Arms control takes center stage at UN meet

UNITED NATIONS — Convening under the theme of “Unfinished business: effective partnerships for human security and sustainable development,” the 59th annual UN Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations met here Sept. 6-8. The conference drew representatives from more than 2,000 NGOs from over 90 countries.

Last year’s meeting focused on worldwide Millennium Development Goals, goals aimed at eradicating extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, and improving public health and environmental sustainability by 2015. While these goals remain a UN priority, this year’s conference took up several issues related to war and peace.

The meeting took place in the shadow of the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Lebanon. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, was unable to deliver his opening address because he was touring the Middle East in the wake of the war.

Sweden’s Jan Eliasson, president of the UN General Assembly, spoke about the need to promote human security, placing special emphasis on arms control and disarmament. He pointed to some of the UN’s achievements during his tenure, including the founding of a new human rights commission and a peace-building commission.

Significantly, Eliasson cited the late British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell as a model for today. Russell was an outspoken champion of human learning and compassion. He was also a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War and of nuclear weapons.

The conference keynote was to have been delivered by Bolivian President Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism, but at the last minute he was pulled away for talks in Havana. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera filled in for him.

Garcia told the NGO leaders that, with the election of Morales, Bolivia was following its own road of development. For three centuries, he said, his country was subjected to an ill-suited model of development imposed upon it from the outside.

“Bolivia will no longer be controlled by credit and trade controls imposed by the powerful countries,” he said. “These have failed.”

Hans Blix, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said efforts toward arms control and disarmament had stagnated and need to be revived. He said that at the end of the Cold War, many people expected to see a more peaceful era. The opposite has happened, he said.

Blix, who headed weapons inspection efforts in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, said the decision to invade was based on “faith-based intelligence.” He reminded the audience that “there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they were all eliminated in the previous 10 years.”

Citing the importance of nuclear test ban treaties and the “no first nuclear strike” pledge, Blix noted that some countries still resist taking this road. Everyone in the audience knew he was alluding to the United States. His remarks drew enthusiastic applause.

Conference workshops included one titled “Former fighters working for peace.” The panel was sponsored by the U.S.-based Veterans for Peace, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Iraq Veterans against the War.

The first speaker was Suliman al-Chatib, a Palestinian from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Al-Chatib is a founding member of the new group Combatants for Peace, which includes both Israelis and Palestinians. He said his counterpart from Israel was unable to attend.

The mission of his group, he said, is to promote peaceful conflict resolution, to end the occupation, and to press for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. His remarks we very well received.

Other speakers focused on the Iraq war. Anita Cole, a former U.S. military interrogator, and Garett Reppenhagen, a sharpshooter, talked about their experiences in Iraq.

After joining the service, Cole quickly turned against the war and sought conscientious objector status. Noting that it is much more difficult for soldiers to get CO status if they don’t have a college education, she urged soldiers get legal help when they apply.

Reppenhagen gave a moving talk about his conversion from a military “killer,” as he described himself, to a person who totally opposes the war. He currently gives anti-military-recruitment talks in schools around the District of Columbia.