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July 10, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Youth for peace: our future, here and now.

On the weekend of 13-14th May, Wellington hosted a conference on international disarmament, with speakers from around the world taking part in the ongoing debate on non-proliferation and the threat of nuclear war. SALIENT volunteer and member of a youth session at the conference; Polina Kouzminova, reports on what constitutes peace and disarmament in today’s world in relation to youth and the future generations on our planet.

Drugs, alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity and delinquency The youth of today are associated with a wide array of bad behaviour, and these stereotypes linger in the media and in the public consciousness. Some of these may be true ñ youth are a mixed bunch. But while some students may be drinking it up at Otago and associating with gangs in Auckland, assaulting foreign students or feeling bored and isolated, to pigeonhole students into the above categories would be a mistake. Leaving aside how stereotypes arise, it is more important to focus on what kind of legacy these images are leaving for future generations – the future generations that will populate the streets of New Zealand, and the world, in years to come.

Negative stereotypes can be socially deterministic. When we are told what we are, we can start to believe, and become, that thing ñ a troubled teenage generation can grow into a troubled generation of adults. It is simplistic, but the messages that define the youth of today are clear: we are seen to constitute a consumer society who act on impulse, and who donít think too much. We have a good time; we get the next paycheck, and so on.

But what does the youth of today care about? Strategies surrounding future co-operation among nation-states were discussed at a conference for International Peace and Disarmament. The conference was held on behalf of the National Consultative Committee on Disarmament (NCCD) here in Wellington just a few weeks ago, with speakers coming to New Zealand from around the world.

The meeting was opened by New Zealandís Minister of Disarmament Phil Goff, followed by the Mayor of Hiroshima Tadatoshi Akiba, and retired ambassador of Brazil and President of the 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference Sergio Duarte. Youth were a major part of this conference – they werenít just there to nod along as all the speakers gave presentations on various topics covering multilateral disarmament, non-proliferation, environmental conservation and nuclear technologies. They took an active part in panel discussions, and the many workshops – raising questions, making contacts, trying to come up with some answers.

A break away session, run by Victoria University student Kaspar Beech, who works for the Peace Foundation, was a primal outlet for the gathered youth to discuss and come up with various solutions where young people of today can make a difference.

“Apathy, what does it mean?” asks Bob Riggs (Chair of the NCCD), right at the start of the youth session. A few seem unsure, with startling remarks: ‘Why should I care, if they donít care about me?’ Which is easy to understand – we live in a complex world, a modern world. People go to work and deal with our own problems day in, day out. The alternative is empathy, but isnít empathy an ideology of teenage idealism, something that we all grow out of eventually?

And isnít empathy also an ideology of colonial invasion, spreading the deed of good, and freedom for paternalistic protection, and in some instances, self-interests? Freedom and peace are analogies in their own right in todayís world ñ religious fundamentalism and the ‘axis of evil’ of today create their own ideologies of Manichean dichotomy, but to say that one entirely absolves to a violent state of nature without empathy is rather impossible.

Globalisation is bringing us closer together. By coming closer, on one hand the world is becoming universal, but at the same time various cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, lifestyles and ideologies are thrown together into a tighter milieu – we recognize our similarities, just as we recognize our differences. The question is one of war and peace: will we find solutions to our evolving international relations, or will global conflict prevail? What kind of rules would be put in place and agreed on by all the members of our world, so that Earth is sustained now and for the future generations? The question of war and peace has never been raised to such a threshold as it has reached today.

In New Zealand, ethnic communities are varied. One canít ignore the many of cultures and religions all living together on two small islands. Both Gallipoli and the ANZACs are testament to past involvement in war, but New Zealand is still a country that promotes peace. Perhaps it is the isolation that makes us secure; perhaps it is the work of various individuals and institutions that pushes New Zealand to maintain its peaceful nature in a world of conflict.

So why should we care what somebody in Africa had for breakfast today, or what is happening in Romania where orphans sleep in sewage pipes? And more importantly to the conference, why should the New Zealand public youth care about disarmament in our own country and the nuclear capabilities of other nation-states?

“I am a Kiwi as far as my passport and birth certificate says so. Beyond that, I am a human being,” says Joe Connell (President UNYANZ) at the conference youth session. Many races, many colours, many tongues, many beliefs…but underlying all our differences we all share a right to live.

There are ongoing questions when it comes to dealing with the major global problems. Many institutions, government and international departments are working on solving and improving these issues. But no matter what questions and obstacles lie in the way of the solutions, nothing can be done without international cooperation. Every country counts.

And these problems do have serious consequences. Nuclear waste is not just a problem for politicians to fight over. It has adverse affects on the atmosphere, depleting the ozone layer and the ultraviolet radiation over our planet, which has a huge effect on global warming. Apart from the nuclear waste that gets pushed around the globe, the actual threat of a nuclear war would have unimaginable effects on planet Earth and our own lives. It is no secret that our whole modern civilization will be destroyed, should countries start World War Three. Einstein was right when he said that while we can only imagine what weapons and technology would be applied to World War Three, World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones. The question is, will anyone be alive to pick up those sticks and stones from the rubble on the ground?

Nagasaki and Hiroshima are the two primary examples from our past, but a past that is only a few decades old. Today, technology and science has progressed at an immense speed, creating new weapons at a rate parallel to this velocity.

The immediate consequences of a single thermonuclear weapon explosion are not just the fireball radiation or neutrons and gamma rays bursting into the atmosphere and all across the affected region, killing off population and vegetation, the effects are felt on all the regions that are nearby and even across the globe. In today’s world where globalisation has created means for immediate global connection, the effects would be felt by everyone. Economies would suffer when trade stops, there would be major social disruptions, and the emotional distress would be immeasurable. 9/11 has shown how an attack on one city in America can have dverse affects on the whole world. The world has changed and any future with nuclear weapons in existence and continuing to be developed is a dangerous one.

