Pathways to Peace
Sophie Rigney, Carie McDougall, Gwynne McCarrick
This lecture has been entitled “Pathways to Peace”. There is the old saying, “to beat a path.” To me, in this circumstance, this saying implies that the Pathway to Peace is formed out of determination, to get to the desired place. We all know that it is not easy, and that challenge makes us more determined. To further the pathway to peace, we need to listen and to share other people’s perspectives. Personally, my perspective is that of a young person, a student who is studying for her TCE, with the problems, ideas and enthusiasm which accompany a person my age, sixteen, on the pathway to peace. So today I am going to share with you my personal perspective.
Occasionally I look at what I’ve done and ask myself how I got to the place I am at right now. What makes a person so passionate about equality and about peace? Particularly a young person who has been in an environment where many of her contemporaries can be rather inactive. Although not apathetic to the situation in the world, many people my age are unsure of the connection it has to them personally. This is not to say that young people can’t play an active part in peace and justice issues, because they can and do. But many others do not have a passion for peace, as such. People have passion for all sorts of things: for music, sport, or anything else. I simply have a deep passion for peace and for equality. It’s is not a greater passion than anyone else’s, it’s just a different one.
But where did this passion spring from? Firstly, I have always been interested in politics and in international affairs. It has been evident at least since I was two, when I asked my mother if President Gaddafi of Libya was a good man or a bad man. The link between an interest in international affairs and a passion for peace is quite logical. If you are interested in what is happening in the world, you are more likely to be aware of war, inequality or injustice. An awareness of this often breeds a feeling of need to address the issues.
Further to this, I have grown up in a Quaker Community. I attend a Quaker school and have strong ties to the greater Quaker community, and have done so since birth. The Quaker ethos of non violence and the search for peace and justice in the world has been taught to me all of my life, through teachers, through parents and through friends. These ties have not only educated me about these things, but have often given me the opportunity to put my passion for peace to good use.
I first became actively involved in the pathway for peace in 1998, when I joined the Amnesty International Hobart Schools Network. Previously to this, I had done some letter-writing for Amnesty, sold buttons for various charities, attended rallies, and so on. But for me, this was nothing compared to the pathway I was about to embark upon. Up until this time, all of my work had been organised for me. Although there is nothing wrong with this, and it actually is a vital part of the pathway to peace, I felt the need to change direction. I wanted to help organise my own work. So I joined the Amnesty International Hobart Schools Network, a group of students from various schools in the Hobart area, who organise action work, as opposed to simply writing letters for Amnesty. It works on the basis that young people have ideas and enthusiasm, and these things should be put towards organising plans which are targeted towards people of their own age. Since 1998, the Schools Network has organised various actions, media launches, a newsletter, and has raised in excess of $4000 for Amnesty International. By the beginning of 1999,1 had become the convenor of the group and a member of the Branch Committee of Amnesty International Tasmania. These are positions I have retained since. I am the youngest person to have ever joined the Branch Committee in Tasmania, and I have gained a lot from my work. The work I do with this committee is very different from any other work I do – it’s focused on strategies, plans and the future of the organisation, as well as activism. I guess you could call it structured activism, going according to a plan – this section of the pathway to peace is paved. It has order and it has form. I value this work because it has given me that experience.
In October 2000,I was asked to represent Australian Friends at an international conference in Melbourne, entitled “Religion and Culture in the Asia-Pacific – Violence or Healing?”. This conference gathered delegates from different cultures, nationalities, religions and backgrounds, to talk openly about the part that these things play in violence and in conflict resolution. I spent about a week in the company of wonderful, intelligent and wise men and women, who fostered my ideas and my passion for peace and for justice. I learnt more in those few days than I had learnt in years, I learnt about international affairs, about different religions and countries, and about the state of the world, and of Australia; and different ideas about how to improve things.
