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Unless we curtail the arms trade, we face another violent century

By Carmen Lawrence - posted Wednesday, 23 July 2003

In a speech he gave in 1999, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, surveyed the legacy of the 20th century, labelling it a "violent century"; a century that encompassed two World Wars, countless civil wars, a senseless chain of assassinations, civilian bloodbaths in many armed conflicts, the inhumanity in the gulags, the tragedy of Hiroshima, and the vile stain of the Holocaust.

The 21st century is shaping up as no less bloody - and state sanctioned violence is enjoying a new found acceptance, with Howard, like his friend George Bush, brushing aside international co-operation and diplomacy in favour of crude and violent imperialism.

Despite near-saturation coverage of the war on Iraq and the continuing preoccupation of our leaders with the so-called "war on terror", there has been little public reflection on what actually happens when armed conflict is used to resolve disputes. Or on who pays the price. Or what can be done to avoid war.
As the authors of the UN commissioned report, Women, War, Peace, observed,


It is hard to imagine a world without war. Every day we hear reports of new conflicts and old grievances, or escalating tension and violence. During our mission to conflict situations, we met generations of women and girls who had known nothing other than war. Many were gripped by fear and anger; others had learned to dull their feelings with a quality of silence that often follows catastrophe.

It is estimated that during the last century, more than one hundred million people died in war in over 50 countries around the globe. This figure is a dramatic increase over earlier centuries and is about three-quarters of estimated war deaths since 1500 AD. Add to this the lives cut short in the aftermath of war by disease and malnutrition and the many millions more murdered by politically repressive regimes and terrorist attacks and you arrive at a staggering loss of life.

This loss has been sanitised and rendered "normal" at the same time as the way war is conducted effectively removes the distinction between combatants and civilians as targets of war. Indeed, civilians are often deliberately targeted, as they were in Dresden, Cologne, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Civilians accounted for 5 per cent of all victims in WWI, rising to 50 per cent in WWII - soaring to nearly 90 per cent in recent wars.

And over the past 50 years, we in the developed world have been largely insulated from this suffering, since most of the wars have been in the economically impoverished third world. As memories of the catastrophic reality of the Second World War fade, war is enjoying a resurgence of respectability as an instrument of foreign policy, with no apparent concern by our governments for the devastation it inflicts on so many lives and hopes. And no thought either, it seems, for the potential for revenge and hatred to grow from the seed bed of war.

We should not accept the inevitability of war - deadly conflict is not inevitable. It does not emerge inexorably from human interaction. We are not condemned by our natures to settle disputes with violence. And there are no mysteries about why violence erupts. The problem is not that we do not understand the roots of deadly conflict but that we do not act. Such action should be based on the concept of prevention, confronting both the inequalities and intolerances that fuel conflict and the manufacture of weapons which enable deadly conflict.

Instead of signing up to an increasingly deadly expansion of militarism, the Australian government should be playing its part in ensuring that the international community appreciates the increasingly urgent need to prevent deadly conflict, especially given the increasing availability of weapons of all descriptions.


One of the features of the late-20th century is that wars within states have been far more frequent than those between states. There was a proliferation of crises within states in the 90s, with a 1996 Swedish study showing that only 5 of the 96 armed conflicts since 1989 were conventional wars between states. The remainder were internal, many resulting from the explosion of intolerance into mass violence.

These wars are being fought with conventional weapons - not the so-called "weapons of mass destruction". Modern conventional weapons, including small arms, are enormously destructive - as the U.S. soldiers are discovering in Iraq - and can be bought as easily as food - indeed, in many places where food is scarce, more easily.

An AK-47 costs between $40 and $200, and ammunition is plentiful and cheap. Deployed land mines alone are thought to number over one hundred million worldwide - add to that the unexploded cluster bombs in Iraq. This booming world market for arms has made it all but impossible to keep track of the flow of such weaponry.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Carmen Lawrence is federal member for Fremantle (ALP) and a former Premier of Western Australia. She was elected as National President of the ALP in 2003. She is a Parliamentary member of National Forum.

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