Statement by Kul Chandra Gautam
At Religions for Peace Global Youth Network Conference Kathmandu, 16 August 2010
I wish to congratulate the Religions for Peace Nepal and the “Arms Down! Campaign for Shared Security” led by the Religions for Peace Global Youth Network for organizing this very timely conference.
Two days ago, we had a most lively launch of a complementary campaign spearheaded by Youth Society for Peace (YSP) in partnership with many other youth organizations, who hope to collect one million signatures in Nepal to persuade the world’s governments, including our own, to reduce military expenditure by 10 percent in the coming decade, and to redirect such funds for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.
Let me share with you some thoughts on why such a campaign is highly relevant today in Nepal and in the world.
We live in a world of great contrast at present. On the one hand, we have unprecedented wealth and prosperity in human history. In 2009 the global economic output reached $70 trillion. If it was evenly divided, every man, woman and child in the world would have an annual income of almost $10,000. The world now has 800 billionaires and 9 million millionaires, Yet over 3 billion people live on less than $2 per day.
Much of the world’s greatest tragedies befalling women, children and vulnerable groups are concentrated on the bottom billion people of the world, including most Nepalis, who subsist on less than $1 a day.
It is this degrading poverty that kills 25,000 children every day; keeps 90 million children out of primary schools; and shackles millions of children in hazardous child labour, instead of going to school.
It is poverty, debt and unemployment which force desperate parents to even sell their vital organs like kidneys to provide for their children. And when all else fails, parents are even forced to abandon their children, sell them to brothels, and work in slave-like conditions.
Ten years ago, the leaders of the world meeting at the United Nations, collectively committed to combat this degrading poverty, by pursuing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals, to be achieved by 2015, aim to drastically reduce maternal and child deaths, combat deadly diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, provide drinking water, safe sanitation, and basic education for all, improve the status of women and protect the world’s fragile environment.
All countries promised to allocate more of their national budgets to achieve these ambitious goals. The richest countries of the world promised to allocate at least 0.7 percent of their national income to help developing countries.
While some progress has been made towards achieving these goals, it is clear that many developing countries will fall short of achieving the MDGs by 2015. Most governments of the world have failed to allocate enough resources for these priorities. Yet, many of the same governments have found ways to maintain and even increase their already high levels of military expenditures.
World military spending reached an all-time high of $1.5 trillion in 2009, rising by almost 50 per cent in the past decade, and amounting to over $200 per person annually. Even the worst economic crisis of the past half century seems not to affect military budgets, while the poor are asked to tighten their belts.
Increasing military expenditures even when budgets are cut for urgent human priorities, ought to be a concern for us all.
There are strong vested interests including weapons manufacturers, arms merchants and the military brass who put pressure for increased military spending in the name of “national security”. There is little public debate on defense budgets that are shrouded in secrecy, and procurement decisions are often non-transparent. The specter of terrorism is often used to justify secrecy.
Now let me move from this global picture to the situation of Nepal. During the decade of conflict, Nepal’s national army increased from 46,000 soldiers to 96,000. A whole new institution called the Armed Police Force was created. Additionally we have over 19,000 Maoist combatants in cantonments, whose upkeep has already cost the national treasury NRs. 6 billion.
Nepal’s annual defense budget increased from NPR 4 billion to 14 billion rupees during the decade of the civil war. Although the civil war has ended there are no signs that our military budget will be decreased any time soon.
Nepal today desperately needs at least 50,000 additional primary school teachers and a similar number of pre-school monitors and primary health workers. But we seem not to have enough budget for these national priorities, while we maintain our bloated army, a sizeable armed police force, and a large contingent of government-funded guerilla combatants in cantonments.
The presence of these sizeable security personnel funded through the national treasury of this poor country, does not seem to make the people of Nepal feel very secure. On the contrary, a major complaint of most ordinary citizens in Nepal today relates to rampant lawlessness, impunity and insecurity.
Amidst these disturbing trends, a most tragic development is the widespread availability and use of small arms across the landscape of Nepal. It is estimated that 55,000 small arms and light weapons are in the hands of armed gangs, criminals, private militia, and ordinary citizens.
This is leading to criminalization of politics and politicization of violent crimes, particularly in the Terai and eastern Hills, but increasingly here in Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal as well.
As in other post-conflict countries, ready availability of such arms makes legitimate law-enforcement increasingly difficult. Domestic violence against women and children becomes more brutal and fatal.
