Speaking up for disarmament in the midst of war

by Kirsten Mosey

“The world is over-armed and peace is underfunded” – Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Ban Ki-moon’s famous quote adorns the walls outside the General Assembly in the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Underneath, an accumulating counter shows how much money has been spent on weapons each day. I witnessed the display touting Ban Ki-moon’s words during my recent trip to New York and Geneva as a Youth Champion for Disarmament – a program launched by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs in 2020. I was chosen from over 6,500 applicants along with nine other young people to be a part of the newly launched training program. As I walked past this display in early March, the tour guide prefaced it with a comment that the counter was not working properly – it was stuck at $811,573,572 USD. The real value is likely much higher, especially given the current conflict in Ukraine.

A display in the United Nations Headquarters disarmament exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten Mosey, 2022)

The invasion of Ukraine brought about an entirely fresh wave of defence and military spending. The overwhelming response of the international community, including Canada, to the actions of the Russian military in February 2022 has reignited military spending that could be better allocated to climate change mitigation, COVID-19 recovery, or humanitarian assistance to a number of ongoing conflicts. In Canada’s recently tabled 2022 budget, the government increased its defence budget by $8 billion, with $500 million in military assistance pledged to Ukraine. Though there is no doubt about the suffering in Ukraine, the crisis has also taken much of the world’s attention away from other conflicts. The war-for-profit machine – i.e. weapons manufacturers and traders – makes a pretty penny from protracted conflict, regardless of its origin. But a conflict involving a major global power with all the Western world’s attention is music to their ears.

Embarking upon this trip while the world wrestles with the inability of diplomacy to prevent war, the challenge of negotiating with government leaders that appear to be intent on armed conflict, and the apparent failure of nuclear deterrence strategies was complicated, to say the least.

A statue in the United Nations Headquarters gardens depicts a sword being beaten into a ploughshare. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten Mosey, 2022)

Firstly, I was conflicted because while I am proud of the work that I have been able to do through this UN program, I am acutely aware of the UN’s shortcomings as an implementation body. The UN’s moral authority in standing for principles of humanity and setting international norms is very different than its actual capacity to respond to situations of war. I saw that capacity strained and experienced firsthand how the UN system struggles in the time of an actual crisis, seeming to be the main multilateral body working for peace during an active conflict with very little success.

Secondly, the work of disarmament is inherently at odds with the proliferation – the manufacturing and distribution – of weapons. Watching people across the world praise their governments for sending military assistance and responding with voracity to this crisis troubles me. On the one hand, the Russian military invasion of Ukraine has left the country in an incredibly difficult position, and it is unimaginable that the international community should sit back and watch injustices being played out. On the other hand, I strongly believe that weapons rarely contribute to broader peace and security. While providing military assistance might seem like an immediate response to halt a conflict, there are valid concerns about the use of weapons in conflict and outside of it. Additionally, Russia has nuclear weapons capabilities, which makes the role of increased weapons even more strenuous to navigate. In any situation of conflict, we should be cautious about language that only focuses on the transfer of weapons but ignores the lack of humanitarian assistance and peace-related capacity building before, during, and after the fighting.

Lastly, I believe in the power of collective action at every level of society. Whether that be groups of churches gathering to pray for Ukraine, or groups of states gathering to condemn Russia’s military actions, I think there is value in gathering with like-minded individuals to express support for human rights. While I was able to do this within the grandiose walls of the UN, that is certainly not the case for everyone. These conversations should not be reserved for those of us who pass the security clearance and walk among the sculptures in the UN gardens. Democratizing peace processes is vital to moving forward.

This requires a deep look inside, at the root causes of violence. I suggest we focus on investing money in development and peace programming within communities experiencing conflict with an eye to the long-term. This will do more to promote peace and prosperity than weapons ever could. The solution to the wars that are waged across the globe lies not in preventing conflict through deterrence or militarism but by investing heavily in economic development, environmental sustainability, grassroots peacebuilding, anti-racism, and decolonization. If we address the drivers and multipliers of conflict holistically, we can prevent conflicts before they even happen.

The Youth Champions for Disarmament with the knotted gun sculpture in the United Nations Headquarters gardens. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten Mosey, 2022)

And the work of investing in peace and humanity over war? It does not have to be done within the UN, the government, or massive development agencies. Numerous civil society organizations have started with a collection of individuals working for peace in their communities. Their work is done at a community level, and often is incredibly key in the broader efforts for policy change. But even outside of these organizations, one way to work for peace involves advocating for change. Your voice can be heard by making clear to your government officials that you do not support expanded military expenditures for Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere else. Your voice can be heard through public action, like sending a letter or attending a march for peace. Your voice has the ability to make a difference, just as much as mine.

Kirsten Mosey is the Policy Research Intern at MCC’s Peace & Justice Office

You can get involved too. First, see MCC Canada’s recent letter to the Canadian government on the situation in Ukraine. Then write to the Canadian government, asking them to invest more in local peacebuilding from the ground up, in Ukraine, Syria, Colombia, DR Congo, and more places around the world.

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