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Special Report
Last Updated: 01/18/2005
Peace in the 21st Century: Prospects and Prescriptions
Martin Lees, Rector of the University for Peace

It is increasingly recognized that if civilized society is to contain and defeat international terrorism, we must confront the threat in two related and mutually reinforcing ways. We must maintain adequate levels of military security and take strong, direct action, including military action where necessary, to confront and eradicate terrorism. This is the principal focus of international deliberation and action at the present time. But this is not enough. We must also, through international and national action, and through the efforts of civil society, work together to address the underlying injustices, frustrations and failures that give rise to the hatred and intolerance which drive violence, terrorism and conflict and provide the environment in which they can fester.


This article was first delivered as a lecture entitled "The Prospects for Peace in the 21st century" by Martin Lees Esqr to the International Politics Society at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.



I feel greatly honored particularly as a Scot to address you in this ancient and distinguished university.  I would like to thank the organizers, the International Politics Society of St. Andrews for their kind invitation and for the perfect arrangements.


I have the honor to be the Rector of the University for Peace affiliated with the United Nations. The University for Peace was established in a Treaty endorsed by the General Assembly in December 1980 to mobilize education, training and research in the cause of peace.  We are engaged in teaching students from around the world at the graduate level on critical peace-related issues and also in other forms of education such as short courses and community-based education at every level.  We currently offer multicultural Master s degrees in seven fields:  International Peace Studies; Human Rights; International Law and the Settlement of Disputes; Gender and Peace Building; Peace Education; Sustainable Development and Natural Resources; and Environmental Security and Peace.

We are extending our programmes through networks of cooperation into all regions of the world.  And we are beginning to disseminate knowledge on all these topics, using state-of-the-art technologies, to partner universities and other institutions of learning. The multicultural teaching materials developed and tested by the University for Peace reflect diverse international experience and best practice on critical peace-related issues. After suitable adaptation to specific cultural contexts and requirements, they can be used as a basis for teaching in partner universities, colleges and schools.

In this way, it will become possible for thousands of students to study the critical issues of peace in their home countries, thus building up the motivated and skilled human resources on the scale required in the developing countries to prevent and mediate conflict and to build the foundations of peace and progress.  By disseminating knowledge and by supporting efforts throughout the world to educate a new generation of leaders, teachers and experts on the critical issues of conflict prevention and the building of peace, we can contribute to a more peaceful and secure future for humanity.


I have chosen a bold topic for my talk:  The prospects for peace in the 21st Century.   Those of my generation who have been struggling in the international system for two or three decades cannot claim to have achieved a world to the measure of our hopes.  I fear that, in spite of the undoubted progress made, we will leave to our successors a difficult and dangerous world which still suffers from abiding poverty for millions, injustice and threats to peace.  Many of you here tonight will have to face, directly or indirectly, the challenges and problems which we will leave in your care.

For this reason, I felt that I should use this valuable opportunity to look beyond day-to-day dramas and events to examine the broader, longer-term issues of the 21st Century.  In this brief presentation, I will be forced to simplify and to generalize.  I will first make some introductory points and clarifications and then identify some of the major trends and issues which will define the challenges to peace in the 21st Century.  I will then briefly review the present responses of the international community to these challenges and conclude with some suggestions on a few lines of action which can contribute to achieving a more peaceful, secure and successful world.


Every day we are confronted on our televisions and in the newspapers by a remorseless tide of tragic events and crises, by violence, terrorist attacks and conflicts in all regions of the world.

Since the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 on the United States with the tragic loss of almost 3,000 innocent lives, we have followed the war in Afghanistan, the continuing tragedy of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the intensive international debate leading to war in Iraq, the war itself followed by the on-going crisis of the aftermath, and the widening range of attacks in Bali, in Madrid and now in Saudi Arabia.

There is, in consequence, an intense and deep public concern about the state of our world, about relations between peoples and ethnic and religious groups and about the prospects for a stable, peaceful world for future generations.

Viewed from the perspective of the rich, developed countries, a major change has occurred.  Threats of violence are now a reality and conflict is no longer perceived simply as happening far away in other countries.  Since the terrorist attacks on the United States and the recent bombings in Madrid, the public in developed countries now feels directly threatened by international terrorism. 

It is particularly important to recognize that the attacks on the United States have resulted in a profound and permanent change in attitudes and priorities.  This change is not only reflected in the policies of the Bush Administration but also, deeply, in the concerns of the American public.  A sense of vulnerability is evident across the United States.  Indeed, nations throughout the world are now aware of the threats posed by international terrorism to their security, and to the lives and prospects of their citizens.

It is increasingly recognized that if civilized society is to contain and defeat international terrorism, we must confront the threat in two related and mutually reinforcing ways.  We must maintain adequate levels of military security and take strong, direct action, including military action where necessary, to confront and eradicate terrorism.  This is the principal focus of international deliberation and action at the present time.  

But this is not enough. We must also, through international and national action, and through the efforts of civil society, work together to address the underlying injustices, frustrations and failures that give rise to the hatred and intolerance which drive violence, terrorism and conflict and provide the environment in which they can fester.

In this presentation, I am going to stand back from the tense and tragic context of current events to focus our attention on some of the issues, trends and relationships which create the underlying conditions in which such intolerance, hatreds, violence, terrorism and tragedy can arise.

The changing Nature of Conflict and the Concept of Peace

I will start by clarifying the nature of conflict and the content of the idea of peace in the modern world. 

