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UNESCO’s Path to World Peace in Kishinev?

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An unexpected surprise came into my life in March – a prominent officer in UNESCO (a Russian working in Paris) – had somehow happened to read one of a series of dialogues which I and my Russian colleague Tatyana Morozova had published in the journal Moskva. Our pieces were so “deep”; and my recognition and appreciation – though I was a “Westerner” and American scholar – of the uniqueness in Russian character, culture and civilization, in contrast to America, uncommon. Thus we received immediate invitations to participate gratis in the upcoming UNESCO Kishinev International Forum: “For a Culture of Peace and Dialogue of Civilizations, Against a Culture of War and Violence”.

Was it just chance, mere accident, that he had read our piece we wondered? Or was there something meaningful and important, if mysterious, for our future work and lives? Good fortune? Accident? After debating the pros and cons of accepting our invitations, we concluded: “Let’s go and see; there’ll at least be plenty of good Moldovan wine!”

The first impression we had, before the Forum, was that it had money, and was rather well-organized. Documents, preparatory papers, United Nations texts, books, conference information, air tickets, etc. – all arrived from Paris, UNESCO Headquarters, to Moscow promptly and efficiently. A conference paper (of no more than six typed pages), a 10-15 minute “intervention” (at the “Round Table: “The New Millennium: Conflict or Dialogue of Civilizations?”), and our presence at the symposium were all that were required of us.

Preparing for the International Forum, I did my homework by reading the received UN texts related to the conference; a “Declaration of the Human Right to Peace”; and texts (published in Moscow) of earlier papers on the theme of peace and democracy. The more I read, the more sceptical and disbelieving I became; when I read such oft-cited pivotal quotes as: “the peace of freedom – and therefore just laws – of happiness, equality, and solidarity, in which all citizens count, live together and share”. Such jumbled, utopian ideals, mentioned so easily, after such a bloody 20th century?’

My conference paper immediately assumed its, in English, multi-layered title: “Till Adam Rests in Peace...” – for the next month, I tried to take a creative if critical, but historically serious position on peace and mankind. I wrote twelve pages, and I couldn’t imagine less. So I anguished and struggled to cut this down to only six pages. But there were so many interesting relevant parts I needed to kill from the text: one from Goethe, which so reminds one of aspects of Russia’s 20th century story, e.g., the symbols of Czarist Russia, then the statues of Lenin, Stalin, et al, and now the replacement of Communist slogans with the conquering Western multinational corporate street advertisements, that it was difficult to omit it:

“For one who, like me, lives through ages, it always seems odd when I hear about statues and monuments. I can never think of a statue erected in honor of a distinguished man without already seeing it cast down and trampled upon by future warriors.”

July 5,1827, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret.

A televised opening session – TV- and photo-cameras everywhere; about 160 invited guests – “eminent” social figures (many from Russia) in culture, media, peace activities, et al – to speak at four “Round Tables”. A police escort took our buses through the streets of Kishinev – somewhat, though on a more modest scale, like the former nomenklatura traveled in Moscow; though the people of Moldova looked on us more with curiosity and friendliness, than resentment or fear. The “Palace of the Republic”, a great room in which were placed tables forming a huge square, covered with the name cards (of the alphabetically-arranged participants), microphones (every two or three seats), and soft drinks. From the tables on one side of the room to those on the other, was at least 40 meters – a huge empty space, sometimes occupied by the cameras, in the center of the large hall; it was all far too big for much of any feeling of intimacy, and not especially good even for dialogue, though that was a major theme of the conference. Four glass booths on the side of the hall held the interpreters – free-lance, and, most, flown in from France – who were to translate from and into the four working languages of the symposium: English, French, Moldovan (Rumanian) and Russian.

The Director-General of UNESCO Federico Mayor Zaragoza and the President of Moldova Petru Lucinschi opened the Forum; the first “Keynote speakers” included such people as Joseph Rotblat (Manhattan Atomic Bomb Project, Noble Peace Prize with Pugwash Conference 1995), author Chinguiz Aitmatov, a representative of the President of the Phillipines, et al.

