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Peacemaking after the COVID-19 pandemic

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Photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Juan Manuel Santos reflects on how leaders must foster hope and anchor policies in empathy, solidarity, and a long-term vision of the common good, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First published in Project Syndicate.

In Paradise Lost, the English poet John Milton encapsulates a fundamental truth about the struggle to end a violent conflict and establish a sustainable peace:

“Who overcomes by force, 
Hath overcome but half his foe.”

This insight was crucial to my own understanding of how to chart a way to end Colombia’s long and costly civil war, and it is acutely relevant to our shared global challenges today.

To build peace, leaders need to foster hope and anchor policies in empathy, solidarity, and a long-term vision of the common good. This is precisely the approach we must take now to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and build a more resilient world that can better withstand future shocks and crises.

Humanity’s collective experience of COVID-19 has reminded us all how precious, fragile, and intertwined life can be. Each person’s existence on this planet is inextricably connected with that of our brothers, sisters, and neighbors, as well as with our forebears and unborn generations. As we begin to map a post-pandemic recovery, recognizing our shared destiny makes it critical that we draw inspiration from the legacy of previous successful leaders.

In this regard, there is no better model than Nelson Mandela, a man of infinite courage and determination who defied a particularly evil system of racial oppression and became the greatest peacemaker of his generation. Mandela endured nearly three decades of imprisonment, led his people to freedom, and built a resilient, multiracial democracy in South Africa that endures to this day.

Mandela’s abiding humility and his iron faith in democracy helped lay the foundations of modern South Africa. These qualities also resonated globally, because Mandela always placed the African National Congress’s liberation struggle in the context of the wider international fight against colonialism, racism, and discrimination.

This affirmation of our common humanity lay at the heart of Mandela’s decision to found The Elders, the group of independent global leaders of which I am a member. In his speech at the organization’s launch in Johannesburg in July 2007, Mandela charged the group with a specific mandate: “Support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”

Today more than ever, we must recommit to this approach in the face of the pandemic, as well as even greater existential threats such as climate change and nuclear weapons. We urgently need an explicit recognition by global leaders that solidarity matters, and that they must act decisively to defend and rejuvenate multilateralism.

This ambition and sense of hope is essential. One sobering example of its absence is the underwhelming collective reaction to the March 2020 call by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for a “global ceasefire” in response to COVID-19. True, Guterres’s appeal was compelling, and the UN estimated that warring parties in 11 countries had heeded it by early April last year. But the UN Security Council took more than three months to pass a resolution endorsing Guterres’s appeal. And too many conflicts continued unabated throughout 2020 and still rage today.

The toll on human life, particularly among unarmed civilians, has been devastating. By mid-2020, violent conflicts had contributed to a rise in the number of forcibly displaced people, to nearly 80 million. And by the end of the year, almost 100 million people faced severe food insecurity as a result of conflict – up from 77 million in 2019.

This is a damning indictment of collective failure, especially by the Security Council’s five permanent members. But we must understand the Council’s near-paralysis in the wider context of the many global leadership failures laid bare by COVID-19. These include insufficient coordination and information-sharing to contain the pandemic, inadequate collaboration by the G20 to protect the global economy, a dearth of financial assistance to support the Global South, and the moral catastrophe of “vaccine apartheid.”

Contemplating this litany of challenges and disappointments, it is easy to be overwhelmed by pessimism. But resigning ourselves to failure is not only an indulgence of the world’s privileged, who do not have to endure the pain and loss of war, but also a betrayal of its victims. Hope persists, and so must our determination.

As for me, I am hopeful and determined that we will recover from the pandemic in a way that affirms the words of my compatriot, the great writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez:

“Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death.”

In that spirit, we must then get on with the life-affirming task of building peace.

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