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Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 119: May 2004

[Return to related issues of Nonviolent News.]

Iraq: an ongoing tragedy

George W Bush's grasp of history and politics seems to be lacking, particularly his grasp of Iraqi history. 'Conquerors' and 'liberators' quickly become 'occupiers' and 'oppressors'. But Tony Blair's grasp of history seemed also to be singularly lacking when, in April, he spoke about Britain's "historic role" in Iraq - a strange use of terminology regarding the present when in the past Britain was a colonial power in the area, the power that created Iraqi borders with all the power imbalances that implied, and the first to use poison gas, early in the twentieth century.

A year ago it was all going to be so simple. Unfortunately history, and politics, is complex. We cannot regret the departure of Saddam Hussein from power; he was a brutal dictator but in his later years very circumscribed as to what he could do. And unlike the US and British propaganda, it looks like he didn't have a Weapon of Mass Destruction to his name (now whether he knew he didn't but felt he had to keep face is another question).

And whether the cause of democracy and human rights in Iraq has been served by the US and British intervention is unclear and becoming increasingly unlikely. What is clear that it is a costly and unnecessary mess. With the question of WMDs basically out of the way (there weren't any), the only fig-leaf of justification that the USA and Britain had (though not the reason they said they were going to war) was that of promoting human rights and democracy. And if human rights and democracy were not promoted by their intervention, well, the rationale now of the whole vastly expensive operation falls apart. The use of torture by US and British forces, even if it was limited to the cases exposed in the media, which is unlikely, totally undermines any claim they have to legitimacy or moral superiority. This is apart altogether from the example of unilateral action which could be used to justify wars anywhere on similar flimsy excuses. The extent to which US interest in Iraqi oil was a reason for the invasion remains to be decided.

It is clear that the USA and the UK, but particularly the US, has made numerous mistakes of all kinds, even from a military interventionist point of view. They did not provide a secure country for ordinary citizens after defeating Saddam Hussein's forces; notoriously they were more interested in safeguarding oil installations and offices. They disbanded the Iraqi army which immediately produced discontented people with military experience. They did not hand over everything to the United Nations; they thought they could do better than the UN but the UN's legitimacy would have lasted longer, and their policies might have been far wiser. And, crucially, they did not get out within a year.

The military interventionist thinking was simple and it did not work out. So what would nonviolence have had to offer? Not any easy answers, that is for sure, but in the long run possibly a greater chance of real change. If opposition and progressive forces and groups had been encouraged to struggle towards a popular nonviolent revolution, the engagement with that process itself would have helped with democratisation. Economic sanctions on Iraq were mistaken, brutal and counter-productive to producing a country willing to overthrow the yoke of an oppressor, though sanctions on military equipment should of course have remained.

Popular opinion often remains convinced that nonviolence cannot work against brutal dictators. Ceaucescu's 'communist' dictatorial regime in Romania fell apart because he no longer had sufficient support even from within the ruling elite and state forces. Some of the most effective resistance to Nazi rule and occupation in Europe during the Second World War came from nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation. Nonviolent resistance in such circumstances is not easy. And for the ultimate victory in somewhere like Iraq, the overthrow of a hated regime and the development of a democratic future, well, with nonviolence it is necessary to wait for the right time, and that may take years. But in the meantime the strength and capability of democratic forces can be building up so that when the time comes, the people are ready and an alternative infrastructure is readily developed. It can be worth the wait.

For various reasons, not explained to the world at the time, Bush and Blair went to war in Iraq and eventually got their jubilant scene of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled and insulted. What a difference a year makes. It would be good to think that the next time the USA, the UK, and the world might consider a different approach. But then learning from history is not something that either the USA or UK seem good at - they are certainly exceedingly slow to learn. But hopefully many of the world's people, both those who were opposed to the war or hesitatingly went along with it cushioned by the Bush/Blair rhetoric, are wiser than those who supposedly lead them.

Northern Ireland; an ongoing impasse The report from the IMC or Independent Monitoring Commission on paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland made sad reading. Behind the scenes, much has not changed in terms of the organisations' abilities and capabilities to wage violence and intimidation. They haven't gone away, you know.

