The forgotten dream of ending war

Those who have known war are sometimes its fiercest opponents.

Last night I watched a movie, Butterfly (i Girasoli) starring Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, directed by Carlo Ponti, which told in a very subtle way the story of the cost of war, in the lives of two young Italians who fell in love and got married, just before Anto was sent off to fight in World War II in Russia on the eastern front.

The movie called to mind other great movies, such as La Grande Illusion by Jean Renoir.

This set me thinking, of humankind’s age-old dream of ending war. From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Greek comedy (411 B.C.) recounting a women’s boycott of sex until their men layed down their arms, to recent times, the goal of ending war has persisted throughout the ages.

In 1899 the first Hague Peace Conference set out with the goal on the part of many of banning war and setting up a World Court to settle nations’ differences by means other than resort to arms. After the devastation of World War I, the League of Nations was established at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. The goal of outlawing war was not achieved, but complex procedures were established to prohibit immediate resort to war and to bring conflicts to the attention of the Council of the League.  The first World Court, known as the Permanent Court of International Justice, was also established as part of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

In 1928, the foeign ministers of the United States and France agreed to what became known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which flatly outlawed recourse to war. Other nations acceded to the treaty.

These legal prohibitions were flagrantly violated by Japan, Mussolini, and Hitler, leading to the destruction of Europe and large swaths of Asia in the Second World War.

Yet, having lived through the destruction of Europe and parts of Asia, leaders of the nations of the world, foremost among them the leaders of the victorious allied powers, met in San Francisco in 1945, and agreed to establish the United Nations, under the international law framework of the United Nations Charter.

The Charter outlawed the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, except in individual or collective self-defense, or in cases authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

Arms control treaties also formed an important component of humankind’s efforts to end war.  Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union began a long process of negotiating nuclear arms control agreements and other agreements designed to avoid accidents and misunderstandings which could lead to nuclear war.

Throughout, while engaged in the difficult negotiations required to regulate and reduce the number of nuclear weapons, the ultimate goal of ending war and fulfilling the principal purpose  of the United Nations, to maintain international peace and security, was never lost from view.

In the last 20 years, however, the goal of ending war seems to have receded from view, at least among the superpowers. There are many causes of this development. Chief among them have been the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the U.S., the invasion of portions of Georgia by Russia in 2008, and the military invasions of the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine by Russia in 2014.

Arms control treaties have been allowed to expire. The last significant arms-control agreement, the nuclear agreement btween Iran and six leading nations, has been torn down by Donald Trump and the Republicans in the U.S., without proposing any realistic alternative.

New nuclear and other arms races are currently underway.

No one in the U.S., Russia, or China seems to be thinking about ending war, or doing anything to reduce the likelihood of its occurrence, whether by accident or by intention.

There is a great need for international leaders to step foward, and to take up again the mantle of the battle to bring an end to war.

The founders of the United Nations had images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Nanjing, and of Dresden and Hamburg, and of the destruction of Western Europe, indelibly burnt into their minds.  They established the United Nations in response.

As they faced the scourge of war, today we need to stop looking away, and find the courage to look the horrors of modern war directly in the face, and to act resolutely to bring them to a halt.

The United Nations Charter has given us a blueprint. Now we must resuscitate the dream of ending war and the passion to end war, and act effectively to fulfill the U.N. Charter’s principal purpose of maintaining international peace and security.

For, as has been said, we can ignore history. But  history will not ignore us.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.