In the past, when we spoke of and studied conflict, we principally envisaged conflict as between sovereign states.  However, in recent decades, the nature of most conflict has changed.  Today, the overwhelming majority of armed conflicts take place within, not between states.  This has important consequences for the conception and implementation of international action to prevent and manage conflict. 

One tragic consequence of this mutation in the nature of conflict is that approximately ninety per cent of all those now killed in conflict are civilians most often women, children and the elderly   with the remaining ten per cent being combatants. 

Significant efforts are being made to adapt our thinking and policies to these new realities.  There is growing interest in a new concept, human security , which is a perspective focused on the need to protect human lives, livelihoods and dignity directly by focusing on the threats to men, women and children in their daily lives. This is now a priority in the cooperation policies of Japan and of a number of other countries.   There has also been a surge of interest, of new policies and of action to address the needs and contribution of women in relation to conflict, peace-building and development, and to focus on the impact of conflict on children.

In this context, an important intellectual contribution on the changing nature of conflict and its implications for international governance and for the United Nations in particular was made by the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which published its report in December 2001 under the title, The Responsibility to Protect.

There is also a wide concern in the world community to focus more efforts on the prevention of conflict so as to avert the immense human and material costs. Prevention is clearly better and cheaper than reacting to crises and conflicts once they occur.  But this approach is not yet widely reflected in practice.  Policy remains focused heavily on reaction to events.  In this connection, it is important to note that around half of all current conflicts are relapsed older conflicts.  It has been a major objective of Secretary General Kofi Annan and of the United Nations to promote the prevention of conflict, as outlined in his Annual Report on the Work of the Organisation for 1999, Preventing War and Disaster.  

Here again, there have been successes, such as the intervention of the European Union which appears to have prevented conflict in Macedonia, the successful intervention by the United Kingdom to contain and prevent wider conflict in Sierra Leone, and the management and resolution of the crisis in East Timor. 

In this context it is instructive to note that, in the decade of the Nineties, the estimated cost to the world community of seven major wars, excluding Kosovo, was of the order of $200 billion, together of course with a massive human cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.  Investments in prevention would have paid high dividends.  The costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be even more substantial.

As we have seen from the current situations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Iraq, and in many other countries, advanced weapons and sophisticated technologies can, in favorable circumstances but not always, rapidly achieve military objectives against less sophisticated opponents.  But the subsequent building of peace and of just, progressive societies in a post-conflict situation is an intensely difficult task.  It requires international support based on openness to other views and cultures, patience and restraint and long term commitment. 

Sustained peace and development also depend essentially on the availability of many motivated and expert men and women in and from the countries concerned who can work to achieve reconciliation, to reconstruct equitable societies and to build the foundations of peace and progress.  And peace and progress can only be sustained if deeply-entrenched attitudes and behavior throughout society at large can be changed, away from hatred, intolerance and violence and towards solidarity, respect for human rights, gender equity and reconciliation.  In both these vital respects, the role of education for peace through many channels and at every level is of fundamental importance, as reflected in the mission and programme of the University for Peace.

In spite of the crises we see every day, there is some good news also.  The number of regional and civil conflicts around the world has in fact declined, as of 2003.  But this situation remains fragile.  According to an analysis by the University of Maryland Center for International Development and Conflict Management entitled Peace and Conflict 2003 , there are in the world today, 48 unstable regimes, 33 societies recovering from recent wars and 25 locked in violent struggles.

There has also been a significant increase in the number of democracies worldwide, rising from 48 in 1985 to 83 in 2002.  Thus we can see that, with some qualifications, there has been a degree of progress towards a more peaceful, democratic world.  We should draw encouragement from this.  In spite of all the problems and calamities we see so clearly, progress  to improve our world is possible.  But we must be realistic also.  The situation must now be re-evaluated in the new context of international terrorism and of the risk of increasing polarization between different cultures and religions.

In this confused and complex situation, what is the meaning of peace ?  I will not attempt a formal definition here.  Besides practical considerations, such a definition would be required to reflect the deep psychological and spiritual aspirations of humanity for peace through the ages.  In my view, peace is not simply the absence of conflict.  A society at peace is not simply a society which is not at war. 


The best metaphor I can provide is to think of peace in the same way as we think of health.  If you are truly healthy, this is much more than simply not being sick.  You are able to live an active, productive life, to pursue your aspirations and even, to contribute to the happiness of others.  Thus, when we wish for a world at peace, we wish for a world of security, justice, dignity, solidarity, opportunity, progress and hope for the vast majority of human kind.  We are far from this today. 

In the world of today, some of us are highly privileged.  We do not fear for our lives or for those of our loved ones. We live in a generally secure and predictable world and we are justified in having high hopes for the future.  But for hundreds of millions of men and women today, this is not the case. 

This point was well made by William Morris, a great designer, artist and social activist of Victorian times, who wrote, while sitting in his warm study in London: it was my good luck only of being born respectable and rich, that has put me on this side of the window amid delightful books and works of art, and not on the other side, in the empty street .  He saw his own good fortune as an obligation to assist those less fortunate than himself.

We can in fact, only achieve security for ourselves if the world around us is peaceful and prosperous.  Our security and progress are, in the long term, indivisible from the security and progress of others.  <SPAN style="mso-spaceru

Martin Lees, a former assistant secretary general at the United Nations is, at the time of writing, Rector of the UN University for Peace, headquartered in Costa Rica.