Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

14th May 2000

UN seeks peace and observes Vesak

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NEW YORK- At a time when the United Nations is trying to bring stability to three of the world's newest battle zones - namely Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone - the General Assembly's recognition of Vesak is also an acknowledgement of the need for peace and human spirituality advocated by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

A strong believer in a world without wars, Annan is following in the footsteps of the only UN Secretary-General who was a Buddhist: U.Thant of Burma (now Myanmar) who held that position in 1961-1971.

"As we enter a new century, the UN will place tolerance at the centre of all our efforts for peace and progress," says Annan, echoing some of the teachings of Lord Buddha.

And very appropriately, an organisation whose major preoccupation is world peace decided last December to observe Vesak as one of the holy days of the year. The commemoration of Vesak within the precincts of the UN on Monday May 18 is a first for any religion.

Last December, in what was described as "precedent-setting," the 188-member General Assembly decided that Vesak be recognised internationally, and in particular, at UN headquarters and its field offices overseas.

The proposal for "international recognition" of Vesak came about three years after the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) fought a relentless battle against Western nations which tried to prevent the General Assembly from declaring Ramadan and Hajj Festivals as UN holidays.

When the Muslim countries, who had been assured of overwhelming Third World support, threatened to go for a vote in the Assembly, the Western states, including the US, Britain and France, pulled out fearing a humiliating defeat.

Wisely though, Sri Lanka opted for an international day of observance for Vesak and thereby avoided a potential battle in the General Assembly.

The only drawback of a UN holiday is that the entire UN system shuts down. But on Vesak Day, the UN remains open and its auditorium, conference rooms and public lobbies, have been made available to commemorate the thrice blessed day.

Recently, the Sri Lankan government has been crucified in the media for losing a string of UN elections.

But the losses Sri Lanka suffered should not detract from its success in piloting a resolution that eventually resulted in Vesak being declared a Day of Observance in the world body.

The proposal to seek UN recognition for Vesak was originally a recommendation made by the International Buddhist Conference in Colombo in November 1998.

But it was given high priority by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who personally canvassed world political leaders during the General Assembly sessions last year.

Unlike the canvassing that goes on for Sri Lankan candidates at UN elections much of it based on personalities the Vesak resolution was of primary national interest.

On Kadirgamar's instructions, Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador John de Saram spared no efforts or resources to push through the resolution in an Organisation representing countries with diverse religions.

Addressing the UN last October, Kadirgamar made a plea before the General Assembly: "Allow me to suggest to this August Assembly that as the third millennium of human history opens, it would be fitting to recall the immense contribution to the understanding of the human condition that the teachings of the Buddha made over 2,500 years ago," he said.

"I suggest further that it would be appropriate to honour Buddha by declaring Vesak, the sacred day for Buddhists the world over, be observed as a special day by the United Nations", he added.

Kadirgamar also told delegates that Vesak marks the three important events in the life of the Buddha: his birth, his attainment of Enlightenment and his passing away, all occurring on the full moon day of the month of May. "The government of Sri Lanka would commend this resolution to the attention of the General Assembly", he said.

The resolution was eventually co-sponsored by 34 countries ranging from the US and Russia to Pakistan and Ukraine. The only notable absentees from the list of co-sponsors were Japan and China.

Ambassador Sergey Lavrov of Russia, who was one of the first co-sponsors, told Ambassador de Saram that he not only has very happy memories of his diplomatic assignment at the Russian embassy in Colombo in the 1970s but also distinctly remembers Vesak.

Last month Acting Foreign Minister Lakshman Kiriella broke journey in New York on his way to a meeting in Havana to personally thank the ambassadors and diplomats from the 34 co-sponsoring countries, all of whom were hosted for lunch at the UN delegate's dining room.

"The message of the Buddha is timeless and relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago," Kiriella said.

The Buddha's message was even more relevant to the UN which was an international organisation whose primary goal was the pursuit of world peace, a philosophy in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism, he added.

On Monday, the Minister of Buddha Sasana, Lakshman Jayakody, will be the chief guest at the UN's first-ever Vesak celebrations.

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