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Significant People’s Forum on Peace, Not Just in Ukraine

July 31, 2022

By Stuart Rees

Citizens in Australia speak of peace and show how to reach that goal. They do not trust politicians stifled into thinking that security means militarism, or think tanks funded to promote the idea that national defence and arms industry interests are the same. Faced with wars and the violence of climate change, prescriptions for peace are a response to public demand, as in a unique July 24 Zoom based People’s Forum.

Four speakers held the attention of a large audience and prompted a torrent of questions. The first hour contained four  papers: Professor Graeme Gill, (Triggers for War), Dr Jake Lynch (Media Coverage of War),  Dr Sue Wareham (Moving Beyond (nuclear) Catastrophe) and Professor Joe Camilleri (Consequences of War, Steps Towards Peace). From their analyses, I have identified three concepts: cosmopolitanism, interdependence, the influence of language. 

In an essay ‘Towards Perpetual Peace’, 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, ‘It makes no difference whether a person lives here or there provided that he (or she) lives as a citizen of the world.’ In regard to the Russian, Ukraine, US, NATO war, the Kant vision means understanding the perspectives of all parties, including fleeing refugees, grieving families in Russia or Ukraine plus any of the world’s people faced with famine.  

Ukrainian refugees from Mariupol at Lviv railway station waiting for a train to escape to Europe - March 2022.
Ukrainian refugees from Mariupol at Lviv railway station waiting for a train to escape to Europe - March 2022. Photo credit: Ruslan Lytvyn/shutterstock.com

In respect for cosmopolitanism, the architects of the Forum obtained support from civil society peace groups, The Medical Association for the Prevention of War, the advocacy movement Raising Peace, the multicultural organization Affinity, and the Sydney Peace Foundation. At the next Forum, planned for September, that consultation and support must be wider.

In an echo of 17th century John Donne’s warning, ‘No Man is an Island, entire of itself, every man is a part of the continent, a part of the main’, each speaker inferred that no-one is free from the consequences of pandemics, from climate change or the Ukraine war, let alone from the prospect of annihilation by nuclear weapons. Fostering interdependence meant coming together to resist the poisons of populism and extremes of nationalism.

When war pollutes the atmosphere, promotes destruction and misery, the nature of violence from whatever source looks the same. Promoting ceasefires and a lasting peace with justice for Ukraine and neighbor states should not be separated from international commitments to combat climate change.

When advocating ‘perpetual peace’, Kant inferred that peace builders needed deep respect for nature. That was his 18th century reminder that today’s environmentalists, the Green New Deal advocates must be vigilant about human aggression wherever it occurs. In similar insights, Indigenous peoples teach about interdependence by perceiving no difference between their health and the condition of the land. Both need attention and care.

The Forum deliberations highlighted the influence of language to effect to peace. Advice to pay attention to the careful choice of words comes in George Orwell’s observation that language corrupts thoughts and thoughts corrupt language. That is his request to today’s leaders, to end their wars of words, to cease the masculine breast beating irrespective of terrible human, animal and environmental costs.        

Thoughts which appear to promote extremism, annihilation, nationalism, militarism, alleged deterrence from possession of nuclear weapons, or even exterminism, give advocates of peace an idea of what they are up against.

Sculptures in the garden of Nagasaki's National Memorial Hall for the atomic bomb victims of August 1945, we must never forget. Tens of thousands of people and animals were killed by the initial explosion and many more later succumbed to radiation poisoning. The environmental impacts of the fallout were far reaching and catastrophic.
Sculptures in the garden of Nagasaki's National Memorial Hall for the atomic bomb victims of August 1945, we must never forget. Tens of thousands of people and animals were killed by the initial explosion and many more later succumbed to radiation poisoning. The environmental impacts of the fallout were far reaching and catastrophic. Photo credit: Nicolai Tsvetkov/shutterstock.com

In her insightful appraisal, ‘Beyond Catastrophe’, Sue Wareham warned, ‘if you want to treat cancer, you would not discourage research into that disease. If you want to promote peace, why no research into that condition?’ 

Yet in Australia, efforts to research peace have been treated dismissively by thoughtless university managers who closed centres of peace and conflict resolution which had been created in response to students’ interests. Hear the students’ language. They distinguished between peace – what we are fighting against – and peace with justice - what we are fighting for. The latter objective derives inspiration from that visionary, cosmopolitan document of the 20th century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The language of peace is expressed in many forms. A pessimistic portrayal of threats to life appears in W.B.Yeats’ prophetic poem The Second Coming, written in 1919 at the beginning of the Irish war of Independence, but applicable to today’s US-Russia polarization, to wars and the arms trade. 

The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity. 

By contrast, the Forum heard an optimistic alternative from the talented Gemimah Omari, a former Congolese refugee who sang John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’:

Imagine all the people sharing all the world. 
You may say that I’m a dreamer 
But I’m not the only one 
I hope some day you’ll join us 
And the world will be as one. 

People’s passion for peace also showed in diverse questions in the Forum’s second hour. I pick one question. Professor Olivier Urbain from Soka University in Tokyo asked, ‘In what way can music contribute to peace building?’

Folk songs, pop, jazz or the classics provide uplifting answers. I willl choose a Ludwig van Beethoven example. 

At the end of the 20th century, ideas about European Union came from hopes for peace as an alternative to wars, and to that end, the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, the Peace Symphony, became the national anthem of the EU.  Beethoven wanted the message from his music to resound inside and outside the concert hall. The libretto for that last movement came from  Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy. The German poet crafted his words as ‘a kiss for the whole earth.’

The messages are clear. If we talk constantly and creatively about peace with justice, a groundswell of interest and achievement may be realized. If we talk only about weapons to achieve victories and ensure defeats, the chances of peace in Ukraine and elsewhere will be forever postponed.

People’s Forums for Peace need to multiply.

Stuart Rees

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

Feature image: London stands with Ukraine, Peace March and Vigil March 2022 with Yoko Ono's artwork 'Imagine Peace'. Photo credit: Peace Ecology/shutterstock.com

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