Hold your peace

New Arrival Magazine - Friday, April 01, 2005

In the first of two features that interview to key figures in the global peace movement Greg Lowe asks Nobel Prize winner Bishop Carlos Belo and weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix how we can build a better future.

In the 50 odd years since he left the catholic mission that was his childhood home, Carlos Fillipe Ximenes Belo has come a long way.

From Wailakama village on Timor’s north coast, he traveled through seminaries in Rome and Portugal, only to return to a homeland that was under the tyranny of Indonesian occupation, where his brother, uncles and cousins were being used as human shields in a government war on local resistance fighters.

This was a 25 year nightmare which eventually claimed the lives of more than 250,000 East Timorese. From the moment he was appointed Acting Bishop of Dili, East Timor in 1983, Belo was an outspoken critic of the occupation, becoming one of the important voices which forced his nation’s struggle onto the world’s agenda. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Jose Ramose Horta in 1996, for their work “towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor”.

East Timor finally won its freedom in May 2002, after a yes vote for independence in September 1999 had brought on Indonesian led massacres across the country. Bishop Belo himself was the victim of numerous ambushes.

Today, it is hard to imagine this short, softly spoken man with graying curly hair once served as a perpetual thorn in the side of the Suharto regime. Bishop Belo resigned in November 2002 due to health reasons and now works in Mozambique as a Salesian missionary.

Nevertheless, his passion for human rights remains intact and his eyes sparkle when he discusses what he sees as the keystone of building a just global society – education for peace.

“There are so many ideas for diplomatic or political ways to solve this problem “creating a more peaceful world”, but I think we have to begin from the grassroots,” he suggests.

“Creating a culture of peace depends on individuals. How each individual tries to be a peaceful man or women, the attitude of respect for others and the love of justice and compassion”.

While he stresses the role of individuals, Bishop Belo states that collective efforts at every level of society must be made if peace is to be attained in real terms.

“In the school environment we need to show children how to respect on another; to open their minds and eyes to global poverty and injustice, and to impart in students a solidarity for their fellow man.”

“The role of the state is important as it is responsible for the development of the nation, not only both economically but also for peace. It has the power to develop a strategy for cooperation and respect.” A politically free nation that lacks hope will struggle to achieve stability. The despair of unemployment and lack of resources can be a breeding ground of resentment which can lead to violence, according to Bishop Belo.

While East Timor successfully gained independence through predominantly non-violent resistance, the harsh realities of day to day life still remain the same, he says.

“East Timor is independent, but it has many problems.. Sustainable development and the eradication of poverty are needed to give hope, but you also have to tell the people that they have to work and not only wait for the government.”

On a global scale, small countries like East Timor have few chips to barter, compared to the developed nations, leaving them open to exploitation. Bishop Belo insists that this it is no excuse for people to accept their fate. They have to continue to fight for the rights.

“They (East Timor) fought for independence for so long, they have to continue this fight, this struggle for development.”

Bishop Belo is well-positioned to level such criticisms. To his fellow East Timorese he is a popular hero, a man who refused to bow down to Indonesian rule or to be conquered by fear for his personal safety.

But winning such respect in the early days was not an easy task. When he was appointed in 1983, Belo was shunned by the local clergy, who saw him as an inexperienced young priest, chosen by the Vatican for his submissiveness. So much so, they refused to attend his inauguration ceremony.

“It was a difficult time,” he says smiling. “But little by little, my ideas to preserve the identity of the people were accepted.”

Bishop Belo discusses his “ideas” as if they were abstract concepts but his understatement masks a cast-iron resolve.

Five months after his ordination he used the pulpit to launch a scathing attack on the 1983 Kraras massacre, when Indonesian troops murdered nearly 300 villagers. In February 1989 he told the President of Portugal, the Pope and the UN Secretary General, that East Timorese were “dying as a people and a nation”, appealing for a UN referendum and international aid.

In 1994 he condemned Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and the Australian government, for “compromising itself” with its close relationship with Indonesia’s Suharto regime.

“Sometimes there are double standards. People talk about human rights but on the other hand there are economic and strategic interests,” he says.

Strong arm tactics by the Vatican to rein him in failed, as did Indonesia’s attempts to silence him permanently.

He calmly discusses the ambush attacks on him. “Fortunately, I escaped,” he says, referring to three close shaves, two in 1989 after asking the UN for a referendum on East Timor and another two years later, prior to the Portuguese parliamentary delegation to the country. He failed to mention the September 1999 machine gun and fire bomb attack on his home.

Despite his position as a figurehead of East Timor’s independence movement, Bishop Belo rejects the idea that he had become a political leader of sorts.

“Well I don’t think that was a political role,” he laughs, “it was more of a moral role.”

“I said once that sometimes in difficult situations you have to talk. You have to be with the people to hear their voices. If they cannot speak then you have to be their voice.”

