The Right to Life and the Culture of Peace
An Address by Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.
to the 38th Annual Meeting of Catholic Social Services
Friday, June 9, 2000
Hotel Macdonald, Edmonton, Alberta
In my public life, I am immersed in a sea of government policies, programs, and legislation all calling for public attention.
Yet the one theme that ought to tie so much of government activities and public focus together is lost, buried in the crosscurrents of opinion that drive our society. That theme is a consistent ethic of life.
The great issues of our time - war, poverty, racism, human rights, environment, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty - are all linked. Yet they are treated separately. Some focus on their one cause, oblivious to the greater understanding each of these problems would receive through the unifying infusion of a common approach to a right to life.
When I use the phrase "right to life," I do not confine it to any one subject or area. I mean that each person, from the moment of conception to a death with dignity, has the right to the fullness of the human dignity implanted in the essence of his or her soul. This "right to life" accompanies the course of their life at every stage.
Sadly, that right to life is not met in myriads of cases. Consider:
The litany of the assaults on life is long and even overwhelming. At the base of these assaults is the toleration of violence that has infected the human condition.
- In 1997, there were 114,848 abortions, a 2.9 percent increase from the year before. Therapeutic abortions are most common among women in their twenties, who now account for half of all abortions - a statistic that tells us economic and social, not medical, reasons are at the root of the abortion increase.
- At least one-quarter of the world's people live in severe poverty, meaning they do not get enough food, access to clean water, proper sanitation, are subject to rampant disease, and are deprived of proper education. Here in Canada, one in five children lives in poverty, there are 200,000 homeless, and the use of food banks doubled in the 1990s.
- At present there are 36 wars taking place, most of them between peoples of the same country. More than 110 million people were killed in the wars of the 20th century, three times as many people than all of the war deaths in all the previous centuries from the first century A.D.
- Despite the end of the Cold War, the world still spends $780 billion a year preparing for war contrasted to the $1.3 billion it spends on maintaining United Nations programs for peace. For every dollar that all governments spend on military activities, less than a quarter-of-a-cent is spent on U.N. peacekeeping.
- The Nuclear Weapons States maintain 35,000 nuclear weapons, at least 5,000 on full alert, meaning they could be deployed on 15 minutes' notice. Most of these weapons are many times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people.
- Amnesty International reports that torture is so widespread and endemic that it is difficult to even document the number of victims. Last year, the number of known executions world-wide was at least 1,813.
- The calls for the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide are being stepped up and compassionate murder is moving closer to being accepted in our society.
Most of us think that we are non-violent. We would recoil in horror at an assault on a person before our eyes. But we tolerate violence all around us. We allow the destruction of the unborn child. We allow children to starve and die from easily controllable diseases. We allow the greed of the arms merchants to impede government legislation to stop the arms trade. We allow the destruction of the environment that will so desperately be needed by future generations. We even pay to see entertainment that is studded with violence - the assault of one human being on another.
No, our protestations that we are not violent ring hollow. There is too much suffering, destruction, and death throughout the world to permit us to take refuge in the sanctity of our personal surroundings. That is why I turn to such organizations as Catholic Social Services to help lift up the consciousness of our society not only to reject violence in all its forms but to promote the full application of the human rights for all that has been promised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If, in former times, we were not aware of the manifest violence in the world or felt immobilized, today we have the blossoming of intelligence and the growing power of civil society to press forward with demands that the governmental processes protect human life from start to end.
We live at the most magnificent time in the history of creation. God has blessed this generation with an abundance of knowledge, resources, and communication. We know more about ourselves and our relationship to one another and to the planet than ever before.
It is often said that war is inevitable, is part of our human nature, and that people have been fighting throughout history. That is a superficial analysis. Human beings are not genetically programmed for war. There is no inherent biological component of our nature that produces violence. UNESCO points out that war begins in our minds; so, too, must the new idea begin in our minds: that peace is absolutely necessary in a technological age of mass destruction.
The continuing work of UNESCO in promoting knowledge of a culture of peace is inspiring. Responding to a request by the UN 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.
A culture of peace is the set of values, attitudes, traditions, modes of behaviour, and ways of life that reflect and inspire respect for life and for all human rights. It involves the rejection of violence in all its forms, and commitment to the prevention of violent conflicts by tackling their root causes through dialogue and negotiation.
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 people's hearts and minds.
The UN 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 promoting humanity's rejection of war. Instead of planning to fight wars, Canada should put its full strength behind the efforts of UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan, who recently stressed the need for a culture of peace in these words:
"It may seem sometimes as if a culture of peace does not stand a chance against the culture of war, the culture of violence and the cultures of impunity and intolerance. Peace may indeed be a complex challenge, dependent on action in many fields and even a bit of luck from time to time. It may be a painfully slow process, and fragile and imperfect when it is achieved. But peace is in our hands. We can do it." A "culture of peace" and the "right to life" go hand in hand. The problem of the "right to life" in all its dimensions is not a lack of knowledge or resources but a distortion of values. There is no time for despair or cynicism. We need to respond creatively to God's challenge to each of us to share in the continued development of the planet so that it can truly be a planet of peace, where every person is assured the reality of human dignity.
The great psychiatrist Rollo May writes that "We are living at a time when one age is dying and the new age is not yet born." It takes creative courage to discover new forms, new symbols and new patterns in which a more humane society can be built.
Never doubt that we can do this. And the way to approach the complexities of globalization is to insist that all policies - and I mean all policies - conform to the basic standard of the right to life for all.
No more exclusionary economic policies. No more divisionary social policies. No more self-serving war policies that perpetuate violence.
A seamless garment for the protection of all life must be advanced. An organization with that very name has come into existence. The Seamless Garment Network, founded in 1987, is committed to the protection of life, threatened by so many forces today.
Is this too big a job to bring together the great themes of modern life? No, it is not. It cannot be. For we must find a way to cooperate, respect one another, and protect the unprotected if civilization is to endure in the problem-torn 21st century.
In a spirit of humbleness yet determination, singleness yet in community, outrage at the wrongs yet in reconciliation with the violators, we must move forward.
The right to life is for all. And all must pursue the full development of this most precious gift from God.