By Karthik Shankar:
Sometimes feeling the weight of history can be intensely profound. The First and Second Hague Conference led to a plethora of international agreements on war crimes known as the Hague Conventions. The third scheduled for 1915 was indefinitely postponed, ironically due to the start of the World War I. A hundred years later, I was among more than eighty participants who gathered from around the globe for The Third Hague Peace Conference.
Organised by The Hague University of Applied Sciences, we were selected for the three day summit on the basis of our essays to achieve peace. The winning essay was a treatise on how to reform peacekeeping particularly in African nations. My own essay focused on shortcomings in the Geneva Conventions specifically with regards to the definition of civilians and how that implicates them at a time when terrorism has led to the evolution of war from one between two countries to a transnational armed conflict between state and non-state actors. Among the veritable trove of solutions by participants, quirky ideas were in abundance. One floated the usage of bitcoin as a multilateral currency to reduce economic turf wars. Another advocated the formation of an army controlled by the United Nations as opposed to troops loaned to them for peacekeeping.
At a time when violence and strife still continue to plague our world, being part of such a conference felt incredibly gratifying. Given that the city houses the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, its moniker ‘international city of peace and justice’ is rightfully earned. Coincidentally, the conference took on a larger magnitude as protests had erupted in response to an Aruban tourist dying in police custody. Even the city of peace was not exempt from the schisms between law enforcement and the general public.
Fittingly, the conference kicked off at the Peace Palace. We were treated to a variety of insightful seminars. Ton Koene, a photographer was candid enough to admit that his foray into documenting the effects of war was motivated by a sense of adventure, not altruism. However his photographs also demonstrated his repeated resilience to engage with victims of conflict, something most of us turn a blind eye to. Joris Voorhoeve, the former Minister of Defence for Netherlands was another notable speaker. While at times, his stance came off as “democracy can fix anything!” he also demonstrated a keen and broad-minded view of global politics. We also listened with rapt attention to Maryam Faghih Imani, an Iranian activist and scholar, whose family has political links to Ayatollah Khameini. Her hard-fought access to education came at a cost since it meant leaving behind her conservative family and homeland.
Workshops also helped me formulate ideas. One of them focused on the ways in which social media could be used as a tool for peace, as it was when Israelis and Iranians ignored their leaders’ warmongering in 2012 and posted messages of solidarity and support for each other. That workshop also had us concoct ideas for social media campaigns that encouraged community harmony in face of the violent demonstrations that had broken out in The Hague.
Some of most insightful discussions about war and peace however, took place in the post-conference hours, over pints of beer. My Ukrainian roommate spoke about how his country’s conflict with Russia was forcing the army to enlist young people with just three months of training. Another roommate from Hong Kong spoke about participating in the Umbrella Revolution and the gulf in political ideology that existed between him and his parents. I also got a better understanding about Kurdish identity and politics from a Kurd raised in Germany and witnessed a friendly ribbing between India and Pakistan.
The conference further augmented this by having five participants address peace from a purely personal perspective. Alexa Magee, an American spoke from the perspective of a citizen whose country is always at war. Takashi Mori, a Japanese national relayed his experiences working with injured children in the Gaza strip. The most soul-stirring speech however came from Miracle Uche, a Nigerian who spoke about the horrors of civil war in her country and how ethnic fractures in a community were still present even thousands of miles from home. Her speech truly resonated with me for its searing honesty and I was struck by how the divisions she spoke of could easily apply to an Indian context as well.
It was viewing the concepts of war and peace through a personal prism that defined the summit. Peace wasn’t just an abstract concept for all of us. We grappled with the ramifications of warfare on a daily basis, either directly or indirectly. It made me cogitate about the Kashmir conflict, the Naxalite problem and the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and wish there was an immediate end in sight. It also heightened my pacifist tendencies.
What we wanted was a political infrastructure that bridged the gap between the real world and our utopian ideas of the world we wanted to live in. Three days was all it took but it made us understand how inextricably linked all our collective fates were. We gathered in a city of less than a million inhabitants where decisions could be made that had positive outcomes in countries thousands of miles away. My political conscience was already awake, but now it was alive and roaring. Peace was our religion, and we, its extremely enthusiastic demagogues.