getting burgled because he left his windows open.

The word ‘Justice’ came up quite often during the speeches, the absence of which is clearly another cause of conflict between and within societies. Is it a just world today? Far from it. The Golden Rule applies; He who has the gold, makes the rules, and enforces them, too, usually in a way that best serves his interests. Who today would dare put out an arrest warrant for George Soros?

Not very well publicised is that Iran is asking — with little success — for the extradition of the captain of the US navy ship that shot down a civilian airliner over the Arabian Gulf more than 10 years ago.

It was the Buddhist monk Phra Charoenchai who pointed out that the buzzword ‘sustainable development’ was in fact unsustainable because humans are locked in a lifelong struggle for material resources, which are limited. “Insufficient resources cause conflict and violence, especially when (humans) want more than is sufficient for their lives.”

UNESCO’s Director-General Federico Mayor adds, “There cannot be sustainable peace without sustainable development. There cannot be development without democracy, without a more equitable sharing of resources, without the elimination of disparities that separate the most advanced countries from the least developed ones.”

Backed a ‘Manifesto 2000 for the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence,’ written on commission from the UN by winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, UNESCO will be carrying out a wide range of activities and programmes next year to strengthen respect for cultural diversity, and promote tolerance, co-operation, solidarity, dialogue and reconciliation. Many of these activities will focus on schools and universities, but other stakeholders like the media and parliamentarians are being exhorted to enlist.

Among many other benefits, the campaign for the “culture of peace” will awaken many to the fact that the world of consumerism, which induces us to buy, buy, buy, in order keep economies chugging, is in direct confrontation with the ancient philosophies and religious teachings that nourishing and enriching our souls should be equally important, and perhaps more important, than bloating the piggy-banks.

The Qur’an, holy book of Islam, says it quite clearly: “Verily, man is to his Lord ungrateful. And to that fact, he bears witness by his deeds. Violent is he in his love for wealth.” Indeed, there is no chance of peace being attained anywhere until the root cause is addressed: The global proliferation of the seven deadly sins — pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.

Further information about the Culture of Peace can be found at www.unesco.org. Comments to me can be directed to imtiaz@loxinfo.co.th.