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Peace Proposal

Toward a New Era of Peace and Disarmament: A People-Centered Approach

A shared vision

The first theme I would like to explore is the need for a shared vision of what constitutes a peaceful society.

The omnipresence of weaponry is raising threat levels worldwide. Although the Arms Trade Treaty regulating international trade in conventional arms—from small arms to tanks and missiles—entered into force in 2014, key arms-exporting states have remained outside the Treaty, making it difficult to stop the spread of weapons in conflict regions. In addition, we have seen recurring instances of the use of chemical and other inhumane weapons. The modernization of weapons technology has also brought with it grave issues: there is rising concern over questions of international humanitarian law when military drone strikes have impacted civilians.

Tensions are mounting over nuclear weapons as well. Last October, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) it had signed with Russia. While disputes over observance of the terms of the Treaty have continued between the two countries, there is a danger of a renewed nuclear arms race involving other nuclear powers as well if the INF does in fact collapse. Such conditions certainly drive home Secretary-General Guterres’ remarks in the foreword to the Disarmament Agenda in which he warns: “The tensions of the cold war have returned to a world that has grown more complex.”

Why does history seem to be repeating itself in this way in the twenty-first century? Here, I am reminded of the penetrating words of the eminent physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912–2007). Weizsäcker’s lifelong commitment to world peace was one of the topics of discussion in a dialogue I had with his son, Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, honorary president of the Club of Rome.

Characterizing the period between 1989, the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 1990, the reunification of Germany, Weizsäcker noted that as far as the world as a whole was concerned there had been almost no significant change. For someone who had lived most of his life in a divided Germany and who had repeatedly stressed the historic nature of the sequence of events that led to the end of the Cold War, this was a somewhat surprising statement, reminiscent of Socrates’ self-identification as a midwife of truth.

Reflecting on the political and military situation of the time, he asserted that efforts to overcome “the institution of war” had yet to reach the point where they could be described as a transformation of consciousness. In other words, he believed that even the end of the Cold War had not opened the path toward the core challenge of overcoming war as an institution, the repeated military struggle for hegemony among different groups. He further cautioned: “It never is certain, not even today, whether those new types of weapons constantly being produced could not lead to an outbreak of war, after all.” I strongly feel the weight of his words, which apply to the current situation of global affairs as well.

The issues of peace and disarmament have indeed remained unresolved ever since the Cold War era. Although this remains a severe challenge—indeed an aporia—I would insist that there is still a ray of hope. We can find it in the fact that disarmament talks are no longer conducted solely from the standpoints of international politics and security, but have increasingly included the humanitarian perspective. A succession of treaties prohibiting inhumane weapons such as land mines, cluster bombs and nuclear weapons have been adopted. Riding on this new historical momentum of incorporating the humanitarian approach in shaping international law, all states must begin the process of cooperating and working together to make meaningful headway in the area of disarmament.

To this end, it is useful to examine the idea of “peacelessness as an illness of the soul” (Ger. Friedlosigkeit als seelische Krankheit), which Weizsäcker identified as an impediment to progress in disarmament. His likening of issues that hinder peace to an illness afflicting all is premised on the view that no state or individual can consider themselves unconnected—no one is immune. This perspective is underpinned by his view of human beings as indeterminate life-forms, without a fixed nature, who cannot be categorized as either good or evil. As such, he stressed that we should not consider peacelessness as something external to ourselves, the result of stupidity or evil ; rather, we should “have the phenomenon of illness clearly in view.” He explained that neither instruction nor condemnation will succeed in overcoming the pathology of peacelessness: “It requires a different kind of approach which one should call healing.” How can we begin to administer the cure unless we recognize this illness within ourselves and learn to accept both ourselves and others as ill?

I believe it was this kind of awareness that led Weizsäcker to take a unique approach at a time when the United Kingdom had just joined the US and Soviet Union in the nuclear arms race. The 1957 Göttingen Manifesto, in whose drafting he played a central role together with other scientists, reflects on Germany’s position in the world: “We do believe that the best way [for West Germany] to promote world peace and to protect itself is to voluntarily do without all kinds of nuclear weapons.” Rather than being directed at the nuclear-weapon states, which were engaged in a heated arms race, these words principally address the stance the authors’ own country should take toward the nuclear issue. The manifesto’s drafters also declare that as scientists, they have a professional responsibility for the potential effects of their work, and as such, they “cannot remain silent on all political questions.”

