The 21st of September marked the thirty- fourth celebration of International Peace Day (IPD), an occasion held annually by the United Nations (UN) in dedication to observing world peace and, in particular, the absence of war and violence in human affairs. Reading about IPD and the seemingly lofty ideals for which it stands, it is difficult not to wonder how successful the UN had been in fulfilling its obligation to banishing the violence of war and usher into existence a more “peaceful” world as a result. Is the world more “peaceful” now than it had been before the UN’s conception? Dictionaries inform us that the concept can be neatly defined as “freedom from disturbance”. However, this seems to be grossly oversimplified as an answer to what it means in terms of international relations and human affairs more widely. In asking whether or not the world is more “peaceful” under the UN, a far more penetrating approach is needed.
Since its foundation in April 1945, the UN has presented itself as the dedicated opposition to armed conflict, and yet it would seem that our current age is just about as far removed from the quasi-utopian vision put forward on International Peace Day as is possible. True, World War Three has not happened; no nations have clashed in total war since 1945; we are all still here, despite the abundance of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which have the power to end all life on earth many times over. And yet, can our age legitimately be called an age of peace? Perhaps we have not experienced another world war in the conventional sense. Certainly in the developed world, no trenches have been dug, no Blitzkrieg has been enacted, and no Blitz has reduced cities to rubble, but is this also true in relation to less- developed countries? Ask any refugee fleeing Assad’s regime in Syria and they are bound to tell you it is not. Besides, though the nations of the developed world have not engaged in war with each other since 1945, can anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of global affairs truly dismiss the possibility that we may in fact be engaged in a new type of world war? Since the infamous terrorist attacks of 9/11, the War on Terror has been waged not just in the Middle East, but all over the globe, and not just by the US and its closest allies, but by hte majority of countries in the world: it being by its nature a war without borders.
In this sense, perhaps it is only because the rules have changed that we in the West believe ourselves to live in an age of unparalleled international stability and peace. The truth, if we choose to recognise it, may be far less pleasing. Be that as it may, it is necessary to briefly explore our recent history of violence and the subsequent founding of the UN in order to better understand whether the world we inhabit under such an organisation is less violent and more peaceful than the one inhabited by our great-grandparents. To do this, a historical perspective is paramount.
The first half of the twentieth century was arguably the darkest in human history. The tides of revolution, war and polarised ideology swept across the globe, turning empires against empires, nations against nations and individuals against each other, engulfing the world twice in the fires of total war. The Great War (1914-1918) and its swift predecessor, the Second World War (1939-45) produced destruction and suffering on such a scale that they stand without parallel as the most costly conflicts of all time. Not only World Wars, but also tales of impoverishment, pandemic, global depression and genocide greet us as we peel back the layers of the world in which our grandparents were born.
When, in 1945, atomic bombs were dropped by the Allies on the two densely- populated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the same year, Soviet soldiers stumbled on the first in a long line of Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe, it was clear that a world which had endured human tragedy on such a massive scale was in dire need of recovery. Clearly something had gone terribly wrong for such things to have happened and, clearly, something had to be done to ensure that future generations would not suffer the fate of their twentieth- century forebears. With this in mind, it was decided that the creation of an international organisation, responsible for facilitating peaceful diplomacy and humanitarian aid, was in the best interests of all the world’s people.
Such an organisation was announced in 1945 and the United Nations was ushered into being as the symbol of a new and brighter age. With the UN at the helm, it was believed by some that humanity could genuinely be cured of some of its most ancient and undesirable problems. Among these problems, the one in most desperate need of addressing was that of armed conflict.
The World Wars had shown the scale of the destruction that could be unleashed by mechanised warfare, and yet another such conflict promised to be even worse, thanks to the introduction and subsequent proliferation of nuclear armaments. Though we have, for now, managed to avoid the horrors of nuclear war, the world in which we live appears to be far from “peaceful”. Wars – civil, proxy and conventional – have torn apart states, communities and families since 1945, continuing unabated to the present day. As well as war, mass murder and genocide have refused to be consigned to the dustbin of history, Rwanda and Yugoslavia in the 1990s being among only the most recent and horrifying examples. With this in mind, who can truly claim with any sincerity that the UN has succeeded in creating a “peaceful” world? Certainly, we in the West feel ourselves in many ways cut off and removed from the crises which continue to haunt the peoples less fortunate than ourselves, yet this is a disturbing and potentially dangerous phenomenon, as it numbs us to reality.
This reality is that the UN has, as of yet, failed to defeat what it has dedicated its existence to destroying. In 1945, the UN was founded beneath the stirring mantra “never again”. Never again, it vowed, would war and genocide afflict the human race on such a scale as they had in the Second World War. Though it would be far more comforting for both the writer of this article and no doubt the reader, can anyone with a basic grasp of the history of the post-war world plausibly argue that the UN has succeeded in its oath. Is the world more “peaceful” than it was before 1945? Are states less likely to go to war in a world of rapidly depleting resources, worldwide terror and a globalised economy? Are individuals in Britain more accepting of other cultures as more and more refugees flood into Calais every day? How long before we no longer feel so removed from the strife that continues to plague the world as much as it did in the early half of the twentieth century? How long can we afford to?
International Peace Day promoted the ideals of world peace and global harmony, yet the irony of such a celebration – held even as civil war rages in Syria and thousands of refugees flee to Europe in numbers not seen since the end of the Second World War – is clear to all.
In asking whether the world is a more “peaceful” place than it was before the foundation of the UN, the answer appears to be painfully clear. It is not – we still have a long way to go before we are even close to reaching such a point.