What’s wrong with being the world’s most peaceful country?


As a New Zealander, I was both delighted and concerned to discover that my country is considered the most peaceful in the world by the 2010 Global Peace Index (GPI), a publication developed by an international panel of peace experts in collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit and published by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

 

On one hand, I think the world needs initiatives like this. The study’s founder, Steve Killelea calls the GPI “a wake-up call for leaders around the globe”, and I hope he is right. But, given the factors it examines—such as levels of violence and crime within a country, plus military expenditure and wars—the GPI unfortunately glosses over some interesting realities.

 

First, if you do believe peace can be achieved at the end of a gun, it unfairly vilifies countries like the United States who, though they account for 54 percent of global military spending, tend to use this spending to ensure the “peace” of their allies and neighbors. So countries sheltering under the military wings of a world power can happily slide up the index by letting the US (and the other top spenders like Russia, the UK, France and China) slide down.

 

Being a strong believer in nonviolent solutions to conflict resolution, I commend the GPI for bringing people’s attention to the scale of military spending by these countries. Most of the time I think what the US would call “ensuring peace, freedom and stability,” is just another name for exploitation and empire-building. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of this so-called “peace” are never challenged about their complicity in global conflict.

 

And complicit we are.

 

The New Zealand government sent troops to support the US-led invasion of Afghanistan immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks. They have been there ever since. According to Jonathan Steele of The Guardian between 20,000 and 49,600 people may have died of the consequences of the invasion. It is estimated that in Afghanistan there are 1.5 million suffering from immediate starvation, as well as 7.5 million suffering as a result of the country’s dire situation.

 

No matter. The NZ government uses rhetoric about “security” and “fighting terrorism” as a justification for the continued involvement of the NZDF (Defense Force). The language used by the government creates the image of altruistic action by the military. Soldiers are “peacekeepers” sent to do “reconstruction”—which obscures the reality that the Afghani government was installed by the US for economic reasons. It was only after the media revealed that the NZSAS (Special Air Service) was there that the government admitted to their involvement. They loudly trumpet the “reconstruction team” as “humanitarian aid” when in fact they are there to prop up the US military occupation.

 

A few years later, many of the New Zealand public watched in horror as the US invaded Iraq alongside the United Kingdom and smaller contingents from Australia and Poland. When this invasion first occurred, Kiwi activists organized some colorful protests and marches to raise awareness, which further bolstered the general anti-US sentiment in the country. Our Government at the time assured us we wouldn’t be involved in the war, and reassured by that fact, we allowed ourselves to sit back and busy ourselves again with the important business of disliking everything American.

 

How wrong we were. Research by investigative journalist Nicky Hager makes it clear that our very own Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) have been heavily focused on supporting the US War on Terror since September 11, 2001. When the US switched it’s attention to Iraq, so did we. It seems while New Zealand sits happy at number one on the GPI, our own tax dollars are funding an intelligence operation that supports the very same wars we once condemned. We have become, unwittingly, a vital cog in the intelligence grabbing that so erroneously frames the crimes against humanity being perpetrated in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere by the United States of America.

 

And that’s only the wars we are involved in. Internal conflicts are happening all around the world and they are causing death and poverty on a massive scale. In Sudan for instance, 4.9 million people are now displaced. Poverty fuels conflict. Conflict exacerbates poverty. In fact, the same researchers that produce the GPI estimate that violence costs the global economy $10.5 trillion a year. That sure puts our measly Aid spending (currently somewhere around $119.6 billion) in perspective huh?

 

As the famous economist Jeffrey Sachs once said, “aid for the poor guarantees security for the rich”. What a no-brainer, right? Instability will grow where poverty festers. Yet economically rich countries continue, for the most part, to fail dismally in their commitments to overseas aid and development.

 

New Zealand’s track record is particularly dismal. We committed to a United Nations target that all developed countries should give 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) as Official Development Assistance (ODA) by 2015. The 0.7 percent figure may sound complicated, but it is actually quite simple. For every $100 earned in the country, the country gives 70 cents in aid.

 

Currently however, New Zealand gives only 0.3% of GNI as ODA, despite repeated campaigning by the NGO sector and NZ public. That puts us roughly 18th in the OECD, behind big military spenders like the UK and France, and behind the Aussies whom we love to criticize for their involvement in Iraq. And since the 0.7 percent that we promised to give is (obviously) a percentage, not a figure in absolute terms, the actual amount rises and falls as our GDP rises and falls. Our commitment to ODA is more of a moral statement than a financial one, and we can be doing a lot better.

 

Finally, does the GPI really pick up on what’s going on at home here in New Zealand? We might be the world’s safest nation for some, but not if you’re a child or a woman.

 

Looking at UNICEF and OECD reports on Child Poverty in “developed” countries, New Zealand has a poor record of standards in caring for its children on just about every index. One in six New Zealand children lives in poverty, meaning they are more likely to live in poverty than any other group. A third of children live in overcrowded conditions, and we have the highest rates of youth suicide in the entire OECD. This is unacceptable in a country as wealthy as New Zealand.

 

Violence against women is another issue that continues to persist as one of the most heinous, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world. The GPI has been criticized for not including indicators specifically relating to violence against women and children. If it did, New Zealand might not enjoy its celebrated status. In one national survey, 35 percent of the women interviewed reported being physically assaulted by an intimate partner.

 

I’m not trying to be overly critical of New Zealand. We have our issues, but we have plenty to be proud of as well. We enjoy a heritage of peacemakers and heroes, like Te Whiti and Tohu, Kate Sheppard, and Sir Edmund Hillary, and strong stands on issues like Apartheid and Nuclear Power. But that is no license to rest on our laurels. If we are to be true to our heroes, we must continually strive ever upwards and onwards. If we are truly to be ranked as peaceful, we should follow in the philosophy and footsteps of our pioneering peacemakers from Parihaka, when they reminded us:

 

No good thing has ever been wrought by force …

there is no reason why force should continue to have power over us.”

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