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Peace as absence of war or true peace with justice? Prospects for 2004

By Stuart Rees - posted Thursday, 8 April 2004

Two assumptions affect my interpretation of the means of achieving peace in 2004 and beyond.

  1. If "peace" means only a cessation of hostilities, the controversies that provoked conflict will recur. Only the goal of peace with justice would address underlying human rights issues and thus increase the likelihood of peace agreements being permanent.
  2. The struggle to achieve peace with justice refers to creative, non destructive ways of exercising power: whether in personal relationships; in the design of social policies; or in the conduct of international affairs. I assume a direct link between power exercised in private, personal relationships and that which is practised within bureaucracies or in negotiations which affect the direction of international relations.

Influenced by these assumptions, the task of promoting peace with justice - what Denise Levertov calls "Peace, not only the absence of war" - requires an understanding of the consequences of exercising power in different ways plus a familiarity with the philosophy and language of non violence. Such understanding needs to be coupled to an awareness as to how undue respect for age-old notions of sovereignty has become an obstacle to peace with justice. These form three interdependent topics: the creative exercise of power; non violence translated into policy and practice; sovereignty redefined so that the goal of attaining universal human rights can be realised.


The Exercise of Power

In the conduct of government and in the management of institutions, a familiar way of exercising power is top-down, controlling, one-dimensional, almost certainly dogmatic and frequently authoritarian. Such practice values obedience and does not tolerate challenge. It is Machiavellian in its culture. It blindly gives to politicians the prescription that the only way to security lies in the possession of overwhelming power. Hence the massive increases in defence budgets, in the apparatus for spying, for organizing military intervention and for conducting wars on terrorism.

An apparently more democratic way of exercising power is to find a place for the voices of opposition by insisting that in the agenda for peace with justice, unofficial as well as official perspectives will be included. This inclusion of official and unofficial points of view is two dimensional, even pluralistic. Within this political culture the voices of the powerless - such as those of religious and ethnic minorities, of women and children, of people living in poverty and even of prisoners - may be heard. Such two-dimensionality is more open than the one-dimensionality already discussed, but may flatter to deceive. Questions about the means of peace with justice may be asked but only within the guidelines of official policies and always constrained by a media which is either unaware of non-violent uses of power or is disinterested in such practice. The status quo bias of such a dominant media - some performers on Sydney commercial radio come to mind - would not entertain the possibility that the armed forces of a State may also be dubbed terrorists.

The means and ends of peace with justice demand a creative exercise of power in every country and culture, in every context of life. Such multi-dimensional ways of thinking and acting require that discipline boundaries be crossed, that the constraints of official policies and media practices be challenged and that the beautiful alternatives to destructive uses of power be removed from the periphery of life to centre stage. This would involve policies to address poverty, to promote disarmament, challenge militarism and cut back on defence forces.

It would generate a culture which pays due respect to Indigenous peoples' right to development and would ensure that the human rights of vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers be recognised. In Jacques Derrida's terms, it would be a culture of cosmopolitanism and forgiveness. In the words of the Canadian poet Robert W. Service, it would challenge us to live at peace with the environment and to recognise that such peace-enhancing interdependence would affect individuals' health and self respect. Service uses the word "wild" as a metaphor to invite people to cross boundaries. Applied to contemporary events he might have been inviting anyone to learn more about Islam and to engage in dialogue with leaders of Islam. Better to do that than to demonise their societies as extremist or as uncivilized.

Expressing Non Violence

In an age of wars, terrorism and the assumption by governments that violence is a way to seek redress or to provide for security, the encouragement of non violence has never been more needed. Fascination with violence needs to be replaced with literacy about non violence. How might this be achieved?

At the interpersonal level the opportunity exists to engage in dialogue with opponents as well as friends, with enemies as well as allies. Dialogue presupposes a willingness to comprehend perspectives that derive from different cultural and religious experiences. It requires a certain humility about one's own position, however convinced we are about our point of view. We cannot afford the righteousness of Bush, Blair or Howard. Polarisation of views hinders the chances of even beginning a dialogue. Care needs to be taken to overcome that tendency to rush to judgement about opponents, to discourage that need to always look for the opportunity to justify one's own position.


Bertolt Brecht wrote powerfully on the non violence inherent in dialogue which involves a willingness to hear and consider another's views, saying in "Listen While You Speak":

Don't say you are right too often teacher.
Let the students realise it.
Don't push the truth:
It's not good for it.
Listen while you speak.

Non violence can also be expressed in social policies that protect the vulnerable and that provide for people's security without resort to militarism or to militaristic ways of thinking. By "militarism" I mean the assumption that forms of armed control exerted by police forces, armies or even by security guards are the way to protect a nation's citizens and institutions. Such militarism often results in expensive forms of state violence and makes few contributions to peace with justice. To say this is not to deny people's need for safety and protection, or to ignore the responsibility of police forces to ensure the rule of law. But it does mean that we should never be fooled into thinking that bigger police forces, more prisons and larger defence budgets will produce peace with justice. On the contrary, in contemporary Australia I am convinced that people's security would be best enhanced by radical changes in social policies: generous maternity leave, a bolstering of resources for universal healthcare and a re-commitment to achieve full employment.

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Article edited by Jenny Ostini.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited extract of an address to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, on 18th March 2004 entitled "Peace in 2004: local, national and international prospects."

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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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