Fabian Hamilton on the peace legacy of Desmond Tutu

Although he was small in stature, Desmond Mpilo Tutu – who died aged 90 on Boxing Day last year – had a gigantic reputation and a huge presence on the international stage. He was one of the most important, outspoken and thoughtful activists in the historic struggle against apartheid in South Africa and spent ten years from 1986 to 1996 as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town.

As chair of the venerable organisation The Elders, he visited Cyprus on a number of occasions in 2008 and 2009, together with other former world leaders Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Jimmy Carter, to see how The Elders could work with both sides of the divided island towards reunification following the failed Annan Plan referendum of 2004. The visits left a deep impression on Tutu who said at the time, after his meetings with then Turkish Cypriot Leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, and the late president of the Republic of Cyprus, Dimitris Christofias: “Of course we were hoping that the people of Cyprus would be celebrating reunification by now. I always have to remind myself that these things take a long time. But I remain hopeful.” However, he went on to say, perceptively, that the Cyprus problem remained an open wound which has been – and continues to be – exploited for political ends.

Tutu came to the UK in 2011 to show the film he made at the time with four young Cypriot peace activists – two Greek speaking and two Turkish speaking. Titled Digging the Past in Search of the Future, it was shown to British politicians and civil society representatives.

Sadly, we are still waiting for the reunification of Cyprus which failed to happen in Tutu’s lifetime – but we do all need to remain hopeful.

Throughout his life, Desmond Tutu stood for equality and integrity and was a universal representation of morality. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his contribution to ending apartheid in South Africa and he is widely credited with coining the description of a united South Africa after apartheid as “the rainbow nation”. But he had strong opinions on so many issues across the world as well as across his own nation, and one of them was on nuclear weapons. As a patron of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Tutu lived to see it being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 following ICAN’s pivotal role in helping to achieve the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (UNTPNW) which, after more than fifty UN member states ratified it, became an article of international law on 22nd January 2021, in the teeth of vehement opposition from the nuclear armed states including the UK.

In an article in The Guardian in May 2010, Tutu said: “Disarmament is not an option for governments to take up or ignore. It is a moral duty owed by them to their citizens, and to humanity as a whole.” In that same article, he went on to say: “Sceptics tell us, and have told us for many years, that we are wasting our time pursuing the dream of a world without nuclear weapons, as it can never be realised. But more than a few people said the same about ending entrenched racial segregation in South Africa and abolishing slavery in the United States.”

In so many ways, Desmond Tutu was able to join together seemingly disparate human issues and connect them under the same set of moral values in a way that few politicians, world leaders and faith representatives have been able – or willing – to do. It’s why he will be greatly missed across so many areas of our lives.

One of Tutu’s best known achievements is, of course, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he chaired. It was an essential milestone in the transition from apartheid to full democracy but Tutu was able to connect the work he did in bringing the ‘rainbow nation’ together with his vision of world peace. If individuals can resolve their seemingly intractable differences through dialogue, trust and co-operation, then surely the conflicts which tear apart nations, and sometimes whole regions, are also capable of non-violent resolution too. Perhaps the best testament to the life of Desmond Tutu would be to test these ideas on an international stage – something which has never been more urgent than it is today.

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