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Make Peace Not War, Activists Push at the UN



Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, left, spoke at an antiwar program held at the United Nations on June 6, 2013. The event was sponsored by Switzerland and the UN’s public information office, which is led by Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, right. JOE PENNEY

A lifeless baby lies on the ground. Half of a woman’s face has been blown off. A mother screams in a hospital after losing her son because of inadequate medication. A text fills the big white screen: global military spending amounts to $1.7 trillion a year. Less than a fifth of that would pay for meeting all Millennium Development Goals on a regional level, the text says.

This thought-provoking, short documentary, titled “Determined to Save Succeeding Generations From the Scourge of War,” was screened June 6 at the United Nations headquarters at a briefing by the same name. The event was sponsored by the UN Department of Public Information and the UN mission of Switzerland; it was organized by Cora Weiss, a peace activist who also worked with the Downtown Community Television Center, a media arts center in Manhattan, to produce the film.

The briefing’s goal was to find concrete solutions for ending the debilitating violence that blights many corners of the world. The speakers provided concrete advice.

Though it was a bright sunny morning in New York, the mood in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, where the documentary and briefing were held, was somber when the film finished.

“We should show films like that and worse every time a country wants to send their kids to war,” said Jody Williams, one of the briefing’s four speakers and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

An outspoken American antiwar activist, Williams is the founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a nonprofit group of  women laureates who continue to work for peace worldwide. Williams won the Nobel prize in 1997 with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, of which she was the founding coordinator.

Speaking extemporaneously throughout the program with a clutch of notes, Williams emphasized that “there’s nothing heroic about war,” even if individuals act like heroes during an armed conflict.

“War is about greed, lust for power or desire to hold onto power one is losing,” she said. “It’s a waste of other people’s children’s lives,” she added, referring to the fact that decision-makers are hardly ever the ones sending their offspring to battle.

Despite the UN Charter being written in 1945 to prevent future fighting, “War and conflict are still with us,” said Paul Seger, the ambassador of Switzerland to the UN.

With World War I and II, the Vietnam War and numerous other violent confrontations, the last century was the most murderous in human history, Ralph Zacklin, a former UN assistant secretary-general for legal affairs, said. Political and ideological differences feed tensions, he said, with stresses running the gamut from maritime boundary disputes to sectarian divisions to unresolved arguments stemming from a colonial history.

Yet not all hope is lost, the speakers implied, justifying their presence at the event, which sought to be not only a constructive discussion on war’s futility but also a discussion of the world’s discomfort with its opposite, peace.

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Some of the suggestions for curbing violence ranged from ratifying antiwar treaties and banning killer robots to increasing education and job opportunities and women’s participation in peace talks and decision-making processes at high government levels.

Seger said that the most crucial work right now was for countries to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty, which was adopted in April in the UN General Assembly and signed in early June by about 70 countries. (It enters into force 90 days after 50 countries ratify it.) Given that ratification can be a long process, no nation has voted yet. Switzerland, for example, must present an explanatory note to the country’s Parliament, which then allows a debate before the pact is voted on in both chambers. A simple majority is required for the treaty to pass, so if all goes well, it could be ratified by the end of 2014, a mission spokesman said.

With the treaty establishing common international standards for the regulation of the trade of conventional weapons, “We will be one step closer to ending wars as well,” Seger said.

Seger said that the UN Security Council needed to increase its transparency, which may be a tall order as the media become more curtailed from access to council members. “The institution we have all collectively entrusted with maintaining peace and security has its seat right next door,” Seger said, referring to the council’s meeting room. “The Security Council does its job, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but it has gotten too used to taking action too late and too strongly. The Security Council should remember its prime responsibility of preventing wars, before having to intervene. The motto must therefore be: much more Chapter VI, much less Chapter VII” — more negotiations and fewer “actions” to deal with aggression.

“And in order to do so, the Council has to work more transparently and inclusively when acting on our behalf.”

Nounou Booto Meeti, a panelist and the program manager of the Center for Peace, Security and Armed Violence Prevention in Birmingham, England, talked about the rising militarization of societies, and how money that governments allocate to the military should be redirected for education, health and agriculture. Conflict and post-conflict areas, she said, have become home to epidemic diseases like malaria, typhoid and cholera.

“Sifting budgets is easy,” she said, citing her experience working with Parliamentarians in her native Democratic Republic of the Congo. When it comes time to determine the army’s spending, “They have to just cut it” and devote more money to development.

The way to prevent war in the first place is to “strengthen diplomacy, integrate peace education in every school so that we raise generations of people who learn about human rights, gender equality, nonviolence, disarmament, sustainable development and traditional peace practices.”

Meeti noted the importance of financing women’s issues, like fighting sexual violence and prostitution. Educating communities on how to deal with the effects of rape is crucial, as often the violated women are viewed as “dirty and diseased” and ostracized.

“Destroying women is destroying a nation,” she said.

ECOSOC Chamber
The audience at the antiwar program, held in the newly renovated UN Economic and Social Council Chamber. JOE PENNEY

Williams, nodding vehemently as Meeti spoke, called for more women to be involved in all work on peace talks. While the UN adopted Resolution 1325 in 2000, mandating women’s places in top decision-making roles in peace processes, just 40 countries, including Switzerland and the United States, have created a national action plan laying out such an agenda.

“Words in documents are totally irrelevant if they are not being implemented,” Williams said. “Talk to your nation about drawing up the plan.”

Williams’s main concern was killer robots, an issue she brought up three times during the two-hour event. She heads the International Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of nonprofit groups formally organized in April. Its goal is to ban, through a treaty or national law, devices programmed to shoot without human intervention. Although they are not in use yet, the coalition is striving to end any development and production of these fully autonomous weapons.

“Killer robots would totally change the face of warfare,” Williams said, comparing their danger to nuclear weapons. “Imagine a hacked-into killer robot.”

Williams, who had the most to say on the panel, said the best way to reduce violence was to make sure people’s basic needs are met – that they have food, water, shelter and work or volunteer opportunities.

The number of rapes would instantly drop “if young men didn’t roam the streets in their testosterone-driven confusion,” she said. Williams got so carried away in speaking that she almost dropped the “f” word  toward the end of the event, remembering that she was at the UN, where politesse is paramount.

“My mother asked me not to swear because it tarnishes my Nobel image,” she said, wiping imaginary dirt off her shirt.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Mirva Lempiainen is a journalist from Finland who writes about travel, culture and social issues for media based in Finland and in the US. She has a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and writes a travel blog at

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