Photo courtesy of Middle East Institute
In its opening preamble, the resolution declaring 24 April as International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace reaffirms ‘…the commitment to settle disputes through peaceful means and the determination to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. The resolution which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 12 December 2018 could be argued to be yet another resolution declaring yet another international day, but the significance is that the declaration provides an opportunity for reflection on that which has occurred, appreciation for that which is being done and committing to action that can and must be taken to avert conflict at all levels of society, be it national, regional or global.
Peace remains the guiding principle upon which states endeavour to formulate and implement policies, at varied levels of interaction. Whether it be peace at the national level, through the avoidance of uprisings, revolutions or other forms of violent action; or at the regional level in relations with neighbouring states by averting confrontation through timely strategies; or even at the global level wherein states want to preserve their image, efforts are taken collectively to protect and preserve peace. Yet the means through which states go about executing such policies are relevant and require adequate reflection. These measures personify the role played by states, communities and individuals, chiefly in preserving peace. However instances, incidents and individuals have contributed to a conflagration and a rapid escalation of violence has been experienced. How and why do such situations arise and what factors contribute towards nurturing them.
The main lesson learnt from time immemorial and particularly from the twentieth century, is that differences exist in society at all levels but the means through which such differences are overcome constitute the success or failure of a society. These differences can be analysed in numerous ways ranging from political ideology, economic perspectives, military prowess, societal structures, and even in some instances due to caste, creed and religion which are key dividers in some parts of the world. These differences have been the cause for conflict in the past, and continue to persist. Despite the knowledge of the rigours of war, the awareness of the tragedy it spawns and irrespective of the experience of tragedy, bloodshed and massacre, it is still evident that individuals, communities and states veer towards the option of resolving differences through combat and conflict. The primitive manner in which conflicts were resolved often return to haunt, as history is not learnt, and is instead repeated.
A question that arises is whether the past and chiefly ignorance of it are the key factors contributing towards a perpetuation of conflict. A desire for sanity, a degree of tranquility and a semblance of peace would naturally be guiding lights for individuals, communities and states to avoid with renewed vigour and determination any form of violence. Hence is it complete ignorance or an insufficient understanding of that which has occurred that results in persons committing similar or more destructive atrocities? The rapacious greed for more, the inability to remain content and the indiscriminate manner in which self interest overrides all else, remain crucial contributors. Whilst individuals and communities are unable to maintain a degree of balance in what they need and desire, the spillover effect is seen at the national and international tables at which an insatiable appetite for power, in all its forms, becomes the guiding principle, and eventually the one which sustains conflict, by encouraging fear, mistrust and revenge. It also brings to the fore all forms of difference that exist, thereby eradicating hopes for peace.
Despite this deep seated desire for highlighting differences and generating chaos, times of tragedy have seen states collaborating. Throughout 2020 and into 2021, states understood the destructive nature of the global pandemic that spread rapidly and claimed the lives of millions, and continues to infect millions more. At least now states and their leaders have realized the need for collective action. Whether through scientific collaboration, or the adoption of vaccine diplomacy, states appeared to lay their differences aside and explore means through which they could overcome the challenge they faced. The irony is that it takes a tragedy or a calamity of gigantic proportions to get states and their leadership to work together. Exceptions do remain where some states displayed complete disregard for others as they stockpiled vaccines in complete excess of what was required for their populace and thereby restricted other states from gaining adequate access.
The institutionalization of multilateralism at the beginning of the last century through the League of Nations and thereafter the United Nations, as well as the other organisational groupings of states based on geography, politics, economics, history, culture and even religion have collectively contributed to the achievement of that desire for sanity, degree of tranquility and semblance of peace that exists in society. Whilst the effectiveness of these institutions encounter a perennial debate by naysayers determined to highlight the negative developments within them, the general experience of such institutions has resulted in the prevalence of peace, even though it is not at an optimum level. Some peace, it might be argued is better than no peace at all, and through multilateralism states have been able to realize general stability, and most importantly through the United Nations, averted the outbreak of another World War.
A majority of the global population alive today has not experienced a world war and tends to relegate such a conflict to history books without realizing the real potential for a similar occurrence at any moment in our present existence. Throughout the Cold War the world remained on the brink of violence with several proxy wars being waged, stemming chiefly from the ideological divide that existed. Thereafter the Gulf Wars erupted and West Asia was in a state of tension. Decades later the Arab Spring generated much suffering and sorrow as thousands upon thousands fled violence ridden cities seeking refuge. Terrorism has engulfed large swathes of the world. Hunger remains a critical factor even in the most developed of nations. Malnutrition is at critical levels in some countries. However health has finally been realized to be the most critical element of life as the pandemic continues to wreck havoc and threatens human existence.
Humanity has experienced conflicts over shared borders, economic resources, and even water, and sits continuously on the edge not realizing the risks being taken by states, and the disaster it could bring to billions. Despite our position precariously close to conflict we have been able, through diplomacy derived mainly via multilateralism, to avert such disasters. As states engage on open and transparent platforms, they realize that they are not self sufficient or able to exist in vacuums bereft of contact and engagement with each other. This is true of all states in the world irrespective of their power or population. Globalization has brought us much closer to each other and ensured reliance and collaboration if existence is to be sustained, and even ensured.
The ability for states to sit down, negotiate, compromise and arrive at mutually beneficial decisions remains paramount as we progress into the 21st century where challenges promise to abound and differences will continue to persist. Multilateral fora are platforms for discourse and debate, but more importantly for dialogue and delivery. Throughout the last hundred years, these organisations have served as crucibles for change ensuring humanity, though often at the brink of disaster, often avoided such developments and returned to normalcy. Whether due to political differences or financial instability, over conflicting positions or the scourge of terrorism and extremism, or during pandemics, multilateral fora remain a refuge and thus a source of strength for states.
Yet the most basic of needs at this juncture is awareness, understanding and realization of potential. For states, and their people, it is paramount that the past is not relegated to the past and is instead analysed and comprehended from all angles, and lessons learnt, so as to avoid the recommitting of mistakes, a return to uncertainty and a rejuvenation of past animosities. The past serves as the window, as everyone especially those formulating policy realize that history often repeats itself in varied forms and manifestations, and that unless lessons are learnt, errors will be made once again leading to unwanted death and destruction, turmoil, stagnation and severe insecurity.
When strategizing for the future, awareness of the past becomes an essential foundation upon which decisions need to be made, policies formulated and action implemented. We live in a world that has mechanisms for peace, that has recourse to conflict prevention formulas, and that has the experience of the past. Multilateralism and its active use, through which reliance and collaboration remain fundamental, will see progress, will realize potential and will guarantee peace.