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The Moral Architecture of World Peace

New book reflects powerful vision of Nobel Peace Laureates

By Robert Brickhouse

Eight visionary recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize gathered at the University in November 1998 for two days of extraordinary dialogue about creating a more peaceful world. From the inspiring words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's riveting description of chairing South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, their conversations ranged from familiar international-relations themes to crucial peace issues traditionally neglected by the daily news, such as the need for personal transformation and better community-organizing.

Drawing on the laureates' talks, exchanges and life stories, a veteran international-affairs journalist and author Helena Cobban has created a powerful vision of our shared global future in a new book, The Moral Architecture of World Peace, based on the historic conference.

Unlike other recent books on global change, Cobban's publication from the University Press of Virginia is based on the heroic stories of individuals, whose views of world peace are derived from personal strength and public activism, not economic trends.

Cobban, a former Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times of London who writes a regular column on global affairs for the Christian Science Monitor, sees this personal-activism model as perhaps the strongest potential route for peace to capture the world's imagination in the 21st century. The author of four previous books on war and peace issues, she sits on an advisory committee for Human Rights Watch and is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Each chapter in The Moral Architecture of World Peace contains one laureate's version of a shared message: that peace is grounded in the personal and spiritual as well as the economic and military dimensions of global interconnectedness. When the Dalai Lama speaks of the need for inner as well as external disarmament, he is asking for a greater commitment than the most complicated nuclear arms treaty, says Cobban, who teaches courses on peace issues through U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

Along similar lines, the Northern Ireland peace activist Betty Williams tells of her hope to disarm "the landmines of the heart," the bitterness that lives on in war survivors that can be more destructive than physical scars. Jody Williams and Bobby Muller, 1997 laureates, sound a concordant note in the story of their successful campaign to win an international treaty banning landmines.

Former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sánchez, architect of the five-nation peace accord in Central America, challenges citizens of rich western countries to recognize the gap between their luxury spending and the amounts needed to fund basic human services in other parts of the world. Indigenous-rights activist Rigoberta Menchu Tum of Guatemala and East Timorese representative José Ramos-Horta both lament the human and social costs paid by what Ramos-Horta calls, sorrowfully, the world's "expendable peoples." Harn Yawnghwe, speaking on behalf of the Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was refused the right to travel by her government, talks of the tough issues of preparing for a transition to postauthoritarian rule in a country that has been run by a military junta.

These leaders, says Cobban, all seem to subscribe to a broader set of truths that are not necessarily self-evident: that human beings can easily become locked into self-perpetuating "systems of suspicion and violence" at any level, from the interpersonal through the international; that when one is inside such a system, it can be hard to see it and to recognize one's own role within it; but that each one of us has the capacity to make a leap from self-centeredness toward greater understanding. "Try to change motivation," the Dalai Lama urges.

But while these laureates' stories are primarily of personal and political triumph, they also tell of great sacrifice, conflict, and pain. Bobby Muller's passionate exchange with Archbishop Tutu on moral accountability versus reconciliation, and the self-examination of Ramos-Horta, who reflected that his own East Timorese independence movement may have hurt the chances of United States' intervention to prevent Indonesia's brutal invasion of his country, point toward the new kinds of challenges we face in the coming century. From the candor, eloquence, humor and differences expressed by these inspiring people, Cobban has sketched out a new international paradigm of peace.


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