This week, the United Nations has a rather unusual observance, marking the Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation across two days, on 8 and 9 May.
On the surface, this commemoration does not look all that different from any number of days on which countries and peoples remember events of the past and the sacrifices made by their citizens in times of conflict. The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation is, however, quite different. It was inaugurated by an act of the General Assembly on 22 November 2004. Recognizing that many countries had days that commemorated the victory of the Allies in World War II, the UN wanted to do something different: it wanted to remember everyone who died in World War II.
World War II had the highest casualties of any conflict in history. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, it is estimated that between 70 and 85 million human beings lost their lives. That alone makes World War II also the greatest human catastrophe in history.
By initiating this Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation, the UN is attempting to accomplish at least two things: first, to remember the horrors of war; and secondly, to work for reconciliation. The General Assembly document is clear. The horrors of World War II were the impetus for the founding of the UN. The very raison d’être of the UN was and remains to prevent war. In the UN Charter member nations are called to “make every effort to settle all disputes by peaceful means.” The bedrock on which the UN was founded was the horror of war. For the UN and its member states, war is never a solution, is never a good thing.
While the remembrances and memorials which most countries observe—we have Memorial Day later this month—are proper and good, the UN is making an important point. The horrors of World War II are fading in most people’s memory. The vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet were born long after the end of that war. With the fading of the memory of the horror of war often comes a fading of the commitment to avoid war at all costs. For far too many people, war is something that happens on a video screen or in another country. It is something the other people do in other places than our own. The idea of New York, London, Paris, Rome, etc. being leveled like Berlin in 1944 simply does not enter into the imagination of most people. We are shocked by natural disasters, but do not seem to realize that war is far worse and far more destructive than any natural disaster.
The UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation echoes what popes have been teaching for decades. Pope John XXIII published Pacem in terris (“Peace on Earth”) on 11 April 1963. Who can forget the impassioned plea of Pope Paul VI in his address to the UN General Assembly on 4 October 1965: “No more war, war never again!”? Since then, every pope has denounced war and called for just and peaceful solutions to the world’s conflicts. One cannot say their voices have been heard. Can it be because we have forgotten the horrors of war?
CNEWA works in places where people do not have to be reminded of the horrors of war. They experience it in their cities (Mosul, Raqqa and others), in their villages, their churches and their very bodies. As so many today play endless war games on cell phones and videos, the UN Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation reminds us that war is not a game. War is never as far away as we think. War is the worst of all possible solutions. The UN knows this; popes and the Catholic Church know this, and have consistently condemned war as a solution to anything.
Are we aware of this and do we agree?