Over the past months, world affairs have been dominated by the war on Iraq. Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies staff and members were involved in the protests against the war and provided commentary on radio, television and in newspapers. The Centre also held a brainstorming session on non-violent alternatives to war. From this discussion, some important elements emerged as part of a non-violent response to not only the war in Iraq but to war in general: even-handedness in media reporting; support for the role of the United Nations (UN); and an agenda for dialogue. These elements are based on the observations that Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, two famous supporters of non-violence, might have made about the war in Iraq.
Albert Einstein warned that militarism - a policy for power to be maintained by armed forces - destroyed the democratic spirit of a nation and the dignity of individuals. To challenge militarism is to insist on dialogue to achieve respect, understanding and common humanitarian goals. Such dialogue also contributes to the spirit of a non-violent and inclusive democracy. Mahatma Gandhi objected to violence because, he said, even when violence appeared to do good, the evil it did was permanent. Gandhian perspectives on non-violence emphasise a search for truth to reveal people's real interests and needs. In times of war such a search would require even-handedness in reporting and even-handedness in treating prisoners of war. There should be no double standards.
Three ways forward towards a non-violent future:
1. Even-handedness in media reporting
It is imperative to insist on even-handedness in the media, and a genuinely critical level of reporting and commentary. The use of euphemisms that conceal more than they reveal, such as "collateral damage", "friendly fire", "regime change" and the "war on terrorism" should be avoided. Even-handed media reporting of conflict and violence involves the use of terminology that does not sanitise, justify or promote conflict and violence. Media fascination with the attributes of guided missiles, the power of bombs, the technology and armour of tanks and the killing capabilities of unseen aircraft needs to be balanced by consideration of the devastation of bombing and the costs of such destruction. Even-handed reporting involves exposure of the hypocrisy and double standards rampant in politics and international relations, where others are condemned or attacked for having the same weapons as their attackers. It would involve awareness and avoidance of racism, prejudice, bigotry and intolerance.
2. Support for the role of the United Nations
In the period before this war, treatment of the United Nations by the American and Australian governments was at times dismissive, destructive and hypocritical. They disparaged, voted against or refused to participate in important initiatives such as the addition of a protocol to the Convention against Torture permitting the inspection of places of detention (Australia was sensitive about its treatment of refugees) and the implementation of the International Criminal Court (America was determined not to permit its military personnel to appear before any such body). The Bush Administration's approach to the United Nations Security Council was to attempt to bluff, bully and bribe its members into endorsing the American view of the need for war against Iraq, and to charge the UN with failure and irrelevance if and when it did not comply. Both approaches demean the United Nations. Moreover, both obscure the point that in many ways the UN handled the recent crisis on its merits, and its response was right and proper.
Several points should be made, loudly and clearly, about the United Nations. Its Charter, Declaration of Human Rights and activities in a wide range of areas, including more than 30 peacekeeping missions around the world, represent both the best enunciation of humanitarian aspirations yet achieved, and the most praiseworthy attempt at their international implementation in existence. The UN is far from perfect - possibly in some areas quite far from it - but it is by far the best organisation available. It deserves our strongest support. Moreover, the United Nations should coordinate the post-war reconstruction of Iraq in order to ensure that peace is not just the end of violence, but a peace with justice, inclusive democracy and respect for human rights.
3. An agenda for dialogue
Dialogue for peace is based on a sovereignty of values, as expressed by a commitment to non-violence, a respect for human rights, promotion of plans for worldwide disarmament and a determination to bolster the resources of the United Nations. These values include even-handedness, generosity and respect in the treatment of people. This should apply in the conduct of war, particularly in the treatment of prisoners, civilians, and the wounded. It should apply at home, in schools and universities, in the workplace, on the playing field, in politics and international forums. It should apply to all issues of contention, such as treatment of indigenous peoples, the elderly, the handicapped, and the unemployed. Such even-handedness, generosity and respect would lay the foundations for universal non-violence.
There are several locations in which Australians could contribute to such dialogue:
- Within Australia with citizens and media representatives who continue to believe that the war in Iraq has been a just war and that the American military can achieve security. Dialogue also needs to occur with Australian Muslims who might believe that Australia supports a war against Islam;
- With Iraqis in Australia and in Iraq. In any agenda for peace with justice, consultation with the people most affected has to be a priority. Including the Iraqi peoples in Australia intends to give them a voice and to allow them to take ownership of the process;
- In different parts of South East Asia where moderate leaders of governments and of non-government organisations have been appealing for dialogue to promote cooperation for peace; and
- With citizens of the United States who share the perspective that violence is counter-productive and that the peaceful reconstruction of Iraq needs to be managed by the Iraqi people under the auspices of the United Nations.
Dialogue must cross ethnic and cultural boundaries, differences in age and gender, religious and political boundaries, local and national interests. Such dialogue is essential in the handling of problems that ignore all boundaries, such as AIDS and the new Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Without dialogue for peace and non-violence by everyone, we face an increasingly difficult future and reduce our chances of shaping our own destinies. In all walks of life, at the highest levels of diplomacy and in personal communication with ordinary citizens, dialogue about the means and ends of non-violence can contribute to understanding and trust and thereby build peace with justice. None of this is unrealistic. It should not be dismissed as utopian. But it does require commitment and application. The objective should be to make peace and non-violence as central to our world as war and violence have been.