The Human Right to Peace

Senator Douglas Roche. Toronto: Novalis, 2003.

By Amber McNair (reviewer) | 2004-10-01 12:00:00

The central argument of Senator Douglas Roche's latest book The Human Right to Peace is that we must replace our current culture of war with a culture of peace. Every day the media report on war and violence. Not so for peace. Yet for every reported instance of war, violence, and fundamentalism, Roche documents as many instances of peace, cooperation, and progressive social movements that confront militarism. The shift toward a culture of peace is not impossible. Rather, we are in the midst of an emerging culture of peace. Militarism is based on a "massive lie" that Roche exposes.

Grounded in peace studies, drawing on human rights discourse, and steeped in world issues, the book reflects Roche's own history. A journalist, educator, parliamentarian, and diplomat, Roche has been a member of parliament in the Canadian government, Canada's ambassador for disarmament from 1984 until 1989, and chair of the UN Disarmament Committee before being appointed to the Canadian Senate. Roche has witnessed devastating violence first hand. He knows of what he speaks.

The Human Right to Peace is presented in three sections beginning with the discussion of the culture of war. Roche takes readers through a brief history of instances where war was used to try (but failed) to solve complex political issues. Integrated is an impressive compilation of facts and figures that are at once startling and fascinating for what they reveal about our world. We learn, for instance, that between 1940 - 1997 the United States spent $5.5 trillion developing nuclear weapons; the Group of Eight (most industrialized countries) hold 98 percent of nuclear weapons; the 2003 US defence budget was $400 billion -- 26 times the combined amount of military spending of the seven US-labeled "rogue states." More than one-third of all engineers and scientists in the United States are engaged in military-related jobs.

Today we are experiencing what amounts to a nuclear threat at least as great as during the Cold War. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996 are increasingly rendered meaningless as Russia and the United States build new nuclear weapons and others seek to join the ranks of nuclear powers to keep up. The whole process feeds the profitable military-industrial complex.

The "massive lie" of militarism, says Roche, is that weapons bring security. The ways in which weapons do not protect us include environmental degradation and irreparable damage to human health. Moreover, when resources are poured into the military-industrial complex, they are diverted from investments in the environment, education and public services. These bases for peace and real security therefore deteriorate, leading to conflict and endlessly perpetuating the cycle of violence and war.

Global institutions charged with the responsibility of guarding world peace are shamefully under-funded and deliberately kept weak, so they cannot seriously challenge dominant states. The most powerful states hypocritically sign peace, environmental and disarmament agreements but undermine treaties, organizations and their mandates by not funding them sufficiently.

Creating a culture of peace is no less than a grand and profound social revolution. It is happening from above and from below. Nonviolence in the tradition of Gandhi and King continues and challenges the illogic of militarism as a means to finding peace.

For all of the challenges facing the United Nations, it has accomplished extraordinary things. It remains our best instrument to bring about a culture of peace. One of Roche's contributions is to draw attention to UNESCO's significant work. UNESCO has established a framework for the values, customs, and behaviors that inform the peace culture. He writes,

"The work already accomplished in the UN system to develop the concept of the human right to peace is one of the world's best-kept secrets. The culture of war so pervades public opinion that it has drowned out voices asserting that the human right to peace is a fundamental right of every human being and is, in fact, the major precondition for all human rights."

But discussion of the right to peace is language that is too strong for many states. A U.S. delegate to the UN spectacularly misses the point: "Peace should not be elevated to the category of human right, otherwise it will be very difficult to start a war."

Roche shifts the discussion of the right to peace by insisting that culture is the foundation upon which this right can be claimed. Religion, education, and civil society all have central parts to play to bring about this change. Religious leaders hold a vital role in moving away from violent culture. In contrast to fundamentalism and religious dogmatism, which are so divisive, inspiring inter-faith work reflects the compassionate and inclusive values that are common to most religions. This message must be formulated in secular way to be genuinely inclusive. Although Roche does not mention the Dalai Lama, the latter's advocacy of "secular ethics" seems apt.

As we learn violence and violent ways, so too can we learn the ways of peace. The United Nations and NGOs are active in promoting peace curricula that should be mandatory in educational programs from kindergarten through to postgraduate study. Such programs encourage critical thinking, dialogue, and cultivation of an understanding of the myriad factors at all levels that undermine peace and those that build trust and cooperation.

Civil society organizations are growing in numbers and strength. Internet technology allows for coordination among NGOs and movements, helping them to push for access to meetings at UN and other international institutions. The two branches of civil society work inside governments and organizations, and apply pressure from outside. Both play essential roles: "The clamor and pressure from without increases the opportunity of those within to be heard.... both routes are needed."

Roche likens the building of a peaceful culture to that of the Notre Dame Cathedral - an outstanding edifice that took nearly two hundred years of delicate, painstaking work to realize. Every step along the way was essential for its completion. Yet the end result, which was not witnessed by those who envisioned it, is glorious.

Roche concedes is that a peace culture will likely take more than one generation, and insists that vision, commitment, and dedication should yield magnificent results. The blossom of peace may not be seen by Roche and his contemporary activists, but they are plant-ing the seed.

The greatest contribution of The Right to Peace is its timing. The culture of war has surged since September 2001. Richard Clarke, Hans Blix, Michael Moore are a sampling of the voices now contesting that culture. Roche's work is unique in that it taps into the culture of peace that is being built in large and small ways but is not receiving mainstream media attention. His analysis is based on solid research but also on his own experiences in the struggle for peace. The moment is crucial. Conservative governments are gaining power by cultivating fear in the public and offering military responses for illusory safety. Douglas Roche shows how the culture of peace, and a human right to peace offer a real alternative.

Reviewed by Amber McNair, a graduate student in sociology at University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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