The key to passion is knowledge, the key to apathy is ignorance. As my knowledge of the issues grew, so did my enthusiasm for improving the world. This knowledge has flowed on into other areas of my life. I have a greater understanding of international affairs, which in turn has helped my work with Amnesty International, as well as my personal studies.
But one thing which the conference drove home to me is that we have a long way to go. No one here can tell me that peace and justice are not inextricably intertwined. Is India’s caste system just? Is it just the way in which our indigenous Australians are treated? Is racial and religious intolerance just? And will any of these things flow into conflict of one sort or another? Yes, we have far to go, a long way, but that is not a reason to give up. Rather, it is a reason to keep going with our dream for sufficient peace in the world.
In the past month, we have all realizsthat perhaps we have further to go than we thought, to achieve sufficient peace in the world. It has not helped that there seem to be no leaders for peace. The leaders for peace are not Howard, not Beazley, not Blair, not Bush. They are all prepared to go and fight now. The countries of NATO are at war. NATO is now at war. America has its allies, and not one of them has asked for solutions or options other than war. They have not bothered to ask the reason why America was attacked – not bothered to think about the Iraqi babies who have died, or the Palestinians who have died. Undoubtedly, the people who attacked America were wrong. But retaliation will cause more suffering, and anger leading into the next generation, and the next, and the next. We need solutions, not war, not the polarisation, of different peoples.
From a young person’s point of view, I’m worried, as irrational as this may seem, about the idea of young men and women going off to fight in a new war. I’m of the age where my friends are 16 and older – I have many 18 year old friends and those boys are old enough to fight. They shouldn’t be old enough to go to war, because this will undoubtedly change the rest of their lives. Although I logically understand that very few if any of the people that I know will be going off to war, the idea still scares me. And I know that it scares many other people my age. The boys whom we have grown up with, who we go to school with and laugh with, and are good friends of, the idea that they might just not be here anymore – well that’s just scary. It’s a different worry to that of other generations.
But we all – regardless of age – appear to be inheriting this war. Although some think that it is necessary, others want a different path. But where are the leaders who are guiding the peace movement? They appear to be non-existent. Those of us who do not want this war appear to have no leaders to turn to, at least not in the two-party system of Australia.
Peaceful leaders may be non-existent at the moment, but who are tomorrow’s leaders? The young. Education on religions, cultures and issues is needed, and I feel that it is being given quite well. Perhaps the leaders of tomorrow will be better informed than the leaders of today. Perhaps they will not be as ready to go to war.
Another thing that I feel is imperative is the idea that Jo Valentine floated during her time in parliament: the idea of a peace trust, into which conscientious objectors could put the tax that currently goes to the defence forces. This is about ten per cent of the dollar. I believe that objectors to war should not have to put their tax towards something they are so vehemently against. This peace trust would be used to find non-violent solutions to problems, to bring the Government’s attention to issues which could result in conflict and provide answers to these problems. This peace trust would go a long way to furthering the process of peace.
People who work for peace often feel burnt out. The problem is too big, too hard. The pathway is too long and there are no easy solutions. I feel like this myself, sometimes. B ut whenever things get a bit too tough for me, I do two things. Firstly, I step back from my work. For a week, for a month, or for however long it takes, I postpone some of my work. I take time to think, to regroup my energy, enthusiasm and my passion. This is not something to be guilty about. After all, it has been said that peace in the world is reliant on a number of things. The most fundamental of these is peace in the heart.
The second thing I do is think of one particular place and time which inspires me. I’m sure we all have a memory like this, and I’d like to share mine with you. Earlier in the year, I spent three weeks in France on an exchange, and a part of that was a short stay in Paris. I had asked to go to the Cimitiere du Pierre LaChaise a cemetery in Paris. It is the final resting place of many famous people, such as writers Oscar Wilde, Proust and Balzac; singer Edith Piaf, Chopin and others. So, on a beautifully sunny Parisian summer morning, we spent three hours in a cemetery.
