Hammarskjold: that elusive peace fifty years later

Hammarskjold: that elusive peace fifty years later

By Kanni Wignaraja

As we commemorate the 50th year of the death of Dag Hammarskjold, our second UN Secretary General who lost his life in a fatal plane crash fifty years ago seeking a peaceful settlement to the then ongoing and intractable war in the Congo, let us reflect a moment on this elusive concept of peace.

Africa holds 14 percent of the world’s population but from 1990–2005 Africa accounted for half of the number of deaths caused by conflict. This is changing, as the number of inter-country conflicts in the region and the world over has subsided. However, factors such as domestic political insurrections, crime and inter-group competition over natural resources continue to be a challenge to internal peace. Between 1990 and 2005, conflicts cost African countries almost $300 billion – roughly the same amount as these countries received in development aid during the same period. Clearly, if development is to be successful and lead to a sustained reduction in poverty and higher levels of human development, peace has to go from being an elusive concept to protecting a very real right, and be a well-earned practice.

Evidence tells us that there were 39 violent armed conflicts going on in the world during Hammarskjold’s period as UN Secretary General (1953-61). And one of them – where he was navigating those tricky waters of mediation and negotiation, moving between fear and uncertainty, hope, resolve and frustration – took his life and that of his team in the most tragic of ways. The world lost a statesman and a courageous voice that once said, “Our work for peace must begin with the private world of each one of us. To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty if we are not free in our own minds?”

Zambia has been and continues to be an island of hope for many countries and many peoples, who have fled here from wars and conflicts, who have sought respite and a new life and who have been taken in. Its own population has had the courage to say no to violence and has turned its back to conflict. It has had to get involved in mediating differences, and finding a way forward, for neighbors, between own communities and during tense moments of transitions of leadership and power. And what will determine a continuity of this national psyche that so values peace and stability, is, as Hammarskjold would have said, a sense of what’s right and just for all.

With reference to Paul Collier’s research and findings on the costs of conflict, the data states that, nationally, one year of conflict reduces a country’s growth rate by 2.2%. Since, on average, each civil conflict lasts for seven years, the economy will be 15% smaller at the end of the war than if the war had not taken place. This is an alarming statistic, overshadowed only by the cost of conflict as calculated by its devastating impact on human health – the economic cost of harm to human health in a typical war is estimated at around $5 billion. And this does not begin to take into account the long term loss of trust, dignity, and the destroying of the potential and aspirations that move societies to higher levels of democracy and development. No country, its leadership and peoples, would wish this upon themselves.

Poverty and underdevelopment can indeed oil the wheels of conflict, disrespect for differences of race and religion can perpetuate instability, and intolerance of personal life choices and gender differences can breed contempt and insecurity. But what turns a discomfort and a concern into a smoldering struggle is often inequalities and injustice. Therefore, ensuring a respect for the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all is at the heart of the most robust constitutions, the practice of the rule of law and positive social traditions. These fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. So the litmus test of real progress is how and whether we progress together, where no one gets left behind.

A state of peace cannot be taken for granted. We have to work hard at it, with great intent and a continued commitment to these human rights principles and practices. So, on this International Day of Peace, as we look to the continued traditions of peace within Zambia, and its role as a transmission belt of peace in the sub region, I am reminded of the vision of Dag Hammarskjold, also captured in the wise words of the poet, Tagore, who said: “When the mind is without fear, and the head is held high; when the world has not been broken up into fragments…when words come out from the depths of truth…into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

Kanni Wignaraja is UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Zambia

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