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Report of Annual Erskine Childers Lecture - Building a Culture of Peace in a World of Conflicts - 6th October 2016, London

A report by Bernie Holland, Member of Uniting for Peace

Around 90 people gathered at Hilton London Euston on 6th October, 2016 to hear Prof. Federico Mayor, Former Director-General of UNESCO speaking on “Building a Culture of Peace in a World of Conflicts.” The event was opened by Uniting for Peace Chair, Vijay Mehta, who welcomed Federico and the audience.

Uniting for Peace was greatly honoured to have Federico Mayor Zaragoza, the President of the Foundation of the Culture of Peace, as the keynote speaker for this Annual Erskine Childers Lecture 2016.

In his address, Federico highlighted the history of conflict, particularly the two dreadful world wars that took place during the 20th Century, and of the initiatives that have been attempted in the prevention or resolution of conflict. He cited the example of America which has derailed the negotiations for arriving at multilateral agreements. This is relevant in respect of both the League of Nations in 1919 and later the United Nations in 1945. Attitudes within America’s political elite remain a problem to this day, especially in respect of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Among the many issues Federico presented, he highlighted the importance of the very real threats posed to the world by climate change. In an uncompromising tone, Federico explained how our overwhelming influence on the environment is in danger of causing irreversible changes which will not only threaten us here and now, but will leave a terrible legacy for future generations.

Federico made it clear he was opposed to the Death Penalty, and that we must curtail that emotional excess that impels them to engage in the vengeful killing of offenders instead of providing these people with the opportunity of rethinking what they have done. A connection was implicit between the so-called ‘legality’ of the death penalty and the ‘mass murder’ that arises from rampant belligerence. This is a matter of the upholding of the dignity of human life.

In his lecture, Federico shared Erskine Childers’ concerns regarding globalisation and democracy, conflict prevention and peace-keeping, humanitarian assistance, human rights, famine, development, health, financial arrangement of the United Nations, citizen's rights, female participation, design and perceptions, education, the North South divide and world economy. He presented an important statement that had been made over 30 years ago by Childers and that is ever more relevant today: ,

“ We have to go forward with the giant undertaking of building a democratic United Nations to make the real world safe, just and sustainable for all our children.”

Amidst the challenging scenario Federico displayed a wonderful capacity for optimism in his belief that human beings are intelligent and resourceful enough to solve the very problems they have created. He quoted from the UNESCO Constitution that was written immediately after the end of the Second World War, stating “Humanity must be guided by Democratic principles”.

True democracy does not exist when the greater amount of power is assumed by too few, for then it merely becomes the will of those in power who appear to be free to exploit and abuse human beings with impunity. This amounts to a violation of ethical principles which should be the pillars of our everyday behaviour – justice – freedom – solidarity – equal human dignity.

In 1963, when delivering a lecture at The International University of Washington, President Kennedy stated: “They told me that peace is not feasible – Peace is feasible – They told me that disarmament is an illusion – disarmament can be implemented” - this is what we must have every day in our minds as there is no challenge that is beyond our unique capacity as human beings. Federico continually stressed the importance of all this.

The problems of the European Union did not escape attention here, the main set-back being the disasters that came for countries like Greece as a result of an obsession with monetarism. Furthermore the lack of will to implement the first article of the Charter of human Rights – that of equal dignity for all – has seen the rise of xenophobia, racism, fanaticism. However, he celebrated the development of mass communications whereby distance is no longer a barrier to the sharing of human initiatives. Now the advantage of the internet allows us to express ourselves – we are not silent any more.

Important too here, was his reference to the 2nd paragraph of the United Nations Charter which endorses the right to engage in conscientious objection. The real traitors of humanity are those who, in the context of a global society, only seek to collude in its disintegration and destruction. Particularly in this respect the United Nations Charter was ratified in order that the processes of diplomacy, encounter, conciliation, and mediation could be implemented “to save succeeding generations from the horror of war.”

Even when the Cold War ended in the 1980s with the bloodless revolution of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ inspired by Mikhael Sergei Gorbachev , it was the intransigence of the United States, under Ronald Reagan that halted an offer to dispose entirely of the nuclear arsenal. Despite this failure, the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, was dissolved into a Commonwealth of independent states and – this is most important – it was achieved without a single drop of human blood.

Federico continued by explaining how very honoured he was to meet President Nelson Mandela who had spent no less than 27 years in prison on Robben Island, near Cape Town, in South Africa. Nelson Mandela presided over the ending of apartheid in South Africa. This was a great advance towards peaceful coexistence in a previously toxic political climate, as were the ending of the civil wars in Salvador and Guatemala, all of which had been brokered with support from the United Nations.

Federico explained how the World Bank for Reconstruction and Development had later been appropriated by the Republican lobby who regard it now just as the ‘World Bank’ –a tool for the richest countries of the world. The extractive mining industries were also allowing exploitation and profiteering that is the effect of raiding the rich mineral resources of smaller countries or states.

Now a complex situation has arisen because of flawed economics which is primarily based on speculation and de-localisation in the practice of ‘outsourcing’ – all of which has come because of greed and irresponsibility. There is also a serious problem when the immense power of the media is controlled by a small number of people whose intentions are questionable. However, through the ‘common media’ accessible via the internet, we the people, now have a voice and we can speak out against all wrongdoing.

When we see vulnerable people who have paid smugglers large sums of money, only to be abandoned to their fate on the Mediterranean, then this too is a violation of their rights, their dignity and their brotherhood. Furthermore, if we had just 10% of the military budget we could have $400 million which could be redirected in the interests of the uneducated, the sick, the vulnerable and the dispossessed. All this work could be undertaken without resorting to any violence or coercion, for we would use the benevolent, persuasive influence of ‘soft power’.

In 1996 I met President Nelson Mandela in Pretoria and he told me “Federico, the culture of peace is a very good idea and we must promote this – but it will only be feasible when an important percentage of women will be in the decision making position” President Mandela is very perceptive in his advice here, particularly because women, by their nature, have a more protective instinct than men – especially when it is about protecting their own children.

We can no longer accept a situation where there are 193 countries being held to ransom by those few who have their hands on the reins of our common destiny. The future is up to us - we can now express our views and we must all be united in rejecting all this orthodoxy, dogmatism and fanaticism. We can create a better future by being aware of all our problems and knowing that we are able to solve them. Please believe that this is all possible

A vibrant Q/A session followed which included war in Syria, the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and tensions in Eastern Europe between USA, NATO and Russia which threatens peace in the region. It was a great networking event.

To read Federico Mayor's transcript, click here