Down by the Riverside and the Urgency of Now

Philip Jennings, Co-President of the International Peace Bureau, writes that the global pandemic has brought with it a call for change in the world. That change must include a new era for peace. The postponement of the UN Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons may be a blessing – as the Covid-19 crisis brings with it the call to build back a better world, and that means one without nuclear weapons. Could there be a peace dividend emerging from this crisis? The time has come for a new Global Commission for our Common Human Security.

On April 25, 2020, a 2,000-strong global gathering of peace activists was scheduled to assemble at the historic Riverside Church in New York to reinforce the call for a world free of nuclear weapons, for economic and social justice, and against militarization and war.

The gathering was to include a strong delegation from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including survivors from the nuclear bombs that were dropped on their cities 75 years ago. We were ready to remember the victims and to hand over to the NPT conference a petition with ten million signatures against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I was looking forward to joining the throng and being at the Riverside, hoping that perhaps we would sing `Down by the Riverside` together and, as the song tells us, `shake hands with the world`.

The timing of this peace gathering was important, for down on the New York East Riverside, at the UN headquarters the UN Review Conference of the 50 year Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was due to start two weeks of talks.

A treaty which has 190 state signatories would bring together governments worldwide to draw up the balance sheet on its implementation.

Always on our mind, but seemingly less so on those of the nuclear powers, is Article 6 of the Treaty which states `Each of the parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control’.

Even the most myopic accountant would conclude that it is a balance sheet in deep deficit; there is precious little if any `negotiations in good faith on effective measures`.

The international security environment deteriorates with each passing day. We are in the midst of an ever dangerous, escalating and expensive nuclear arms race. Superpower tensions, particularly those between the USA and China, and the intrigues and posturing that go with it, have weakened multilateralism and cast a long shadow over global cooperation exacerbating global tensions even at this time of crisis. USA- Russian relations are in trouble; who remembers détente?

The list of peace and disarmament failures grows. For example, the INF treaty has all but gone, Start 1 has ended, and the clock is running down on Start 2.

Everywhere nations with nuclear weapons are investing heavily in a new generation of weapons and there is dangerous talk of their limited use in the battlefield. The peace process freeze brings with it the threat of a nuclear winter triggered by accident or design. If we look to Europe, the collapse of the INF treaty and investment in nuclear delivery systems means we are going to have a rerun of the Euromissile crisis of forty years ago.

Down by the UN riverside, as the state parties were about to gather, there was no evidence – as the song of the same name says – that they are `gonna lay down their sword or shield`.

On the contrary, we live in aggravated times neatly summed up by the Journal of Atomic Scientists’ 2020 Doomsday Clock which now stands at 100 seconds to midnight – the closest it has been in its over seventy year history.

The prospects for the outcome of the NPT Review Conference were grim indeed, even before its postponement; to add to the geopolitical and decision making mix, we must take into account covid19 pandemic. Will this new and global crisis provide a new ingredient, albeit a distressing one, to bring the world back from the brink?

As we see it at the IPB, the postponement of the NPT review conference may well bring an opportunity for us to introduce the idea of a peace dividend to the response that goes beyond the UN Secretary Generals call for a global ceasefire. In our determination to `build back better` we must now use this time to mobilise, to raise global consciousness for the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and bring about demilitarization to usher in a new era of peace. We are determined for peace to be an essential pillar of the policy response to build back better.


The Four Horsemen Become Five.

The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the world situation and voices are growing around the world that we must learn the lessons from the multiple policy failures and put global development on a new and sustainable path.

The grave nature of the global pandemic adds to the already known existential threats to people and planet from nuclear weapons to climate change.

The UN Secretary General in January 2020 referred to the four horsemen in our midst that `jeopardize every aspect of our shared future`. He cited global tensions which are at their `highest level` in years, climate change (`our planet is burning`), global mistrust driven by unfair globalization, and the wild west of cyberspace. To his list we must add Covid-19.

As we tackle the Covid-19 pandemic we must also consider what is next. What is the change that we are seeking in the world, what are the alternative policies and how do we avoid a return to business as usual? How do we build back better and healthier?


Riverside Echoes.

In anticipation of the conference in late February, I was in New York and decided I would visit the legendary Riverside Church where our peace gathering was to take place.

It was a freezing, yet bright and sunny Saturday morning and a bitter wind was blowing off the Hudson River, the kind where each gust cuts you in two.

The church was empty. The greeting from the staff was warm.

I went to the bookstore and with a nudge from the store manager bought the book ‘A Call to Conscience’, which contains the landmark speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

The manager was pleased to tell me that New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes had recently visited the church and bought the same book. I do not think any commission was involved.

In total, Martin Luther King Jr made eight speeches at the Riverside Church.

