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Can we unite for peace?

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by Keith Best

If you are a peace activist you have to take the long view.

Some suggest that real progress is made only in the wake of a disaster or major conflagration. And certainly the ill-fated League of Nations emanated from the First World War and the major instruments that we cherish today mostly came out of the ashes of the Second World War – still within living memory of many. Yet there has been progress without such a draconian stimulus and we should not forget that. I take the view that there is a ratchet effect – that having established norms for behaviour and human dignity the clock cannot fully be turned back.

There will always be aberrations – the use of chemical weapons in Syria and earlier in Iraq, the genocide and other atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia and recently in Rakhine State in Myanmar. But these events are now judged against established norms, even if the international mechanisms and realpolitik frustratingly seem powerless to prevent them. The genie of the universality of human rights is out of the bottle and cannot be forced back.

The danger is not so much in the erosion of these norms but in their seeming irrelevance to real situations and to people’s everyday lives. I was with human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff in London recently and have just finished reading his latest book, “The Ordinary Virtues.” He and a small team visited different troubled parts of the world to see how communities coped with difference and living together, especially in the aftermath of major upheaval and whether those communities saw their priorities through the prism of international human rights or the practical, local, daily means of living together i.e. the ordinary virtues. Overwhelmingly, he found that it was the latter. Further, he finds that human rights and the ordinary virtues are often in tension. Today we are living a genuine crisis of the universal amidst a return of the sovereign. As he states, “Everywhere sovereign states are pushing back against universal obligations,
whether it be the refugee convention, the laws of war or the human rights covenants. It is not just China and Russia that insist on their sovereignty. Ordinary citizens in democratic states too, faced with the claims of refugees and desperate migrants at their borders, fearful of terror attacks, are telling their leaders: ‘protect us from strangers.’ In an age of fear, the ordinary virtues can’t function without security and it is doubtful that human rights can turn back this tide. In a global age of threats from enraged fanatics, the sovereign returns and the universal loses its grip, not just on rulers but also on those they rule.”

If we are to be successful in promoting peace we must match our own lofty aspirations of universal human rights to the local condition, and to the hopes and fears of people who live out these tensions in their everyday lives.

When we ask, “Can we unite for peace?” we need to be sure what it is we are being asked to unite around. This year we celebrate – and that is the right word – twenty years of the International Criminal Court which, despite all its criticism and boycotting from some powerful nations, has delivered on prosecutions. It is one of the most significant advances in international law – for the first time in history the justiciability of individuals, and not just states, held to account for their international crimes.

Of even more recent origin is the concept of the Responsibility to Protect – in effect, a reversal of the obligation of the citizen to the state to owe unfettered allegiance, including laying down one’s life at the state’s behest, with its origins in feudal times, to the responsibility and obligations of the state towards its own citizens, i.e. to safeguard and care for them. This is a new dimension to the social contract. It may be seen as a further step away from the Westphalian order in which states were entitled to do what they wished within their own territory, without external interference, to one of accepted intervention by the international community when states fail to protect their citizens or engage in genocide or act contrary to other international norms.

The nations that engaged in conflict in 1914 regarded war as an extension of foreign policy by other means and a legitimate vehicle by which to seize or to safeguard trading opportunities or territory. It is notable how those sentiments are now so outmoded, to the extent that nearly all modern conflicts are within states and not between them. They are sometimes horrendous, as civil wars often are, with neighbour and family pitched against each other. And they are often used as proxy wars by other states such as we see played out in Syria and Yemen, with the greatest number of
casualties being women and children rather than armed combatants.

We should especially support those local initiatives in which the ordinary virtues enable peace and harmony to be maintained and provide mechanisms where disputes or disharmony can be settled amicably. The application without fear or favour of the law is an essential element, as is giving a voice to the often voiceless in a majoritarian state. I am a world federalist not just to see accountable and effective global institutions but to see federalist principles applied within states and also regional collectives of states, as
safeguards for minorities

Today’s retreat into narrow nationalism features talk and action of building walls to exclude rather than include people; of far right, nationally introverted movements achieving electoral success in democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Germany, Italy and the USA; and also the toxic ingredient of protectionism, as advocated by the American President and raising the prospect of a retaliatory trade war. The analogy with what led to the First World War is chilling. Yet always the mistake of security forces throughout the world is to think that future wars will be fought along the same lines as their predecessors. Today terrorism, covert state action in other states and cyber warfare can cripple a country’s means of survival more effectively than any blockade.

We in the peace movement have our work cut out. Yet we must persevere. Being a peace activist is often unglamorous work. It involves not only speeches and demonstrations, but also the lobbying, organizing, influencing – the backroom work that pays off the best. That is our experience in WFM-IGP with the Coalitions for the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect – getting agreement among different NGO and state actors for a common strategy and then pursuing it over many years before benefits are seen.

Another example is the successful effort to bring more transparency and accountability to the selection of the Secretary-General and other UN officials, the “One for 7 Billion” campaign.

My conclusion is not a pessimistic one. The human rights advances that have been and continue to be made cannot be wholly reversed – they are now part of the human story. Likewise with the emphasis on climate change and women’s rights. What we seek to avoid, therefore, is not the elimination of these advances, which are well established, but an aberration such as the kind of greater conflict we saw twice in the last century. We have enough examples of recent history to be fully alive to the dangers and to know the solutions. We can speak not just out of aspiration but also from experience. That is why the voice of the peace movement will remain relevant and why, especially working together, we can continue to demonstrate the famous dictum of Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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