Along with the famous in Pierre LaChaise, there are the graves of others. And although I loved seeing the graves of people whom I admire and adored being in a place with so much history, it was something else which captured me. In the Northern part of Pierre LaChaise, there are several memorials dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. There is a memorial to the victims of Auschwitz, one to those who died at Bergen-Belsen, and others. I looked at those memorials, and realised that, as the result of ignorance and racism and hatred, and pathway which was not peaceful, people died. A lthough I had always believed that, I realised that war is wrong.
And that evening, in my diary, I wrote: “I want peace in this crazy world so badly. I know I will always be trying for peace, to promote, and to try to make it possible. And if it gets too hard, I will remember Pierre LaChaise, and how important it is to work for peace, always, always, forever.” So whenever I feel that the struggle for peace is too hard, that it is getting nowhere, or that I am just tired, I think of that memorial, and how those people died needlessly, and how that can never be allowed to happen again.
I am still on the beginning of my path, and I hope that my personal path is a long one. I fear that the pathway to peace will also be a long one, undoubtedly rocky, with potholes and uncharted territory. But the most rewarding parts are often the most difficult. We can all play a part, through sharing our strengths – energy, wisdom, experience, or naivety. We need to progress the path, for our children, and for our children’s children. At the beginning of my speech I talked about being determined. Well, all pathways begin with one single, determined step.
I would like to start out by thanking the Peace Trust for having me here to speak today. As they indicated, they have given me enormous support over the years and in several of my ventures overseas, so it’s lovely to be able to come here and to actually be able to talk to people about those experiences today. Even though I am, I guess, the middle bear, and what would it be, 7 years less young than Sophie, I still very much consider myself a young person. It is youth participation that I want to focus on today; in particular, youth participation in finding pathways to peace.
Given a compassionate audience like yourself, I don’t believe you need me to tell you that, whether youth seek to increase their vote, in society, or bring positive change to that society, they deserve to have their views represented and seriously considered. In addition to our ability to mobilise support, young people bring unique perspectives, that they can contribute toward solutions to the many problems we face. In particular, as intergenerational equity is an important element of sustainable development, young people should participate in decisions taken today which will affect the world we inherit and pass on to future generations.
The good news is that concrete steps can and are being taken to increase meaningful youth participation.
The activities that I have been involved with over the past eight years are just a few examples of the initiatives being taken by young people, governments and international organisations aimed at achieving meaningful youth participation in decision-making processes. As Margot mentioned, most of the activities I have been involved with during this period, have been taken in conjunction with the United Nations Youth Organisation of Australia.
UNYAA is a national youth organisation which runs events for youth and which is run exclusively by youth. As a youth-run NGO, UNYAA is itself an important example of a means by which youth participation can be strengthened within Australia. UNYAA holds the only regular peak body meetings between youth and the Australian Government the Attorney General’s Human Rights Consultation Meeting, and as part of NGO consultations with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During my time as National President of UNNYA, it was amazingly gratifying to be the one youth organisation invited to meet and discuss issues of concern with the secretary General of the United Nations, Mr Kofi Annan, during his visit to Australia last year.
The impact of UNYAA’s role is also demonstrated by the fact that, in the Joint Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trades’ recent report, giving its findings stemming from the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s relations with the United Nations, UNYAA’s submission is the second most frequently cited submission throughout the report, second only to the Department of Defence and ranking above DFAT’s own submission.
Through UNYAA, I have been offered a wonderful array of opportunities to follow my passion, namely working toward the aims and aspirations of the United Nations and increasing meaningful youth participation. For me, two of those experiences stand out above the others, and it is these I want to tell you about right now.
Firstly, in 1998,1 was fortunate enough to be selected as one of two young Australians to attend the Third World Youth Forum in Portugal. Now, despite the years of work I’d had by that stage with UNYM, nothing could have prepared me for the passion and the vision demonstrated by the five-hundred-plus young people at the Forum.
The enthusiasm of the participants, edging admittedly toward desperation to have their views listened to, was overwhelming. What stood out, above anything else, was the fact that young people did have unique proposals for solutions to the problems they faced, and that all the participants were more than willing to work together and overlook national and religious differences, to work together to achieve these goals.
