ISSUE 28
WINTER1999/2000
Peace Matters index
 

 

 

   

looking both ways

 
 


ONLINE contents

- synergy
- peacemaking in the 20thc
- peace museums
- engineering the future
- people on war – a survey

 


powerless?
Before the Hague Conference, the Pope sent this message to a peace crusader: ‘May the century that has done so much for the expansion and improvement of weapons of war do something noble before it closes, namely, create the ways and means to make it possible for the voice of reason to assert itself in international conflicts’.
No, not the Hague Appeal for Peace conference in 1999, or weighty words from John Paul II. This was 1899 and the Pope was Leo XIII. The occasion was the first Hague Peace Conference, which lasted six weeks and emerged with just one signed agreement – to try to arbitrate international conflicts instead of slogging it out on the battlefield.

There followed a century marked by total war, genocide, massive civilian slaughter, and the development of weapons of mass destruction.

But it was an astonishing century for other reasons. Our species explored inner consciousness and outer space, listened to the sounds of the infant universe and investigated the smallest particles of matter, devised benign machines of awesome power or delicate precision, transformed communications, transport and medicine, and extended the frontiers of art and imagination.

Opposition to war also grew in strength and numbers. This was most effective where war-resisters have been willing to accept a variety of witness, and to adapt to change. The story of the Mennonites – the largest number of US conscientious objectors were Mennonite – is a fine example.

a model from america
Descended from a 16th century branch of European radical Protestants, Mennonites lived by commitment to the ‘peaceable kingdom’ of their theology and rejection of the worldly state. Their main concern was to be left alone in self-contained communities to worship God according to their conscience and tradition. Their pacifism was absolute, its expression nonresistant.

These ‘quiet people’ have had a long history of persecution from all quarters. In the 20th century, for refusing to fight in World War I they were imprisoned, sometimes tortured, and often subjected to mob abuse. By World War 2, however, they were accepted as COs without question and allowed to perform alternative service.

Mennonites from different sects, always decentralised and consequently often in conflict with each other’s expressions of the faith, now found themselves together, living in Civilian Public Service camps, working on farms and in hospitals. As a result, they got to know, accept and appreciate each other.

Stimulated by this contact, a new generation moved into the post-war world ready to question existing Mennonite practice. Was separatism in fact irresponsible? Was nonresistance in effect to condone wrongdoing? Shouldn’t they engage actively in resisting conflicts and injustices beyond the limited scope of the local community?

Increasingly they began to leave their rural homesteads to obtain higher education, enter professions and embark on a worldwide programme of relief and service. The Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and anti-nuclear protest, also pushed younger Mennonites on to express war-resistance more assertively. One group, learning about nonviolent struggle, and seeing that registration for the draft, even as non-combatants, implied co-operation with the military machine, began to resist conscription altogether.

Within a century Mennonite nonresistance developed a new concept of ‘peacemaking’, informed by personal pacifist commitment and moving towards open and public peace witness. In the 1970s a Mennonite could admit that he felt truer to his beliefs ‘sitting in a jail cell outside the Nevada nuclear test site than round a church committee table’; in the 1980s a young relief worker in Nicaragua could say that ‘silence and passivity are actually complicity in violence’.

This new contact with the world had other consequences: ‘Old enemies (Catholics, mainline Protestants, radical Anabaptists) are finding each other in the practice of peace.’

Many conservative Mennonites found it difficult not to see all this as unacceptable compromise. But compromise isn’t as dirty as it’s painted. Compromise which comes from rethinking of profound commitments can be the most creative political act we may ever perform.

compromise = negotiation
Adam Michnik is the editor of a leading Polish daily newspaper. He’s in a good position to look at recent world history and provide an analysis of protest and opposition. For him there’s a choice, between ‘revolution’ and ‘reform’.

Revolutionaries demand exposure, destruction, and punishment for the forces they oppose. Any compromise with evil, they say, is tantamount to support for it. Reformers, however, see it differently. Revolution holds the risks of ‘social suicide, civil war, new wrongs, new victims’. Where revolutionary protesters stress the great divide between them and their oppressors, reformers will look for what they have in common. Negotiation most successfully takes off from areas of common concern.

