As we celebrate Christmas and look forward to a new year, it’s a good time to reflect on the year that was.
2019 was an eventful year — a cliché, but true. Alongside peace activists around the world, we here at PAX celebrated, and mourned, and then celebrated again. There were successes in the regions where we work, but lives were also lost through violence and war, often due to the use of controversial weapons.
2019 was also a year of large numbers as more people than ever left their homes. Some fled persecution or violence, others took to the streets and to protest for peace, justice and dignity. In both cases, people felt compelled to take action. We at PAX see that peace work is needed now as much as ever.
Last year, for the first time, the number of people fleeing their homes topped 70 million, according to the UNHCR. A sad record, but one which will likely be broken when the figures for 2019 come in. Even more worrying: there have never been so many child refugees, nearly 50 million according to UNICEF. The most people who fled this year were forced out by wars in Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Controversial weapons are used in these wars, something PAX has been fighting against for years, with some success. More and more treaties prohibit trading and using controversial weapons, leading to a decline in their use. Unfortunately, they are still being used, even in cities. And those who no longer have a house because it has been bombed, or who see schools and hospitals being destroyed from the air, are fleeing.
In the Netherlands, not everyone extends a warm welcome to refugees. PAX urges the Dutch government and the Dutch people to take responsibility and to place human dignity as the first priority in receiving and supporting refugees. It is important to keep in mind that there is a story behind the face of every one of the millions of refugees. Wouldn’t it be great if a refugee could tell his or her story to a group of young people at schools? PAX has been doing just that through the education project “The Story of a Refugee”. Over the past few years, more than 10,000 young people have listened to a Syrian refugee tell his or her story.
2019 was also a year in which many people stood up for their rights. In Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq and Colombia, among others, millions of people took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully for peace, freedom and dignity. PAX supports civilian activism that contributes to changes from within. A months-long peaceful, popular uprising (which started one year ago today, 19 December) resulted in the ouster of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir after 30 years of military dictatorship. He was replaced by a transitional government which includes civilians. In Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in October after days of peaceful protest, an uprising that united the different religious movements in Lebanon. But it’s not over. Hariri wants to return to power and the peaceful protests are getting out of control in response to repression from the government and other actors.
The surge of protests around the world has unfortunately been accompanied by violence and repression in some countries. If a government is unable to meet the basic needs of its citizens, such as in Iraq, the international community has a moral obligation to support peaceful protest based on human dignity. This requires pressure, while the international community tends to focus on stability and therefore seeks compromises with authoritarian governments. But the stability that such regimes say they can guarantee must not be at the expense of democratic values. And the resulting inequality is a breeding ground for conflicts. That is why we call on the Dutch government to adopt a value-driven foreign policy.
Peace and freedom
In the coming year, just as in 2019, the Netherlands will celebrate 75 years of peace and freedom, as well as the founding of the United Nations. But the parallel trends of the growing number of refugees and worldwide protests show that peace and freedom can never be taken for granted. Citizens, government, NGOs — we must all work together for stable and peaceful societies, at home and abroad, with human dignity at the top of our list of priorities. This in the hope that someday, in a reflection such as this one, we can say that the past year may have been eventful, but above all good and social and fair.
PAX Director of Programmes