Nuclear Weapons and the Right to Peace

By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C. | 1999-03-01 12:00:00

We are about to leave the bloodiest century in the history of humanity. What can provide a basis of hope that the world community can move beyond war in the new millennium?

More than 100 million people were killed in wars throughout the 20th century. At least 35 million people - 90 percent civilians - have been killed in 170 wars since the end of World War II. Thirty wars are now taking place, most inside national boundaries.

In addition to the tragic loss of life and limb, these conflicts breed international terrorism and have huge economic costs. World military expenditures this year - almost a decade after the end of the Cold War - are still at an incredibly high level of $780 billion. The development, deployment and maintenance of nuclear weapons from their inception has cost $8 trillion, of which the U.S. share alone was $5.5 trillion.

Government spending for the prosecution of war and cleaning up its aftermath are gargantuan. But the priorities for the prevention of war are lilliputian. Governments spend billions of dollars on economic rehabilitation of war-ravaged areas, humanitarian aid, refugee relief, and peacekeeping forces. But they invest little in preventing war. We must do better in the next century.

A Culture of Peace is Possible

There are, fortunately, new signs of hope that a comprehensive approach to war prevention can be developed. A "culture of peace" is possible. Innovative concepts for the prevention of war are being advanced by the United Nations system, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other regional bodies. A new non-governmental initiative, "Global Action to Prevent War," is underway. It provides the details for a phased program for government and grassroots efforts to stop war, genocide, and other forms of deadly conflict.

We should shift our focus upward and outward to concentrate on a new right that is coming into view: the human right to peace. I am greatly encouraged by the findings of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, which recently reported:

First, deadly conflict is not inevitable. Violence on the scale of what we have seen in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, and elsewhere does not emerge inexorably.

Second, the need to prevent deadly conflict is increasingly urgent. The rapid compression of the world through population growth, technological advancement, and economic interdependence, combined with the ready availability of deadly weapons and contagion of hatred, make it essential to keep disputes from turning massively violent.

Third, preventing deadly conflict is possible. The problem is not that we do not know about incipient and large-scale violence; it is often that we do not act. The potential for violence can be defused through the early, skillful, and integrated application of political, diplomatic, economic, and military measures. Warring parties have put down their arms in El Salvador, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Guatemala, and the Philippines. The peace accords in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, though precarious, illustrate that the desire for peace can overcome the histories of conflict.

Violence and war are not inevitable. Rather than intervening in violent conflicts after they have erupted and then engaging in post-conflict peacebuilding, it is more humane and efficient to prevent such violence in the first place by addressing its roots. This is the essence of a culture of peace approach.

The current work of UNESCO, in promoting knowledge of a culture of peace, is inspiring. Responding to a request by the United Nations General Assembly to develop the concept of a culture of peace as an integral approach to preventing violence and armed conflicts, UNESCO succeeded in defining norms, values, and aims of peace. This work has led to a draft declaration on a Culture of Peace, which states that a culture of peace is the set of values, attitudes, traditions, modes of behavior, and ways of life that reflect and inspire:

A culture of peace is a process of individual, collective, and institutional transformation. It grows out of beliefs and actions of the people themselves within their specific historical, sociocultural, and economic contexts. A key is the transformation of violent competition into cooperation based on the sharing of values and goals. In particular, it requires that conflicting parties work together to achieve common interests, including the development process.

Reciprocity and Common Security

Reciprocity can be a moral value with universal application. As Confucius taught: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." The rule of reciprocity is defined by the followers of Christ as the Golden Rule. This means that governments should take into account when formulating their policies the impact of those policies on other states. As the nuclear deterrence doctrine so pointedly illustrates, one nation's security can cause another's insecurity. Mountains of U.N. global strategies could be categorized by the simple dictum: States should treat others as they wish to be treated in return.

Reciprocity is not altruism, but it is a base to express human values for common security. Reciprocity has moved from the realm of idealism to the most basic realism: survival. Here we find common ground between spirituality and technology. What spirituality tells us we ought to do (love one another), technology tells us we must do so that we do not destroy one another. If love is deemed by some to be too strong (given the ideological, cultural, and racial divides that still exist), at least acceptance and tolerance are demanded as the price of life, liberty, and happiness in a world that has become one.

