By Robert C. Koehler
“Individuals and peoples have a right to peace.”
In the beginning was the word. OK. This is the beginning, and these are the words, but they haven’t arrived yet — at least not officially, with full force of meaning.
It’s our job, not God’s, to create the new story of who we are, and millions — billions — of people fervently wish we could do so. The problem is that the worst of our nature is better organized than the best of it.
The words constitute Article 1 of the U.N.’s draft declaration on peace. What alerts me that they matter is the fact that they’re controversial, that “there is a lack of consensus” among the member states, according to the president of the Human Rights Council, “about the concept of the right to peace as a right in itself.”
David Adams, former UNESCO senior program specialist, describes the controversy with a little more candor in his 2009 book, World Peace through the Town Hall:
“At the United Nations in 1999, there was a remarkable moment when the draft culture of peace resolution that we had prepared at UNESCO was considered during informal sessions. The original draft had mentioned a ‘human right to peace.’ According to the notes taken by the UNESCO observer, ‘the U.S. delegate said that peace should not be elevated to the category of human right, otherwise it will be very difficult to start a war.’ The observer was so astonished that she asked the U.S. delegate to repeat his remark. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘peace should not be elevated to the category of human right, otherwise it will be very difficult to start a war.’”
And a remarkable truth emerges, one it’s not polite to talk about or allude to in the context of national business: In one way or another, war rules. Elections come and go, even our enemies come and go, but war rules. This fact is not subject to debate or, good Lord, democratic tinkering. Nor is the need for and value of war — or its endless, self-perpetuating mutation — ever pondered with clear-eyed astonishment in the mass media. We never ask ourselves, in a national context: What would it mean if living in peace were a human right?
“The real story of the rise of ISIS shows that US interventions in Iraq and Syria were central in creating the chaos in which the group has thrived,” writes Steve Rendall in Extra! (“Addicted to Intervention”). “But that story doesn’t get told in US corporate media. . . . The informed input of actual experts on the region, who don’t march in lockstep with Washington elites, might put a crimp in the public’s support for the war, support largely informed by pro-war pundits and reporters, and the familiar retired military brass — often with ties to the military/industrial complex.
“With pundits reflexively calling for more attacks,” Rendall adds, “there’s virtually no one to note that US wars have been catastrophic for the people in the targeted countries — from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya.”
It’s a remarkable system that makes no sense from the point of view of compassion and planetary solidarity, and would surely be dismantled in an honest democracy, in which who we are and how we live is always on the table. But that’s not how nation-states work.
“The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form,” Gandhi said, as quoted by Adams. “The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.”
And those who speak for the nation-state embody the addiction to violence and fear, and always see threats that require forceful reaction, never, of course, considering either the horror that force will inflict on those in its way or the long-term (and often enough short-term) blowback it will bring about.
Thus, as Rendall notes, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News that “if ISIS wasn’t stopped with a full-spectrum war in Syria, we were all going to die: ‘This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.’”
“Rise to the occasion” is how we talk about inflicting concentrated violence on random, faceless people we’ll never know in their full humanity, except for the occasional picture of their suffering that shows up in the war coverage.
Regarding the accumulation of enemies, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced that the military has begun preparing to defend the United States against . . . climate change.
Kate Aronoff, writing at Waging Nonviolence, notes the extraordinary irony of this in view of the fact that the Pentagon is the biggest polluter on the planet. In the name of national defense, no environmental regulation is so important that it can’t be utterly ignored and no piece of Earth is so pristine that it can’t be trashed for eternity.
But that’s what we do, as long as national identity defines the limits of our imagination. We go to war against every problem we face, from terrorism to drugs to cancer. And every war creates collateral damage and new enemies.
The beginning of change may simply be acknowledging that peace is a human right. The U.N.’s member states — at least the major ones, with standing armies and stockpiles of nuclear weapons — object. But how could you trust such a declaration if they didn’t?
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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