Incidentally, the Göttingen Manifesto was launched the same year that President Toda issued his declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, grounded in his convictions as a Buddhist. While recognizing the importance of movements opposing nuclear testing that were gaining traction at the time, he asserted that the ways of thinking that justify nuclear weapons and upon which security issues are based must be rooted out in order to bring about a fundamental solution to the problem: “I want to expose and rip out the claws that lie hidden in the very depths of such weapons.”

His declaration, issued some six months before he passed away, was made from the standpoint that it is impermissible for anyone to threaten the fundamental right to live shared by the people of the world. Its significance lies in the fact that he returned the issue of nuclear weapons, which had been pedestaled as necessary for the peace and security of states, to the realm of the intrinsic value of life, a question of pressing concern for all people.

In an effort to carry on this spirit, I have continued to maintain that if we are to truly put an end to the era of nuclear weapons we must struggle against the real enemy, which is neither nuclear weapons per se nor the states that possess or develop them, but rather the ways of thinking that permit the existence of such weapons—the readiness to annihilate others when they are perceived to be a threat or a hindrance to the realization of our objectives.

In September 1958, a year after Toda made his declaration, I composed a work titled “A Way out of the Burning House” in which I made reference to the Parable of the Three Carts and the Burning House found in the Lotus Sutra. According to that parable, a wealthy man’s house suddenly catches fire but, seeing as it is very spacious, his children who are inside remain unaware of the danger in which they are placed and show neither surprise nor fear. The man then finds ways to entice them to come out of their own accord, thus enabling all to exit the burning house unharmed. Citing this parable, I stressed that any use of atomic or hydrogen bombs would be an act of suicide for the Earth—the collective self-destruction of humankind—and that, because nuclear weapons pose a profound threat to people of all countries, we must work together to find a way out of the “burning house” that is our world enshrouded by this unprecedented danger. As this parable symbolizes, the most crucial point is that our efforts must aim to save all people from danger.

In this sense, I deeply concur with the views set forth by Secretary-General Guterres in the Disarmament Agenda where he outlines three new perspectives that go beyond the security rhetoric which has long taken center stage in these debates: disarmament to save humanity, disarmament that saves lives and disarmament for future generations.

What then is required if we are to overcome the pathology of peacelessness, at the heart of which lies the willingness to use any means necessary to meet one’s objectives with no thought to the damage incurred, and instead accelerate global momentum toward the kind of disarmament that saves lives? A treatment-focused Buddhist approach may shed some light on how to address this challenge.

Among the Buddhist teachings we find the story of a man named Angulimāla, a contemporary of Shakyamuni, who was widely feared as the murderer of many. One day, Angulimāla spots Shakyamuni and decides to kill him, but though he pursues him with all his might he is unable to catch up with him. Out of frustration, he finally halts and shouts, “Stop!” to which Shakyamuni replies, “Angulimāla, I have stopped. You too should stop.”

The perplexed Angulimāla then asks him why he is being asked to stop when he has already stopped moving. Shakyamuni explains that he was referring to Angulimāla’s acts of killing living things without mercy and the malice behind them. Deeply affected by Shakyamuni’s words, Angulimāla determines to eliminate the malice in his heart and cease his evildoing. Then and there, he throws down his weapons and asks to become Shakyamuni’s disciple. From that time on, Angulimāla deeply repents his past crimes and engages earnestly in Buddhist practice, seeking expiation.

There is another important turning point in Angulimāla’s story. One day, as he is walking around the city begging for alms, he sees a woman suffering from the pains of childbirth. No one is at her side, and he too, feeling utterly helpless, leaves the scene. However, unable to stop thinking of her pain, he approaches Shakyamuni to recount what he has seen. Shakyamuni urges him to go to her immediately and offer the following words: “Sister, since my birth I have not destroyed a living thing knowingly, by that truth may you be well and may the one to be born be well.”

Fully aware of his own history of evil deeds, Angulimāla cannot grasp Shakyamuni’s true intent. However, Shakyamuni clarifies that Angulimāla has, of his own accord, already succeeded in dispelling the malice lurking behind his actions, deeply repenting and earnestly engaging in religious practice. As if to remind him of this, Shakyamuni again urges him to offer these words to the pregnant woman: “Sister, since I was reborn as one who seeks the noble path, I have no recollection of having consciously taken the life of a living being. By this truth may you be well and may the one to be born be well.” Knowing Shakyamuni’s profound compassion, Angulimāla rushes to the woman’s side and offers her these words. The suffering woman is calmed and safely gives birth.

