Resolving Global Conflicts without Violence – Part 1

By Joris Voorhoeve, Professor Emeritus International Organizations, Former Cabinet Minister of The Netherlands


Mahatma Gandhi, who we honour this year, 150 years after his birth,  remains a shining example of the power of non-violent conflict resolution. In 2013, I visited the Gandhi Museum in New Delhi. I was struck in particular by a cartoon on the wall near the end. Martin Luther King had been drawn standing next to Mahatma Gandhi, who was sitting on the ground. Gandhi looked up to King and said: You know, the funny thing with assassins is that they think they killed us.

Both are beacons of non-violent conflict resolution, or we should say: conflict transformation in a peaceful fashion, utilising the power of media, in a society with an enforceable  legal order, however deficient the legal orders were at the time.

The world is full of conflicts in interests, belief systems, cultures, identities, and human desires, individually and collectively. The driving forces of power, money, communication and  technology turn the world into one political system but without a government. The world is a busy, ungoverned city. We ourselves are lucky to live in a quarter in this global city which has a rule-of-law democracy; but many others do not. Many blocks and quarters in the global city are poor, full of manifest  violence, or the threat of implicit structural violence to those who are enslaved in poverty and suppression.  The threat of very destructive violence is always there, particularly in countries without a functioning basic legal order guaranteeing human rights.

The crucial task of politics is to preserve peace with freedom and justice.  That is only possible if there is an effective rule of law system which keeps people and institutions from abusing power against others. Economic power, technological power, intellectual power, military power, and all other forms that can overwhelm others and make them suffer at the will and for the benefit of the powerful. Without guarantees against abuse of power, human beings can be very destructive, inclined to do much harm to others, even with ideological and religious  justifications that sound rather persuasive but are a veil or smokescreen, hiding the reality of harsh exploitation of other humans, many of them far away and out of sight, on the other side of the earth. Related to that is also the  gross overuse of natural resources at the expense of the next generations.

A well-known remark by Gandhi was that the earth has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.    All the forces that I mentioned drive people and institutions like corporations and states to abuse of power. So the question is: how to curb  that inclination.

Governments and political parties should not attempt to turn people into angels, as that has never worked. Ideological and religious efforts to push people into a mold have generally led to suppression, injustice,  wars and other forms of destruction. Mere idealistic moralising without suppression of freedom is not harmful but does not work, as most people are driven by their own view on their short-term interest. That does not sound uplifting, but I see it as my task to be clinical and neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Both mental attitudes are biased. We should analyse clinically, like physicians diagnosing a disease. Violence is, indeed, a very destructive social disease which has plagued mankind since its origin and is likely to remain a major threat.

The United Nations has solemnly set the targets of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, from safe drinking water to food and jobs and peace for all. They are to be reached by 2030.  They might be implemented for many  in Europe, North American, and the middle and upper class in other countries, but the prospects are not good for the world’s poor, weak, and unemployed. The modern electronic economy has no use for them.

The injustice of poverty is not an economic but a political question; those who try to survive in poor rural areas or in the mines and industries at the bottom of the economic pyramid  have no power to enforce that their needs and those of their children and grandchildren are met. These needs can only be met by political reform in the direction of rule-of-law democracies. That is very hard to achieve.

The desperate and unemployed are inclined to listen to leaders who resort to ideological, religious, ethnic and armed struggle. Half the world is younger than 29 years of age; in some African countries 40 % is younger than 14. They will have a big impact on the future.

Also powerful countries take recourse to violence, like Russia stirring war in East Ukraine, having annexed (which is a diplomatic word for stolen) the Crimea, or Israel marginalising the Palestinians and annexing step by step land and water which belongs to Arab inhabitants, or Sudan driving out the Darfuri. There are many other horrible examples of the common drive to wield power over and destroy others.

What are the means to curtail abuse of power? First, organising countervailing power in a peaceful fashion. It means in practice encouraging trade unions, collective consumer action, investigative journalism, legal action, legal assistance to suppressed individuals and communities,  support for international organisations which keep evil inclinations of collectivities and corporations in check.

Will be continued.