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April 16, 2012

The Explosive Echo of Past Wars – Removing the Scourge of Landmines

landmineOne of the most brutal weapons of war is also one of the simplest: the landmine.  Modern landmines initially appeared during the first World War, but they had already existed in various forms for centuries before that time.   They are easy to set up, difficult and time consuming to detect and disarm, and inflict injuries on civilians and combatants alike, resulting in a medical and economic burden to the communities where they are used that extends well beyond a war’s end.  Landmines continue to haunt nations once torn by conflict long after the wars have ended and begun to fade into memory.

worldwide-landmine-distributionWorldwide Landmine Distribution
Source: Landmine & Cluster Munitions Monitor

The statistics on injuries from landmines are sobering.

  • Around every 22 minutes 1 person somewhere in the world is killed or injured by a landmine.
  • One hundred million uncleared landmines lie in the fields and alongside the roads and footpaths of one-third of the countries in the developing world.  Claiming over 500 victims a week, landmines are weapons of mass destruction in slow motion.
  • Half of all people die from a landmine injury, either immediately from the explosion – as is the case with most children – or from blood loss and exposure.

Fortunately, the annual death and injury toll from landmines has been dropping steadily, due in large part to the Mine Ban Treaty which was signed in Ottawa in 1997.  Today, 157 countries have signed the treaty.  There are still 39 countries, including the U.S., which have not signed the treaty.  Though it has not used landmines since 1991, nor produced them since 1997, the U.S. still has a stockpile of 10 million landmines.  The U.S. remains a holdout due to language in the treaty it finds objectionable.  Still it is doing more than any other country to remove landmines and prevent their further spread.  And the Obama administration has initiated a comprehensive review of its landmine policy.

Aki Ra

Aki Ra

There have been dramatic success stories.  For example, Cambodia is a country with one of the highest total number of landmines. Over the last twenty years, it has de-mined a little over half (270 square miles) of contaminated land.  With new technology and more funding, the nation should be free of landmines in another 10 years.  One of the heroes of this effort is a soldier, Aki Ra, who, as a boy was forced to lay landmines for the Khmer Rouge.  He has dedicated his life to removing these landmines and to date has de-mined over 50,000 devices.

Similar to the eradication of once prevalent diseases like Smallpox, the world may yet see the day when the last landmine has been removed and no more are being produced or laid.


April 5, 2012

Moving Beyond Tolerance to Understanding

We are often reminded about the importance and necessity of tolerance. I think, however, I do not like the idea of tolerance so much. The meaning of tolerance to me seems like saying, “I do not like you, but I have to live with the fact that you exist. I may agree to be tolerant of you, but I don’t have to be your friend—I don’t even have to speak to you at all. I just have to accept that you have the same right to your life choices as I do to mine.”

The word I think is a much better choice to describe an active effort to accept others as our co-inhabitants of the planet is understanding. For me, understanding means that although I may not like or agree with everything you do or say, I get where you are coming from. I get it and I can respect you as a fellow human being. I am able to listen to you. I may even be able to learn something from you that will open the door to friendship.

We need to develop the ability to listen to each other and understand the reasons for the differences among us in our approach to life. We may not always agree, but by understanding the basis for differing ideas about various parts of our lives, we can find the common ground that enables us to work together for the good of all. We’ve all seen compassion and cooperation emerging in times of crisis for people around the world, but our challenge is to make that cooperative spirit the norm all of the time.

To understand each other in the way I mean it, we need to be less judgmental and accept that:

  1. Our way may not be the only way;
  2. Emotion often gets in the way of objectivity; and
  3. No religious belief, ideology or “pressing need” justifies the violation of another person’s basic human rights.

I liked the speech that President Barack Obama gave in Cairo at the beginning of his administration. He may be the President of the United States of America, but he speaks as a citizen of the world—someone who can relate to people from all different cultural, religious, political, ethnic, economic, age, and gender backgrounds. President Obama understands and respects who you are without forcing you into a stereotype. Unfortunately, I am not very hopeful about even his ability to reach people who just don’t want to listen to anyone with a different point of view. His speech was banned in Iran and extremists from all sides seem to reserve their listening only for themselves.

President Obama has said himself that one speech won’t solve the problem and asked the rhetorical question, “What can we do?” In my opinion, education is the key to global peace in the long run. Multiculturalism, higher order thinking skills and global peace should be incorporated into the curriculum explicitly. Children need to be exposed to many different cultures, religions and world views. They need to develop analytical skills in order to differentiate objectivity from emotion and value judgments. Schools should pay a lot of attention to the hidden curriculum, as well. They must review their norms and assumptions about how teachers and students treat each other. After all, a curriculum for peace finds any kind of violence in everyday interactions unacceptable. As an example, there should be zero tolerance for bullying. In religious schools, perhaps inter-faith dialog experiences should be part of the curriculum.

diverse-studentsChildren need to learn that in the end, we are all the same. No one is better than anyone else. We just come from different places. If global peace is our goal, then we must be willing to elevate the importance of listening to each other with open, non-judgmental minds in the spirit of respect for—and even celebration of—our differences.

Fortunately, even if it takes considerable time for school systems to change, our world is getting smaller.  Technology continues to break down communication barriers that at one time isolated communities and cultures from each other.  More people every day are discovering different world views whether they want to or not.

The extremists of our world won’t change, but we can and must cultivate the skills among children to seek the understanding of differences, fostering cooperation rather than confrontation at every level in life. They will grow up and they will raise their own children accordingly.

So, I am hopeful about the future. A much more peaceful world may not come in my lifetime, but it will happen.