However it is simplistic to heap all the blame onto the paramilitary groups (and republican opinion in general was scathing on the IMC report; the Andersonstown News, for example, described the IMC report in one of its milder comments as "shabby, legally threadbare, intellectually flaccid"). History's hand was a bit on the heavy side for Northern Ireland, and society as a whole clearly has not moved on in the way that, for example, South Africa has after ten years (respectively after the 1994 ceasefires in Northern Ireland and the first democratic elections in South Africa) despite other problems there. Northern Ireland remains not at war but not at peace, with itself, either.

But there are other aspects of the failure of paramilitary groups to 'move on'. Political inclusiveness is difficult when it comes to small groupings; the PUP (associated with the UVF) initially got two Assembly seats, reduced to one after the last Assembly election. The (now defunct) UDP (associated with the UDA) did not get any representation at all. Only Sinn Féin of the political groups with military wings achieved electoral success and in a sense they are now being penalised for it (because they are in the suspended Assembly and erstwhile-government they are being penalised in a way that others are not, with the possible exception of the PUP).

But from a nonviolent point of view we can also say that smaller political parties, or indeed what is now the biggest party on the nationalist side, Sinn Féin, have received only limited help to move from paramilitarism to 'constitutional' politics. There is no nonviolent equivalent of the bullet or the car bomb but simply moving to the ballot every number of years is not very satisfactory. There are other, nonviolent, ways of working and campaigning beyond the norms of 'party' politics. Campaigning at community level and nonviolent action to highlight injustices are something which have not been explored sufficiently by the parties and groups who are now judged not to have left their past behind.

Blaming the paramilitaries is easy. Helping them to move on to a better future for all is not going to be achieved simply by rapping them on the knuckles and saying they have been bad boys. Violence and intimidation at a local level is not going to be given up easily by those who have enjoyed power of a kind and wish to maintain it. We need more imaginative solutions which would help those still wedded to violence to explore and create alternatives, in the way that restorative justice has been trying to build alternatives to paramilitary penalties for anti-social behaviour. And might we say that this goes for the British army as well, and those who support that army.

Luken From Below

This month's poem from Lothar Lüken:

Watching Manhattan

Boring old island,

Boring old view.

My arm stiff from holding

This heavy cast iron torch.

Can't even lift these skirts

To relieve myself Into New York harbour.

Can't take any liberties.

I feel so old,

So statuesque - An idea whose time

Has run out.

Conflicting Reports:

INNATE coordinator Rob Fairmichael reports on the western/northern European conflict conference in Dublin:

Always trouble trouble

European conference on "The Role of Civil Society in the Prevention of Armed Conflict", Dublin, 31st March - 2nd April 2004

And so to Dublin for a meeting with our old friend, Con Flict. In this case, a mainly western European conference on conflict prevention, the first of 15 being held in different parts of the world feeding in to a big one at the UN in New York in July 2005. A Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (*1) was formed following the UN Secretary-General's Report on the Prevention of Armed Conflict in 2001, and this conference was part of its consultation process.

I find that attending international conferences in my own country is an interesting experience because away has come home and the familiar and unfamiliar interact in a fascinating way, things look and feel different than being outside my home island. In this case the event was sponsored by the Irish EU Presidency and it was happening in the salubrious environs of Dublin Castle. Very nice. I had conferenced there before but never banqueted in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, You could get used to the style and the wine flowing freely but I won't, fortunately or unfortunately. I would have liked there to have been more Irish people present but looking through the scheduled attendance list (with about 30 from Ireland) this may be as much that people didn't, or weren't free, to turn up, or come to more than a day or so, as that they couldn't get places (though I did hear this was the case for one or two people from the island). (*2)

The support from the Irish government is very welcome, for conflict prevention and for the conference itself (both Tom Kitt and Brian Cowen spoke at it), but this is the self-same Irish government which has backed the USA to the hilt in its war in Iraq by providing unbridled use of Shannon airport, with significant consequences for violence internationally as well as in Iraq. Conflict prevention? That would be very nice, thank you.

Working groups and Action Agenda
There were eight working groups (which met for three sessions) on different aspects of conflict and conflict prevention, and these fed into the Action Agenda plenary process (see below). An initial draft had been circulated beforehand. Groups included ones on education and promotion of a culture of peace, development and peacebuilding, involvement of civil society in EU civilian crisis management, EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, interaction between the UN and civil society, and interaction between governments and civil society. Also included was a working group on the Irish/Northern Irish peace process and it was illuminating that just two out of two hundred or so people from outside the island came to that (a 1% attendance). In these circumstances you may find yourself wanting to go to several different groups but you're likely to choose the one which is felt to be most relevant to you personally. And the one on Ireland got 1% of the foreign delegates attending. This is fair enough and I am simply pointing out the fact that analysing the past and present remnants of the conflict in Northern Ireland is not top or even middle on most people's list (though some of those present would have studied it and visited before); we have had our day in the glare of the international media and we can be grateful it is over. Norn Iron doesn't register these days on the Richter Scale of Conflicts, and we can hope that no seismic shift will put it back on.

