The 75th UNGA is being conducted in an unusual situation via Zoom or video conference. The statements of various nations are sent by email or fax. My statement in this situation may sound unusual as well. It is not a statement made in the UN-ese, – the language traditionally heard in the United Nations. I want, Mr President, your permission to raise some questions rather than to make a statement today.
As we appreciate the unprecedented success that people have achieved in science and technology, we must also accept an irony that COVID-19 has rendered the seats of UNGA hall empty and that the delegations including heads of states and governments are compelled to make their statements and listen to the statements of others from their own capitals. This situation has suddenly raised the question: How united are we at the United Nations? The COVID-19 pandemic has raised even more fundamental questions of our life.
The first question is related to the very first sentence of the preamble of the UN Charter. “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save the succeeding generations from the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow and to mankind…” It was certainly a noble wish for peace and security in the world. The question that has arisen in front of us today is: What does the peace and security desired by human beings mean indeed? Is it the same for all human beings living on earth that we may call our common motherland? Or, does it mean something different to the people living within the boundaries of their nations that they have created by fighting bloody wars with each other in the past? Can peace and security be compartmentalized within the national boundaries? If we think of earth as a spacecraft and all of us as passengers in it, is our fate not common? Are we not all dependent on its future as a whole? What will happen to us if this spacecraft hits an accident?
My ancestors regarded this planet earth as a nest (yatra visvanm bhavatyekaneeda) and all of us as chicks living in it. If this nest falls apart or is infected by some viruses as COVID-19, can any one of us remain unaffected? What is the message of COVID-19 that has imposed a ruthless lockdown on almost all members of the UN? What good is the ongoing arms race? What good are the nuclear bombs in our silos? Whom did they provide security to? Did COVID-19 not render our traditional security measures useless? In this context, let me quote a few lines from a Nepali poet Jeevanhari Sharma on COVID-19 that became viral on social media.
Here comes the menacing crisis,
And man is forced to cower down.
As if it wants to devour the entire world,
It has intruded right in our front yard.
Not a single nation remains untouched
As it does not let anyone escape.
Sure, there is a great power of weapons
and missiles that can cross the continents.
Sure, you’ve made fighter planes and rockets
Even to reach the moon so far away.
But this one right here threatens to destroy all
Your pride, jealousy and arrogance at once.
Boldly man struts along his path,
Craving respect and veneration,
Saying, “All joys belong to me, and no one else”
But he himself is rushing to his own demise.
They say we can go to another solar system;
We have already been to Mars and other stars.
They say we have conquered the whole universe.
But their prowess is shaken by Nature here; why?
Having spent billions on nuclear bombs
Investing all his intellect in their production,
Man says, “We have kept everyone under control”,
But why is such a roar tired of itself now?
The second question is: Who is the greatest enemy of man – the man himself or any aquatic, terrestrial or celestial being or COVID-19? Mr Bill Gates had as early as in 2015 said in a brief Ted Talk, “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes. Now, part of the reason for this is that we’ve invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents. But we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”
Bill Gates prophetically said the following and I quote him once more, “Now I don't have an exact budget for what this would cost, but I’m quite sure it’s very modest compared to the potential harm. The World Bank estimates that if we have a worldwide flu epidemic, global wealth will go down by over three trillion dollars and we’d have millions and millions of deaths. These investments offer significant benefits beyond just being ready for the epidemic.”
According to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report, the world defense expenditure stood at $1,917 billion. Ironically, what we see today is that those countries that spend most on defense have the highest number of corona-caused deaths. Ironically enough a leader of one of the highest defense-spending countries was heard promising that his country’s navy will be given a certain type of ultra-modern submarine. Who are we seeking this defense for, and against? Can submarines or missiles defend us from microbes such as COVID-19 which has crippled the whole world? A question related to this is: Is it the responsibility of the politicians alone to think about the security of humanity?
The third fundamental question is: What are we struggling so hard for? What is the destination of our struggle? We definitely make a high-sounding claim that we are all working for the welfare of humanity as a whole. We claim at the UN that we are working for international peace and security as alluded to in the first sentence of the preamble of the UN Charter. Now, do these nuclear bombs and intercontinental missiles assuage or intensify the scourge of war? Can we expect our children and grandchildren and their children to feel secure under the menacing dark clouds of possible nuclear Armageddon? Let us ask not only Greta Thunberg, but all the children of the world – our own children at home first.
And what is the source of this sense of insecurity for us? Is it not the human being himself that is the most dangerous animal and the greatest threat to his own species? If that is the case, the threat to his security will not be eliminated unless his three evil instincts are treated.
May I dare say in this regard that those three evil instincts are greed, anger and lust? Seeing the devastation of the world particularly Europe after the First World War, Nobel laureate poet T S Eliot wrote a poem “Waste Land” in which he uses three Sanskrit words beginning with the same initial syllable ‘da’. The initial syllables of the three Sanskrit words make the sound da, da, da as it if it were the thunder of the cloud in the sky asking the humans to fight the instincts of greed, anger, and lust by giving (datta), being kind (dayadhvam) and restraining lust (damyata) respectively. Unless we tame our instincts of greed, anger and lust, peace in the world will be a mirage and our efforts to achieve it will be like the struggle of Sisyphus.
So the question is whether we remedy the root causes of the trouble, or treat only the symptoms at the surface; whether we beat the swords into ploughshares as the Bible says or just talk of peace with swords in hands; whether we beat enmity with love and friendship as Buddha said or talk of eliminating enmity with force.
My delegations to the UN in the past had always been pleading that we in the least developed and developing countries do not believe in the stockpiling of nuclear weapons as safeguards of international peace and security. We want to spend our meager resources on social and economic development rather than on weapons. Our policy as such is in line with the preamble of the UN Charter that says that the objective of the UN is “to promote social progress and better standard of life in larger freedom.” So we want to appeal to the major spenders on weapons of mass destruction to slash their defense expenditure by half and spend much more on social sectors to upgrade the standard of life of the poorest of the poor.
In conclusion, we want to urge everyone to gratefully remember what President Obama said on April 5, 2009 in Prague. He declared, “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment and desire to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” And on May 27, 2016 in Hiroshima, he said, “… among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe.”
President Obama’s were really bold, refreshing and welcome statements to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons. Applauding the President’s words, we want to urge that we improve our relations with our neighbors, reduce our defense budget and spend the money on social and economic progress of the people in general and the poor in particular. Improving the relations with the neighbors is not an act of concession; it is an act in our own self-interest.
Let us bequeath a world that is happier, more peaceful and more prosperous to our children than the one our fathers lived or we have lived in. Is such a wish a dream of a weak man? I hope not.
(Professor Acharya, former Permanent Representative of Nepal to the UN, wrote this article in the form of an address to the 75thUN General Assembly, making an earnest appeal for nuclear disarmament and social progress to ensure international peace and security in real sense.)