As a reminder of the oneness of the world and the integrity of all life, look again at the photo of the planet sent back by the astronauts. Beautiful, fragile, one. In previous centuries we did not even know one another, let alone care. Now technology has united us, at least in our knowledge of one another.

Through the United Nations and its systems, we now possess a catalogue of information about how our planet works and treaties to protect the rights of individuals and the environment. People are learning that they must cooperate to maintain peace and order, expand economic activity, tackle pollution, halt or minimize climate change, combat disease, curb the proliferation of weapons, prevent desertification, preserve genetic and species diversity, deter terrorists, and ward off famines.

This has prepared us for a new global ethic - an attitude of responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. The abolition of nuclear weapons becomes part of this new ethic of enlightened realism.

A peace consciousness does not appear overnight. A culture of peace requires comprehensive educational, social, and civic action. It addresses people of all ages. An open-minded strategy is required to make it take root in people's hearts and minds.

The General Assembly has proclaimed the year 2000 as the International Year for the Culture of Peace.

Mobilizing public opinion and developing new education programs are essential. The recent series of Roundtables for community leaders conducted across Canada by Project Ploughshares concluded that education programs in schools must be strengthened because children today learn little about the culture of peace. The school system is the perfect place to develop this culture. Past campaigns for environmental protection and non-smoking first gained hold in schools and then permeated society.

Federico Mayor, the Director-General of UNESCO, calls for activating the immense potential of youth.

"We cannot give to youth what we no longer possess in youthful vitality but instead we can offer what we have learned through experience, the fruit of our failures and successes, of the burdens, joys, pain, and perplexity and the renewed inspiration of each new moment."

Mr. Mayor holds that the best way to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration is to promote the right to live in peace.

A Crime Against Humanity

The protection of the right to life and bodily security are at the heart of the Universal Declaration. It is argued by some that the right to life is not an absolute right and that the taking of life in armed hostilities is a necessary exception to this principle. However, when a weapon has the potential to kill between one million and one billion people, as the World Health Organization informed the International Court of Justice, human life becomes reduced to a level of worthlessness that totally belies human dignity as understood in any culture. No weapon invented in the long history of warfare has so negated the dignity and worth of the human person as has the nuclear bomb. This recognition has led the U.N. Human Rights Committee to advocate that the use of nuclear weapons be categorized as a crime against humanity.

The famous Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons of the International Court of Justice did not go this far but did uphold the cardinal principles of humanitarian law. These are the following: In order to protect the civilian population, states must never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets. Also, it is prohibited to cause unnecessary suffering to combatants, and hence states do not have unlimited freedom of choice of weapons.

Mohammed Bedjaoui, President of the Court, in his personal statement, gave a stinging indictment of nuclear weapons:

"The very nature of this blood weapon has a destabilizing effect on humanitarian law which regulates discernment in the type of weapon used. Nuclear weapons, the ultimate evil, destabilizes humanitarian law."

President Bedjaoui added that even if it uses a nuclear weapon only in defense of its very survival, a state cannot exonerate itself from compliance with the "intransgressible" norms of international and humanitarian law. Yet, the Nuclear Weapons States continue to ignore the Court's call for the conclusion of negotiations leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

We who reaffirm the principles of the Declaration on Human Rights must recognize that the most devastating attack on the Declaration comes from those who would assault the very existence of human life on the planet. The right to peace demands the abolition of nuclear weapons.

This is a hard truth, violently resisted by the nuclear retentionists. We who affirm the right to life and the right to peace can never give in. We dare not relax our commitment to life.

Senator Douglas Roche was Canada's Ambassador for Disarmament from 1984 to 1989 and Member of Parliament from 1972 to 1984. He is Visiting Professor at the University of Alberta and Chairman of the Canadian Pugwash Group. His most recent book is The Ultimate Evil: The Fight to Ban Nuclear Weapons.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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