Say No to Violence, and Yes to Shared Human Security

Keynote Speech by Mr. Kul Chandra Gautam

International Summit of Religious Youth Leaders on Disarmament for Shared Security

Kathmandu, 10 July 2009

It is always a joy for me to address a gathering of young people. And what an amazing gathering we have here today – dynamic youth leaders from 24 countries, inspired by their deeply-felt religious and spiritual conviction to change our world that is so deeply wracked by violence and militarization.

There is no nobler cause or challenge facing humanity today.

Welcome to Nepal, dear young friends from across the world. This holy land gave birth to Lord Gautam Buddha, the Prince of Peace, who renounced his Kingdom to spread the message of peace to the whole world.

Yet this land too, like so many other countries in the world today, 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 to 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, including youth, 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.

So this conference calling for non-violence, disarmament and shared human security, is very timely indeed for us here in Nepal, as well as in the whole world. I hope the ideas we debate and examples of positive actions that religious youth leaders from across the world bring to this conference will be an inspiration to the youth of Nepal.

And hopefully, by the end of the conference we can come up with an action plan to promote a world-wide campaign to “Say No to Violence” and “Yes to Shared Human Security” with young people in the fore-front.

Now, some may say that a worldwide campaign is an ambitious undertaking. Perhaps we can start it right here in Nepal, as a concrete follow-up to this conference. As a country that saw the spiraling rise of violence in the public sphere in the course of the last dozen years, and as a country which is in the middle of a peace process, Nepal is a perfect place to start such a campaign. I will have something more to say about this later…

Dear friends, even in the middle of this atmosphere of violence and the current global economic crisis, we are living in the most prosperous of times in human history. Although at such international conferences we tend to focus on the unmet needs of people, of lack of progress in economic development or social justice or human rights, there actually has been great progress for humanity in the past half century.

Consider these examples:

  • Over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in Asia alone in the past half century. In China 400 million people were lifted up from absolute poverty in a single generation. India is rapidly following a similar trend. The Republic of Korea has seen its per capita income jump from $100 to $17,000 in our life time.
  • The whole world is today united behind a common global development agenda, underpinned by the Millennium Development Goals, and good progress is being made in achieving many of the MDGs, including here in Nepal.
  • Innovative schemes, such as micro-credit for women are benefitting millions of families and are having a direct impact on the status of women and the well-being of children.
  • Diseases that used to kill or cripple millions of people, such as smallpox, polio, and measles have either been eradicated or their most lethal impact is being reduced dramatically.
  • The annual number of child deaths in the world has been halved from 18 million to 9 million in the past half century, even as world population has doubled.
  • The vast majority of the world’s children go to school today, whereas only a small minority of the lucky ones went to school half a century ago. Not only are more children in school today than ever before, but gender disparity is rapidly declining in most countries.
  • Thanks to the heightened sensitivity created by human rights activists, and the media, gross violations of human rights are now being systematically exposed, and action taken to address them in many countries.
  • The increasing global consciousness of issues like climate change and global warming are bringing people together in a spirit of solidarity as we begin to realize that rich or poor, from the North or South, whatever our religion or occupation, we are going to sink or swim together.
  • As globalization marches ahead, we have begun to feel like members of an inter-connected global village, instantly sharing the joys and pains of people many oceans and mountains away.
  • Many NGOs, faith-based organizations, and inter-faith groups like WCRP, are actively championing and supporting the cause of peace and progress, which is beginning to have some visible impact.

If we continue on this path of progress, and empower people, especially our youth, to take charge of their lives and destiny, it is certainly imaginable that for the first time in human history, the benefits of economic progress, social justice and political freedoms can be available to the whole of humanity.

Among the obstacles that prevent us from reaching these cherished human goals are the subject of our conference – viz, the world’s distorted priorities that lead to excessive violence, militarization, proliferation of nuclear, biological, chemical and conventional weapons, which snatch away precious resources from human development.

In the name of national security, we allow massive diversion of resources to military uses that seriously undermine people’s human security. Indeed, the continuing acceptance of violence as a method of political change endangers not just human security, but universally accepted human rights and the prospect for faster human development.

