Renu Chahil-Graf takes a Walk in the Park with Colin Archer, Secretary-General of the International Peace Bureau to discuss the importance of people power and peace movements.
The sounds of war drown out calls for peace
Listening to Colin Archer, one understands why he chose Geneva’s Botanical Gardens for his walk. Not only does he consider this his “backyard”, he sees it as a source of inspiration as he grapples with the challenges of the International Peace Bureau (IPB). One of the earliest peace federations, founded in 1891, initially in Bern, it won its first Nobel Peace Prize in 1910. Over the years, 13 of its officers were similarly honoured. Dedicated to a vision of a world without war – bread not bombs – IPB presses for a reduction in military spending and increased spending on food, education, health, employment and environmental challenges. Unfortunately, calls for peace in this century are drowned out by sounds and images of war.
Political crises as a force for change
With the modesty of a non-governmental organisation, Colin shrugs off his title and and says he considers himself more secretary than general. A London lad, he feels he has been an activist all his life. At school he raised money for the Shelter NGO. As times changed he shifted his attention to the environment, development, peace and anti-nuclear issues. Stepping out of his comfort zone, Colin took a job in Martinique, brushing up on his French, and then travelled for a year in Latin America. Witnessing the coup d’état against Chilean Salvador Allende in 1973, and travelling overland from Lima to Mexico, he was exposed to politics and activism on a steaming continent. This convinced him of the need for social transformation. He returned to his hometown to pursue a degree in development. Soon enough he was spotted by the IPB, who saw the strength of his on-the-ground experiences and language skills. This landed him in Geneva.
Between weaving through spring blossoms, taking a gazebo break and paying respect to the glorious quercus (otherwise know as oak) trees, Colin describes the current struggles and efforts to “keep the flag of the peace movement flying high.” In the current political environment, he calls for a “peace voice” to be heard loud and clear. The voice of communities. Colin cites major historical transformations that have taken place through citizens’ movements: the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the banning of landmines, the end of the Vietnam war, and abolishing apartheid in South Africa. In all instances, it was politically active people which led to change.
Make a spending shift
Recently, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that the world saw a growth of 1 percent in military expenditure in 2015 – the first increase since 2011 – bringing the total to $1,676 billion. IPB’s global campaign on military spending has called for a global reduction in military spending. It estimates that a reduction of just 10 percent of current military spending could go a long way towards funding the sustainable development goals agreed by United Nations member states in 2015 as well as humanitarian crises.
The world’s biggest polluter: the military
Stepping confidently onto the not so wobbly stepping stones (tobi-ishi) in the Japanese garden pond, Colin is reminded that Japan has the largest peace movement in the world. He recalls opportunities lost in recent history, when at the end of the cold war in 1990 a “peace dividend” was expected, which was to be redirected to development. This did not happen and the global peace movement continued to weaken. While the world is concerned about its carbon footprint, few know that the biggest polluter is the military. It has a large carbon bootprint, not a footprint.
People do prevail
Deeply politically concerned, now walking through the Garden of the Blind on the Terre de Pregny side, Colin emphasises that now is the time for a revival of peace activism. Current world events provide an environment ripe for a major war. He passionately calls for: no more bombing, but education, education, education. Transforming the economy with alternate jobs for those involved in militaristic work. And, most of all, the coming together of a strong global civil society. We end our walk in the Botanical Gardens passing our hands over plants we are encouraged to touch, but with unreadable descriptions, since they are inscribed in a delicate braille on metal plaques.
By Renu Chahil-Graf
Renu is a Geneva-based writer and former international United Nations civil servant.