One incident I remember very clearly is a luncheon one day with an Israeli delegate. A Palestinian delegate came over, introduced himself, and the two young men both quickly discovered they were leaders of student movements within their areas. At that stage, they very quickly and without a hint of animosity arranged to have their two groups meet at the Arab-Israeli border. That is just one example of the level of co-operation and the lack of hostility which engender youth communication
At the Forum, all participants were based in a workshop, each workshop focusing on a different issue of concern, and charged with producing three action points to overcome problems faced by youth in that area. The action points were combined into a final outcomes document, a Youth Action Plan, which was presented to Kofi Annan at the end of the Forum.
I was in the workshop on Youth Participation in the United Nations System. It was here that I met a past youth representative in Norway’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. I couldn’t believe it A youth representative in a member-state delegation. I was hooked immediately and felt this was a fantastic idea and an opportunity not to be missed, so, working together with the Norwegian delegate, an action point for all member states to include youth representatives in their delegations. We then worked toward soliciting support to have our action points included in the final outcomes document.
Our working group felt that the idea was a wonderful one. They seized upon it and supported it unanimously. I was fortunate enough to be elected onto the central drafting committee at the Forum, and so I was able to nurse it through the politics of that committee. It was eventually unanimously adopted by the participants of the Forum and was included in the Final Outcomes Document that was presented to Kofi Annan and government ministers at the Youth Forum in Portugal.
So, greatly excited and coming home from Portugal, impassioned by all the encouragement and support, I authored a proposal to The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Alexander Downer, calling for the inclusion of a youth representative from Australia on our UN Delegation.
I had to admit to myself it was a bit of a surprise when, just three months later, Mr Downer arranged a meeting with UNYAA and told me that the proposal had been taken up! Having just been elected National President, I was not in a position to quit my position, but my hand was certainly up in the air the following year when nominations were announced.
A year later, I still have enormous difficulty in explaining my experiences as the youth representative on Australia’s delegation to the fifty-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly.
I consider my role as being concerned with three areas, and it is those that I want to quickly outline for you.
Part of my time as youth representative admittedly was about listening and learning. Working with the Australian Mission was just wonderful. I really feel like my eyes were opened to the realities of international diplomacy. Covering debate at the millennium summit can only be described as truly amazing. I was very lucky in that Australia’s seats at that session of the General Assembly were at the very centre of the very front row.
Being just metres away from international leaders, including Blair and Schroeder, Castro and Mugabe, was certainly something I thought I’d never get to see. And what was so encouraging was to have one leader after another affirm the importance of the United Nations, and stress the need to find peaceful solutions to the problems we face.
Another moment, which stands out as one of the most exciting during my time, was sitting next to Jose Ramos-Horta in the Security Council, listening to Nelson Mandela address Kofi Annan; something I’ll never forget.
The essence of the position, however, was to provide a voice for Australian youth in the most important forum in the international arena. This is in recognition of the fact that young people must be included in the processes used to find solutions to the problems we face. Mostly, this was achieved through provision of a youth perspective on key issues discussed by the General Assembly, with the Australian Delegation.
Obviously, it’s quite difficult for one person to speak on behalf of all Australian youth. I think it’s important to point out that the opinions that I offered were based on sources such as the United Nations Youth Association’s policy platform, which is developed in consultation with thousands of young people across the countries.
A definite highlight for me was drafting and delivering a statement to the Third Committee of the General Assembly. I focused on explaining the importance of meaningful youth participation, and outlining concrete steps that can be taken by member states to increase the current levels of participation at local, regional, national and international levels. The experience of actually addressing the United Nations, something I’m so passionate about, is indescribable; and also highly nerve-wracking, as you can imagine.
