September 21 is the International Day of Peace, originally devised to strengthen the ideals of peace within and among all nations and all peoples. Proclaimed in 1981 by the United Nations to fall on the third Tuesday of September in order to coincide with the opening of its General Assembly's regular sessions, its date was fixed in 2001 when the day was also declared a global day of ceasefire.
For the past 27 years, the day has begun with the UN's Secretary-General ringing the Peace Bell at the organisation's New York headquarters, calling on all peoples and all nations to cease hostilities for a day, and reflect on the causes of of conflict in our world. The day is intended as a respite from further violence, during which aid can be administered to victims of conflict, and entrenched positions — locking opponents in mortal struggle — can be reconsidered. Given the astounding proliferation of not only armed conflict but armaments, there is much to contemplate.
There are currently seven major armed conflicts in progress around the world, with at least 30 "lesser" conflicts carried on with varying degree of intensity. The definitions vary, as most of these are civil or "intrastate" wars, fuelled as much by racial, ethnic, and religious animosities as by ideological fervour. Yet, regardless of their nature, the majority of these conflicts' victims are civilians — a distinguishing feature of practically all recent wars.
During the First World War, civilians made up fewer than 5% of all casualties. Today, 75% or more of those killed or injured in wars are non-combatants. By very modest estimates, close to a million people (practically the entire population of Edmonton) have been killed in the currently ongoing conflicts, some of which have persisted for over four decades.
Women and children — those least responsible for causing the conflicts — have become the primary victims of war. They are increasingly both its targets and its instruments. Over two million children have been killed in armed conflicts over the past century. Another six million have been permanently disabled, while more than 250,000 are currently exploited as child soldiers.
Thousands of women and girls have been raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence and exploitation. As the most vulnerable members of society, rarely wielding any significant power, women and children are killed, maimed, orphaned, abducted, deprived of health care and education, and — should they survive — left severely traumatised. All of them deserve the attention and protection of the international community.
More than any other continent, Africa has been marred by war. Over 20 major civil wars since 1960 have caused untold economic and social damage to its nations. As food production is practically impossible in areas of conflict, famine — in addition to war — has condemned generations of African children to lives of misery. In certain cases threatening the existence of traditional cultures.
But even those of us lucky enough to inhabit largely peaceful nations cannot avoid the effects of seemingly faraway wars. The massive displacement of people within countries and across borders — which has become another distinguishing feature of post-Cold War armed conflict — bring waves of refugees to our door. The scarred diaspora from areas of conflict challenge not only the welfare arrangements of our societies but our sense of security as well; as long as our neighbours' safety is compromised, we aren't entierly safe either.
Conflict prevention, mediation, humanitarian intervention, and demobilisation are crucial to the success of developmental assistance efforts. Health, nutrition, and education programs cannot succeed in nations at war — as billions of dollars in development assistance already wasted in war-ravaged countries readily prove. But the peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding efforts currently in place are merely band-aids, in most cases incapable of dampening the cumulative impact of armed conflict, rising commodity prices, recession, or environmental disasters (like drought).
Canada's currently involved in one major armed conflict, as part of the International Security Assistance Force (IASF) in Afghanistan, directly involving over 2,800 Canadians as of August 2010. Yet, our government is disinclined to admit we are at war, since no official declaration preceding Canada's involvement was made (Canada's only declared war three times: in 1939 on Germany, in 1940 on Italy, and in 1942 on Finland, Hungary, Japan, and Romania). For a country that in its 143 year history hasn't known the horrors of war on its own soil, or participated in colonial conquest, Canada's decisions to take up arms in the past decade have been preceded by precious little debate.
In stark contrast to the commitments of the international community, international military spending continues to rise. In 2009, global military expenditure totalled US$ 1.53 trillion — an increase of 6% since 2008, and 49% since 2000. Military expenditure comprised approximately 2.7% of global GDP in 2009, with all regions seeing significant increases since 2000 except Central and Western Europe. Despite 27 mandatory multilateral embargoes in force — twelve imposed by the UN, fifteen by the EU — against fifteen states in 2007, global arms production also continued to increase.
The combined sales of the top 100 armament producers reached US$ 347 billion in 2007 — an increase of 11% in nominal terms and 5% in real terms since 2006. The value of the top 100 producers has increased by 37% since 2002. Forty-four US companies accounted for 61% of the top 100 producers' sales in 2007, while 32 West European companies accounted for 31%. India, Israel, Japan, and Russia accounted for most of the rest.
The US and Russia remain the by far largest armaments exporters, followed by Germany, France, and the UK. Together, these five nations account for 78% of the volume of exports between 2004 and 2008. They have been the top suppliers since the end of the Cold War, and account for three-quarters of all exports annually. With US$ 721 billion worth of expenditures (nearly half of its federal budget) the US accounted for practically half of all the world's purchases — more than the combined total of the next 32 nations.
The International Day of Peace offers an opportunity to inquire whether the enormous amounts of money spent on armaments wouldn't be better invested in health care, education, science, and culture — areas where increased investment would not only exceedingly enhance human welfare, but do far more to secure peace than any amount of guns ever could. The day offers an opportunity to consider whether it's wise to spend US$ 225 for each person in the world on armaments, when a billion people worldwide struggle to survive on US$1 a day.
It offers an opportunity to ask whether we've got our priorities right, utilising our assets to supply a gun to one in every ten people while 20% of the global population (1.1 billion people) lack access to safe drinking water. It's an opportunity for both national and international authorities to address the deep structural divisions among our societies. It's also an opportunity to address the underlying causes of war, the conflicts over power, wealth and resources — with overpopulation the towering elephant in the room nobody seems willing to approach.
But beyond the immense global issues, the day is also an opportunity to make peace on a personal level. Apart from participating in the day's events, we can take the opportunity to end the conflicts in our own lives, hold a "ceasefire" of our own. The challenge is to reconcile not after the conflict, but instead of the conflict. While we wait for our representatives — elected or otherwise — to extend the hand of mutual tolerance, we can make peace with and among ourselves.
Note: this is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on September 19, 2009.