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On Armistice Day, let’s honour the sacrifice of those who died then, by building peace today

November 11, 2016


11th November 1918. Armistice Day. The end of four years of terrible, industrial scale warfare which caused 18 million deaths, 23 million wounded, and countless other people’s lives ruined. It must never happen again, they said amidst sadness and relief, as they set about organising the peace. But they got it wrong, of course: a combination of victors’ justice imposed at the Treaty of Versailles, short-sighted planning and an inability to absorb all the economic, technological and political changes taking place in subsequent years, nor deal with class and international grievances, meant Europe and then the rest of the world slid into World War II and then the Cold War.

As we remember the end of the First World War today on the anniversary of the armistice, and empathise with the sadness and sorrow felt by those alive at the time, and acknowledge the sacrifices made, we must also focus our attention on the present and the future.

We seem to be surrounded by conflicts: from the naked violence of Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and Nigeria; through tenuous ceasefires in places like South Sudan and Ukraine; the unresolved “frozen” conflicts such as in the Caucasus and Kashmir; to the structural violence which besets so many undemocratic countries – and is now increasingly visible in the mature western democracies too.

Learning at least some of the lessons of Versailles, the victors of 1945 were less bent on revenge and more on crafting a stable world order. Surely they got much of it wrong, to judge by some of the events which followed. But the establishment of institutions like the United Nations and Bretton Woods and – in the course of the next few years – the various iterations of what became the European Union, was surely one of the positives. The European Communities project was essentially a peacebuilding enterprise, and as such helped reduce the interest and opportunity of France and Germany to fight each other again – as per its design. This was recognised when the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the EU in recognition of this, in 2012.

But the Nobel Committee were not so much recognising past achievements, as encouraging the EU’s member states to try harder. (Just as they did when they awarded the prize to Barrack Obama before he’d had time to get his feet under the Oval Office desk in 2009). For they saw that the EU peace project was foundering, and risked contributing more to conflict than to peace. Clearly they had a point, as the Euro Crisis, Brexit and many other illustrations of European people’s sense of disempowerment, marginalisation and the democratic deficit have shown. Perhaps the existence of the Iron Curtain and NATO as additional incentives for stability within Europe masked the fact that the European project was beginning to crumble, as a peacebuilding enterprise.

International Alert’s peacebuilding framework acknowledges that no peace can even be seen as “achieved” – it has to be constantly maintained and nourished. This is why – for example – we continue to work in Rwanda, long after the terrible events of 1994. The institutions through which peaceful coexistence is enabled – whether local, national or supranational – need to be maintained and continuously renewed. Had the great powers recognised this, they might have been able to overcome the flaws of Versailles. But they did not – or at least acted as though they did not.

The implications for us today are manifold. But to take just a few examples:

  • Those with the means to do so must redouble their efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the various ongoing wars in the Middle East and North Africa. And in the meantime, we should all be seeking ways to build the future peace, where we can. For example, by providing young people with non-violent ways to engage in local politics, and help them access livelihood opportunities so they are not forced to join armed groups just to provide for their families; and by creating opportunities for inter-community dialogue around issues of common concern.
  • In NE Nigeria, as Boko Haram’s influence and territorial domination is reduced, the need to foster the reintegration of ex-fighters and those they have kidnapped and captured back into society, and into a society where the trust between citizen and state is rebuilt and re-energized, so that any problems which arise in the future can be resolved before they spill out of hand.
  • Across the EU and in the USA, there is a need for leaders at all levels to re-energise the political culture and institutions in which far too many citizens appear to have lost faith – to judge by the result of recent elections and the Brexit referendum, and ensure they are providing an opportunity to channel and address citizens’ grievances as well as their creative ideas.
  • And the global institutions also need to be revitalised, and oriented towards the proactive nourishment of peace – as recommended by the 2015 Sustaining peace – and towards shaping a fairer world. This means for example putting Responsibility to Protect into action more routinely, so that it becomes an accepted part of international precedence and doctrine. It means taking the Sustainable Development Goals seriously, and especially those which relate to peace, security, good governance and fair participation in a growing economy. It means implementing a fairer and simpler international approach to taxation, so that people and corporations pay tax in the countries where they operate. And it means continuing to close down money laundering opportunities.

These are just a few examples. All these and thousands of other mechanisms for nourishing peace in order to release human potential are available to us, and need to be exploited. Societies throughout history and the world recognise the sacrifices of those who give their lives in war. But such sacrifices are surely in vain if those who survive do not seize every opportunity to nourish and sustain the peace which comes after war, so people and societies can flourish and reach their potential. And so that when differences and conflicts do arise, they are resolved non-violently and fairly, and future generations remembering Armistice Day wonder why war was deemed necessary at all. Building peace today s surely the greatest way to honour those who have died in war.

This was also published on International Alert website.

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