Nuclear Weapons and the Right to Peace

An address to the International Conference "Universal Rights and Human Values A Blueprint for Peace, Justice and Freedom"
Edmonton, Alberta, November 26-29, 1998

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 they 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 priorities 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 the prevention of war.

For the sake of a world that has become technologically united and where human rights are indivisible, we must do better in the next century.

Although the discordances, enmities and vile acts of a twisted section of humanity are all too evident, there are, fortunately, new signs of hope that a comprehensive approach to war prevention can be developed. A "culture of peace" is possible. Already, 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 effort for to stop war, genocide and other forms of deadly conflict.

At this remarkable international conference on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, 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 from human interaction.

Second, the need to prevent deadly conflict is increasingly urgent. The rapid compression of the world through breathtaking population growth, technological advancement and economic interdependence, combined with the readily available supply of deadly weapons and easily transmitted contagion of hatred and incitement to violence, make it essential and urgent to find ways to prevent 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. Examples from "hot spots" around the world illustrate that the potential for violence can be defused through the early, skillful, and integrated application of political, diplomatic, economic and military measures.

Though terrible sufferings occurred, it is a fact that warring parties have put down their arms in El Salvador, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Guatemala and the Philippines. The peace accords in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, though precarious, illustrate that the human desire for peace can overcome the histories of conflict.

These lessons have taught us that violence and war are not inevitable. Rather than intervening in violent conflicts after they have erupted and then engaging in post-conflict peace-building, it is more humane and more 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 now before the General Assembly.

The declaration states that a culture of peace is the set of values, attitudes, traditions, modes of behaviour and ways of life that reflect and inspire:

It can readily be seen that a culture of peace is a process of individual, collective and institutional transformation. It grows out of beliefs and actions of the people themselves and develops in each country within its specific historical, sociocultural and economic context. 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 objectives of common interests at all levels, including the development process.

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. In the new age of interdepedence, this means that governments should take as a starting point in the formulation of 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 may not lay claim to a high level of altruism. But it is a valid and effective base to find and 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.

If we need reminding 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 possess, for the first time in the history of the world, a catalogue of information about how our planet works, and treaties to protect the rights of individuals and the environment itself. Both people and governments are learning that they must cooperate for many purposes: 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, ward off famines, etc.

All this has prepared us for the formulation of a new global ethic, which can be essentially expressed as a new attitude of discharging our responsibilities for caring for ourselves and for the earth. The abolition of nuclear weapons becomes part of this new global ethic of enlightened realism.

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

The General Assembly has helped to foster this ethical transformation by proclaiming the year 2000 as the International Year for the Culture of Peace. Mobilizing public opinion and developing new education programs, at all levels, are essential to permeating societyís rejection of war.

The recent series of Roundtables for community leaders conducted across Canada by Project Ploughshares came to the same conclusion: 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 campaignís for environmental protection and non-smoking first gained hold in schools and then permeated society.

Federico Mayor, the Director-General of UNESCO, has eloquently called for activating the immense potential of youth so that each young person can become the master and architect of his or her own destiny.

"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 newly understood "right to peace -- the right to live in peace."

The new delineation of the right to peace has particular relevance in the current nuclear weapons controversy.

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.

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

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

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 Courtís call for the conclusion of negotiations leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

We who have gathered here to 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.

Through this international conference we must gather our strength anew. For the sake of our children and grandchildren and the future of life on the planet, we dare not relax our commitment to life. When we fully understand our own potential to make a culture of peace the ruling norm in society, nuclear weapons will then be discarded into the ashbins of history.

Doug Roche