Peace is not the absence of war
Today is the International Day of Peace, as declared by the United Nations. It recalls the noble words of its 1945 Charter to save us “from the scourge of war”. Thus, the labours of generations of politicians, diplomats and security forces got framed by the dogma that war is always bad, and peace is an unquestionable good that must prevail.
War, per se, is not illegal. It is permitted in the UN Charter to counter crimes of aggression. The concept of a “just war” also exists under international humanitarian law. War may also be necessary, indeed moral. Historically, genocides and crimes against humanity have been ended through the use of force.
At the same time, our peacemaking track record is unimpressive. Over the past half-century, it is hard to think of many armed conflicts that have truly, fully ceased. Instead, most grumble along, boiling up or simmering down periodically. Think of the historical conflicts in Palestine or Kashmir, or the many struggles on Myanmar’s periphery, or the insurgencies in the Maghreb and in the Sahel. Many national authorities are preoccupied with persistent internal divisions, such as Pakistan which is facing unrest in tribal areas and South Sudan which has seen ethnic violence.
Internationally, the UN has spent billions of dollars and deployed tens of thousands of peacekeepers in scores of countries. Dozens of UN envoys along with those of regional bodies such as the European Union, African Union, and ASEAN criss-cross warzones. Think-tanks and NGOs are busy, peacebuilding projects abound, and peace conferences fronted by eminent personalities fill the calendar.
Some efforts are sanctified by portentous UN Security Council resolutions on the increasingly rare occasions of consensus among the great powers. Sticks and carrots are dangled through sanctions and aid inducements.
But this well-practised modus operandi of the peace business produces meagre returns. It may put a temporary lid on violence as protagonists under pressure sign any piece of paper that allows a breather and chance to regroup. Then the conflict flares up again until the next ceasefire or “peace” deal. And so, the cycle goes on.
Worse still, there is concern that premature peace meddling prolongs conflict as happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina and on the Korean Peninsula. That is because conflicts end only when they are ready to do so. Ideally, that would be when underlying causes or differences have been resolved, including accountability and justice for wrongs inflicted. But, in reality, that hardly ever happens and so wars end only when one side has won decisively. Think World War II or the Vietnam War.
But modern war-making is multidimensional and much more resilient, especially when external sponsors pitch in on different sides. The durability of any subsequent peace depends on two key factors. First is the viciousness of the way in which the earlier war was waged. The reality is that nowadays, appalling atrocities are the norm, and raped, tortured, starved, dispossessed survivors are in no mood to reconcile with their assailants. The second factor then kicks in – the magnanimity or wisdom of victors. This is almost always in short supply.
The irony is that although we know a lot about waging war, we are not smart at making peace. It is easy to award Nobel Peace Prizes, but many winners are embarrassed when their efforts do not withstand the test of time. Prominent examples are former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed.
That is why, all peace is provisional and once a society has tasted violence, it is perpetually prone to it, especially when Hollywood, Bollywood, and Netflix myth-makers get into shaping the remembrance of history.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that endless armed conflicts have accumulated over the decades: some 170 of different types are now raging across the world. The numbers who died directly in combat increased approximately three-fold to 120,000 last year compared to mortality in the early 2000s. Such statistics give a partial view of the human cost of war, as they underestimate the indirect consequences that fall largely on civilians. These have increased greatly over past decades as wars last longer and become more vicious. The United Nations estimates that currently a quarter of the global population – two billion people – live in conflict areas.
The war-and-peace theory holds that it is not supposed to be this way. As more of us get educated, healthier, and better off, we are supposed to become more peace-loving because that serves our self-interest in achieving stable prosperity. Besides, with more of our essential needs satisfied, and more of our higher needs for voice and esteem realised through representative democracy, we should have less reason to fear or fight others.
Even if we do, we have a plethora of norms and entitlements, laws and institutions to constrain us. Thus, our disputes – within communities and nations, or between them – should be settled tranquilly, informed by the rationality of facts and balanced give-and-take.
Indeed, global indicators on poverty alleviation, human development, and institutional capacity suggest that despite periodic crises, including currently around energy and food, we have made historically unprecedented progress in most economic, social, and political dimensions. But that has not brought world peace. Does that mean the theory is wrong?
Not necessarily, because history also suggests that more education and development bring greater enlightenment about what is wrong with our world as well as the aspiration and capability to do something about it. Most of our social and political advancements have come through fighting for them.
For example, each of the human rights that we take for granted nowadays were achieved through struggle. This happened first in one pioneering setting, and then, as particular rights such as to food and water, or to vote or not to be tortured, got codified, they became universal.
But without the sturdy defence of hard-won rights, they easily flip into wrongs, thereby triggering renewed conflict. And some rights are yet to be fully realised everywhere, such as the right for women and girls to learn in Afghanistan or for them to have reproductive choice in parts of the United States.
Those who enjoy such rights in peace and comfort have no moral standing to stop others from acquiring them. While peaceful means to do so are preferable, conflict often breaks out when authoritarian regimes thwart progress.
Looking ahead, yet more conflicts loom with new geopolitical tensions, and novel insecurities from climate change, pandemics, resource competition, and dysfunctional globalisation. These spawn violence because inequalities within and between societies grow and people around the world continue battling vested interests to gain new human rights.
Every conflict has a logic that must be understood before countering it fairly and justly so that the consequent peace is sustainable. Otherwise, to get peace, we may be obliged to first give conflict a chance.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.