But there are still issues to be dealt with, and one included in the 'Dublin Action Agenda' was for learning from the Irish, and other similar situations in Europe. The Northern Ireland working group gave examples of work in the divided land that is Northern Ireland - on a Belfast interface where cooperation across the divide has been an important development locally, on monitoring done by Mediation Northern Ireland in areas where violence could break out, and mobile phone networks to communicate across interfaces to dispel rumours and assist cooperative conflict intervention.

'How many cookies can the Big Bear eat on an empty stomach?' is an old children's riddle. The answer is: One, because after eating one cookie its stomach isn't empty any more. Just one cookie has totally altered how the situation is described but underlying realities have not changed (the bear is still hungry). But the similar real problem dealt with in the working group is that if effective cross-community and interface conflict prevention work is dealing with problems which would otherwise surface as violent confrontation, how can those involved 'prove' their need for ongoing funding and support? It may seem that everything has just 'died down' and that support is no longer needed. The absence of conflict may seem to point to the absence of any need to deal with potential conflict. Proving you caused the absence of something is not for the absent minded. And those present from Northern Ireland were aware of the unfortunate situation, because of lack of resources, of being forced into having short term projects with long term aims.

The plenary process regarding the 'Dublin Action Agenda' adopted by the conference was a fascinating exercise. Trying to get consensus in such a large and varied gathering was a major achievement in the time given. Catherine Barnes and Simon Fisher as the facilitators had a massive job to do and sometimes I was amazed by their agility and deftness in dealing with real issues, sticky points, and often uncertainty. Finding the right words was a bit like building a haystack shape made out of needles having first found the needles in individual haystacks. It was done with a mixture of straw polling, taking comments (principled objections and if necessary other points), making decisions on the spot or referring it back to drafting groups. It might seem that conflict-dealing organisations putting together a statement on conflict is a bit like the Christian churches proclaiming themselves against sin; you might expect them to do it, no one is surprised by anything said, and it's totally ineffectual. But the Action Agenda had many concrete recommendations; how many will be implemented remains to be seen but they have been laid down in print.

I found the draft Action Agenda difficult to relate to at first. Getting a 'global vision' together even for people from part of a continent is difficult. And there are now so many people doing so many different things that getting a handle on it all can be difficult. If I think internationally then my thoughts are not usually at that programmatic and detailed level. But the words of the drafts began to mean more as they were visited and explored. It is impossible to summarise given that it is in itself a document which has been compacted; it is on the European Centre for Conflict Prevention website at and I would suggest a visit to read it there yourself (*3), and other reports which will be added. Guiding principles include building a 'Culture of Prevention' and 'Culture of Peace', multilateralism, a new partnership between civil society, governments and Inter-Governmental Organisations, the primacy of local ownership ("Primary responsibility for conflict prevention rests with local actors"), learning from practice, and accountability. The Action Agenda makes recommendations to Civil Society Organisations, Governments, the European Union (this was primarily a conference of people from the EU area), and the United Nations. It also suggests public awareness raising in Europe "both to raise awareness of the impact of conflicts and to build confidence in civilian alternatives to military intervention."

Setting parameters
In the 'Northern Ireland situation' working group I raised a point about something implicit in the approach of the working group (and, I should add, the whole conference). The working group was titled "CSOs (Civil Society Organisations), transitional violence and conflict-sensitive development: Lessons from conflict management techniques in Ireland, North and South". The title of the conference was "The role of civil society in the prevention of armed conflict". My point was that we were looking only at mediation and meditative-type behaviour, and not at advocacy. A comment in the group was that mediation should include advocacy; this is partly true, a mediator who finds a great power imbalance should try to redress that balance, for example.

