Autumn 1998
Peace Matters index ONLINE contents
Crossing the ness
Remembering the killing fields
First World War Diary
Children and violence
Child soldiers
De-coding the image
Lifting the dead weight of habit

lifting the dead weight of habit

René Wadlow
To develop a culture of peace there needs to be a culture of debate, of living with differences and of pursuing non-violent means to resolve disputes.


This overview presents perspectives on conflict resolution, examining methods and approaches that are becoming appropriate in the post-Cold War world. These insights are largely drawn from studies which had received grants from the US Institute of Peace which is funded by the US Congress but whose research does not necessarily echo US government policies. The grants are given in the conviction that ‘how difference are settled and peace is made is something that is learned and therefore can be improved’. The bibliography lists many of the studies which have been published by regular publishers. The US Institute itself has published in four volumes many shorter papers under the title of Contributions to the Study of Peacemaking.
For those of us who are not at the higher levels of governmental decision-making, the most useful sections are those related to peace-making initiatives which can be carried out by non-governmental organisations: unofficial diplomacy, managing ethnic conflict and non-violence.
John Paul Lederach, active in Mennonite mediation efforts, stressed that a comprehensive non-governmental approach recognises that sustainable peace builds across the levels of a society and does not rely exclusively on peace trickling down. However, peace does not ‘trickle up’ either and discussions and understanding at the ‘grassroots’ does not necessarily influence governmental decision makers.
It is the difficulty of building a coherent and comprehensive approach which is at the core of the weaknesses of NGO efforts. It is very difficult for the same organisation to touch at the same time the top decision-makers, the mid-level institutions which have an influence in seeing that decisions are carried out, and the grassroots, often not organised into associations but whose consent is needed and who can be help or hindrance in the end.
Anne-Marie Smith cites the path breaking but difficult work of the Roman Catholic lay society, the Community of St Egidio in the Kosovo area of Serbia. In 1989, the then President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, stripped Kosovo of its autonomy and established direct rule from Belgrade, taking over all provincial administration. Albanians protested non-violently with techniques influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, they boycotted state services and established alternatives, especially a parallel school system and health centres. The Community of St Egidio pursued opportunities to begin a dialogue between the Serbs and the Albanian leadership, directing attention to limited questions and incremental steps and focusing on the school system rather than on larger political issues.
By September there was an agreement making the official school system available to Albanian students. However, when the agreement came to be implemented, it was decided to implement only at the University level which had relatively few students. Then the only University department opened was that of Albanian cultural studies where there were few if any Serb students. With pressure, a natural science department was to be opened to Albanian students. However, the Rector of the University allowed thugs to destroy all the equipment and wreck the building so that no classes can be held. Although Albanian students have carried out well-disciplined non-violent protests, there were no guards trained in non-violence to protect the university building. Thus we see the gaps in the process of working together to overcome the stranglehold of ethnic division on both the individual and collective spirit.
Such gaps in a peace-making process are often the result of the weakness of analysis and information of national and local decision-making by NGO representatives. The diplomatic missions of the larger countries have trained analysts, military attachés, as well as intelligence agents to analyse and then make contact with all levels of decision-making. Who has influence, how much, what risks are people willing to take, what motivates individuals and groups? There is much discussion in peace-making circles of ‘empowerment’ especially of local peace makers, but empowerment requires a deep understanding of the current power structures.
One of the most useful studies helped by a US Institute of Peace grant is Ted Robert Gurr’s Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflict (US Institute of Peace Press, 1993). Gurr and colleagues have continued to study ethnic tensions and to make recommendations on techniques to manage and to lessen ethnic conflicts. Gurr’s work is particularly good in his analysis of the broader and the more immediate factors which mobilise ethnic grievances. In addition to broad factors, there are ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ who play on ethnic sentiment in the same way that others play on national or religious emotions. As Gurr points out ‘Communally based political movements pose a far greater challenge to the newer and poorer countries of the Third World than to states in the developed West, because they have mobilised larger groups, with greater intensity of commitment, against regimes that have fewer political and material resources with which to respond.’ Unfortunately, the one resource most governments have is the army as the ethnic-based conflict in the Sudan reminds us.
As Anne-Marie Smith notes ‘The challenge of managing ethnic conflicts is to find ways to redirect interethnic conflict into institutionalised and constructive channels while also protecting basic minority rights, preserving popular backlash against minority groups. This would appear to be a delicate balance, difficult to achieve.’ This balance is all the more delicate that interethnic conflicts rarely occur in isolation but emerge simultaneously with border disputes, geopolitical rivalries and unstable governments.
To develop a culture of peace there needs to be a normative culture of debate, of living with differences and of pursuing non-violent means to resolve disputes. There needs to be careful strategic thinking of the ways in which positive social currents can overcome negative resistances and the dead weight of habit. Anne-Marie Smith has written a useful guide to some of the current literature on the topic – a most useful aid to action.

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