According to Edwina Hughes of the Peace Movement Aotearoa, current armed forces around the world are deploying or developing: “armed unmanned aerial vehicles including the MQ-1B Armed Predator and ERMP ‘Warrior’; US Army Future Combat Systems including the Armed Robotic Vehicle, the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon, unattended Intelligent Munitions System with lethal and non-lethal munitions, the Non-Line-of-Sight-Launch System with Precision Attack and Loitering Attack missiles; and Ballistic Missile Defence including missile interceptors, exoatmospheric kill vehicles, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, Airborne Lasers, and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile system”, systems for which there are no international treaties or controls.

A chill runs up my spine as she further points out that, along with the present military developments, the militarisation of space is another advent of the future. “Space based lasers, anti-satellite weapons, manoeuvrable precision guided re-entry vehicles to deliver a range of munitions and other possibilities,” Hughes lists as potential developments in the military space race. Beyond the earth and the moon, space is a vast unexplored region, which lies beyond the scope of human imagination. It would be good to think that what lies in space will be not be used for military advancement.

New Zealand has championed a peaceful agenda within the country and abroad. In 1973, New Zealand worked to solve the conflict between France and the Pacific, trying to bring an end to nuclear testing in our neighboring regions. The Disarmament Arms Control Act and the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone have been the result of this country’s strong stances on the environment and international peace. On the other hand, the New Zealand government continues to fund and promote companies involved in military production and exporting. The many Non-Governmental Organisationss across NZ continue to work on disarmament issues: NCCD (National Consultative Committee on Disarmament), PNND, the Peace Foundation, Peace Movement Aotearoa, Amnesty International, among many other branches across the country.

Youth who volunteer and work for these organisations play a big part in helping to run campaigns, raise awareness, liasie with government branches here and abroad, work with troubled youth, speak up about issues that trouble them, run workshops… Their work is far from unnoticed and does make a difference.

Gemma Stewart, a youth worker and intern for Amnesty International, has been working on providing young people with rehabilitation services since a very young age. I had the privilege to meet her at an Amnesty conference, where she ran youth workshops and found the time to talk to me about her life. Jemma has put her life experiences to good use running schoolsí health and safety programs. Alex Lennox-Marwick, a law student who runs the Amnesty group at Victoria University, has been acknowledged for her human rights activism with a Dove Award. Her passion and dedication to stopping human rights abuses across the world are always evident at Amnesty meetings.

On Sunday morning at the conference student volunteers ran a small arms control campaign for a review conference on illegal arms trade. Small arms, alongside major weapons of destruction, have caused a lot of death and violence across the globe. That same morning volunteers could partake in the global Amnesty petition against small-arms trade. In New Zealand, 12,000 people have added their signatures and photographs to The Million Faces Petition. The petition is composed out of a million photographs and signatures of everyday citizens from across the globe, all coming together on a gigantic banner that will cover the New York UN headquarters in June-July this year.

While global military expenditure in 2004 was more than $1,035 billion dollars (the most recent statistic from Peace Movement Aotearoa), New Zealand clearly ranks as one of the most peaceful countries in the world. However, it does have a nuclear history. In 1957-58 New Zealand lent two naval ships to Britain. In the aftermath, those veterans who went on this mission came back home suffering from radiation. “I’m not from Chernobyl, or Hiroshima”, says Lisa, a young woman at the conference; nevertheless, she is suffering the after-effects, both psychological and emotional, of these nuclear missions. Her father, who is suffering from nuclear radiation and thus was unable to recite the speech at the disarmament convention, is part of the New Zealand Nuclear Veterans Association.

The New Zealand Government currently has contacts with overseas companies involved in nuclear weapons production and deployment. According to the research of Peace Movement Aotearoa, current New Zealand government military expenditure is more than $2.1 billion a year, which is roughly $5.6 million every day. In contrast, during the current financial year, $130 million was spent on official development assistance, and one in five children in New Zealand continues to live below the poverty line.

‘Children of the Gulf War’, an exhibition of photography by Takashi Morizumi, includes pictures of bloated stomachs being pumped due to depleted uranium effects of poison and radiation, and new-born babies being born with anencephaly disorder making them look akin to monsters – their humanity is almost unrecognizable, as large black eyes stare at me and limbs lie disjointed on the nursery bed. Viewing the exhibition I can’t help but wonder about the past and about what lies in store.

Academics are a battleground for the state of nature, but human nature is complex: as youth, we read newspapers, we watch the news and we ask why we fight on a global scale, while as individuals we are battling with our daily problems. We talk of world peace, but is there peace inside our own selves to start with?

In its totality, however, peace itself is not a complicated word or theory that is hard to master. Peace is simple to understand and anyone, be they a youth from art school or a high-profile political figure, can comprehend the basics of the human right to live. Anyone can act to make this a reality now and in the future – it is never late to write a letter for Amnesty International or volunteer with a development program for summer holidays, or join the many NGOs that exist around New Zealand with international branches all over the world, or volunteer for an animal shelter. The possibilities for youth are endless. Even talking to a friend in need or taking care of parents are specific things that sustain some mutual understanding between us as people, and ensure that we continue to develop for the betterment of our humanity, and not destroy it by creating and perpetuating unnecessary strife and war, be it media, day-to-day relations, or military development and deployment. In the film American History X, a similar legacy is recalled by Danny Vineyard, a troubled youth played by Edward Furlong, where he draws a link between what was and what will be; where past should only be remembered, but never be perpetuated by future generations to come.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature” – Abraham Lincoln.

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