The recent spate of kidnapping for ransom, murder and mayhem that have made headlines in Nepal is directly related to the ready availability of small arms, and the glorification of violence that has been nurtured into Nepali politics in the last decade. A culture of violence is spreading like cancer in this once peaceful country.
As a low-income developing country that has just come out of a violent civil war, Nepal has many pressing needs. Our children need better health care and education. Our youth need jobs. Our women need equality and respect. Our historically oppressed and marginalized groups need social justice. We need infrastructure, industry and good governance.
But above all else, at this stage, and in order to meet all these pressing needs, we need peace.
Peace is essential for prosperity. In the absence of peace we are not able to achieve our development goals, as we must first focus on protecting ourselves from violence.
Unfortunately, Nepal, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, who renounced his Kingdom to spread the message of peace to the whole world, is experiencing an orgy of violence and lawlessness.
Youth are at the centre of this orgy prodded by their older political masters. Instead of being seen as dynamic agents of change and hope for the future, the largest and most active youth organizations of this country, aligned with various political parties, are feared by ordinary people as perpetrators of violence, intimidation and unruly behaviour.
Whether it is to settle minor local disputes, or partisan issues blown out of proportion, or even genuine grievances that require thoughtful debate, the first and instinctive recourse of our youth organizations is to call for strikes, demonstrations, shut-down of public transport, closure of schools, disrupting public services, instilling a sense of fear, and inconveniencing innocent people.
The voices of more thoughtful people, people like us in this audience, who want to settle disputes and differences of views through peaceful dialogue, are drowned out. The aspirations of our youngsters to live in peace, to learn and earn, to develop their personality, to be creative and useful citizens are thwarted by the violent and disruptive behaviour of their organized peers.
It has now been almost 4 years since a comprehensive peace agreement was signed, and a violent civil war came to an end in Nepal. We had historic elections to a Constituent Assembly and declaration of a secular republic. But ordinary people have yet to see any peace dividend.
In a democracy, people have the right to protest, engage in collective bargaining, and press their demands peacefully. But generalized bandhs, indiscriminate closure of schools, public services and businesses that inconvenience innocent people, who are not party to any conflict or dispute, are a blatant violation of citizens’ human rights.
Not allowing ordinary people to live in peace, not allowing children to go to school, not allowing innocent passengers to travel on highways, not allowing patients to go to hospitals to seek health care, not allowing labourers to earn a living, not allowing shop-keepers to open their shops, depriving ordinary citizens from buying and selling essential commodities – all these are a violation of people’s human rights and a mockery democracy.
Now, we must acknowledge that ‘structural violence’ of poverty, inequality, exclusion and marginalization has long persisted in Nepal, but widespread physical violence in public life is a recent phenomena and a by-product of the decade-long armed conflict.
Yes, we must fight to end the deep-rooted structural violence in our society, but that does not justify the current wave of indiscriminate physical violence, as two wrongs do not make a right.
A semblance of justice achieved through unjust means, is not real justice but only a temporary revenge. Human history shows us that justice pursued through violent means, rarely helps build a just and peaceful society. On the contrary, it often sows the seeds of hatred, distrust and revenge afterwards.
People of goodwill seeking social justice, political freedoms and economic progress must, therefore, reject a culture of violence as an acceptable means for achieving any worthy goals.
Most importantly, we must inculcate in the minds and hearts of our children and youth the values of non-violence and peaceful pursuit of all worthy goals. Our children must not be socialized in an atmosphere where political and physical violence is accepted as a part of everyday life.
It is with the intention to promote such peaceful values that a group of us, including Ani Choying Dolma, Amrit Gurung, CK Lal, Rajesh Hamal, Madan Krishna Shrestha and Haribamsa Acharya, and yours truly, are involved in a “Roll Back Violence” Campaign or Himsa Antya Abhiyan.
This campaign seeks to build a grand alliance of civil society, including religious organizations, the media, parents and teachers associations, etc. to put pressure on political parties and other groups that incite or condone violent activities to find peaceful ways of addressing their concerns.
The campaign seeks to create a wave to establish or reinforce a social norm that violence is immoral, unethical and illegal because it violates other people’s human rights.
It seeks to reinforce the on-going movements of ‘Children as Zones of Peace’, or ‘Schools, Hospitals and Religious institutions as Zones of Peace’ and support groups dealing with domestic violence, violence against women, children and innocent civilians.
At the world stage, the Global Youth Network of Religions for Peace and its partners, have launched an Arms Down campaign for shared security, the first global multi-religious youth-led campaign on disarmament.
