The meaning of peace in the 21st century

Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi writes at the opening of the first international conference of the Nobel Women's Initiative: Women redefining peace in the Middle East and beyond.

Shirin Ebadi
20 May 2013

One of the important tasks of the 21st century is redefining social concepts. I would like to start redefining the word "peace". The main question here is whether peace means the absence of war. In other words, if a country is not involved in a war, do the people of that country live in a green peace?

Definitely no. This definition of peace belongs to a few centuries ago. In the twenty first century peace has to be defined otherwise. For example the devastating situation of Aids patients in the world, specifically in African countries is more dangerous than guns and bullets.

Pursuant to a report of Unicef, in the year 2006, the number of children under fourteen years of age who are suffering from Aids is 2.1 million. These children will lose their lives although their country is not involved in a way.

In some fifty poor countries such as Chad, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan and Somalia, one of every six children dies before reaching the age of five. The cause of death is not having access to health, vaccination, clean drinkable water and malnutrition. These children do not lose their lives to bombs, they die of extreme poverty. This is why we need a new definition of peace. Peace means serenity. One can only feel serene if one's human rights are not violated and one's integrity is protected. Obviously a human being who does not have access to education due to extreme poverty, or who has been sentenced to imprisonment for expressing his/her opinion does not enjoy serenity and does not live in peace. The same is true about a person who has lost his/her home and lives on the streets. Peace can only be permanent if it is based on two principles - democracy and Social Justice.

In authoritarian societies, whether religious or political, where votes of people don't count, where any opposition voice is silenced with bullets and imprisonment, peace cannot be permanent.

The other principle of peace is social justice. Peace cannot be established in a society where a big class distinction exists. We can only be happy if our neighbours are not suffering from hunger. How can we hope to establish worldwide peace when 75% of the wealth of the world is in the hands of 1% of the population of the world?

Pursuant to a report of the International Labour Organisation published in 2004, one hundred and 26 million of the children of the world are engaged in performing dangerous work. Social justice should be regarded not only at the international, but also, at national levels.

History proves that a society where a big gap exists between the rich and the poor will not be peaceful. In America, the total wealth of one per cent of the population equals the total wealth of the remaining 65%. In a country like India, millions of people are born homeless. They get married on the streets, live on the streets and die on the streets, whereas the most expensive and luxurious hotels and homes exist for only five per cent of the population.

Democracy should be redefined too. In its classical meaning, democracy means the government of the majority. But a majority who wins in free elections does not have the right to govern as it wishes. Let's not forget that most dictatorships in the world have been elected democratically, meaning by the majority of the vote of the people. Like Hitler. Therefore, winning elections does not guarantee democracy. The majority that gains power through free elections should observe the framework of democracy. Now what is the framework of democracy?

The framework of democracy is human rights law. In other words, the majority who has won power can only perform within the framework of the laws of human rights and cannot violate such laws. No majority in power can use religion as an excuse to oppress half of the population of society, in other words women. The oppression that women in Iran are suffering at the present is an example of such excuse. No majority in power should have the right to prevent freedom of speech with the excuse of ideology. Like what has happened in Cuba and China. No majority in power should have the right to limit political freedom, like the United States of America that does not permit the activity of communist parties and limits their work, opening or in secret.

In light of the above, governments do not gain their legitimacy through votes of people and voting boxes. They gain their legitimacy through votes of people and respect for human rights. Excuses for violation of human rights such as cultural relativism, religion and ideology are not acceptable. Human rights have been derived from religions and civilisations and can be applied to any civilisation and culture.

Shirin Ebadi will be attending the Nobel Women's Initiative's fourth international conference Beyond Militarism and War: women driven solutions for a nonviolent world in Belfast May 28th-31st.

This article was first published in 2007 and is republished here ahead of the conference. openDemocracy 5050 has covered the Nobel Women's Initiative conferences since 2007 and Jennifer Allsopp and Heather McRobie will be reporting from Belfast next week. 

Read more articles on 50.50 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conferences



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData