People-Centered Multilateralism

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Section three of nine of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2019 peace proposal, “Toward a New Era of Peace and Disarmament: A People-Centered Approach.”

Refugees fleeing conflict in South Sudan find safe harbor in Uganda [Photo by UNHCR/F. Noy/CC BY-NC]

The next theme for advancing the cause of disarmament that I would like to discuss is the need to work together to foster people-centered multilateralism, an idea that was given voice in the outcome document of last August’s conference of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) affiliated with the UN’s Department of Public Information (DPI/NGO Conference). It is an approach that is focused on protecting those who face the most serious threats and challenges.

While the idea of people-centered multilateralism was originally proposed in the context of promoting the achievement of the SDGs, I feel that it can also contribute significantly to shifting the current of world events toward disarmament. Just as Secretary-General Guterres warned at the launch of the UN Disarmament Agenda, world military spending continues to increase while the resources available to respond to humanitarian crises are inadequate. Every year, on average more than 200 million people are impacted by natural disasters. Similarly, 821 million people were suffering from hunger as of 2017, and nearly 151 million children under the age of five were experiencing stunted growth as a result of malnutrition. Such facts as these compel us to question the meaning and objectives of existing national security policies.

Here, I think it is valuable to cite the views of Hans van Ginkel, former rector of United Nations University, on the nature and objectives of human security. While acknowledging the seeming complexities of security, Van Ginkel notes that if we view the world from the perspective of each individual, it becomes very clear what people experience as threats or sources of insecurity:

“Yet it is clear that traditional security has failed to deliver meaningful security to a significant proportion of the people of the world at the individual level. . . Still, attitudes and institutions that privilege ‘high politics’ above disease, hunger, or illiteracy are embedded in international relations and foreign policy decision-making. Indeed, we have grown so accustomed to this approach that for many, ‘security’ has become equal to state security.” (emphasis in original)

Here, Van Ginkel is pointing to the fact that, compared to questions of national security, the response to threats to the lives and livelihoods of individuals seems to lack urgency. The result is to deprive great numbers of people of any meaningful sense of security.

In another speech, Van Ginkel describes the plight of people living in conditions of extreme poverty:

“Indeed, how can one experience the joys and the meaning attached to human life, how can one experience a life of human dignity, when survival from day to day—yes from day to day, sometimes even from hour to hour—is not even ensured? How can one project oneself into the future and build bonds with others if living long enough to see tomorrow constitutes a major challenge?”

The foundation for people-centered multilateralism must be the effort to build a world in which all people can enjoy a feeling of meaningful security and can together foster hope for the future.

This brings powerfully home the depth of the suffering experienced by those whose interests have been overlooked under traditional ways of thinking about security. This includes not only people afflicted by poverty or inequality but also those driven from their homes and forced to seek refuge from armed conflict or disaster.

The foundation for people-centered multilateralism must be the effort to build a world in which all people can enjoy a feeling of meaningful security and can together foster hope for the future. This approach, however, does not have to start ex nihilo, as it is already the focus of ambitious attention in Africa, an element of the response to the many serious challenges facing the continent. The 2002 establishment of the African Union was a watershed moment in this regard.

In 2012, against a backdrop of efforts to develop more effective cooperative responses to humanitarian crises, the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention) entered into force. This is a groundbreaking convention with aspects unseen elsewhere, as it seeks to bring together region-wide efforts to protect internally displaced persons.

There are other notable examples of assistance to refugees in African countries. Uganda, for example, has accepted some 1.1 million refugees fleeing conflicts in South Sudan and elsewhere. In addition to being granted freedom of movement and opportunities for employment, refugees are allotted land to cultivate and integrated into the local education and healthcare systems. Many Ugandans have themselves experienced the miseries of armed conflict and forced displacement as refugees, and these memories appear to provide the basis of support for these policies.

A related example from Tanzania stands out. Tanzania currently hosts more than 300,000 refugees from neighboring countries. Cooperating with the local population, some of these refugees are involved in activities to raise saplings in nurseries. This project, initiated in response to deforestation and environmental degradation driven by the need to find firewood, has to date resulted in the planting of some 2 million trees in the refugee camps and surrounding areas. The image of so many green trees being planted in the great earth of Africa recalls powerfully to mind the conviction of my late friend Wangari Maathai (1940–2011): that planting trees can help to heal the land and break the cycle of poverty. “Trees,” she wrote, “are living symbols of peace and hope.” For refugees struggling to start life anew, the trees they have raised are without doubt a symbol of hope, a promise of meaningful security.

For more than five decades, I have been asserting that the twenty-first century will be the century of Africa. This is based on my steadfast belief that those who suffer most have the greatest right to happiness. We can see in Africa the dawn of a new people-centered multilateralism, an approach that holds great promise for the world.

related article Strengthening UN Initiatives on Water Resources Management Strengthening UN Initiatives on Water Resources Management Ikeda makes several proposals in support of the UN’s Water Action Decade and water-related SDGs, noting that access to clean water is an issue of human dignity. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at present some 30 percent of the refugees it supports are living in Africa. This past December, the Global Compact on Refugees was adopted by the UN, reflecting recognition of the difficulties countries face in accepting large numbers of refugees without support. International society must come together to strengthen support not only for the refugees themselves but also the countries that have accepted them.

There is a regrettable tendency for people living in countries that are not directly impacted by the refugee crisis or problems of poverty to distance themselves from these challenges and the responsibility to resolve them. The goal of people-centered multilateralism is to get past the differences in national perspective and find ways of relieving the suffering of people facing grave threats or crises.

The story of Shakyamuni’s four encounters describes the initial motivation for the teachings of Buddhism, and it is suggestive of the transformation in consciousness required of us today. Born into a royal family in ancient India, Shakyamuni enjoyed high political status and material abundance. His youthful years were spent in an environment where large numbers of people directly served the royal family, such that he never had to worry about the cold of winter or the heat of summer or that his clothes would ever be soiled by dust, chaff or the dew of night.

One day, however, Shakyamuni stepped outside the palace gates where he saw people suffering the ravages of illness and old age. He also came across the corpse of a person who had died by the side of the road. Deeply shaken by these encounters, he intensely sensed the reality that no one, himself included, could avoid the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. What pained him beyond these sufferings themselves was the way so many people imagined themselves immune from them and, as a result, despised and distanced themselves from those who suffer. Later, recalling these events, he described this human psychology as follows:

“In their foolishness, common mortals—even though they themselves will age and cannot avoid aging—when they see others aging and falling into decline, ponder it, are distressed by it, and feel shame and hate—all without ever thinking of it as their own problem.”

His words apply not only to the suffering of aging but also to sickness and death. Our sense that the sufferings of others bear no relation to us, the distaste we might even feel, was admonished by Shakyamuni as the arrogance of the young, the arrogance of the healthy, the arrogance of the living. If we reconsider that arrogance in terms of the connections of the human heart, we can clearly see how the apathy and lack of concern arising from arrogance actually deepens and intensifies the suffering of others.

Our efforts to empathize with and support those struggling with difficulties help weave networks of mutual encouragement, giving rise to an expanding sense of security and hope.

In any era, there is room for such attitudes to take hold—the fatalism, for example, that sees poverty or other dire conditions to be an individual’s fixed destiny or the result of personal failings, or the kind of negation of morality that denies responsibility for any harm or pain one has inflicted on others. Shakyamuni’s response to such attitudes was his teaching that although the various sufferings of life may be unavoidable, it is possible to transform one’s life through the full development of one’s inner potential. Further, our efforts to empathize with and support those struggling with difficulties help weave networks of mutual encouragement, giving rise to an expanding sense of security and hope.

The focus of Buddhism is not confined to the inevitable sufferings of life, but takes in the reality of people confronting various difficulties within society. Thus, we find within the canon of Mahayana Buddhism (The Sutra on Upāsaka Precepts) encouragement to build wells, plant fruit trees and build water channels, help the old, the young and the weak to cross rivers and console those who have lost their land. This urges us to recognize that we are likely at some point to experience the suffering that afflicts other people—that there is no happiness which is our sole possession, no suffering that remains entirely confined to others—and to strive for the welfare of both self and others. In this, the essential spirit of Buddhism is expressed.

Taking as one’s own the pains and sufferings of others is exactly the philosophical wellspring for the SGI’s activities as a faith-based organization (FBO) as we work to address global challenges such as peace and human rights, the environment and humanitarian concerns.

It seems clear to me that there is a deep continuity between the psychology that Shakyamuni observed—the dismissal of aging or illness as irrelevant to oneself and a consequent coldness in our contact with such people—and the phenomenon observable today in which people dismiss the poverty, hunger or conflict suffered by others as irrelevant to their own lives and therefore best ignored.

This brings to mind the following passage from the outcome document of the DPI/NGO Conference I mentioned earlier: “We the Peoples reject the false choice between nationalism and globalism.” Indeed, the pursuit of nationalism—my country first—strengthens the trend toward xenophobia, and the advance of globalism that focuses solely on profit creates a world in which the strong prey on the weak. This is why I concur that the current era demands that all countries work together to put into action a people-centered multilateralist approach, which focuses on protecting those vulnerable to serious threats or challenges.

related article Conservation and Education in the Amazon—Brazil SGI Conservation and Education in the Amazon—Brazil SGI by  Celso Hama,  Brazil Introducing the Soka Institute Amazon Environmental Research Center in Brazil. In the history of efforts to achieve security, we often encounter the idea that if the castle walls are solid enough, we will be safe. This takes the contemporary form of the idea that so long as we live within national borders protected by military strength, our security will be ensured. In fact, however, global issues such as climate change generate harms that don’t respect national borders, necessitating a new approach.

As one example of this, in March of last year a groundbreaking framework, the Escazú Agreement, was adopted by the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to protect environment-related rights. The region has suffered the impacts of tropical cyclones and ocean acidification. In addition to strengthening regional cooperation, the agreement includes people-centered policies such as the protection of environmental activists and mandating the incorporation of a diversity of views in the making of important decisions.

A number of noteworthy global-scale efforts are also being undertaken. Two years ago, the UN Environment Programme initiated the Clean Seas Campaign, which aims to reduce the plastic that is a major source of marine litter. At present, more than fifty countries are participating in the campaign, and their combined coastlines represent more than 60 percent of the world’s total. Traditionally, protecting the coastline has meant a focus on defensive military activities, but now this is beginning to take on an entirely new meaning: looking beyond national differences to protect the oceans and collaborate in preserving ecological integrity.

Reviewing history, we can see that both xenophobic nationalism and profit-prioritizing globalization have roots in the imperialism that emerged as a major force in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the destructive impacts of imperialism could be seen throughout the world. In 1903, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944), the founding president of the Soka Gakkai, urged an end to the kind of competition for survival in which countries seek their security and prosperity at the expense of the inhabitants of other countries. In its place he urged the adoption of authentically humane modes of competition whose essence he defined as “to engage consciously in collective life” by choosing “to do things for the sake of others, because by benefiting others, we benefit ourselves.” Our world today desperately requires this kind of reorientation.

Through the ongoing accumulation of experiences of mutual assistance and collaboration in responding to humanitarian crises and environmental challenges, we can foster trust and a sense of security to ease the tensions and conflicts that arise from the pathology of peacelessness. From there we should be able to find our way out of the competitive arms race in which we are currently mired.

This September a climate summit will be held at UN Headquarters. This represents an excellent opportunity to advance the cause of people-centered multilateralism on a global scale. I strongly urge that this opportunity be used to identify important areas of collaboration to protect the lives and dignity of our fellow humans living on this planet, to develop more effective policies for combating global warming and to further the transformation of our understanding of security.

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