To revolutionaries, the compromise demanded by reformers ‘is opportunism and lack of principle’. The reformer, however, accepts ‘that it’s in the nature of compromise that some principles are abandoned; that victory isn’t absolute; that yesterday’s enemy must be allowed a place under the sun.’

If reformers on every side of a conflict can be supported – by mediators, by outsiders, from within – then the chances of peaceful reconciliation, Michnik maintains, are high. ‘That’s what happened in Poland’s velvet revolution.’ If aggressors/oppressors are offered no prospect of safety and prosperity, they will cling to power and continue their programmes of bloodshed. If they’re violently overthrown, yes, there may at last be justice – but also ruined economies, devastated lands, orphaned children, traumatised refugees, countless new graves, and an enduring legacy of bitterness and revenge.

The reformer’s path, negotiation, may also bring bitterness and disappointment. There may be injustice, and unpaid debts. But those who would have died are alive, and the idea of freeing the world from war has put down another firm root.

looking back
If, dissatisfied with pacifism’s apparent failure in the 20th century, you make your own search there for roots of future peace, you may be hearteningly surprised. But you need to look further than pacifism’s few acknowledged successes to see how strong those roots already are.

To begin with, the first Hague Peace Conference wasn’t a total flop: it led the way to (among other organisations) the International Court of Justice and the United Nations. Some of us may see institutions like these as slow, timid, toothless, or corruptible, self-serving and cosmetic. But suppose they’d never been set up at all? Some of us may question, say, the selection of Nobel Peace Prize winners – but suppose work for peace wasn’t even thought worth recognition? Some of us may look cynically at recent state expressions of remorse for atrocities and abuses. Empty gestures if you like – but what if there were none? Pacifist organisations may not – yet – have succeeded in abolishing war; but suppose there’d been no will to create them? These are all small – or possibly pretty large – steps forward for humankind. And the pressure of peace-seeking public opinion was behind them all.
Peace movements contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism. Peace movements have maintained awareness of nuclear threat and flashpoints of tension, of humanitarian issues and techniques for nonviolent problem-solving. Institutions, centres and committees for peace studies and research, conflict prevention and resolution, arms control and conversion, peace-making and peace-keeping, disarmament, international co-operation and reconciliation, nonviolence and civil disobedience – all these and more have sprung up worldwide, command respect and get funded.

‘Peace’ itself is no longer just a blurry utopian dream: it’s become a practical aim to work for, even if people think they can’t yet do it without so-called ‘peace-keeping’ armies. As for armies, in developed countries they’ve been finding it hard to get recruits. ‘Dedication to Mom, country and apple-pie has vanished.’ This may not be for principled reasons, but unpopular armies in an age when conscription has also been on the way out are a healthy trend. A Turkish conscript fighting the Kurds said: ‘The toughest war is against your own presence there against your will: your civil war against yourself.’

Law courts have set peaceful precedents too. In the UK protesters against the export of Hawk fighter planes were acquitted; and a jury finding an anti-nuclear campaigner technically guilty of criminal damage told the judge they unanimously agreed she had ‘reasonable cause’. There will be more examples like these.

It’s in such individual action and witness that the impulse towards peace and reconciliation most inspiringly appears. The PPU’s Sybil Morrison used to say that when you sow an acorn, you won’t live to see the full-grown tree; but the important thing is to plant the seed. Away from public view, acorns of peace have been quietly sown everywhere, often requiring suffering and heroism in the planting. Here’s a few which got noticed:

> In 1977 Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh wrote an open letter to the military junta, denouncing their ‘dirty war’ of torture and ‘disappearances’; he wrote ‘without hope of being listened to, in certainty of persecution, but faithful to the commitment I made a long time ago to bear witness in difficult times.’ The following day, he, too, disappeared.