But I was thinking of various kinds of advocacy including solidarity models and I would feel that in dealing with conflict no one model should automatically have pre-eminence. Many of those present might not have felt theirs was the only game in town, but in not being explicit I felt the edifice fell into considerable danger of giving that impression. It would be simply wrong to assume that third party/meditative behaviour is the only way for someone from 'outside' (or an insider feeling outside) to deal with an issue without violence. As a believer in the power of nonviolent action it would be remiss of me to ignore this area. If we think of how the South African or East Timorese situations were resolved, international solidarity with the people oppressed was of very great importance. And if we think of how violence de-escalated in Northern Ireland, and why, then a key intervention to republican, and to some extent, loyalist paramilitaries could have been to assist them explore non-violent and less-violent ways of working before they started doing that themselves. So, I am saying solidarity and advocacy can be as important as, or more important than, mediation and more impartial third party interventions, certainly at particular stages in a conflict.

Where to get involved is a difficult question; it depends on an individual's personality, political views, the power situation between sides, the stage in the conflict, the support they have from any group they belong to, and so on. One of the exercises I use as a nonviolence trainer is to get people to map different activities they are involved in on two axes; one is a partisan/non-partisan axis (the other from pragmatic involvement through to moral/ideological commitment). In terms of my own involvement I find myself occupying quite a wide space. Of course in certain tense and difficult situations, acceptability as an impartial figure may be compromised by other involvements of a more partisan nature, but that is something we have to live with, be aware of, and take into account as necessary.

The point in relation to the conference is that we were talking about third-party, relatively non-partisan and meditative type behaviour. This is an area of vital importance. But it is better to be explicit or we risk writing off other responses. However I do not want to be seen to be criticising a giraffe for not being an antelope (and civilian peace services, for example, would major in standing with oppressed groups at risk); both giraffes and antelopes are beautiful in their own way. It should be noted that there was a working group on 'Advocacy and lobbying' in the conference; I may be mistaken since I was not at it but it looks like this was advocacy and lobbying within the context of the United Nations system and international conflict prevention, as defined elsewhere within the conference context. (*4)

What was the vision and the reality coming across in talks? Here are just some snippets. Matt Scott spoke of seeking a sustainable and credible grassroots network of conflict prevention professionals (worldwide) akin to global networks on AIDS etc. Mari Fitzduff (*5) spoke of NGOs mirroring the regionalisation of cooperation and power but being more trusted than governments, politicians or businesses. They needed to connect with power, influencing politicians and leaders (though she did say "Talking to politicians about conflict prevention is like talking to teenagers about pensions."); a shift away from the $800 billion for the military could allow people to get the resources they need, adding alternatives to military policies.

Dan Smith spoke of how post-9/11 agenda issues do not predominate in the world. The relatively unrestrained US power projection post-9/11 holds no solution to its dilemmas; how can you have a war on terrorism, which is a tactic? Terrorism was first used by governments and is typically used by weaker parties in a conflict. 'Retaliating first' is a dangerous strategy, he said, leading to selective attitudes to law and rights and undermining society building; it diverts resources from the real problems. He outlined some thoughts about human security, that it should be an integrated view with social inclusivity and political integration.

Cornelio Sommaruga spoke of "insane fundamentalists including market fundamentalists", and the complementarity of human security as well as state security. Human security had to deal with diverse circumstances including poverty, exclusion, violence (e.g. through small arms and landmines), and trafficking of women and children. Spiritual and human values should be at the centre, he said.

Sridhar Khatri spoke of 18 identified armed groups and conflicts, most of a transnational character, in South Asia, some going for over a decade and one (Naga) for over 55 years; these conflicts are ignored despite a death toll exceeding that in the Middle East conflict.

Birgitta Dahl quoted Kofi Annan at the first UN conference after 9/11, that all the items that were on the agenda are still on the agenda. She spoke of the need for the UN to emphasise the role of leading and facilitating partnerships and coalitions in conflict resolution. The problems of democratic deficits needed to be addressed.

The South African Foreign Minister, Nkosazana Zuma, spoke of developments within the African Union to deal with conflicts, though she seemed incredibly (sic) optimistic in stating that all conflicts on the continent were being attended and in process of being resolved. Leonardo Simao, Foreign Affairs Minister for Mozambique, chair of the African Union, added more detail on dealing with conflict in the African situation.