As part of the delegation, my other tasks included covering debate in the Third Committee and developing resolutions on Australia’s behalf. Perhaps most exciting for me was working on The Convention on the Rights of the Child resolutions. An Islamic walk-out during the negotiations of these resolutions threatened to set back Women’s Rights a decade; that was certainly the catch-cry heard in the halls of the General Assembly. Nevertheless, working on behalf of Australia with the other members of the mission as well as with colleagues from Canada and New Zealand, we were able to successfully open a bridge between the two camps and put things back on track.
On a personal note, it was wonderful for me to have Canberra approve my suggestions for amendments to the Rights of the Child resolution and have them eventually adopted in the consensus text. I can’t explain how rewarding it is to see a reference to participation as a direct result of my own efforts.
The third and critical aspect of being a youth representative is fostering relations among youth representatives from other member states, in order to advance issues of importance to youth.
Last year, I was joined by youth representatives from Bangladesh, Denmark, India, Ecuador, Norway, The Netherlands and Sweden. It is important to note, however, that it is the Australian Youth Representative position which has the widest mandate in terms of the scope of activities pursued in New York, and the longest period of stay. I was in New York for two months. Some of the youth representatives from other countries were only there for two weeks. I could achieve a lot more with that much time.
Together, the youth representatives organised a series of meetings with UN departments and agencies, including UNICEF, the ILO, UNDP and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In these meetings, we discussed strategies to improve youth participation as well as areas of concern. It was very much the view of youth representatives that, until we get over the very first hurdle of actually incorporating young people, that it’s difficult for just a select few to actually address issues of concern such as employment, environment, drug abuse and so on.
We also had regular meetings with the United Nations Youth Unit to discuss options for reform of the Youth Unit and to develop projects for them to pursue as a priority. We developed a written bulletin that explained the role of the Youth Representatives to the United Nations General Assembly, and which was distributed to all member states through the Third Committee. I also spent a lot of time meeting with representatives from different member states and encouraging them to include their own Youth Representatives, and I’m pleased to be able to tell you that, at this year’s General Assembly, it does appear that there could be a record number of youth representatives, which is really encouraging.
The culmination of our work was the organisation of a Youth Symposium. There was standing room only in one of the largest committee rooms in the UN, during lunchtime at the height of negotiations for all the different resolutions. The symposium was opened by the UN Undersecretary General, A number of speakers, including myself, all were talking about increasing youth participation and the different routes available: grass roots, local and national levels. It was really wonderful to have a Danish MP talk about incorporating young people into roles in national governments . We had social workers from The Bronx talking about the work they do, as well members of the youth unit talking about what young people could do on a national level. The symposium was certainly well received. It was very encouraging to see the interest taken by the people involved in the work we were doing.
This only covers a fraction of the work I was able to do while I was in New York, The ambassador did ask me to stay on for an extra week or two in her absent daughter’s bedroom, and I took that as a clear sign that she was happy with the work that was done. As you can imagine, it certainly was a life-changing experience. I’m now working with UNYM and other national and international organisations to create more opportunities for young people to share similar experiences.
After spending time in New York, and because it was only a year ago, I thought it would be impossible to end without making reference to recent tragic events. I hope, however, that you will find what I have to say encouraging rather than ever more depressing.
The defining statement of international youth opinion is The Dakar Youth Empowerment Strategy. Through this document, young people at the very first World Youth Forum recognised that peace is not just an absence of war, but a state of mind. The strategy promotes a means to build a true culture of peace by developing respect for justice and human rights, and fighting against poverty, a culture of peace proposes that attacks on innocent people is never acceptable, and that all people must act with tolerance and compassion, and respect for human rights. In response to this statement, young people around the world have taken up the challenge to raise their voices and call for a culture of peace. I believe that the very fact of youth participation is a gateway to peace.
Indians traditionally utter the word for peace three times at the beginning of every sacramental rite; Shanti, shanti, shanti – The triple utterance signifies that the power of peace is generated if the will, the means and the end are all grounded in peace.
