This week, the United Nations reported that two million people, primarily women and children, have fled from Ukraine to neighbouring countries, in the fastest exodus on the European continent since the end of WWII. Thousands of men, women, children, and young soldiers – many still in their teens – have died or been injured. Cities have been flattened. Bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, and factories have been destroyed. Agriculture has come to a standstill in a land blessed with some of the richest soils on the planet.
This is the scourge of war from which the founders of the United Nations wanted to save succeeding generations. War is again bringing untold sorrow to mankind on the very continent where world wars started, and we seem incapable of stopping it. Just as we have been unable to bring peace to Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria and many other places.
We must try harder and do better. Peace is possible. Kofi Annan told us that enmity between people does not, and cannot, last forever, but that making peace requires extraordinary courage on the part of all sides. Time and time again, he reminded us that conflict is rarely solved through force of arms alone, and that political dialogue is the key to building lasting peace.
We must talk about peace, even as war rages. To say that there must be a negotiated end to the madness is not to give up on the need to hold those committing horrendous crimes accountable. Kofi Annan also told us that we must be ambitious enough to pursue both justice and peace, and wise enough to know when and how to do so.
We applaud the exemplary welcome which Ukrainian refugees have received in neighbouring countries. These actions stand in stark contrast with other recent crises when we saw walls erected and refugees turned away or left to drown in treacherous seas. We must, however, focus first and foremost on stopping the violence that drives people from their homes.
We must show courage, determination, and imagination to seek real solutions rather than an elusive military victory, and to begin building trust between communities engulfed in violence. This means urgently asking tough questions such as what de-escalation might look like, how can we extract concessions and get to an effective ceasefire, and what confidence-building measures or assurances must be put in place to stop the bloodshed.
In the longer term, it means resuming discussions on collective security, peaceful coexistence, the protection of minorities, a fair access to resources, the promotion of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, disarmament, and all the issues that our multilateral system was created to address, and which have been brushed aside by strong men in recent decades.
Technology has given us the tools to predict conflicts, pandemics, climate change and other shocks and crises. When they occur, we can rely on elaborate multilateral mechanisms and a solid legal framework to facilitate international cooperation. And yet leaders choose to ignore them and flout internationally agreed rules and standards.
“…we all have a responsibility for peace.”
When leaders fail to lead, Kofi Annan remarked, the people take the lead and make the leaders follow. While we have seen demonstrations in our cities, including some by very courageous activists on the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, we need a much bigger groundswell of support for peace.
Diplomats, civil society activists, teachers, journalists, artists, and entrepreneurs; the old and the young; men and women: we all have a responsibility for peace.
Today, all of us must call for an urgent end to aggression and violence in Ukraine, and the start of actual peace negotiations in good faith. Tomorrow, we must commit to an honest appraisal and far-reaching reimagining of our multilateral system, so that it enables peacemaking, peacebuilding and cooperation rather than greed and belligerence.
We owe it to future generations.