Politics of peace

By Jen Vail

In 2006 both factions of the Ivory Coast civil war temporarily laid down their arms to watch their national soccer team compete in its first-ever World Cup. At that moment they were not two factions of a bloody war, but rather one citizenry, supporting the eleven men representing their country with pride. The juxtaposition of peace and politics reemerges with the recent cancellation of the South African Peace Conference. The conference aimed to promote the 2010 South African World Cup, as well as the belief that soccer can bring peace and harmony to the world. Five Nobel Peace Prize winners planned to attend the conference, including retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former South African President F.W. de Klerk, and the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet (who stood against Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950). Upon hearing of the Dalai Lama’s invitation to the conference, the Chinese government appealed to South Africa to deny a visa for His Holiness. Despite complying with China’s publicly known wishes, South Africa denies China’s pressure as influential in its decision (South Africa is China’s greatest trading partner in Africa). Thabo Masebe, South African President Motlanthe’s spokesman, said that “We at the South African government have not invited the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa, because it would not be in the interests of South Africa.The attention of the world is on South Africa because of it being the host country for the 2010 World Cup, and we wouldn’t want anything to distract from that.”

Refusals to attend the conference soon followed from Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, and the executive director of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Gier Lundestad. Lundestad added that without the presence of the Dalai Lama, the entire committee could not attend. He further commented, “It is disappointing that South Africa, which through the long fight against apartheid has received so much solidarity from the world, doesn’t want to give that solidarity to others.” Tutu condemned the actions of the Chinese government “as disgraceful.and a total betrayal of our struggle history.”

This situation poses deeper concerns than ticket sales at the imminent World Cup. It problematizes the relationship between politics and peace, and questions whether the two can ever coexist harmoniously. It leads one to wonder whether there remains even one neutral, universal idea or object which can be understood worldwide as outside the realm of the politics which leads to the division and degradation of peoples. It seems that the coordinators of the South African Peace Conference saw the 2010 World Cup, and by extension soccer, as that x factor. A tournament where South Africans can view Tibetans not as the enemy of their greatest trade partner, but as a people struggling with oppression felt so recently by South Africans.

Politics has always involved itself in sports (even President Obama publicly put his vote behind North Carolina to win the men’s national basketball championship this year), an inevitability which does not have to be problematic. But when a global sporting event-which historically acts as a venue for collective love of a game and the spirit of healthy rivalries-becomes tainted by the politics of three nations, politics has overstepped its bounds.

If China opposes the Dalai Lama attending a peace conference for the World Cup due to his relationship with China, then China should drop its men’s team from the tournament to show its disapproval. Or refuse to ever play against the Tibetan national team, once it forms. But to take its personal history with Tibet and the Dalai Lama out on the rest of the world is not only detrimental to all those involved in the World Cup but selfish, immature, and shortsighted. China is na’ve if it thinks that its actions to prevent the Dalai Lama from entering South Africa have done anything less than paint His Holiness as victim and the Chinese government as oppressor. Likewise, the South African government is na’ve if it thinks denying entry to a man who fought against oppression in his country will not be seen as hypocritical and humiliating by its citizens who fought their own battle with oppression. It sends a terrible signal that politics trump peace, and that a nation would benefit more from maintaining trade ties than defending its country’s history and values. One nation only concerned with peace within its borders which allows politics to dictate its involvement in fighting for peace in other nations, condemns the world to fighting a universal battle in isolation, and thwarts any collective action towards peace.

Jen Vail ’09 can be reached at [email protected]