UN seeks Day of Peace for world at war

This week saw the tenth ever International Day of Peace – but in low-level conflicts around the world, the fighting continued. Will humanity ever achieve a real global ceasefire?

The meeting was supposed to help bring an end to Afghanistan's terrible war. Burhanuddin Rabbani, an elderly and much respected statesman, had agreed to a rendezvous with two envoys from the Afghan Taliban. The customary greetings were exchanged – then one of the envoys embraced Rabbani, laying his head almost tenderly on the old man's chest before detonating the explosives hidden in his turban. Rabbani, with his hopes for peace, was killed instantly.

That was just Monday. On Tuesday, the Yemeni army stole the headlines by gunning down groups of protesters in the streets of the capital, Sanaa. A ten-month old child was among the victims.

And yesterday? Yesterday was the UN's annual International Day of Peace, held on the 21st September each year with a lofty and commendable ambition: to persuade the world's many fighters and purveyors of violence to lay down their weapons and, for just one day, observe a global ceasefire.

There is some way to go before that ambition will be realised. This year's Day of Peace saw more fighting in Yemen, NATO bombings in Libya, and of course the endless drip of bloodshed in the many low-level conflicts that simmer around the world.

Achieving a global truce is made harder by the changed nature of modern warfare. The famous wars of history have been between between nations, or whole alliances: the Axis versus the Allies; the Central Powers versus the Triple Entente.

These days, however, wars are more frequent within nations than between them. Governments, sometimes foreign-backed, clash with insurgents, rebels, demonstrators or criminals. Organised armies fight against militias and guerrillas. While traditional wars were fought on battlefields, the wars of today are fought in city streets and rural villages, and the distinction between civilians and combatants has become dangerously blurred.

Peace in our time

Does this mean warfare is getting worse? In many ways the answer is no. What's happening in Afghanistan and Yemen is terrible, but it's no Stalingrad. The awful slaughters of the past have not recently been repeated, and powerful nations no longer feel the need to devote their resources to each other's destruction.

But while the scale of killing has diminished, there is something particularly disturbing about modern, asymmetric warfare. Non-state actors like insurgents and criminals often behave with frightening cruelty towards soldiers and civilians alike. Children are kidnapped and brainwashed to fight. Women are routinely raped. The old-fashioned rules of war, as codified in the Geneva Conventions, no longer apply. Wars may be smaller now, but they are as brutal as ever.

You Decide

  1. Can world peace ever be achieved? Are you a historical pessimist or a historical optimist? Is the world getting slowly better, or is it heading for destruction?
  2. What should the rules of war be? Can any set of rules make war better? Should war have rules at all?

Activities

  1. Create a poster, song or other piece of media, encouraging people to support the global ceasefire and the Peace One Day Campaign.
  2. How has warfare changed throughout history, and how might it change in the future? From your own research, identify and explain five key military trends.

Some People Say...

“Achieving world peace is only a matter of patience and time.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Tell me more about this one-day ceasefire…
The campaign is called Peace One Day, and is the brainchild of a filmmaker called Jeremy Gilley. In 1999, he had a vision of a day when the whole world could be at peace, and he has been pursuing that vision ever since.
Is the campaign working?
Sort of. Fighting never stops completely, but it does dip enough to allow special humanitarian efforts to take place.
That sounds good!
It is. And it's especially important now that so many casualties of war are civilians – 75% today, compared to 5% during World War I, nearly a century ago.

Word Watch

Rendezvous
A meeting, or a meeting place. The word comes from the French, rendez-vous, meaning 'bring yourself', or 'be there!'
Alliances
The First and Second World Wars were fought between alliances of rival nations. In WWI, the 'Triple Entente' (France, the UK and Russia) fought against the Central Powers (Germany, Turkey and Austria-Hungary). In WWII, the Allies (France, the UK, the USA, the USSR) fought against the Axis (Italy, Germany, Japan).
Guerrilla
An irregular fighter, relying on surprise and concealment to attack a more powerful enemy. The word is originally Spanish, meaning 'little war'.
Stalingrad
A terrible battle of the Second World War, fought in and around the Soviet city of Stalingrad. Around two million men were killed in the fighting, and tens of thousands of civilians.
Asymmetric warfare
Warfare where the two parties are not evenly matched, for example insurgencies or guerrilla campaigns. Asymmetric warfare is often particularly brutal as combatants mingle with civilian populations.
Non-state actors
In warfare, a group which is waging war but which does not represent an official state. Al Qaeda is a famous example. One of the big military trends of recent years is the rise of non-state actors in world politics.
Geneva Conventions
The international laws and treaties that govern the proper rules to be observed in war. They cover things like the proper treatment of prisoners and civilians, and the right to surrender.

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