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Culture Clashes: Is a UN ‘culture of peace’ possible?

17 Nov

Editor’s note:  This is the second post from our human rights associate, Karin Perro.  Karin has been firmly planted in either the UNGA 3rd Committee (Human Rights) or the Security Council for the past few weeks and this post is a reflection based in part on what she has seen and heard. 

Since the beginning of September 2014, I have had the enormous pleasure and privilege of working with GAPW and witnessing first-hand the diverse workings of the UN system. Recently, the opinion I shared with a colleague regarding the UNGA’s Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace elicited a strong and unexpected reaction. Noting that a culture of war has pervaded civilization for so many generations, the notion of a ‘culture of peace’ was dismissed as a conceptually futile endeavor.  As a former anthropologist, I had to asked myself if such an argument had merit – is a culture of peace an illusory goal? Is the assumption valid that all of us (or at least a critical mass) want global peace?

In spite of some assertions that peace is a universal imperative, we’re now experiencing an increase in regional conflicts that threaten global security, with some actors justifying the use of force in promoting the global peace mandate, metaphorically ‘fighting fire with fire’.  Many UN member states may claim aspirations to a utopian ideal, but those states often seem to take their cues from dystopian playbooks. Historically, we have witnessed a global culture predicated on war, violence, and force. In light of our collective past, the question to consider is this: are we consigned to Hobbesian notions that our ‘natural state’ is a state of war?  I think not, particularly in light of the considerable headway made by the international community in promoting security and human rights – the rights of women, children, indigenous societies, and persons with disabilities, just to name a few. Changes in normative behavior occur at a seemingly glacial pace, but changes are evidenced by slow but steady progress in the development and implementation of myriad peace, security, and human rights mechanisms, certainly including those mechanisms housed at the UN.

Of course, organizations have their own cultures as well. In spite of the urging of UN mandates, culturally reinforced perspectives on rights and peace have the potential to impede consensual agreement on collective goals. While the essence of the ubiquitous ‘other’ has been subjugated by political correctness and diplomatic restraint, an ‘us versus them’ attitude at times still percolates beneath the collaborative veneer of UN discourse.  Too often acrimonious exchanges, exposing the ugliness of entrenched hatreds, bigotries, or distrust, constrain constructive progress in UN fora, whether in GA committee meetings, SC debates, or side events hosted and attended by NGO representatives.

If we are to promote a global ‘culture of peace’ it seems only fitting that a proper  ‘peace culture’ paradigm should exist within the UN structure itself. Yet there remain troubling issues surrounding culture, ethnicity and religion that are stubbornly embedded within global governance, and perpetuated, however unwittingly, across sectors.  While all stakeholders are seemingly invited to an egalitarian governance banquet, not everyone drinks from the same gilded cup. There is always a danger that hegemonic powers will impose their own vision of justice, however well intentioned, upon the less empowered. It is too easy to suppress or marginalize nontraditional voices that fail to mimic our own particular worldviews.

It’s worth remembering that culture is inherently dynamic and subject to change through societal forces, whether those forces are initiated by international bodies, imposed by national governments, sprung from incipient grassroots movements, or engendered by powerful but singular voices. One may opt to attenuate or accelerate the forces at play – but either way it is a choice to be exercised.

To foster a global ‘culture of peace’ there are several skills worth cultivating more robustly, including the ability to see (and even appreciate) the world through the “lenses” of others as well as our own.  But first we must do all that we can to ensure an open and impartial global governance environment where the expressions of divergent opinions are embraced rather than muted or even suppressed.

Karin Perro