How can we build an effective global peace movement?

If we are to present a credible challenge to the system of interlocking interests that combine to entrench militarism, our movement needs to be able to engage with that complexity. Celia McKeon, Judith Eversley and Steve Whiting join the conversation.

Diana Francis
13 September 2010

Peace will not come unless we can begin to loosen the stranglehold of militarism. To transform the way people think and the systems that currently dominate our world we need a strong and effective movement for peace, on a global scale. How can we build one?  The responses of Cynthia Cockburn, Howard Clark and Dave Webb to this question suggest that movements are like other life forms, being complex and having their own ungovernable energy and dynamics. In part two of this conversation with Diana Francis, Judith Eversley, activist in the Bath Stop War Coalition, Steve Whiting, of the Quaker Turning the Tide Programme and Celia McKeon, of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, respond.

Judith Eversley: Effective campaigns for change work with the grain of their society in some respects while they undermine it in others. They are fluid, they may cut across party political divisions and they may be based on alliances among unlikely bedfellows. Some are short-lived – mere spasms perhaps – whereas other campaigns last decades. That seems healthy to me, and I know it is replicated all over the world. It does, though, mean that, like Cynthia Cockburn, I do not expect there to be one peace movement in the UK, let alone a single global peace movement. What I see is a world-wide web of movements for social change, which are effective at changing the world a step at a time, without being co-ordinated by a guiding hand. To make our collective efforts more influential, we need to share information. That is already happening, greatly facilitated by the internet and email.

I like working in a small group because I believe in ‘quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place’, Rufus Jones.  However, I acknowledge my debt to others, past and present, in that bigger web of change-making: environment and justice movements active in my home town, the civil rights movement in the USA, the peace-makers in faith groups, and activists in other countries. Their experience and insights support me; I gain strength and momentum from them.

I have seen the power of linked but separate campaigns demonstrated in my lifetime, in my own direct peace movement experience as an activist in the European Nuclear Disarmament campaign (END). The 1980 END Appeal stated, ‘We must commence to act as if a united, neutral and pacific Europe already exists. We must learn to be loyal, not to 'East' or 'West' but to each other, and we must disregard the prohibitions and limitations imposed by any national state.'  By this END meant that those of us who were working for nuclear disarmament in Western Europe should support dissident movements in the former Soviet bloc. Those movements flourished and played their part in ending the Cold War. This showed me that behaving as if the world we want has already come about is not only possible but empowering and effective. 

The world I want is one where there is a better way to resolve conflict than resorting to war. I question any assumption that violence is hard-wired into our human brain. It is clear to me that violence is not a solution to geo-political and geo-economic problems, any more than it is the solution to problems in the family or the neighbourhood. If I say that to a politician, I risk being called naïve, idiotic or woolly-minded. So I work to counter the hopeless and hideous assumption that violence is the answer; I campaign for the day when that assumption is viewed as an aberration; and I will act now as if that day had come.

DF: I like the way Judith combines the idea of a web of movements with a sense of continuity through time. And share her belief that it really works to behave ‘as if’’ we are already living in the world we are trying to create. The historic example she gives demonstrates that this is no mere philosophical comfort blanket. Moral consistency works. This is the transformative approach to conflict and change, which is founded in respect for people: their needs, rights and capacities for good. The passionate conviction of Judith’s final statement has a power that speaks for itself.   


Steve Whiting: For me, like the activists in Bath cited in your article Platform for humanity, the question has become “how can we build a global justice and peace movement?”

As governments and economic institutions combine to squeeze civil society, civil society needs to strengthen its power to push back, challenge the injustices and reclaim its space. We need first to recognise our own place in these systems of injustice, the ‘structural violence’, and our own power to struggle out of it.

Some years ago the Turning the Tide programme ran a series of workshops called Challenging Oppression. The workshops went well, but many participants struggled to identify their own role in oppression. The conceptual assumption we had brought was difficult for them, except when it was third party oppression. If they didn't feel particularly oppressed or oppressive, how could they challenge the system? 

Ekta Parishad, the Gandhian land rights movement, meets a similar challenge when it asks poor Indian villagers, “Why are the poor poor?” When we are so trapped in a system of oppression, it’s our everyday normality. We cannot see it clearly and it’s hard to imagine anything else. But once we recognise our own role in violent systems and see that it doesn’t have to be like this and decide to act, that’s when the movement starts.

And let’s celebrate what has already begun. We've seen what were essentially nonviolent “people power” movements remove oppressive governments in Eastern Europe, South-East Asia and South America. More recently, we’ve seen transnational actions mobilising and organising simultaneously against war, globalisation and climate change. To counter the summits of world leaders, we’ve seen the rise of the world and regional social forums, hugely valuable for discussion and sharing ideas. We need now to scale these up into action forums: joining hands across boundaries with others trapped in the same system. Why shouldn't we in the UK prepare an action for 2012 that connects with the great march of the landless people in India, linking it, say, to the sequestration of our physical, mental and social spaces by the government-corporate-financial nexus?

