Forty years ago, John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono launched a powerful campaign to end the bloodshed in Vietnam. They rented billboards in a dozen cities, from New York to Athens, declaring: “War is over! (If you want it.)”
The protracted conflict grew increasingly unpopular, thanks in part to their efforts. Within six years the Americans had withdrawn and the killing had stopped. But John and Yoko’s wider goal - of a world at peace with itself - is still a distant dream.
In more than a dozen countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, struggles over resources and power claim scores of lives daily. Survivors often have their homes destroyed and lives permanently ruined.
For many people, 2009 will only bring more misery and pain, as we have seen in Gaza. Another year is over, but once again little has been done to advance peace and disarmament around the globe.
Australians young and old are admirably engaged in the movement to end abject poverty - as evidenced by the tribes of goats donated to developing countries at Christmas - but few see the connection between deprivation and conflict.
In the war against poverty, war itself is one of the greatest impediments. It undermines every one of the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals, including halving global poverty by 2015.
Violent conflict tears communities apart, leaves families without income earners, and razes schools, hospitals and infrastructure to the ground. Human rights abuses follow, and infection rates for deadly illnesses like HIV-AIDs soar.
It is obvious that peace cannot exist in a world armed to the brink: easy access to light weapons and conventional arms aggravates, intensifies and prolongs armed conflict. Disarmament and arms control are therefore essential to ending poverty.
The new treaty outlawing cluster bombs - heinous weapons which, like landmines, often kill and maim hapless children who mistake them for toys - will certainly help to advance peace and alleviate poverty, at least until the next pernicious device is conceived. And so will a proposed arms trade agreement.
US President Barack Obama’s commitment to the global elimination of nuclear weapons is also encouraging. No doubt he will prove a much less hawkish commander-in-chief than his predecessor. In addition to ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and ditching the provocative missile defence system, he should lead the world in scaling back military expenditure.
Last year global spending continued to rocket skywards like an out-of-control missile - to a staggering $2,234 billion, which dwarves the $157 billion spent by rich countries on foreign aid. Over the last decade, military spending has increased in real terms by 45 per cent, and America now spends roughly as much on its armed forces as every other country in the world combined.
Nations do, of course, have legitimate security and self-defence needs, but current spending is way beyond those needs. It would be more productively directed to education and health. The stockpiling of arms not only wastes resources, it threatens human security.
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