To mark his bonds to the church, the authorities have thoughtfully organized a permanent display which tells the story of his life and outlines the key messages from his Riverside speeches. Words which lifted and mobilised a generation and continue to inspire us today.

The book I bought contains the speech that MLK delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.

The speech, ‘Beyond Vietnam: A time to Break the Silence’, is considered to be one of the most controversial and yet one of the best speeches that he ever made.

It was a moment of high drama which brought dramatic consequences as he expressed his opposition to the Vietnam war.

His speech was rebuked in over 160 newspaper editorials, provoked the ire of the US President, and was considered by some to be an act of treason.

Some remarked that civil rights and peace should not be confused, that his opposition to war might distract from his civil rights message.

He knew the controversy his remarks would cause when he confided to his colleagues, `I feel so deep in my heart that we are so wrong in this country the time has come for real prophecy and I am willing to go that road`. It was his call to conscience.

On leaving the bookshop and taking in the display, I climbed the stairs and entered the main body of the church. It was empty. I walked to the front pew which is in touching distance from the place where MLK delivered his antiwar speech.

You could hear a pin drop and in that silence I opened the book and read the MLK Vietnam speech. I was thinking that in just a few months I would be speaking on behalf of the IPB at the April peace gathering from the same spot.


Beyond Vietnam: Beyond Covid19.

As we tackle the covid 19 pandemic, I have returned to the speech several times seeking inspiration and guidance as we face the struggle to deal with the deadly consequences of Covid-19 and bring change to the world.

I was not to be disappointed, as MLK’s Beyond Vietnam speech touches so many themes important to the peace movement and shines a light on the future path to follow – his opposition to war, the costs of war and the high price paid by the poor, the dangers of militarization, calls for a ceasefire, a peace process, warning of the dangers when hate infects political debate, the call for a revolution of values and ideas away from consumerism, to defeating poverty and for global solidarity. The speech also marked a time for him to build support for the poor people’s campaign.

He recognized that the time had come to break the silence `for the time comes when silence is betrayal`.

He called for new policy directions, `for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us` he said.

His words express anger at the costs of militarization; `I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such`.

As the world spends close to 2 trillion dollars on its military each year today, he had this to say on military spending of countries then, `a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is spiritually dead`.

The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research in its 2020 Global Conflict barometer confirmed that there are currently 358 conflicts worldwide, of which 196 are fought violently, which include 15 full scale wars and 23 limited wars.

On war, MLK said that the USA had lived under the curse of war for three decades and exclaimed that this `madness must cease` and that we must say of war `this way of settling things is not just`.

He outlined five ideas to bring peace to Vietnam: an immediate end to the bombing, removal of foreign troops, withdrawal from other Asian battlegrounds, a unilateral ceasefire, and peace talks.


A Revolution in Values.

He also recognized that thinking needed to go beyond the Vietnam conflict that the USA and the world `must undergo a radical evolution of ideas`.

He called for a true ‘revolution of values which will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies’; a revolution of values to ‘rapidly begin the shift from a thing orientated society to a person orientated society’ that `looks uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth`.

As we grapple with Covid-19, his words demand that we be ambitious in our call for change:  ‘our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism’.

Veteran civil rights fighter and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, in commenting on the speech, remarked that it’s ‘a speech for all humanity – for the world community’.

MLK called ‘for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighbourly concern beyond ones tribe, race, class, and nation’ which ‘is in reality a call for an all embracing and unconditional love for all mankind’.

As we see the closing of democratic spaces in the world around us, increasing human and trade union rights abuses and the rise of populist authoritarian leaders and regimes which so endanger our democracies, his Riverside words warn us that `the oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued the self-defeating path of hate’. He awakens us to the dangers of the abuse of power of todays authoritarian leaders who will corrupt the global solidarity being expressed by people into permanent measures to threaten democratic freedoms from how we vote to when we can demonstrate and track and victimize those seeking change.


Build the world all over again.

In responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can build so much from the ideas expressed in the MLK Riverside ‘67 speech.

Covid-19 has already cost over 200,000 lives; this global tragedy summons us to apply energy and voice in the words of Thomas Paine `to begin the world all over again`.

Bullets, rifles, tanks, warplanes and warships are of no use in the struggle to defeat the pandemic.

We have invested in tools to fight the wrong war.

There are 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, thousands of them trigger-ready and yet we cannot find basic medical equipment.

The IPB has done a masterful job of comparing what the world spends on warfare as compared to healthcare. Things are out of balance.

Increasing militarization is of no use in this health fight.

We have identified the many fault lines in our global economy that have endangered people and planet.

The decades long attack on the role of government, on public goods and services, has stripped our institutions of the means and power to protect our health and the common good. A misplaced reliance on market forces that have brought so many market failures and corporate abuses.

