Nonviolence and the United Nations

(for the UN Chronicle Magazine, Number 3, 2000)
On November 19th, 1998, I witnessed the UN General Assembly issue one of its greatest
challenges since the Declaration on Human Rights fifty years ago.
For the first time in its history, UN ambassadors spent an entire day discussing the meaning
and practice of nonviolence. Representatives from over twenty nations agreed that, if the world is to
survive, nonviolence must be adopted by the nations of the world.
After invoking Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the hopes of humanity, the
Assembly declared the years 2001-2010 to be A Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for
the Children of the World.î The Secretary-General later said it was one of the most historic
decisions ever made by the UN.
So what does the world expect from the United Nations at the dawn of a new century? The
world expects the UN to help lead us on the road of nonviolence to a new culture of peace. I can
think of four basic steps to start us on that journey.
First, if we want to build a culture of peace, we need to publicly recognize that we live in a
culture of war and violence, and commit ourselves to practicing the way of nonviolence.
Today, over 35 wars are being waged; over one million Iraqis have died during the last ten
years from economic sanctions; over 40,000 people die from starvation each day; over 25,000
nuclear weapons continue to be maintained; and violence, injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and
environmental degradation spread like a plague among us, threatening our existence.
The world is waiting for the UN to declare the simple truth: violence doesn’t work, violence
doesn’t solve anything, violence is a never-ending downward spiral. It’s immoral, illegal, and
impractical. And the only way out of this addiction to violence is the sobriety of nonviolence.
ìIt is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence, Martin Luther King, Jr. said the
night before he was killed. It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.
I suggest with Dr. King that the only way toward a culture of peace is through active
At the heart of nonviolence is the vision of the all-inclusive beloved community, the insight
that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, all
equal human beings. From now on, we can never hurt or kill another human being, much less wage
war, build nuclear weapons, or allow millions of human beings to starve to death each year.
Nonviolence is a way of remembering and recalling everyday of our lives, who we are and
what we are about, that we are all equal, already one. Nonviolence is active love and truth that seeks
justice for everyone, resists systemic evil, persistently reconciles all sides, but adamantly renounces
violence as a means toward peace. As we seek truth and justice for all humanity, we insist on the
bottom line of nonviolence–that there is no cause, however noble, for which we are willing to kill.
Indeed, like Jesus of Nazareth and Mahatma Gandhi, we willingly accept suffering without
retaliating and risk our lives if necessary in the struggle for justice, equal rights and true peace.
Nonviolence begins in our hearts, and from there, transforms nations and the world, as
Gandhi demonstrated so well.
So the world is waiting for the UN to proclaim and put into practice the Decade for a
Culture of Peace and Nonviolence.î It looks to the UN to proclaim a vision of nonviolence, like
Gandhi and King did, and to point the way forward.
Second, the world expects the UN to help us abolish all nuclear weapons and all weapons of
mass destruction. The end of the Cold War brought an historic opportunity: the chance to dismantle
our nuclear arsenals. Yet they remain today, and there is no real movement toward serious
disarmament. How can we teach our children not to kill or retaliate while we continue to threaten the
destruction of our enemies and the planet itself? We cannot be for peace and silently allow these
weapons to exist.
From now on, every one of us is an abolitionist. We must all speak out publicly for nuclear
disarmament–for the rest of our lives.
Third, the world expects the UN to abolish war itself. This was the original goal of the UN. It
needs to be on the top of our list today–even it is seems like a dream. Everything we do must be
aimed at ending war. That means relentlessly pursuing diplomatic solutions, negotiations, dialogue,
and other nonviolent alternatives to resolve international crises. It means supporting nonviolent
movements around the world.
You can’t fight war crimes by committing war crimes; you can’t uphold international law by
violating international law. You can’t stop violence by inflicting further violence. If you want to
reach moral ends you have to use moral means. Killing people who kill is not the way to stop the
killing or to teach that killing is wrong. War and genocide can only be stopped through active
Today, we need to tell the world, there is no such thing as a just war. War is never justified.
War never works. Bombings never end wars or crises. While it may appear to stop the crisis in the
short term, it only guarantees future wars down the road.
Dr. King put it this way: Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence, adding
deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light
can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
If we sow seeds of peace and nonviolence, we will reap a harvest of peace and nonviolence.
This is the way reality works. So from now on, we must ìbeat our swords into plowshares and study
war no more.
Fourth, the world expects the UN to immediately lift the economic sanctions on Iraq and stop
the deliberate killing of Iraqi children. Last year, I led a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation to
Iraq that featured Nobel Peace Laureates Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Belfast and Adolfo Perez
Esquivel of Argentina. We saw for ourselves that the situation in Iraq is not just a humanitarian
crisis, but a spiritual and moral disaster! Our trip was horrific and heartbreaking. Some 5000 to 6000
children under age five die each month from these economic sanctions. Over 500,000 Iraqi children
have died since the economic sanctions were imposed ten years ago.
In one hospital, we met hundreds of dying children, with their mothers sitting by, weeping.
The doctors pleaded with us, explaining that they had no medicine. ìThese children are innocent.
What is their crime? They are not violating your air space. Let them live!
Iraq’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Depleted uranium has poisoned this ancient land. A
vicious cycle of disease and contaminated water kills the people. Yet as we learned first hand, the
children of Iraq are not our enemies. The world knows how cruel these sanctions are. Please do what
you can to stop these immoral, genocidal economic sanctions on Iraq immediately.
We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of
violence, Gandhi once said. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible
discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.
If the world is to survive, if humanity is to thrive, if a culture of peace is ever to blossom, we
will have to dismantle every weapon of mass destruction, abolish war itself, lift the economic
sanctions on Iraq, feed every starving child, and teach the world the ancient wisdom of nonviolence
as not only an idealistic vision, but the only practical solution.
If we embark on that long but beautiful road of nonviolence, if we disarm our hearts and our
nations, then a culture of peace will surely become a reality and the UN will live up to the worldís
The challenges have never been so great, but neither have the possibilities. What better time
to make real a decade–a century!–of nonviolence?
The world is counting on us.