/ 22 August 2022

Peace-making is the responsibility of us all not just politicians

Russia Ukraine War
Security forces inspect at the site after a Russian missile attack as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on July 19, 2022. (FILE PHOTO by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has raised a number of issues and chief among them is the importance of peacebuilding. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia was not sudden but was preceded by the steady build-up of troops and military weapons along the border shared by the two nations. Using satellite technology, this build-up was clearly visible, exposing the aggressive intentions of Russia, and yet diplomatic efforts to avert the imminent war were timid. 

China and India, the two most populous nations in the world that share cordial relations with Russia and that could have exerted their influence over their fellow member of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc, seemed lukewarm in their efforts to reduce the tension. The diplomatic art of peace-making is greatly needed in our divided world where multilateral institutions are being threatened by what some are calling de-globalisation and the rise of nationalism exemplified by the former United States President Donald Trump’s policy of “America first”.  

United Nations

The United Nations General Assembly condemned the invasion in a non-binding resolution but the Security Council, which is responsible for maintaining peace and security in the world, failed to agree on a resolution to address the matter. In truth, the UN structure has remained largely the same despite some cosmetic changes since its creation in 1945. 

Some new bodies and offices have been created within the organisation such as the Human Rights Council, but the veto power of the five permanent members — Russia, China, America, Britain and France — has continued to be an Achilles heel for the organisation, impeding its ability to foster peace. The power and influence of the position of secretary-general has been waning with each new office holder as the interests of the major economic and political powers take centre stage. The Israeli-Palestine conflict is one of the enduring symbols of the United Nations’ failures and is a dent in its peacekeeping record.

The structures of the UN need to be re-imagined so that the organisation can fulfil its obligation of maintaining peace and security. Perhaps it is time for civil society organisations, think-tanks, and independent commissions comprising experts in various fields and people of integrity to become part of the decision-making so that the political and economic interests of member states do not derail the mission of the organisation. 

The Security Council is not accountable to any other body within the organisation on matters of peace and security. The time may be right to subject the decisions and procedures of the council to judicial review by the International Court of Justice to ensure that decisions are reasonable, fair and in line with the provisions of the UN Charter. 

When the Security Council reaches a deadlock because of the use of the veto, as was the case with of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a procedure of referring the matter to the General Assembly to take a decision could be created to prevent UN inaction in a crisis where there is the loss of life, gross violations of human rights and breaches of international law.

Global military spending

There have been massive investments in war technology by developed nations such as the US, China, Russia, Britain and France. Earlier this year, Russia launched a missile from Earth that destroyed one of its satellites in space. The US and Britain, two countries renowned for their respect for the rule of law and protection of human rights, have over the past decade been the world’s biggest suppliers of arms. The US alone accounts for 68% of all arms exports in the world and most of these end up in the most volatile regions like the Middle East. 

The military industries in Britain and the US have lucrative contracts to supply sophisticated weapons to countries with poor human rights records like Saudi Arabia which is the world’s largest importer of arms. The court of appeal in the UK called the government’s decision making regarding arms sales to Saudi Arabia irrational in a case brought by human rights organisations in 2019 as these weapons were being used in the war in Yemen where the Saudis had broken international humanitarian law by killing and injuring civilians.

In 2021, the US spent $801-billion on its military, China spent $293-billion, Russia spent $65.8-billion and India, which has high levels of poverty and is a recipient of foreign aid, spent $76.6-billion. While military spending has been increasing, aid or development assistance has been declining. 

In 1970 at the UN, the world’s rich countries resolved to spend 0.7% of their annual budgets on aid to poor countries, but this has not happened. Both the rich and poor countries are guilty of spending excessively on defence at the expense of poverty reduction and development.

Impact of war

There has not been as much investment in peacebuilding as there has been in warfare. The consequences of the failure to invest in peace-making are evident in looking at the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war. There is a regrettable loss of life, including casualties, damage to infrastructure, displacement of people, disruptions to trade and supply chains leading to increases in prices of oil, gas, food and other commodities. 

The whole world is now fighting inflation, a food crisis and a refugee problem. Many African countries import their wheat, maize and vegetable oil from Ukraine. Twenty million tonnes of Ukrainian grain which could have been destined for Africa and other parts of the world got stuck when Russia blockaded Ukrainian ports. 

Africa was already facing food shortages before the war started because of the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather conditions. Half of the food that the World Food Programme (WFP) distributes to poor countries comes from Ukraine, so this war will have an impact on poor people who live far away from Europe. 

A worldwide economic recession looks like a possibility as people struggle to cope with the rising cost of living. The high cost of energy and food is already causing instability in some countries as people have taken to the streets to protest.

Search for peace

“Peace is not an absence of war”, said the philosopher Spinoza. It is a condition in which freedom, justice, truth and solidarity prevail. World peace cannot be achieved without the recognition of the equality of all persons and nations. The fisherman with no formal education on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Zambia who owns a canoe and lives in a house with a roof made of grass without electricity has the same dignity as the Harvard-educated investment banker on Wall Street who drives a Ferrari and lives in a 10-bedroom mansion. Dignity does not come from education, wealth, personal achievements, or social status but from the simple fact of being human. Human dignity is the foundation of all human rights.

The search for peace should begin by promoting justice and eliminating inequality and poverty. There must be equal access to resources and opportunities. Nationally, this means having equal access to education, healthcare, housing, jobs and finance. Internationally, it means establishing fair trade rules that allow for fair competition and abolishing political privileges such as the veto of the permanent members of the Security Council. 

The Ukraine-Russia war has highlighted cultural and systemic racism as the favourable reception given to Ukrainian refugees has contrasted sharply with the treatment of Afghan, Syrian and African refugees. Peace cannot exist in conditions of poverty, exploitation, oppression, and discrimination. If we agree with Spinoza, there may be no war in Zimbabwe, but it cannot be said that there is peace as human rights and freedoms have been restricted, leading to a mass exodus of people to South Africa and other countries. 

There may be no violent conflict in Malawi, but the limited economic opportunities bring discontent making peace elusive. South Africa may be wealthier than its neighbours, but the huge gap between the rich and poor with the former living in luxury on large tracts of land and the latter living in overcrowded informal settlements elicits resentment and anger. South Africa may not be at war, but it does not yet possess real peace as it yearns for equality and unity among its people.

Peace-making cannot be left to politicians alone. All of us have a responsibility to create conditions for lasting peace and this must begin in our homes and neighbourhoods. If there is no peace in our homes, there will be no peace in the world. Attitudes that destroy relationships like bigotry, racism and misogyny must not be allowed to take root. 

We should embrace diversity and inclusion as fundamental values in schools and places of work. Cultural exchanges should be promoted because the prejudice which leads to discrimination is often based on ignorance and fear. When we make the conscious effort to relate to those who do not look like us or think like us, we will be promoting mutual understanding and building bridges of friendship. By so doing, we will be sowing the seeds of lasting peace.

This is an edited version of the winning essay in this year’s Canon Collins Trust “Troubling Power” Essay Competition.

Martin Mulenga is an environmental law and human rights law researcher from Zambia and was a Canon Collins Trust scholar in 2017 when he studied at the University of Cape Town and obtained a master’s degree in environmental and human rights law. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.