With the postponement of the NPT review conference we have been given the time and opportunity to develop a new manifesto to build back better.

MLK expressed five ideas to end the Vietnam war. Here are five ideas for a post-Covid-19 world; they range from a new era for peace, to climate action, new economics, a new social contract and gender equality.


Our Riverside Claims.

First let us try to build a new era for peace. In 1795 Immanuel Kant wrote about how to achieve a perpetual peace. The time has come to return to the idea of achieving a perpetual peace.

Step one was the call by the IPB for a global ceasefire. The UN Secretary General likewise called for a global ceasefire and there has already been some progress in laying down arms. The challenge is how to make those ceasefires lasting agreements.

We need to look once again at the architecture for peace processes and for them to be based around a new understanding of our human security.

Mikael Gorbachev recently asked, `is it not clear by now that wars and the arms race cannot solve today’s global problems? War is a sign of defeat a failure of politics`.

He said the overriding goal must be human security by which he meant food, water, health, and a clean environment, which means we have to `demilitarize world affairs, international politics and political thinking`.

We have welcomed his call for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly which should have the goal of `nothing less than revising the entire global agenda`.

This requires a new look at diversification away from arms manufacturing and the intensification of campaigns to divest from those companies manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Peace through human security means a dramatic change in spending priorities away from militarization. The IPB has called for an immediate cut of 10% in military budgets.

A new era of peace should include implementation of Article 6 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons. Its time to reawaken global opinion on this.

A new era for peace means nations ratifying the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We stand together in support of the ICAN campaign.

2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Palme Commission report on our Common Security. The IPB suggests that it is time for a new Global Peace Commission to breathe new life and thinking into achieving peace in a post-Covid-19 world.

Second, a new era for peace means new economic thinking to bring about sustainable development. Its time to close the chapter on the Mont Pelerin-inspired neoliberal, trickle down economic theory that has done so much damage to working people and our planet. This struggle will not be easy. The neoliberal aggressors are investing billions of dark money to contaminate our political institutions, the judicial independence, and academia.

Our struggle is for inclusive, climate-friendly economies that serve the common good. When we can, we must march again for a new economy, one that provides for our human security; a peace economy.

We need economies that no longer provide evermore power and influence to business corporations; a reform of how business decisions are made and in whose interest; a repurposing of business away from simply serving shareholder value; we need to introduce worldwide, mandatory human rights, and due diligence measures to bring about  human security through mandatory respect for human rights.

Thirdly, it follows that the new economics must include a new social contract with universal access to social protection, healthcare, education, and housing. This social contract must be human-centred and ensure decent work, living wages, adequate pensions, respect for worker rights, collective agreements that cover each sector of the economy, and worker’s voices in business boardrooms.

An economy where frontline workers have decent work; a new economics that ensures fairness in the distribution of wealth and for all to pay their fair share of tax.

The ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work called for a human-centred approach for a social contract for the modern, digital times, where no worker is left behind.

Fourthly, we must create a new era for peace through climate action. The science is clear; the new generation has spoken and mobilised. The world cannot claim ignorance—we need a Green New Peace Deal. Climate and human security and peace are intertwined, which means addressing the enormous military carbon footprint.

Time is running out. Global and local Covid-19 recovery plans must include investment to build a new inclusive and sustainable economy, with renewable energy and green jobs. These plans demand governments invest in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Fifthly, and the key to unlock all of the above ideas, is the need to change the dynamics of decision making by ensuring that we have real gender equality.

A new era of peace can only be driven by gender equality in decision making. The people on the frontlines of the crisis have been women. They are on the frontlines in dealing with the crisis, but at the back of the class when it comes to the inclusion of their voices in decision making at all levels, and bottom of the ladder when it comes to pay.

All the post-Covid-19 plans must have gender equality at their centre.

These five areas are not exhaustive. They are a framework for us in the struggle for another world, for people and for the planet.

I recall the 2008 financial crisis and the promise made then by so many; but now we see that lessons had been learned and that the world would be a different place if they had. It did not happen; we did not build back better.

Once again, an opportunity for fundamental and permanent change presents itself. `Back to normal` is not an answer for the pressing needs of people or the health of our planet.

In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Martin Luther King spoke of the ‘fierce urgency of now’ and   ‘that tomorrow is today…that there is such a thing as being too late’.

We have to bring the fierce urgency of now into our fight for change, for a new era of peace.

The IPB and the greater peace movement will return to New York for the rescheduled NPT conference. As the Down by the Riverside song says-

‘Down by the riverside,

I`m gonna lay down my sword and shield,

Down by the riverside,

I ain`t gonna study war no more’.