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Give peace a chance

By Stuart Rees - posted Friday, 5 May 2017


There's a potential nuclear stand-off with North Korea, Syrian carnage continues, President Trump intends to enlarge his military arsenal, Britain and the US conclude more arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Collective punishment of the Gazans becomes more severe, destruction and famine destroy Yemen, starvation persists in Somalia and Sudan.

In lockstep with America and to show consistency in the me-first, only-me policies, Australia cuts its overseas aid contributions and joins the chest beating nationalist race to close borders and express indifference to other countries' miseries.

In the various might-is-right attitudes and policies, peace-making values and language are absent. According to the New York poet Denise Levertov, that's not surprising. She wrote that peace is an energy field more intense than war, that in contrast to a build-up of arms in preparation for war, promoting peace required different values, a different literacy and language.

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Consistent with Levertov's views, the Sydney Peace Foundation has always been interested in peace but far more committed to the goal of peace with justice.

In addition to references to justice, a peace vocabulary includes words such as non-violence, dialogue, inclusiveness, civility and human rights. Steps towards resolving current conflicts could be achieved if this language was used.

Genuine commitment to human rights would be displayed by outrage at the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Emphasis on the value of inclusiveness could replace bullying by Minister Dutton, could open minds and borders and challenge hostile perceptions of the other.

Respect for human rights and belief in the indivisibility of peoples also highlights the links between the health of human and the protection of a precious environment. That view needs advocacy not least because powerful corporate operators have a habit of treating nature's gifts only as a resource to be exploited.

Interest in isolationism is apparent in Trump's determination to build a wall, in Turnbull's linking of Australian values to his proposal to limit the entry of foreign workers, and in the UK's Brexit vote to recover Great Britain by leaving Europe. Yet successful peace negotiations have always depended on recognizing the interdependence of all peoples.

Striving for cooperation and mutual respect between previously hostile neighbours was meant to be the abiding lesson from the carnage of the Second World War. It is too easily forgotten that peace, not free trade, was the impetus for the creation of the European Union.

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In similar vein, the April 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland brought together all the warring parties in that country and insisted on similar dialogue between the British and Irish governments.

In the current North Korea impasse, the leaders of the West must have realized the irony that the potential great enemy China, is the country that seems able to express the value of dialogue. Chinese leaders don't seem impressed by Trump's swagger. They urge caution and argue that military force won't halt the North Korean threat. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi says, 'Amid challenges there is opportunity. Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks.'

Talk of peace usually leads to insistence on crafting and sustaining a civil society, even though that view may offend those who think that trade is always more important than human rights, that running an economy is the foremost responsibility of government.

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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