Justin Kilcullen of Trócaire hit various nails straight on the head with a quick global review, on disengagement from poor countries after the end of the Cold war, on the decline in European aid, the fact that Millennium Development Goals won't be met on current trends. The EU policy on combating terrorism raises more questions than answers, he said; what does it mean to include counter-terrorism in all agreements? And he pointed to a possible shift from poverty programmes to security programmes on the edge of Europe. A 'Coalition against poverty' is long overdue; with the end of poverty, peace is possible, he concluded.

Closing remarks
'Caucuses' (as opposed to Caucasus) present included a number from the European civil/ian peace service network, who had their own meeting in Dublin prior to the start of the Castle conference; the Dublin Action Agenda included a number of references to civil peace services and calling for support from governments and the EU (*6). One of the things touched on in plenary was the lack of action over the UN Decade for a 'Culture of Peace' (*7) and this was also covered in the Action Agenda.

Over lunch and dinner I told numerous people about the Irish English-language phrase, 'Castle Catholic', and its origins with our location (it refers back to the time of the British administration in Ireland being based in Dublin Castle, and 'Castle' Catholics were those who supported the British or were in their pay; while it is a historical term it is still in fairly common usage). It is a little derogatory phrase referring to a past conflict which echoed in my ears there in the corridors of Dublin Castle.

The conference ran quite smoothly, thanks to preparation by various people including the European Centre for Conflict Prevention, Cooperation Ireland as the local partners (especially Garrett Casey there), and the Irish government. I am always amazed at the work international events take. There was a lot happening in a couple of days and while the Action Agenda pulled many things together, there was simply not time to process many things. And of course then there was the networking; it is always good to meet old friends and try to understand new acquaintances.

The old adage that you should 'Never trouble trouble before trouble troubles you' is a piece of common or folk 'wisdom' which is not necessarily so wise. Certainly when it comes to community, ethnic, national and international conflicts it is always better to trouble trouble before the trouble escalates to such a degree that you get rather more trouble than you bargained for. I hope that this Dublin conference made a small contribution to thinking, planning and acting globally on the issue.


1. The goals are defined as;

To explore fully the role of civil society in conflict prevention and peace-building

To improve interaction between civil society groups, the UN, regional organisations, and governments.

To strengthen regional and international networking between conflict prevention actors.

2 Trócaire's timely 'Development Review 2003/4' focuses on 'The Role of NGOs in Conflict Transformation' with articles by Iain Atack (on 'Peacebuilding as conflict management or political engineering?'), Róisín Shannon, Paul Eavis (on the role of the EU), Paul van Tongeren (on building international alliances), Geraldine McDonald and Ian Gary, and Eilish Dillon (on 'Accountabilities and power in development relationships'). It covers a broad sweep of relevant issues. 128 pages, ISBN 0790-9403, price €9.50/UK£6.25

3. The European Centre for Conflict Prevention (Executive Director, Paul van Tongeren) in Utrecht holds the International Secretariat of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. Korte Elisabethstraat 6 / PO Box 14069, 3508 SC Utrecht, The Netherlands. Ph. +31-30-242 7777, fax +31-30-236 9268. e-mail and web

4. The Dublin Action Agenda was fairly forthright when it came to the 'War on Terror': "We see some of the strategies deployed in the 'War on Terror as counter-productive because, by further entrenching cycles of violence, they risk being ultimately self-defeating. The 'War on Terror' can also be used as a cloak under which CSO actors, including those who promote human rights, are targeted."

5. Mari Fitzduff's book, co-edited with Cheyanne Church, on "NGOs at the Table: Strategies for influencing policy in areas of conflict" is being published by Rowman and Littlefield, 216 pages, ISBN 0-7425-2849-9 at £20.95/€35.94. This examines "a number of NGOs, diverse in size, location, and financial means, that have successfully influenced both policy and program development in conflicts throughout the world."

6 The background statement includes: "Historically, the emphasis has been on strengthening the institutional capacity for military response. The emphasis now needs to be on strengthening the institutional capacity for non-violent civilian response." In the recommendations to governments and the EU, it quite clearly and explicitly calls for support for civil peace services.

7. The relevant recommendation to the United Nations, in the Dublin Action Agenda, reads: "In the area of 'Culture of Peace', the main challenge is to implement effectively UN General Assembly Resolution GA/RES/53/243 and the Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace. There has been a gap between the intentions expressed in the resolution and its implementation. We appeal to the UN to ensure that intra- and inter-agency co-operation is maximised and that national governments take a leading responsibility in implementing it, both in terms of policies and funding."

[Return to related issues of Nonviolent News.]

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