We are each of us on a pathway to peace, or freedom or enlightenment, or consciousness, or holiness, or self actualisation. We each search for a road less travelled in a hope of discovering hidden secrets.
My journey has thus far been rich with learning and yet I feel no closer to any truth.
I have learned that riches are just as much an affliction as poverty, that true riches are not a measure of your bank balance but your friends, that spirituality is more often found in the hopeless, that love best taught by those that have seen the face of hate. That life is less about making some self important impact upon the world for having lived, and more about an awareness that it is we who are altered. That brutality and the economy are related, and that wars kilt countless civilians who probably didn’t even hold an opinion about the politics which claimed them. That all the accumulated wisdom of the world would fit upon a postage stamp as we continue to reinvent the same mistakes and that the rhetoric of war is rarely based upon life affirming principles. That despite great teachers of humanity having condemned war and violence throughout the centuries, we continue to believe that aggression and violation of human rights are a condition of survival.
I left these shores (with the assistance of the Tasmanian Peace Trust) in the pursuit of Human Rights determined to take action against unjust laws, unfair trials, deaths in custody, the indiscriminate imprisoning of prisoners of conscience, the torture of citizens, the persecution of ethnic groups, the collapse of the rule of law, and the degrading treatment of world citizens everywhere. In the knowledge that crimes against international law are committed by men and not abstract entities I began my search at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where international law was in the making, and where peace enforcement was attempting to be enforced with unprecedented vigilance.
I continued my search in various corners of the globe and despite having conducted literally thousands of human rights interviews, my diary entries have a recurring theme of both the robustness of human nature in the face of evil, and tenderness in the presence of fragility. Quite unexpectedly human rights enforcement had a face, in the context of a refugee camp the text books have little consequence. Were I to recite the 4 Chapters of the Geneva Conventions ad infinitum they have little impact, they are no match for a style of barbaric warfare that holds nothing in sanctity.
I have come to see the struggle for the defence of human rights as an attempt to put a face upon human hardship. In its simplest form I believe that the essence of human rights can be captured in a heightened awareness of our senses and responses to everyday experiences that seem mundane – that is until they are threatened.
Stand in the golden light of a tree as it catches and gives out the sun’s glow and respond to the warmth as it ripens. Listen to the full throated song of a magpie and wonder at the power of sound to move you to rejoicing. Hold the eye of another with your own in a moment of unspoken unity and know the exquisite tenderness within you. Take a very young baby in your arms and experience the vulnerability of life.
It is through love that we first learn to believe in the objective world outside ourself. Undoubtedly it is “Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in community, therefore, is personal freedom possible…to grow in sensitivity and insight and move beyond the bounds of self absorbing bitterness and envy being endlessly betrayed and broken by natural superiors.” [Karl Marx]
When we each look over our lives we can point to moments of truth, defining instants.
For me thus far. Perhaps it was sitting in Becora Prison, Dili, East Timor where political prisoners had etched their nationalist and religious sentiment on the cell walls. With the knowledge that accompanies the vision of hindsight I was moved to question whether these Falmtil sympathisers could ever have imagined that the Timor torn sae [Glorious Timor!], in whose name they were martyred, would capture the attention of a world generally too busy to notice the independence struggle of a tiny island. And could they have conceived of the human cost or for that matter the form of autonomy .
Perhaps it was a still night nearing 3 am when I sat in a little office in the Hague Netherlands as snow fell on the War Crimes Tribunal. There I sat wading through witness statements and photographs of mass grave sites, and whether out of exhaustion or too much exposure to unedited material of human misery at the hands of an insane war machine -1 felt my spirit give way to hopelessness at the sheer magnitude of evil.
Perhaps it was a contrasting emotion of elation sitting before the Tribunal in the court room of the International Criminal Tribunal and hearing the opening statement of the trial of Dokmanovic which I had written for the Chief Prosecutor being read into history. A complement to any young lawyer.
