In the Soviet-era film of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace” there is a haunting scene, brought to mind by recent events in Russia.
In this scene, Russian elite member and rather philosophically minded Pierre has been captured by the invading Napoleonic Army of 1812. A soldier reminds Pierre that he is under their control. Pierre looks into the night sky and begins to laugh. He sees the canopy of stars in the vastness of a universe of astonishing beauty.
His laughter rolls on. Tears form. The French soldier is perplexed.
Pierre’s laughter is as regards humankind’s folly, we imagine. Here we are on this tiny planet in a vast universe thinking we are in control of things. We are gifted with life for a time. We are a species who know our life here will end in death and yet, knowing this, we still persist in war when there could be peace!
Tolstoy’s epic blends with peace writings and songs of many eras, including the recent song-plea of Bono and friends who are ‘playing for change’.
Great art blends with the deep yearnings of our prayers for peace as families universally seek the safety of loved ones.
Ideally, as soon as possible, the United Nations Secretary-General should convene a meeting of world leaders to focus on how we move from war to peace.
It is for such purposes that the UN exists. So many are dying in war after war. The UNHCR can’t adequately deal with the 100 million already displaced and seeking refuge. The opportunity cost of the arms races is causing more people to starve.
A parallel time of crisis led to the UN Special Sessions on Disarmament, amidst a heightened threat of deterioration into nuclear war. The second of these was in 1982, followed by a 1986 International Year for Peace; then another Special Session on Disarmament in 1988. There have been plans for a next UN Special Session but a date has not yet been finalised. Now is the time for it to happen, asap.
I remember watching at the UN in 1982 as the USSR and US leaders arrived. At that time it was Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan. Neither appeared to have much common ground but, somehow, there was progress.
Essentially this was a response to a movement of ordinary people around the world articulating to political leadership that nuclear war needed to be prevented.
It was bottom-up until the political process responded.
We are at a parallel moment now.
The current UN Secretary General is coming to the end of his term. He has done his best with an impossible job.
Convening a UN Special Session of world leaders on “Peace, not War” could be ahead of the UN General Assembly, scheduled to open on 13 September.
Such a crucial gathering will need to be promoted urgently by member states.
Now is the time and opportunity for Australia to offer this quality of international leadership. We are home to many people who have suffered the consequences of war, not peace. Most recently, people seeking refuge from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and South Sudan.
Our Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs have both the character and competency to carry this possibility to other nation state leaders and to build the quality of partnerships that would give the UN Secretary General the necessary support.
We have to keep creating the spaces where dialogue about peace building becomes possible. The resolution of conflict is always relational, at every level. People have to meet and listen. There has to be time to patiently deal with mistakes and misunderstandings.
Everything else, including the crucial tasks facing the next UN COP28 to prevent catastrophic climate change, is contingent on cultivating better relations between international leaders.
There are no short cuts. These people must meet and lead us away from further tragedy.
Blending with these yearnings, a friend in Peace building asked a relative in Sweden to visit the Uppsala Peace Chapel last week. This is where the great UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, is remembered.
Such inspirational leaders are the need of our hour.