We have here in the audience, officials of Nepal and diplomats of many countries who, I am sure, could provide strong justification for high military expenditures in their countries. From the genuine need for national security, to wars of independence, from revolutions for the liberation of the oppressed to counter-insurgency against rebellions, from the fight against terrorism, to cyber-crimes of our times, good justification can be invoked for pumping more money on arms, armies, guerilla forces and vigilante groups.

But all too often, violence begets more violence. Reliance on a military approach leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of greater militarization. Guns become more indispensible than butter. Milk for children becomes less important than missiles for the military. Priorities get distorted.

Consider these facts:

According to the authoritative annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), world military expenditure reached a record of almost $1.5 trillion last year. That is more than $120 billion a month, or $4 billion every day.

Last year, the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council – US, China, France, UK, and Russia collectively spent $882 billion, accounting for 60 % of worldwide military expenditure. As if high military spending was a key to becoming permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, Japan, India and Brazil that aspire to such membership have also increased their defence budgets in quite massive ways.

Many other countries continue to give high priority to finance military programmes, which far exceed their reasonable security requirements. These include poor countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, DPRK and Myanmar, as well as the newly rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, and even Singapore.

It is particularly worrying to see non-stop escalation of military expenditures in the Asia Pacific Region. After the end of the Cold War military spending declined noticeably in Europe, Latin America, and Africa, but it continued to increase in Asia and the Middle East. In 2008 Asia overtook Europe as the 2nd biggest military spender ($173b),well ahead of all the European NATO members combined($144b).

It appears that a major beneficiary of the Asian economic miracle has been the military sector. We have hard time getting enough money for health, education and poverty reduction programmes, but the military seems to always secure more than its fair share of national budget in good times as well as bad.

For example, the current global economic crisis has hit everybody hard, except the arms merchants and manufacturers that continue to do a brisk business.

It is not just the state military apparatus, the world is awash with ½ a billion small arms and light weapons circulating freely, and traded like any other commodity in the world’s $6 to $10 billion annual arms bazaar.

Here in Nepal, we have an estimated 55,000 small arms and light weapons in the hands of armed gangs, criminals, private militia, and ordinary citizens – far more than the small cache of weapons locked up in the Maoist cantonments.

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 towns as well.

In all post-conflict countries, including Nepal, 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.

Besides rising military expenses, the epidemic of small arms, and ready resort to violence, the world today is confronted with proliferation of nuclear weapons, continued use of cluster munitions and landmines that seriously undermine human security, with innocent women and children as their prime victims.

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.

Mikhail Gorbachev who presided over the fall of the Soviet Union, and won the Nobel Peace Prize, recently wrote that nothing fundamentally new had been achieved in the area of nuclear disarmament since the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union.

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the arsenals of nuclear powers still contain thousands of weapons. And the prospect of a catastrophic nuclear accident cannot be ruled out.

The recent nuclear testing and test-firing of missiles, and the dangerous brinkmanship by DPRK is a frightening reminder that rogue regimes and well-organized terrorist groups could hold the whole world hostage to a nuclear catastrophe.

Later in this conference, we will hear a most touching message from the Mayor of Hiroshima, who is also the President of Mayors for Peace, a global coalition of mayors of some 3000 cities in 134 countries. He reminds us that “the possibility of proliferation and the use of nuclear weapons are growing, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is on the verge of collapse.

We should all support the Mayors for Peace initiative to promote their 2020 Vision, a program to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2020, the 75th anniversary of the first use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In this context, we welcome US President Barack Obama’s historic statement in Prague in April 2009 in which he pledged that the US would take “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons”.

The recent Joint Understanding signed by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev committing their countries to significantly reduce strategic nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems is an encouraging development.

But these steps are still not enough, and all of us in civil society, including the world’s great religions, must press political leaders to further accelerate actions to completely rid the world of all weapons of mass destruction.

Dear friends,

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.

Consider these facts:

  • Since 1990, over 2 million children have been killed around the world as a result of armed conflict
  • over 6 million children have been permanently disabled or seriously injured in wars
  • some 20 million children have been forced from their homes by war as refugees or internally displaced persons
  • even greater numbers of children have fallen victim to disease, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, sexual violence, and deprivation of education
  • and in the worst manifestation of today’s civil and ethnic wars, over 300,000 children, some as young as 8 years old, serve as child soldiers and combatants, and are exploited in armed conflicts in over 30 countries around the world, including here in Nepal.

