Tomorrow is a special holiday. I hope some of you have heard about it, but I suspect many have not. It’s the International Peace Day. It’s funny, really, that it’s a relatively unknown date for most of us, while in reality it should be the most important of all. They make cards for Groundhog Day, after all, but I have yet to see one for the day in celebration of world peace.
Anyway. I wrote about this last year, and if you want an inspirational tale about how the UN peace day originated in the ideas of one man, you should go read that post. Here, though, I’d like to talk a little about the concept of peace.
You see, I’ve forced myself to spend some time contemplating this the last few years. I’ve written papers about peace – or rather, the lack of peace. The Middle East is positively a smorgasbord for the latter. It depends, though, on how you define peace. Is it lack of war? If so, what is war? A technical definition – more than 1000 people killed in a conflict – isn’t always sufficient to cover the human aspect. I think most of us would agree that a conflict killing 999 people is also a war, and that the number of people killed isn’t necessarily what makes the situations in Libya or Afghanistan or Iraq wars.
Peace can also be considered the lack of other vital things, such as food, human rights, or safety. But again it’s difficult to draw the lines. Is the ongoing famine in Somalia a war? Not really. But decades of wars and conflicts and lack of a proper authority in the country are important causes for the disaster. And the flow of refugees, trying to escape the barren lands to find food, is a potential new source of conflict. Horrible stories of people being shot to death at attempts of crossing military check points to seek help are showing what a complex and terrible situation this really is. The soldiers, often from various clans in the malfunctioning state, are there to oversee the distribution of emergency aid. Instead, many of them kill or rape the very people they are supposed to help. Definitely not peace, even if it’s also not war.
This week – today, even – world leaders are gathering in New York to hold a high-level meeting in the United Nations. One of the major topics is the possible membership of a Palestinian state. As mentioned, the Middle East has seen many wars the past century, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is at the very heart of the problem. Sadly, there appears to be no solution in immediate sight, and even the case for membership for Palestine is slim, if not non-existent. Still, the fact that the Palestinian authority is now trying to use the United Nations – an organization created to preserve peace – as a means to reach the goal of establishment of a Palestinian state is in itself a positive sign, in my opinion. Also, the focus on the economy of such a state, necessary reforms and the creation of institutions is perhaps a more constructive and realistic approach than the chance of achieving recognition ever was. Principles are important, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. Hopefully a two-state solution where Palestine has been consolidated into an actual, functioning state can help provide some stability and structure also for the peace process. At least we’re allowed to hope.
Many of my thoughts about peace are coloured by the “official” Norwegian attitude, which among other things is coloured by the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in Oslo each autumn. Last year, an outspoken human rights activist from China won the award. Former laureates include other human rights and democracy-activists, environmentalist,and people working for poverty reduction. In addition to the more traditional concept of peace, these new areas contribute to an understanding that peace is more than just lack of war. In my master’s thesis I concluded that during the period 1956 to 1967 there were few (if any) attempts by the United States to perform tradition peace initiatives. There were, however, a number of initiatives directed at specific conflict areas, such as refugees, to try to limit the tension in the overall conflict. Already in the 1950s and 60s, then,there was an acknowledgement that peace is more than just lack of war. In the21st century, this should not be controversial at all.