Some Wars Never Happen

By Joanna Santa Barbara | 1996-09-01 12:00:00

Close to 40 wars are currently causing misery on our planet. Moreover, according to Project Ploughshares,1 in an ad- ditional six countries there has been serious violence with the possibility of war: Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Egypt, Pakistan, and Chiapas. In many countries the level of risk is considerable but less, and in others (including Canada) the risk is low but present. I will focus on countries at high risk but not actually at war.

For the past three years I have been studying what war does to people, to their minds, and to their children. I've been engaged in a project that is trying to heal the wounds of schoolchildren in such places as Croatia. We assume optimistically that healing can be done, but nobody knows whether this is so. Part of this work consists of promoting reconciliation, conflict resolution, and prejudice reduction. We don't know whether this works either. I work with several organizations that share the goal of preventing war: Physicians for Global Survival (PGS); International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW); and The War and Health program at McMaster University. However, none of these groups has yet directly addressed this issue. Humanitarian disasters such as Rwanda are consuming increasing proportions of shrinking aid budgets, and reducing funds for war-preventive practices, such as "common security" measures and human well-being.

Governments and intergovernmental organizations - the most powerful potential actors in this arena - cripple themselves by adhering to the principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention. The United Nations Security Council refused to define events in Rwanda as "genocide," since this presumably would have allowed global intervention. NGOs are not hampered by such concerns. They are closer to the victims of social violence; they have a culture of dialogue, professionalism, humility, and a capacity for networking. We need to look at the best ways for NGOs to aid in preventing war.

Early Warning

Exchanging information on the potential for large-scale violence between local and international NGOs, the U.N., and national governments is paramount.Governments tend to respond when they perceive their national interests to be at stake. Moreover, the U.N. tends to respond only where the interests of the United States and other nuclear powers are threatened. A number of Early Warning Systems are being developed; one of them is at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University.

Early warning is only the initial aspect of a solution. According to Ernie Regehr of Project Ploughshares, the real problem is a lack of early action. There was early warning of the Rwanda catastrophe, for example, but almost no intervention.

The cycle of war and peace begins with grievances. Tensions, sometimes aggravated deliberately, lead to violence, then to peace accords, and finally back to stable peace. This article will look at intervention during the early phases before warfare actually begins.

Reducing Grievances

Human rights abuses, inequity, insufficiency, poor and corrupt governance, intolerance of diversity, and resource disputes: All are grievances and as such can be addressed at all levels, from the U.N. to grassroots individuals.

To maximize the effectiveness of NGOs acting in a given region, active coalitions should be set up to work toward reducing grievances at an early stage. A sophisticated understanding of the culture and the nature of the conflict is imperative. Development work can worsen conflict and increase the potential for violence. We should avoid focusing exclusively on grievances which have the greatest potential to erupt in violence at the expense of other less powerful and possibly more oppressed people.

Business and trade offer relatively untapped and unique means of reducing grievances. One U.S. businessman who travels regularly to China takes time to enquire about the health of certain political prisoners and offer support to their families. Business people have an interest in preventing the eruption of violence. Peace NGOs should establish an effective dialogue with Canadians who are attempting to trade in Chiapas, say, or Nigeria, or Pakistan.

Work with expatriate communities is also important. Immigrants and refugees to Canada from civil wars (notably in Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia) often continue to support violence in their homelands by funding the flow of arms to one faction or the other. Peace NGOs who work with such groups may be able to reduce those arms flows. Churches, as they embody values of reconciliation and nonviolence, may be especially effective.

Universities can also help to prevent war. All the actors in a conflict base their actions on someone's analysis - perhaps accurate, perhaps mistaken - concerning the dispute and the power structures of their country. A different analyiss would elicit different actions. By fostering research and discussion among local and international NGOs universities can help reduce grievances. Peace studies centres can help in the generation an discussion of accurate information by coordinating research on such topics as the sources of arms flows, and by making these analyses available to others who are engaged in preventing warfare.

Mitigating Fomentation

Wars do not ordinarily flare up spontaneously; they are whipped up by specific actions that are often intended to produce those effects. We will look at two forms of fomentation here: media propaganda and arms flows. Both can potentially be stopped by the organized action of peacemakers.

Media Propaganda

One obvious instance of fomentation by the media occurred in the wars of Yugoslavia. According to Zdenka Milivojovic, who works with the Centre for Anti-War Action in Belgrade, Serbian aggression was predominantly induced by the media, for there were only minor grievances (such as inadequate attention to the rights of Serbian minorities in the new Croatian constitution). There are often small but principled NGOs who stand up against abuse by the media. In Serbia, the Centre for Anti-War Action, as well as certain independent radio and TV broadcasters and periodical publishers, took a stand for their ideals. In Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa and others died for theirs. Peace activists around the world can create links of solidarity and offer whatever protection we can through international surveillance of murderous regimes. In oppressive situations, this must be done early. Such governments kill, exile, or imprison moderate critics, opening the field to violent resistance.