In the closing paragraphs of the opening statement it was told;
“The forcible apprehension of unarmed civilian and persons hors de combat, their beating and killing and the subsequent indignity of burial in a mass unmarked grave, violates the most well accepted provisions of international humanitarian law, and the law which governs the customs of war. Such flagrant disregard for human life shocks the conscience of (he international community and must not be condoned. Quite simply this trial is about acts which are in the extreme, and set apart as an unrestrained example of Yugoslav carnage. Indeed it is difficult to think of anything more shameful than taking unarmed civilians, many of them wounded, dragged from hospital beds, and beating them unmercifully for hours before murdering them in cold blood and defiling their human integrity in a manner so profane as to assign tnem to a common grave.
Sadly, acts such as these occurred all too often in a patchwork of ethnic warfare across much of the Former Yugoslavia, in the course of this bewildering conflict. Your Honours have before you an isolated incident of what became an all too common pattern of cruelty throughout the former territory of Yugoslavia. The facts of this case however detail unspeakable barbarity, they tell of a farming district transformed into a bloody killing ground. Such action calculated and premeditated, could not ever be justified under military necessity. These are acts which constitute such gross indecencies, that no person in good faith could deny that such conduct is anything less than barbaric. They are the acts of criminals”
Perhaps it was accompanying the widows of Srebrenica back to visit the killing fields that once was their village in the snug of the hills. There I sat with a women who only moments before had saved me from standing on a landmine and we listened to the return of the spring birds. So poignant was this place of contradiction – A testament to the resilience of life – A place where wild growing daisies defied those that would choose to pluck them by growing next spring in greater number.
Or perhaps what defines me is the incredible friendships forged. There have been pilgrims who have shared the road with me that have left the deepest and most intense impression incapable of capturing in words. Suffice to say that I could never square the ledger, less still understand how I could have been worthy.
Perhaps it was an event in New York when I was studying an International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance. It was an exercise at West Point Military Academy with the US Marines, Convinced that what was a simulated hostage taking had now become real. I was dragged from the back of an Army truck and forced to my knees with a canvas bag over my head. I felt several untempered blows from a rifle butt, suffered the indignity of male taunting, heard the plea of a priest bargaining his place for mine, and in the rush of activity believed that a round of live ammunition had, in real terms, taken the life of a participant. All too much for one of our group, who reached breaking point and cried uncensored tears, I am certain this gave us insight into a range of emotional responses to senseless and random violence, but to this day, I have been unable to file this event happily under any category of lessons learned.
Perhaps it was a collision of worlds. Leaving the desperation of Bosnia for the affluence of New York.! remember with clarity my vulnerability when confronted with the cruel and unashamed face of capitalism, not least of which was characterised by my taxi ride from JFK Airport into Manhattan in a 10 foot long limousine. I had traded the real for the unreal: human intensity – for neon and plastic; the uncontrived genuineness that partners poverty – for a jingoistic commercialised world.
Or perhaps it was my time of running for political office. I myself had become the product. I know I have emerged with deeper conviction and have much greater trust in the still voice within.
I recall countless moments of truth, the stories of families of nameless faces peering from makeshift homes in Bosnian refugee camps, of underground meetings with Muslim women activists, of singing The Internationale with a group of Bosnian Communists, of union rallies and political battles, of heated meetings with intransigent Bosnian Mayors, of open truth and reconciliation style forums in villages in Timor where even the pigs and chicken where not made stranger, of interviews with emaciated forms of refugees in humid and overcrowded boarder transit centre, of proofing witnesses for trials of war criminals who became the faces of the human calamity, and I could probably write a book of rich encounters and colourful character studies of indigenous and indigent clients that I have defended in courtrooms along the way.
In post-conflict societies, rule of law is at best arbitrary if existent at all. Residual feelings of spite, prejudice, antagonism defensiveness and contempt hang over all. Acts of kindness are obvious by their unexpected relief. Most people scratch an existence in third world conditions. There is an unwritten acceptance that life without hope is mere existence, and of a desire to rise above. Here stories that would inspire Chekhov or the contemporary Malachy McCourt are commonplace. And yet, these are bookmarks in history. Soon the atrocities, the planned elimination of thousands of people will fade into the collective memory.
