By Father John Flynn
ROME, JAN. 7, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI urged in his homily on New Year’s Day that it is more necessary than ever to work together in an effort to promote peace.
The Pope made this comment during a Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s that observed not only the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, but also the World Day of Peace.
Amid the prayers for peace, the Human Security Brief 2006, published just before Christmas, contains some welcome news.
In spite of constant news about conflict in Iraq and parts of Africa, the overall situation reveals a diminishing number of conflicts, according to the report.
The study was published in Canada on Dec. 21 by the Human Security Center, based at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Confirming a previous report published in 2005, the center said that 2002-2005 the number of wars being fought around the world dropped significantly.
Among the good news were the following points.
— The number of armed conflicts declined from 66 to 56 in the 2002-2005 period. The most important change in this period was in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the period covered the number of state-based conflicts in the region declined from 13 to five. The number of non-state conflicts, such as those between clans and militias, went from 24 to 14.
— Deaths in battle declined by almost 40% over this same period, although the report cautioned over the reliability of statistics in this area.
— The post-Cold War decline in genocides and mass slaughters of civilians has continued. In 2005, the only ongoing case of genocide was in Darfur. In 1989 there were 10.
— More wars are ending on negotiated settlements, instead of being fought to the finish.
— The estimated number of displaced people around the world fell from 34.2 million to 32.1 million.
— The number of military coups and attempted coups fell from 10 in 2004, to only three in 2005.
Not all the findings of the report, however, were positive.
— Sub-Saharan Africa was the only region to have a decline in conflicts. A number of other regions saw an increase. In fact, Central and South Asia is now the region most afflicted by conflicts. And other regions such as the Middle East also saw a rise in violence.
— International terrorist attacks increased threefold in the period 2002-2005, with a fivefold increase in fatalities. Most of the increase was due to the conflict in Iraq.
— Campaigns of organized violence against civilians are on the rise. The report did explain that in spite of widespread apprehension about risks from terrorist attacks, the number of civilian deaths from conflicts or genocides has declined notably since the Cold War.
Moreover, outside of the Middle East and South Asia the number of terrorist attacks continues to decline. The report also noted that compared with armed conflicts, terrorism has killed relatively few people. Civilian deaths from domestic terrorism have averaged 2,546 a year since 1998. By contrast, the annual death toll from state-based armed conflict from 1998 to 2005 was almost 60,000.
How wars end
A section of the report analyzes the trend toward ending conflicts by negotiation, instead of one party vanquishing the other in combat. Between 2000 and 2005 no less than 17 conflicts were settled by negotiation, compared to just four by violent means.
These results confirm the success of the efforts made in recent years to end conflicts by means of negotiations and peacekeeping forces, often sponsored through the United Nations, the report argued.
The use of negotiation and peacemaking efforts does, nevertheless, have a downside. Conflicts that end through negotiation last up to three times longer than those settled in combat, and are nearly twice as likely to start up again within five years.
The Human Security Center commented that critics of negotiation argue that often mediation does little more than provide a breathing space for combatants to prepare for further fighting. The report observed that negotiations may well not be the cause of longer conflicts, as hostilities often become drawn-out when neither side is capable of defeating the other, and thus negotiation is the only way to resolve matters.
As well, while it is still too early to give a definitive analysis of the situation, more recent negotiated settlements seem to be better formulated, and more stable. In the period 2000-2005, only two out of 17 negotiated settlements failed.
The human person
If further improvements are to be made in reducing conflicts, more attention needs to be paid to the dignity of the human person. This was the central argument of Benedict XVI’s World Day of Peace Message for Jan. 1. Significantly, the text bore the title, “The Human Person, the Heart of Peace.”
“I am convinced that respect for the person promotes peace and that, in building peace, the foundations are laid for an authentic integral humanism,” stated the Pope in the opening paragraph.
Created in the image of God, each individual has the dignity of a person. Moreover, we are called to a covenant with our Creator, which brings with it the responsibility to love and to contribute to the progress of the world.
Peace, then, the message explains, is in part a gift from God, manifested in creation and in our redemption by Christ. But it is also a task for each one of us, which requires us to contribute our personal response. If we base ourselves on the respect for the dignity of each person, then this means we must recognize the rights of everyone. This starts, Benedict XVI continued, with defending the right to life at every stage.
Another fundamental right is that of religious freedom. “The right to life and to the free expression of personal faith in God is not subject to the power of man,” the Pope stated (No. 4).
Other points raised in the message include the need to reduce inequalities in access to basic material needs and human rights. The Pontiff also urged improving conditions for women and ensuring respect for their dignity.
The message also warned against ideas of man’s nature that foment hostility and violence. A further danger comes from conceptions of God that encourage violence and hostility. “When a certain notion of God is at the origin of criminal acts, it is a sign that that notion has already become an ideology” (No. 10).
Benedict XVI then returned to one of his most constant themes, warning of the dangers of relativism. A weak concept of human nature makes for weak human rights. How can rights be absolute if their foundation is merely relative? he asked.
Without a firm grounding in our nature as persons rights are left at the whim of changing priorities and social pressures. It is, therefore, important, the Pope recommended, that the United Nations not lose sight of the foundation of human rights.
“This would enable them to avoid the risk, unfortunately ever-present, of sliding toward a merely positivistic interpretation of those rights,” the Holy Father said (No. 13).
The hopes for peace, then, depend on a greater respect for fundamental moral principles.