These two events indicate the changes Shakyamuni hoped to inspire in Angulimāla. He first sought to direct his attention to the malice, the intent to do harm, that had governed his actions for so long. Then, by illuminating a path by which Angulimāla could save the lives of this mother and child, Shakyamuni sought to direct him toward a personal commitment to become someone who saves others.

Needless to say, this parable depicts the inner transformation of a single individual and is set in a completely different era and cultural milieu from our own. Nevertheless, I believe it still holds relevance to our time because it doesn’t limit itself to the cessation of hostile acts but is oriented toward the saving of lives. This, I would like to propose, could serve as a useful basis for a remedy capable of transforming society at its core.

The Geneva Conventions, which were adopted seventy years ago in 1949 and which established vital principles for international humanitarian law, were drafted with intentions that resonate with Angulimāla’s story. The preparatory work for the Conventions, which included the aim of establishing safe zones for not only pregnant women but all women and children as well as the sick and elderly, had been undertaken by an International Red Cross conference in the final years of World War II. At the time of the Conventions’ adoption after the war, the states which had participated in the negotiating conference declared:

[The conference’s] earnest hope is that, in the future, Governments may never have to apply the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims;
. . . Its strongest desire is that the Powers, great and small, may always reach a friendly settlement of their differences through cooperation and understanding between nations.

The drafters were not simply seeking to caution against violations of the Conventions. Their deepest desire was to forestall the conditions of great suffering and loss of life that would require their application. The Conventions—which formed the foundations for subsequent international humanitarian law—manifested this powerful determination precisely because the cruelty and tragedy of war had been acutely felt by the participants in the negotiating sessions.

Unless we consistently revisit the origins of the Geneva Conventions, we will remain mired in the kind of arguments that justify as acceptable any action so long as it does not explicitly violate the letter of the law.

It is especially crucial that we bear this in mind in light of the rapid advances being made in the development of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) using artificial intelligence (AI), bringing into view the possibility that battles will be waged without any direct human control. Failure to address this issue puts at risk the animating spirit of international humanitarian law as expressed in the Geneva Conventions.

Now more than ever, we must redouble our efforts to overcome the pathology of peacelessness. To that end, it is vital that we cultivate a mutual recognition of this pathology and join together in search of a cure. In other words, we must develop a common vision for a peaceful society, and I believe the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is a forerunner of the kind of international disarmament law that can help frame such a vision.

The TPNW is a form of international law that goes beyond the traditional confines of disarmament or humanitarian protection. Jean Pictet (1914–2002), former director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who is credited with coining the term “international humanitarian law,” stressed that it is none other than “a transposition into international law of moral, and more specifically, of humanitarian concerns.” The TPNW, which crystallizes the resolve shared by hibakusha and many others to never allow a nuclear tragedy to be repeated, precisely falls within this same genealogy of international law.

The TPNW also displays characteristics of international hybrid law, an emerging standard that has begun to garner attention. As a legal approach originally proposed to address climate change in a way that ties it to issues concerning human rights and forced displacement, international hybrid law promotes a change to the ways we have traditionally thought about classifications of legislation. In this context, the TPNW is a legal instrument that recognizes the interconnected nature of the global challenges facing us today, bringing them together under the broadest possible umbrella.

Even security issues that are deeply concerned with matters of state sovereignty must equally take into consideration factors such as the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security, the health and well-being of current and future generations, human rights and gender equality—this is the directionality that has been clearly enunciated in the TPNW. Nuclear disarmament discourse must be based on the shared awareness that we cannot achieve authentic security unless each of these interconnected concerns is adequately addressed. Otherwise, negotiations will continue to focus on the balance of arms possessed by each side, making it that much harder to move beyond the context of arms control.

In this sense, the TPNW can provide the momentum for breaking through the longstanding impasse in nuclear disarmament. Further, by expanding the network of support for the Treaty, we can make major strides toward the goals of: opening the way for a world of human rights based on mutual respect for the dignity of all; creating a humane world where the happiness and security of ourselves and others is central; and building a world of coexistence based on a shared sense of responsibility for the environment and future generations. This, I believe, can be the TPNW’s greatest contribution to history.

Part 3: People centered multilateralism

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