Despite living in a world of “double standards” where the rights of the many are too often dictated by the few, Bishop Belo has hopes for the future. Simple ones, too

“That we live in peace, but,” he adds, “to do this we have to create jobs for the young, to give hope to the future generation.” Amen to that. 

Dr. Hans Blix

Truth is often cited as the first casualty of war.

For former chief weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix, the US-led invasion of Iraq left another ideal seriously wounded-critical thought.

In a world increasingly fragmented along religious, economic and geopolitical lines, he says the need for governments to examine complex issues through rational thought, no matter how politically explosive or emotive they may be, has become progressively more important.

But the Bush administration’s unilateral approach to launch a pre-emptive war against the supposed “imminent threat” posed by Saddam Hussein, signaled an end of critical thinking and damaged the collective security enshrined in the UN charter.

Strong words from a man who has spent a long career practicing diplomacy in all its multifarious forms; who shot to global fame during those knife-edge months of 2002-3 when it appeared that this aging Sweden was the only thing standing between the world and a major Middle East conflict.

Dr. Blix came out of retirement in January 2000 to be appointed executive chairman of Unmovic by UN secretary General Kofi Annan. Unmovic had been formed to effectively disarm Iraq’s WMD programme, and Dr. Hans Blix had the credentials for the job.

An associate professor and veteran adviser on international law, former Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Director General Agency from 1981-1997, he was also a recipient of the Henry de Wolf Smyth Award (Washington, DC, 1988), for “outstanding contributions to the many aspects of nuclear energy activities”.

At the start of inspections in November 2002 his “gut feeling” was Saddam had something to hide. Nevertheless, in the 700 odd inspections made to 500 different Iraqi sites- including dozens identified by British and US intelligence – Unmovic drew blanks.

“We asked ourselves if this is the best intelligence they (the British and US governments) have then what is the rest?”

Dr. Blix’s failure to prove Saddam had an arsenal of WMDs frustrated the Anglo-American pro-war lobby, and a war of words ensued. “The UW conservative media was skinning us alive,” he recalls. “It was clear to me that in the winter of 2002 they were irritated that we didn’t come with any smoking guns.”

Despite the media attacks, Dr. Blix maintains that his relationships with Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice were “perfectly civil”, and retains a balanced view of Bush and Blair’s motivations.

“I never asserted that they did anything in bad faith. What I am critical of is their lack of critical thinking.” he says. “They were more like witch hunters who had a conviction these people (Saddam’s government) were guilty and we only had to find the evidence.”

“What we don’t know yet is to what extent were they predetermined. I say in my book (Disarming Iraq: The Hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction) that I think the war was premeditated, but not predetermined.

Despite huge protests around the world, the ‘coalition of the willing’ bypassed the UN and pressed ahead, a move which Dr. Blix says damaged the UN’s function as a peacekeeping organization.

“Collective security collapsed, “he says. “When you go back to when the UN was formed in 1945, it had been the first time in history that mankind had decided to establish collective security.”

Dr. Blix cites the first Gulf War in 1991 – when the first President Bush used UN authorization to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait- as the first time that the Security Council really worked.

This provides a stark contrast to the events which led up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The pressure and horsetrading initiated by the US when it tried to push through a resolution to justify the war, has left a bad taste in many member states mouths, he says.

“It is inappropriate if you have a developing country in Africa sitting on the council and the US offers it US$58 million in assistance, if it votes for them.”

One way to regain its position as a peacekeeping organization, he believes, is to strengthen the position of the security council’s non-permanent members. This could be done by making them formal representatives of their region, for example, Latin America of Africa, thereby creating more powerful blocs.

“They will become stronger through the security council if they consult with their group.”

As for the US, he believes its current activities hamper efforts to build a safer global future, and suggests that the Bush Doctrine of reserving the right to launch pre-emptive attacks on threats to US national security could derail the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

“They’re (the US) not one bit keen on disarmament. They want WMD proliferation to be seen as the world’s greatest danger, but they build up missile shields to make themselves immune. They refuse the international criminal court under which they make their soldiers immune and they will not go along with a treaty that bans further production of highly enriched uranium. They seem to distance themselves from inclusive cooperation with the world.”

With the US acting in such a way, Dr. Blix feels that creating the political atmosphere where weapons inspectors will be allowed into countries like Iran and North Korea would be difficult.

He calls for a ‘softer tone’ to ‘remove the incentives’ for countries like Iran and North Korea to seek possession of WMDs.

“It is security that makes countries want to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The Iranians and North Koreans hearing that they are ‘evil regimes’ will ask ‘how do we secure ourselves?”

“One way round this may be some sort of negative security guarantee whereby if you behave yourself and keep uranium enrichment at the allowed 5% level and you can verify this through inspections, then we will guarantee non-intervention.”

But with North Korea’s claim that they possess nuclear weapons fresh in the air and the Bush administration’s favor for spreading ‘democracy’ round the world unabated, is this possible? Really?

He smiles and delivers a typical diplomatic response, perfect in its measured ambiguity. “No, I don’t think it is too unlikely.”

Make of that what you will