Earnestness and Absurdity

The speakers from different nations at the “Plenary Session” and the “Round Tables” (though all were square) had many different perspectives on the problems of peace, war and violence amidst mankind. Some speakers had very practical experiences trying to establish political compromises between formerly warring parties (in Central America for example); others spoke of the social, political, and economic causes, and results, of violence and war; some spoke of war profiteers; others of the more philosophical aspects of man and violence. But it could hardly be called much of a “dialogue” in fact – for there was little time, many speakers, and too little time for real discussion.

But still, in comparison to a sociologists’ World Conference that a colleague will attend this summer in the US, where will be ca. 5000 participants, most of whom will give addresses in an impossible number of conference “sections”, the Kishinev conference was far from too crowded or busy. But still, it was difficult to keep the meetings from becoming a series of speakers’ monologues. In my Round Table discussion there were 35 listed speakers; had each spoken, they would have had about 4-5 minutes each to give their 10-15 minute addresses (as the invitations had requested). With so many different points of view on the problem, so many aspects and questions to the serious conference theme, added to the fact that sometimes the speakers spoke too loudly (so that the simultaneous interpretations were at times inaudible), the conference sometimes, in sound at least, seemed chaotic and incomprehensible.

But more than this – though it is perhaps standard practice for such short international conferences – the purported “results” of the conference: the “Kishinev Declaration of Peace” and the “Kishinev Program of Action” had been written, printed and “proposed” to the participants weeks before the Forum even began. As I told a French radio reporter, when he asked me, during the arrival evening “Cocktails”, what I thought was expected of me at the conference, I said, “Do you want to know, honestly?” He nodded. “Nothing,” I replied, “the results have already been published; so it seems to me this is rather some sort of free weekend vacation.” Apparently not expecting such a reply, he, bemused, said, “That’s interesting.” And indeed, as I said to more than one participant in Kishinev, had Jesus Christ or Gautama Buddha decided to show up, again, at the Forum, to pronounce some new revelation on mankind and peace, they would necessarily have heard that unfortunately the results of the conference had already been completed!

So that, while the Forum theme was serious, and the participants often spoke in earnest of their personal and professional views on the topic, I can assume that to more than just me, it all seemed a bit fictitious and senseless... even somewhat absurd. Why were we speaking our minds at all, if nothing much that we said would affect the Forum’s “results”? Is this a serious conference on peace and war, I wondered?

There were some interesting people and presentations at the conference – by people with “big names”, and others less widely-known. And while new contacts and friends could be made – perhaps not only visiting cards, but some real ideas and insights, were exchanged. Still, it was clear that for some number of people, this was just another Peace conference on the international circuit.

Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Director-General of UNESCO
Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Director-General of UNESCO

Personally, as I wrote above, I had written a paper sceptical of a “culture of peace” replacing a “culture of war and violence” – disagreeing essentially with a main supporting thesis and anthropology of UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor Zaragoza, in his arguing that violence and war are the result of social conditions rather than some inherent factor in man. As I wrote in my paper, subtitled “Unpopular, Unpolitical, ‘Philosophical’ Suggestions”: How much history do we need to suffer to understand that Man is a mixture’ of good and evil, noble and ignoble, and high and low?!

The Forum’s interpreters, those from Paris, had read the participants’ papers submitted (as requested) before the conference. I was quite surprised when one of them walked up to me and complemented me on my “interesting, unusual paper”: “It made one think.” Another spoke of its serious, scholarly character, and how odd it was that an American from California, with such a French name, should submit such a paper from Moscow!

The International Forum – in spite of periodic sound problems, and its “absurdity” – was indeed rather well organized. The many people of Kishinev who helped us during the four days – and many were young students from the Moldovan University who (all spoke Russian) spoke French, English, German, Spanish, Japanese, or other – were genuinely warm, helpful and friendly. The plentiful food and wine were delightful; the speed of life in the capital of Moldova seemed a healthier half of what it is now in Moscow. There were many old and interesting buildings in the center of Kishinev; a prominent bust to Pushkin; and a wonderful, colorful, magical and memorable performance of “The Nutcracker”. We were all well treated in Kishinev.

