For Whom the Bell Tolls: The UN Rings in a Commemoration of its Core Mandate and our Common Obligation, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Sep

Peace Bell

On Monday, September 21 at 9:00 AM, the UN held a ceremony at the Peace Bell — given to the UN by Japan in 1954 — to commemorate the International Day of Peace.

The event was a bit somber, held in blustery conditions and only modestly attended.  The themes shared by the Secretary General and others related to the need to “lay down weapons” and substitute armed violence for negotiation and sustainable “cease fire” arrangements.

In some ways, as the Secretary General himself seemed to recognize, this international day fell a bit short on enthusiasm, certainly not because the world is particularly ‘peaceful,’ at present, but because it isn’t – violence rages if many regions, refugees angrily bang at the doors of reluctant recipient states, our climate’s very health is increasingly called into question, our oceans are, ironically, drowning in plastic, trafficking of drugs and arms is making life hellish for too many poor and indigenous peoples.  Thus, the day is less a celebration in the conventional sense and more a reminder of the challenges that lie ahead and which are to some considerable degree of our own making.

The pursuit of peace is now less about ending cross-border conflicts and more about ensuring stability, equity and safety within states, some failing and others at death’s door.   The peace and security environment envisioned by the framers of the UN Charter bears little resemblance to the one we now inhabit, and we still struggle with how to care for this new world while employing the tools, habits, and other limitations of our past.  More and more, though perhaps not with sufficient urgency, people recognize the impact of some things on other things – discrimination on governance, armed violence on development and migration, illicit weapons on mass atrocities, and so forth.  But while we increasingly critique our policy “silos,” we continue to fund them and overly honor their narrow brands.

Global Action has gone through its own evolutionary path in an attempt to maximize our modest contributions to more globally peaceful outcomes.   We have largely abandoned, for better or worse, grand policy narratives and their often arrogant and inflammatory political rhetoric, preferring to place our limited energy on being attentive to global policymakers , offering hospitality and organizational support to global civil society, and providing guidance for what we hope will be the next generation of policy leaders.

Beyond the peace platitudes that at times still define our collective mission in the world, we see our role as reinforcing connections between issues and people, and helping in our small way to end inequalities of all kinds – including power imbalances within the UN itself.  We try to accomplish this without forgetting to sit in front of the mirror that we are so quick to hold in front of others, to understand better the violence that lurks at the core of our material obsessions, to confess our largely unearned privileges; and to stay connected to the erstwhile ‘end users’ of policy who, more often than we like to think, don’t find those policies so ‘useful’ at all.

And we do what we can to examine and at times expose the cultural obsessions and distractions that impede peaceful progress, including the willingness of people to prefer branding to substance; who use language to manipulate outcomes rather than to forge meaningful connections with others; whose narrow ambitions have largely turned their attentiveness and compassion into emotional side shows.

We have learned, in ways that are sometimes enlightening and sometimes discouraging, that peace in the world is elusive in part because peace within ourselves and our communities still largely lies beyond our grasp – and that presumes we are willing to “grasp” in the first place.

This International Day has not been (at least as of this writing) marked by cease fire agreements or by any other commitments to lay down arms and beat swords into ploughshares.  It will not likely herald a breakthrough in Syria or Yemen, nor will it motivate masses of people to renounce their material addictions, pay attention to the world around them, and live a simpler, more community-engaged, less materially ambitious existence.

The ringing UN bell mostly “commemorated” what those standing at the event already knew: that the world remains in peril from our consumption excesses, our appetite for weapons, even our resistance to the inclusiveness we say we want. We need better policies, healthier communities, happier families, more creative schools, more attentive governance.    But we also need more hands in this work, more minds to help us sort out our limitations and inconsistencies, more ‘heart energy’ to remind us – and not only on international peace day – that our policy triumphs have limited shelf-life and must continually adapt to new and sometimes discouraging circumstances made possible in part by our collective indifference.

We are in the ‘peace business’ not because we are so clever and virtuous, but because it is our responsibility and there are still too few others with the time or inclination to respond to these difficult challenges. Fortunately, there may be more people at the UN and in diplomatic missions and NGO offices worldwide committed to peaceful societies than has been the case previously.  We work with some and know of many others in every corner of the planet.

While we do what we can to honor those existing commitments, our collective efforts remain insufficient. We need to find stronger hands, sharper minds, more caring hearts.  We need to recruit for a common cause rather than for our narrow organizational interests.  Without setting up barriers to participation, we need to help people from many walks of life — healers and teachers and drivers and actors and parents – to actively identify with the hope of peaceful societies.  In the absence of major peace developments, this building of our common capacity for peace constitutes a useful, tangible response to today’s ringing of the UN bell.

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