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Peace: the most powerful weapon that we possess

A lecture on the challenge of the peaceful resolution of conflict, delivered April 12th by Nelson Mandela, Nobel Prize winner and former South African President, at the Independent Newspapers Annual Lecture in Trinity College, Dublin.

Peace: the most powerful weapon that we possess


Address By Nelson Mandela

IT IS not often that one feels qualified to be giving a lecture in a university. But tonight perhaps is different. For one thing, even though not through his own merit, your lecturer has since yesterday been an honorary alumnus of Trinity College.

Secondly, given that no head of state has ever delivered the Independent Lecture, for once it is an advantage to be an unemployed former president. And one might add that distinguished as your previous lecturers may be, it is doubtful if any of them, when they shared this prestigious honour, had achieved such an advanced age to become such an elder statesman.

There is, however, something of a dilemma for one who is in fact a very new elder statesman engaged in writing his memoirs. How much should be shared on an occasion hosted by one of the world's great media publishing houses?

And so it seemed prudent to use the occasion to reflect on matters that are far from being secret.

Our topic is not one hidden from public knowledge. Rather it is of burning concern to men, women and children across the world.

Nor is it a matter on which any of us are more qualified than any other, since achievements in this field are those of nations, peoples and communities, rather than individuals. It is the challenge of the peaceful resolution of conflict.

We live in a world and in times in which it is recognised that peace is the most powerful weapon any community or people has to bring about stability and progress through development. No longer does the conflict mentality of a bi-polar world infuse itself into all levels of society throughout the world.

South Africa's own transition has, we believe, helped break down that way of thinking. Our negotiated and peaceful settlement of a conflict that the world expected to end in bloody violence is often hailed as a miracle and an inspiration to others. As a result South Africa has found itself in a position to play a modest role in assisting in the resolution of conflicts.

This derives amongst others from the uniqueness of our political transition and the universal nature of our struggle against racism. As beneficiaries of the international community's commitment to ensuring that all people everywhere should enjoy the rights declared to be fundamental human rights, South Africans are in turn conscious of their obligation to do whatever they can to contribute to the advancement of peace, democracy and justice wherever possible.

In doing so we are urged on by our own experience which has shown that no problem is so intractable that it cannot be resolved through talk and negotiation rather than force and violence.

OUR history has also led us to an unshakeable conviction regarding the critical importance of regional, continental and international institutions in securing peace and stability. This is not only because of the role that the international community played in the liberation of our country. It is also because in our interdependent modern world, what happens in one country can impact not only on its neighbours but on whole regions, continents and even further afield.

Thus we all share collective responsibility for peace and security.

What is critical is that this responsibility is exercised with respect for the sovereignty of nations and in accordance with the principle that it is only the parties engaged in a particular conflict who in the end can fashion lasting peace.

In this regard, if the defeat of the apartheid regime was mainly the achievement of the liberation movement, led by the ANC and supported by the international community, our transition to democracy was the work of all South Africans, from all communities and political persuasions.

Our starting point then is that where parties are locked in conflict, peace is to be found through compromises based on the recognition that their common interests are more important than their differences. In particular the shared benefits of peace and stability far outweigh short-term interests that each may derive from continuing conflict and tension.

Though it may be a simple matter to enunciate such principles, in practice it is no easy or simple matter for societies divided into warring factions to find their way to resolution of their differences on this basis.

Nor is the path towards peace always a popular one. Indeed, within the ranks of the ANC the negotiations process was hotly debated from its very beginning, even though the organisation had been striving for more than a century to sit and talk with the government.

One has ample experience being reminded, with reason, of one's limitations. And so one may recall with some detachment today the negative response of a leading British newspaper when, on visiting Dublin in 1990 at the time that South Africa's political transition got under way, it seemed appropriate to comment that there was nothing better than opposites sitting down to resolve their problems in a peaceful way.

The paper wrote: ``There was a clear and pointless predictability about the mess that Nelson Mandela got into in Dublin yesterday.''

One could cite any number of examples, to illustrate the fact that one effect of sustained conflict is to narrow our vision of what is possible. Time and again conflicts are resolved through shifts that were unimaginable at the start.

If successful negotiations lead to talk of miracles, then it is in part because they achieve what pain too long endured had made to seem impossible.

Situations of conflict can also provide fertile ground for forces that flourish in situations of tension and therefore have no interest in peace. And yet all enduring conflicts, even if they start with right on one or other side, reach a point at which neither side is wholly right or wrong.

Such moments emphasise the fact that negotiation is premised on the making of significant compromises.

South Africa experienced difficulties of these kinds in its transition. But in the end those who sought to hold the process to ransom by use of violence were isolated. The people of South Africa confounded the prophets of doom.

On the brink of a bloody war that would have scorched the earth of our common land, South Africans recognised that they were one nation with one destiny.

Rather than wait for a destructive war to run its course and only then begin to talk, we chose to talk before our country's infrastructure was destroyed and before more innocent civilians were slaughtered. In so doing our people inspired hope that other long-standing conflicts could be resolved.

Faith was rekindled in the possibility of advancing world peace through the international organisation that had been established on the basis of replacing force by negotiation in dealing with differences.

Today, when we learn of the imminence of a ceasefire in the Democratic Republic of Congo; when we sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in the peace process in Burundi; when we meet Xanana Gusmao as a visitor to a democratic South Africa; when we see Libya playing its part in the affairs of the continent and fully able to use its resources for development that improves the lives of its people; when we see the peace processes in the Middle East and Northern Ireland moving with whatever difficulty when we see these things happening then we are reinforced in our conviction that whatever the depth of the problem, it can be resolved through talking.

Indeed the obstacles that still stand in the way of resolution of any of these conflicts define precisely the actions that are required and that are possible.

This might be the involvement of all contending parties; or the readiness of leaders and supporters to shift from entrenched positions because they recognise the importance of peace; or action to build mutual trust; or the support of the international community for a process being shaped by the contending forces.

In this regard it would be appropriate on such an occasion, before an international audience, to emphasise once more the importance for world peace of maintaining the integrity of the world body, the United Nations.

It is for this reason that there is such danger in military actions such as we saw in the case of Iraq and Kosovo when powerful nations acted unilaterally and in defiance of international convention.

To the extent that world peace depends on respect for the authority of our international institutions, such actions are indeed a danger to peace because they undermine that authority.

They send a message that the powerful will police the world. From there it is only a step to chaos in world affairs, as power is substituted for the security of collective and democratic decision.

THE principle that all differences can be resolved through talk and negotiation applies also within organisations like the Security Council of the United Nations, and there can be no justification for unilateral action that imposes one view over others in that body.

Indeed whether it be in the smallest community or in the highest councils of nations and the world, there is a need for those same simple principles according to which we have conducted our own life.

These include accepting the integrity and bona fides of everyone no matter how they may differ from ourselves; loyalty no matter how much the circumstances regarding those to whom one is loyal may have changed; frankness and honesty no matter how embarrassing that may prove; and a presumption that however we may differ there are more important things that we share.

In other words what is required is that the mutual respect that underlies the mere possibility of negotiation should also always inform the way we relate to one another as representatives of different nations and different sectors of the world community.

Such a change - for it would mean some change! - would be part of building the new post-colonial global order on the international system established some 50 years ago to ensure that the world never again experienced the destructive violence of economic crisis and world war.

It would be part of democratising the world in which we live. It is a necessary condition for world peace and development.

ENDS

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