Regehr points out that people may resort to violence not to win a conflict, but to make themselves heard or to improve their leverage in negotiations. The Chiapas conflict exemplifies this. NGOs and churches must strengthen the voice of the oppressed while maintaining the impartiality required of a mediator. Archbishop Ruiz in San Cristobal, Mexico seems to have accomplished that astonishing feat. Ed Garcia's National Peace Coalition has done the same in the Philippines, though both sides have accused them of partiality. The Mennonite Church, Quaker Peace Service and International Alert have performed this function after the onset of violence. What we need are cases that show how we can stop the violence before it begins.

Arms Flows

One sign of impending war is an increase in arms flow, which signifies that at least one group intends to resort to violence. At such a point it is too late to begin war prevention efforts. Nevertheless, Project Ploughshares disseminates information about arms flows and monitors Canada's policy of not supplying arms to major abusers of human rights. Unfortunately, there seems to be little international will truly to act on this issue. NGOs need to stimulate communication between governments whenever France, China, or any other country is the proven source of arms flowing into a war-threatened region.


Relations can be seen to have deteriorated even further when villages are attacked, community leaders are slain, and human rights abuses increase. At this point, NGOs can still act to prevent war. Quakers and Peace Brigades International, as practitioners of nonviolence, can accompany threatened people. Local people may be able to work with foreign peace researchers to improve conflict resolution. Mediation at the community level, as well as between the central government and local rebels, may help offset violence.

There are many opportunities for unarmed peacekeepers. The German churches and the German IPPNW, as well as International Alert and a Swedish group, are exploring this idea. Armed preventive peacekeeping, on the other hand, is being tried for the first time by the U.N. in Macedonia. It can be vital for NGOs to maintain dialogue with military people, especially peacekeepers.

Physician peacemakers can assist in areas (e.g., in Chiapas and Pakistan) where IPPNW members live by express ing solidarity and serving the medical needs of the oppressed - and still maintain neutrality. The Medical Action Group, an IPPNW affiliate, serves war-affected communities in the Philippines. After serious internal debate, they decided they could maintain medical neutrality and serve, in an emergency, both the Philippines Army personnel and the oppressed communities. They do not claim political neutrality.

Can physicians in other situations work to strengthen dialogue and counter enemy images? IPPNW did splendid work across the Cold War divide, and clearly influenced some of Gorbachev's most important decisions (e.g., the 1986 moratorium on nuclear testing). A Greek physician has been maintaining dialogue with colleagues in Turkey in spite of the historical enmity between both countries. Peace organizations and activists around the world can promote similar initiatives by continuing to sponsor bilateral visits and lecture tours and by developing strategies which give both parties in a conflict the opportunity to cooperate on common projects.

Universities have a further role in developing case histories and analyses of how previous wars were - or might have been - prevented. When evaluating the success of a health/peace initiative, each component should be appraised separately, for an initiative may succeed in one respect, yet fail in another.

A Culture Of Nonviolence

Up to this point, we have been considering war prevention in terms of intervening in crises. However, we can also work towards preventing war by improving how we interact with one another in everyday life. Nonviolence is not only a choice made in particular cases of conflict. It is also a philosophy that can be developed by living in a supportive community. It is useful to reflect on the degree of nonviolence that groups build up and sustain over the long term, for these habits affect our capacity for choosing nonviolent actions when we cope with grievances or face those who seek to foment warfare.

There is an old story of rescuers who are working night and day to pull an endless series of drowning people from the river as they are swept by. Overwhelmed by the disaster, they begin to develop better technologies for pulling people out, but even so, they cannot keep up with the number of victims. At last they send a party upstream to find out how people are being pushed into the river. This last approach, which offers the greatest prospect of success, is the one we should promote.

Let me quote the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

To prevent war, to prevent the next crisis, we must begin right now. When a war or a crisis has begun, it is already too late. If we and our children practice ahimsa in our daily lives, if we learn how to plant seeds of peace and reconciliation in our own hearts and minds, we will begin to establish real peace and, in that way, we may be able to prevent the next war. If another war does come, we will know that we have done our best. Is ten years enough time to prepare ourselves and our nation to avoid another war? How much time does it take to breathe consciously, to smile, and to be fully present in each moment? Our real enemy is forgetfulness. If we nourish mindfulness every day and water the seeds of peace in ourselves and those around us, we have a good chance to prevent the next war and to defuse the next crisis.

1 Project Ploughshares, Armed Conflicts Report 1995. Project Ploughshares Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Waterloo, Ont. (A war here is defined as a conflict that has produced over 1,000 deaths in the current phase.)

Joanna Santa Barbara is a child psychiatrist who teaches peace studies at McMaster and works with IPPNW.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1996

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