UNESCO’s Peace Train

This “symposia” as it was officially categorized in the UN’s classification of meetings – though the word means ‘get together for a drink’, coming via Latin from the Greek sumpotes, ‘drinking companion’ – was a part of an ongoing, new effort (of somewhat more than 10 years) to have UNESCO and the UN work for establishing a “culture of peace” in the world. The UN has for example declared the year 2000 – though they hardly mention, or seem to think of Anno Domini, after the life of a crucified man – to be an “International Year of for the Culture of Peace”. Yet since, as one of the participants pointed out, there have been some 250 wars, with some 200,000,000 casualties (armed and civilian) in the twentieth century’s violence and wars alone, declaring a “Human Right to Peace”, to replace a “culture of war” by a “culture of peace”, seems to me to be an overly optimistic goal for mankind. In my view, as I wrote in my dissected conference paper, this is unrealistic – in part because it is based on an unrealistic idea of man.

The UNESCO conference, its preliminary papers, its Kishinev Declarations, the “Declaration of the Human Right to Peace”, etc., are all based more or less on a secular, earthly idea of man, history, society, and life. One could, for example, compare the “Kishinev International Forum” to one of the early Church Councils in the history of Christianity; the Headquarters in New York (an $8,500,000 gift of property donated in 1946 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) to its “Cathedral”; and its texts as its “holy (actually secular) script” – its vision and work is based on a definite (if not highly reflective or articulated) idea of man, society and world. They write of the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”, of establishing “peace in the mind” of humans, etc. The ideas and terms they use are neither religious nor spiritual; they look at man in a completely immanent manner. The “heaven”, the “New Jerusalem”, are secular and Utopian; which is why all of the texts, including the famous “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” seem to me (and others) incomplete,... insufficient, to the nature and life of man. Neither religious nor ecumenical, it speaks with a sort of trans-national yet political view of man and society. Here are some of the terms in this view of man and society: community, democracy, dignity, economic development, equality, freedom, happiness, health, justice, liberty, life, mutual respect, non-violence, peace, rights, social development, solidarity, tolerance, etc.

Peace, a “culture of peace” replacing a “culture or war and violence”, is a nice, wonderful idea – but it is based, as I wrote in my conference paper, on an unrealistic idea of man, history, life and cosmos. And if one builds on unstable, unrealistic foundations...?

My position is the following: our life on earth can have no final solutions, because – aside from the affront of Death – mankind seems rather to be a part of some ongoing story which includes not only suffering and pain, the struggle between the noble and ignoble, between and in Man, but also, to quote the sceptical Jefferson: the “county of spirits”, without which I join others who argue that neither mankind is comprehensible, nor history (with its wars, violence and change) tolerable, nor justice believable, etc. UNESCO’s and the UN’s necessary search for peace are laudable, but incomplete. Following in the Humanist tradition of the Renaissance, the rational worldliness of the Enlightenment, and the ideal of progress of modern science – they essentially seek a “heaven on earth”, as other Utopian societies have tried (and failed) to create in the past couple of centuries. UNESCO’s path to peace, marked out in Kishinev, and other places, are necessary, but inadequate; and I shall let Goethe give my sense of why:

“But mark this. The world will not attain its goal so speedily as we expect and desire. There are always retarding daemons, who start in opposition at every point; so that, although the whole progresses, it is but slowly. Only live on, and you will find that I am right.”

“The development of mankind,” said I [Eckermann], “appears to be laid out as a work for thousands of years.”

“Perhaps millions,” said Goethe – “who knows? But let mankind last as long as it may, it will never lack obstacles to give it trouble, and never lack the pressure of necessity to develop its powers.

“Men will become more clever and more acute; but not better, happier, and stronger in action – or at least only at epochs ....”

October 23, 1828, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret.

The secular anthropology and ideals of man and history voiced at the UNESCO Forum in Kishinev, do not address the deeper, the cosmic and spiritual questions of human existence; and thus, though we can hardly do much other than hope and pray for “peace on earth, goodwill towards men”, it will likely be quite a long time, till Adams rests in peace!


First published in the magazine English, #24, June 1998, p. 1-14.


See also Till Adam Rests in Peace . . . Unpopular Unpolitical, “Philosophical” Suggestions (paper presented at the UNESCO Conference: “International Forum for a Culture of Peace and Dialogue of Civilizations, against a Culture of War and Violence”, 15-19 May 1998, Kishinev, Moldova.)