Schools and hospitals which should be safe havens for children, have often been used as barracks and targets of attack by armed groups. In many countries, parties to the conflict systematically deny humanitarian agencies access to areas under their control, with devastating consequences for civilian populations.

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.

Dear friends,

Let me conclude with a special appeal for a massive campaign to rollback violence in Nepal. I would urge the World Conference of Religions for Peace to support this campaign as a direct follow-up of this conference in Nepal, and consider similar campaigns in other post-conflict countries in the world.

It has been 3 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.

During the decade of conflict, Nepal’s national army increased from 46,000 soldiers to 96,000. Its annual defense budget increased from NPR 4 billion to 12 billion rupees.

Nepal today desperately needs at least 60,000 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 have allocated additional budget for the upkeep of 20,000 Maoist combatants in cantonments.

The presence of these sizeable security personnel funded through the national treasury, does not seem to make the people of Nepal feel very secure. On the contrary, a major complaint of most ordinary people in Nepal today relates to rampant lawlessness, impunity and insecurity.

We hear much talk about “civilian supremacy” in Nepal these days. Yes, we do need civilian supremacy – where ordinary citizens feel that nobody can trample on their fundamental human rights.

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.

The concept of civilian supremacy is grossly violated when paramilitary youth groups or sister organizations of political parties subject innocent civilians to violence, intimidation, and extortion perpetrated through aggressive and unruly behaviour with impunity.

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 civilian supremacy.

In Nepal both the state and non-state actors have let loose the genie of violence upon the populace over the last dozen years. Easy recourse to violence has inculcated misplaced values in the minds of our youth that violent confrontation is the only way to get quick results in support of their socio-political demands.

Because of some examples of the recent past, there is a conviction that violence is a necessary and acceptable tool to achieve political demands. This belief leads to easy calling of bandhs and chakka jams, and a quick and sudden recourse to anger and fist-fights for the most mundane of altercations.

Thus it is that doctors are assaulted in hospital emergency rooms; professors and principals are attacked by their students in college and school premises; and everyone is on edge for where the next violent attack will come from.

Injuries and deaths due to traffic accidents immediately lead to closure of roads and demand for financial “compensation” by local activists even before the concerned family has had a chance to come to terms with their shock and grief.

This was acknowledged yesterday in the important address to the nation by our President, who said on behalf of the Government that a special plan will be implemented to stop such acts of obstructing highways and essential services in the name of bandhs, by forging a national consensus.

We hope the government will pursue this commitment seriously. But we also know its success will depend on strong support by civil society and ordinary citizens.

As I said earlier, amidst these disturbing trends, a most tragic development is the widespread availability and use of small arms across the landscape of Nepal. While we organize all kinds of activities to address the overall culture of violence in Nepal, it is urgent for all of us, political leaders, civil society activists, concerned citizens, and friends of Nepal, to immediately get involved in a “rollback violence” campaign that seeks to make the possession and use of small arms unfashionable, beyond it being illegal.

Let us start a concerted “rollback violence” campaign that is participatory and countrywide, from the villages to the Constituent Assembly. Let us portray the use of physical violence in public life and politics as barbaric and publicly despised.

If organized well, I am convinced that such a campaign would resonate well with the people of Nepal and would spark enthusiastic participation from every corner of the land. This is because the kind of violence we see today, has always been alien to the Nepali people, regardless of their faith, language, region, class or calling.

Nepalis will respond well to a campaign to rollback violence that says “himsale himsa lyaunchha, mayale maya phailayunchha“. When presented with a campaign that seeks to uphold the most basic values of human decency, compassion and empathy towards our fellow citizens, we can count on Nepalis to say no to the use of khukuris and bombs, guns and grenades, to settle their differences and disputes.

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.

Let us 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 by youths to find peaceful ways of addressing their concerns.

Let us 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.

Let us reinforce the on-going movements of ‘Children as Zones of Peace’, or ‘Schools, Hospitals and Religious institutions as Zones of Peace’. And let us form alliances with groups dealing with domestic violence, violence against women, children and innocent civilians.

Our long-term vision should be to create a society that values non-violence – broadly defined. 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, etc.

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.

If we dream of a world where our children and their children will grow up in peace and harmony, I trust we will all agree that we must pursue a vigorous national and global campaign with a rallying call of “Say No to Violence and Yes to Shared Human Security”.

Thank you.