Kul Gautam - May 2010

 
WEAPONS OR WELL-BEING?
by Kul Chandra Gautam*

We live in a world of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global economic output reached $70 trillion in 2009. If it was evenly divided, every man, woman and child in the world would have an annual income of almost $10,000. Yet, while the world now has 800 billionaires and 9 million millionaires, according to the United Nations more than 3 billion people-or half the world's population-live on less than $2 per day.

Much of the world's greatest tragedies befalling children are concentrated on the bottom billion people of the world, who subsist on less than $1 a day. If you are reading this article, you are among the lucky top 2 billion people in the world. Close your eyes for a moment and think: What would you do if your income was just $1 a day, or $5 for a family-for food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, festivals, and funerals?

It is this degrading poverty that kills 25,000 children every day; keeps 90 million children out of primary schools; and shackles millions of children in hazardous child labor, instead of going to school. Poverty, debt, and unemployment can drive parents to desperation, even selling their vital organs like kidneys to provide for their children. And when all else fails, parents are sometimes forced to abandon their children, sell them to brothels, or have them work in slave-like conditions.

Ten years ago, the world leaders met at the United Nations, committing to combat degrading poverty by achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. These goals aimed to drastically reduce maternal and child deaths; combat deadly diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS; provide drinking water, safe sanitation, and basic education for all; improve the status of women; and protect the environment.

Participating countries promised to allocate more of their national budgets to attain these ambitious goals, with the richest countries pledging at least 0.7% of their national income to help developing countries.

While some progress has been made toward these goals, it is clear that many developing countries will fall short. Most have failed to allocate enough resources for these priorities. Yet many of the same governments found ways to maintain or increase their already-high levels of military expenditures.

World military spending reached an all-time high of $1.4 trillion in 2009, rising by almost 50% in the past decade, or more than $200/person annually, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute. Even the worst economic crisis of the past half century seems not to impact military budgets, while the poor are asked to tighten their belts.

There are strong vested interests, including weapons manufacturers and arms merchants, who put pressure for increased military spending. Procurement decisions are often non-transparent. The specter of terrorism and the interest of "national security" are used to avoid public debate.

Recently, the Religions for Peace Global Youth Network has launched the "Arms Down: Campaign for Shared Security," calling for a 10% reduction in world military expenditures and a reallocation of those resources to help end poverty. Signatures will be delivered to the United Nations Secretary-General, the permanent members of the Security Council, as well as to Heads of State and Members of Parliament in all countries. Concerned citizens can join this campaign at www.religionsforpeace.org.

In September 2010, world leaders will gather again at the UN to review progress toward the MDGs. Besides reaffirming their general commitment to the MDGs, they should consider making specific pledge to reduce their military budgets and boost their investment in human development by supporting a new UN General Assembly resolution to do so.

The Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK and USA) which account for over 60 per cent of world military expenditure and arms sales, have a major responsibility in this context. They should set an example and lead a global effort to enhance collective security through stricter regulation of armaments and reduction of military spending.

The historic strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty signed recently by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, and the outcome of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC are most encouraging. These need to be followed-up now by strong measures to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to achieve complete nuclear disarmament by 2020, and to stop the proliferation and misuse of conventional weapons.

For far too long, nations of the world have given higher priority to military-based national security than civilian-based human security. If we dream of a world where our children and their children will grow up in peace and live a life of dignity, we must begin to drastically de-escalate spending in weapons and enhance investment in the well-being of our future generation.

* Mr. Gautam, a citizen of Nepal, is a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. 


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