> In 1997 Russian journalist Olga Bagautdinova was kidnapped by Chechens. Her captors faced life sentences or execution. She knew that one had a wife, small children, and no work; another, an economics student, had been trapped in the conflict with Russia. Olga, though frightened, angry and repelled, refused to give evidence against them. ‘You can’t punish war-mutilated souls with murder.’

> Aysenur Zarakolu is the head of an Istanbul publishing company. Since 1984 she’s constantly been taken to court, imprisoned and fined for the pro-Kurdish books on her list. Her message: ‘I’m not prepared to live elsewhere: it’s difficult to make a country more democratic from the outside. We want Turkey to be a country in which people of different religions and races can live together. If you struggle, you must sometimes pay for it. We will go on.’

> In Rwanda, children – orphaned children – are offering reconciliation: ‘Revenge isn’t the answer. We have to learn to live together again’.
looking forward

The 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace conference was the largest international peace conference in history, attended by 10,000 activists, government representatives and community leaders from over 100 countries. Organised by peoples, not governments, it launched the Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice for the 21st Century, with programmes for conflict prevention, human rights implementation, peacekeeping, disarmament, and, especially, tackling the root causes of war.

The conference saw itself as an example of ‘the new, or democratic, diplomacy: collaboration of civil society, governments and intergovernmental organisations’. This kind of co-operation has already brought about a treaty to ban landmines, the statute creating the International Criminal Court, and the World Court judgement on the illegality of nuclear weapons.

The conference also stressed that ‘peace’ is not only the absence of war but also the absence of economic and social injustice. Environmentalists, human rights and equality advocates, humanitarian aid and development workers, and others who’ve traditionally not thought themselves peace activists, have begun to work together for ‘a sustainable culture of peace’.

Well, isn’t that something? Tough on war, tough on the causes of war, and only one of many peace initiatives around the world.

Work for peace can be done by anyone, anywhere. You can practise Christian ethics without necessarily believing in Christ. You can object to war without necessarily being a signed-up pacifist. Remember Muhammad Ali, a notable practitioner of organised sporting violence, refusing the 1960s draft (‘I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong’), facing a prison sentence, losing his boxing title – and so setting an example?

Pacifism is an idea, and it can fertilise political thinking anywhere. Mikhail Gorbachev recently said: ‘Without its thinkers, any society is doomed. They are the yeast of a nation.’ The 21st century needs its pacifists, of course. Their job is to keep this superb idea in people’s minds, and to show how it can work. But it doesn’t depend on a movement built round it alone. Anything that undermines or discredits armed violence is a step towards a world which, one day, might be at peace. Committed pacifists have to look for what they have in common with those who aren’t, and find bridges to cross the divide.

Such bridges can be found in all kinds of work as well as peace campaigns. Education is an obvious example, which the PPU constantly promotes. The Mennonites have established open colleges where non-Mennonites can study and see pacifism in action: student Mubarak Awad, for example, found himself wondering ‘Why don’t the Palestinians try non-violence?’ and went home to set up a centre in Jerusalem to promote it. ‘Only education can lead to peace and tolerance’, as an education worker in Afghan refugee camps said recently. It takes time, but maybe less than you fear. Some of those acorns are saplings already.


looking at each other
In 1986, Chilean writer and activist Ariel Dorfman was held at gunpoint by a young army recruit. ‘In order to save my life, I did the one thing I’ve been perfecting all my life: I tried to communicate with him. My words’ – he spoke to the gunman of chocolate bars, his sons, home life – ‘ broke the isolating circle he’d drawn round himself. He saw me as a human being, and spared my life.

‘My action that night may be a good tactic for survival, but isn’t one I would recommend for a long-term coexistence. There, along with establishing our sameness and brotherhood, we have to create something more than a mirror in which the more powerful looks and sees himself. We have to create acknowledgement and, above all, respect for our differences. We have to go beyond tolerance to recognition and dialogue: peace can only come from the act of recognising one another.’

Margaret Melicharova

 
         
         
     

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