Actually this campaign began right here in Nepal in July 2009, when we issued a Kathmandu Declaration at the end of an international conference on shared security which was inaugurated by Right Honourable President Ram Baran Yadav. This conference was followed up in Costa Rica in November 2009, where the Global Youth Network issued a clarion call for reduction of 10 % of arms expenditure in all countries and reallocation of those resources to help achieve the MDGs.
The “Arms Down! for Shared Security” campaign calls on youth and people of goodwill around the world, including in Nepal, to lobby for:
In support of these specific actions the Global Youth Network of Religions for Peace invites all of us to join a campaign of education and action, including collecting 50 million signatures (of which 1 million will be from Nepal) to be delivered to the United Nations Secretary General, the permanent members of the Security Council, as well as to Heads of State and Members of Parliament in all countries, including right here in Nepal.
Next month, in September 2010, world leaders will gather at the United Nations in New York to review progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. Besides reaffirming their general commitment to the MDGs, they should consider making specific pledge to reduce their military budgets and boost their investment in human development by supporting a new UN General Assembly resolution to this effect.
The Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK and USA) which account for over 60 per cent of world military expenditure and arms sales, have a major responsibility in this context. They should set an example and lead a global effort to enhance collective security through stricter regulation of armaments and reduction of military spending.
Alarmed by such violence, 15 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, led by President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, have developed an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. It seeks to prevent the transfer and use of arms by parties to conflicts that habitually violate international human rights standards.
More than 200 NGOs have established an international Action Network to campaign against the proliferation and misuse of such arms.
All of us who care for the well-being of children, youth, women and innocent civilians, must join hands with these and other activists against small arms, landmines and cluster munitions as part of a larger campaign for peace and disarmament.
We know that throughout human history, nationalists, imperialists, revolutionaries and warriors of all kinds, including terrorists, have always found justification for their wars and military ventures. Religious as well as revolutionary fundamentalists, and opportunists, often glorify violence in defense of their favourite causes, as “holy wars”.
But there is nothing holy about the nature and consequences of modern armed conflicts. Whereas previously wars were fought among soldiers, and their casualties were largely combatants, the victims of modern warfare, violent insurgencies and counter-insurgency are largely non-belligerent civilians, primarily, women and children.
Religious fanatics justifying “holy wars” and revolutionaries justifying “peoples’ war” ought to do far more soul searching when they glorify revolutionary violence. And citizens must be more suspicious of their true intentions.
After all, the children of the rich and those in power, including military commanders and guerilla leaders, do not serve as child soldiers and are not deprived of basic education and health services during wars and conflicts.
It is always the children of the poor, often from indigenous and marginalized communities, those living in poverty, in refugee camps or among internally displaced persons, who form the pool for recruitment as soldiers, guerillas and jihadists, and are sent to the front-line as cannon-fodders.
An over-sized military and excessive military expenditures – compared to investment in basic social services, are often the tell-tale signs of impending conflict, especially in poor countries ruled by autocratic governments.
Disproportionately large military budget should be a warning sign for citizens to caution their governments that the country might be unwittingly headed towards more conflict and violence.
International donors ought to be more vigilant and tight-fisted in offering generous development assistance to countries that allocate more money for guns and soldiers than for bread and butter for their citizens. Yet, unfortunately, very few donors today make an explicit linkage between military expenditure and development aid.
Our long-term vision should be to ensure that our educational systems include and institutionalize a strong peace education programme to help create a society that values non-violence.
This would include addressing “structural violence” through all peaceful means, including peace and ethics education in our basic education curricula, and encouraging religious leaders to propagate peace and harmony citing relevant Holy Scriptures from all religions.
For far too long, nations of the world have given higher priority to military-based national security than civilian-based human security. Let us foster a global movement to denounce violence and promote peace, and honour the advocates of non-violence as our true national heroes.
If we dream of a world where our children and their children will grow up in peace and harmony, we must pursue a vigorous national and global campaign with a rallying call to “Say No to Violence and Yes to Peace and Shared Human Security”.
To conclude, I strongly commend the Religions for Peace “Arms Down!” global campaign to promote shared human security in Nepal, and throughout the world. Like many other countries, Nepal too should endeavour to reduce its military budget and reallocate the savings for pursuing the Millennium Development Goals. I urge all Nepalis to sign the Arms Down campaign petition.
We want to see our beautiful country, this sacred land of Lord Gautam Buddha, once again become a hub of world peace and human solidarity. Children of Nepal – like children everywhere – need the opportunity to grow in peace and build a prosperous future. May this conference inspire us all to build a world of peace, prosperity and human solidarity!
Published on The Rising Nepal