In the valleys and along the roads that connect the villages of the Former Yugoslavia there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of mass graves. They hold anonymous remains of a generation of men women and children who were executed in cold blood because of their ethnicity. Many of the graves were dug during the recent war but others date back to the Second World War, when the predominantly Croat Nazi-supported Ustacha massacred tens of thousands of Serbs and Jews. Still other graves, are the work of Serbia’s Chetniks, anti-Nazi Royalists who, in their zeal to establish a Serb dominated kingdom in the same period, murdered Croats and Muslims. The Chetnik and Ustacha leaders were never held accountable. The perpetrators like the dead remain nameless. Anonymity soon bred denial. Yet it wouldn’t be long before the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franco Tudjman would begin evoking the memory of the dead in their calls for retribution.
But as the Chinese proverb says: If you seek revenge, dig two graves.
It seems the more things change the more they remain the same. Disturbingly this century began with a pledge of “never again” – but what resulted was a reality of “again and again”. We are but one year into a new century and our newspapers talk of a war on “Terrorism”. So what are we to make of the graves of thousands that hold secret thoughts of the innocent.
Surely forgiveness is not ours to give, forgetting would be to dishonour and understanding beyond our human comprehension.
The trial of Dusko Tadic was the first to be tried before the International War Crimes Tribunal, and it documented a comprehensive record of both the nature and extent of violations in the Balkans. But importantly the trial showed that the hatred that emerged was engineered, not innate.
Television and radio spread ethnic hatred like an epidemic.
Well may we speak in tongues of righteous anger, but our voice is a cry in the wilderness whilst the international media mills a foundry of lies, as self anointed clerics of the established order. By the carefully chosen vernacular contrived to manufacture our consent, the acts of the mighty are legitimated. They speak of justice in place of retribution and subject us to Orwellian propaganda and thereby spiral us into a recurrent theme. Carl Sandburg wrote with clarity at the outbreak of the American Civil War “The war of words was over and the naked test by steel weapons, so long foretold, was at last to begin. It had happened before in other countries among other peoples bewildered by economic necessity, the mob oratory of politicians and editors, by the ignorance of the educated classes, by the greed of the propertied classes, by elemental instincts touching race and religion, by the capacity of so many men women and children for hating and fearing what they do not understand, whilst believing that they understand completely and perfectly what no one understands except tentatively and hazardously.”
Make no mistake. War is a vile, not an honourable pursuit. We need not dig far into the annals of history for confirmation – this implies that there would need to be a most compelling case before lives are pledged . What will it take before we shift from spectators to participants of the political process? Are we content to allow government to “manage” the art of democracy? Are we content to remain the “bewildered herd”? Are we content to be the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” whilst the responsible class get on with the business of running the country? Be warned of the wholesale handing over of decision making .
How should we frame a response?
Quite honestly, the true heart of division in any community lies in the rejection of the person. We then should, as a reflex reaction, vent outrage at any promotion at a local or nationalised level of values that set any group of persons apart from the collective and assign blame or contempt on the basis of some real or imagined tendency. Failure to speak out is to , be complicitous.
If there is a pathway to peace its objectives would be painfully simple. Guard against total war. Promote the principle of common humanity and call for dialogue. But then the foundations of humanitarianism are both timeless and universal – Grotius, Kant, Rousseau, Vattel, Francis Lieber, all warned of the excesses of war – all appealed for the need for essential guarantees to which every human being is entitled. The message has been clear throughout the ages – Through humanity to peace.
As of 2007, she is with the Tasmanian Council of Social Services, and is still involved in community and equity issues.
As of 2007, is a lecturer in Law at the University of Melbourne, and is still involved in human rights issues.
As of 2007, has completed her Doctorate in Law, is practising criminal law in Hobart, and is still involved in human rights issues