There are nonviolent struggles for justice everywhere, although we have to seek them out. With new technology it’s easy; we can research and learn from each other. Want to find out about Ekta Parishad? Next time you could just google it. Resources such as Wikileaks make secret information accessible; hand devices can record events and upload them instantly, validated by GPS co-ordinates, date and time – good for election and human rights monitoring, unarmed accompaniment work and much more. We can challenge mainstream reporting instantly by publishing our own reports; we can turn the surveillance back onto repressive police forces and militias. We can share our nonviolent training methods to transform attitudes and behaviours and understand contexts.

In these apocalyptic times, it's easy to see everything falling apart, and it's easy to counter positive ideas with negative evidence. But if we choose to hope and look for signs, we might just see them.

DF: Steve’s insistence on linking peace with justice takes us back to the notion of ‘positive peace’. He is right to believe that there can be no peace – negative or positive – without justice, just as there can be no justice without peace. And while he points to the need to confront injustice, his aim is to transform rather than triumph over people. His enthusiasm for using to advantage the ease of modern communication is an example of the positive spirit of his thinking and in line with his advocacy for hope.  


Celia McKeon: The vision of a global peace movement requires us to think about where and how power is located and exercised at a global level. Players such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey are emerging as new global powers, and they are forging new alliances. The power of corporations also continues to grow, particularly in relation to the exercise of warfare, as evidenced by the huge increase in private military and security companies involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. If we are to present a credible challenge to the system of interlocking interests that combine to entrench militarism, our movement needs to be able to engage with that complexity.

If this is true, then the current landscape of diverse movements, initiatives, groups and people is an asset. There is a rich variety of effective efforts to resist militarization and war – whether through peacebuilding efforts in war-torn communities, non-violent mass mobilisation to resist oppression, movements to ban weapons such as cluster bombs, or the negotiation of nuclear-free zones.

Perhaps what we need to do better is to see our place more clearly in the bigger picture, beyond the context of our particular affiliations, goals and immediate concerns and alliances. John Paul Lederach talks about the need for ¨web-watching¨.  Perhaps we need to find ways of taking time to look more deeply at the web we are part of, understand better our individual nodes within it, get a deeper feeling for other parts of it and identify where and when it is important to strengthen the threads that connect us.

What would this look like in practice? Two examples come to mind.

First, those of us who describe our primary concerns and passions in terms of peace could benefit from strengthening the links between our resistance and our advocacy.  When the peace movement takes to the streets en masse, it is good at expressing resistance – no to the Iraq war, the Afghan war, nuclear weapons and so on – but not so good at communicating the pro-peace alternatives. Peace policy advocates, on the other hand, spend a lot of time engaging in discussion about the alternatives but do so as insider-experts and tend to be disconnected from the peace movement. This doesn’t make sense, since it is objection to war that provides the motivation for alternatives and it is those alternatives that make Johan Galtung's 'peace by peaceful means' seem possible. Even though the pressures of our daily activities may be immense, and even though we are quick to discover tensions between our approaches, war resisters and peace policy advocates must keep finding opportunities to talk to each other and experiment with working together, so that our connections can make us more powerful. 

Secondly, we need to redouble our efforts to communicate with activists in other related movements, as happened in Bath. We have a growing body of experience that demonstrates the possibility and value of resolving conflicts peacefully. This approach is going to be essential to efforts to address climate change, for example. We need to get better at communicating the complexity of conflict transformation in accessible ways, if we are to make its benefits available where they are needed, and convince mainstream society that our national interests can be better served by cooperation and respect than by exporting violence. 

DF: I’m cheered by Celia’s suggestion that the multifariousness of the peace movement is not only inevitable but also strategically useful. I agree that good analysis of the sources and dynamics of global power could enable us to see our own role and potential more clearly. I think her point about the need to build understanding between resisters and advocates is a vital one and is closely related to the need for public education about the nature and potential of conflict transformation.   

The idea of  ‘transformation’ is central to all this, reflecting as it does not only the depth and breadth of the change that is needed, but also the fact that we cannot bring about that change unless the manner of our action matches the values that shape our goal: those of respect and inclusiveness. If this is our goal we must go deeper in the way we approach peace, harnessing our own deepest values and longings as motivating power, and reaching out to other people at that level, finding the things that bind us all together. To do that we must reach beyond our own anger and prejudices, recognising that others are capable of compassion and speaking to them, in Judith’s words, as if they shared our values, hopes and fears. That way we can get beyond the ideologies that divide us and arrive at the heart of the matter, which is our common humanity. We must hope that the urgency of the problems we face will at last enable our insight, wisdom and caring to match our technical intelligence, for in the end we will sink or swim together. 

The views expressed by Celia McKeon are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. 

Part one: Building a global peace movement. Cynthia Cockburn, Howard Clark and Dave Webb.

To read other articles in the series 'from War to Peace: towards a nonviolent future' click here



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