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Paths to Peace

Blueprint for society of nonviolence, human dignity


Living in a war culture, with a $350 billion annual military budget -- larger than the next 15 nations combined -- Americans may lose a sense of what a peace culture may look like. For that reason, the U.N. Decade for the Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World, 2001-2010, with its blueprint for a peaceful society, is a welcome antidote to America’s way of being in the world.

Peace, sometimes defined as absence of war, is more accurately understood as a dynamic process involving all individual and communal relationships. Peacemaking requires at least as much courage, imagination, patience and strategic planning as war-making, with infinitely more positive results. Its goal is nonviolent relations, not only between nations, but also between states and their citizens and between human beings and their environments.

Achieving that goal requires day-to-day peace building in our families, schools, media, sports and other associations. The U.N. resolution for establishing a Culture of Peace, endorsed by the General Assembly in 1999, offers an instruction manual.

‘An everyday attitude’

Frederico Mayor, former director general of UNESCO, the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; David Adams, head of the UNESCO Task Force; and Anawarul Chowdhury, former ambassador to Bangladesh, were among those involved in creating the Culture of Peace program through the United Nations. Initially published in 1995, then revised and approved by 169 nations four years later, the U.N. declaration received the enthusiastic support of millions of people who signed its manifesto. An interactive Web site has involved more than 75 million individuals and thousands of local, national and international organizations in this global movement for building societies based on peace.

The formulation of the culture of peace is deliberately broad, in order to include all the ends and means appropriate to the full range of nongovernmental organizations working for peace and justice. Frederico Mayor has said it is, at the same time, “a very specific concept, both a product of this particular moment of history and an appropriate vision for the future that is in our power to create.” It represents “an everyday attitude of nonviolent rebellion, of peaceful dissent, a firm determination to defend human rights and human dignity.”

At the heart of the program, according to Michael G. Wessells of Randolph Macon College, “is the view that cooperation across many levels of society and in diverse enterprises -- business, education, health care, the arts and security protection, among others -- is essential for healing the wounds of war, for preventing destructive conflict in the future and for promoting sustainable development.”

The U.N. resolution for a Culture of Peace has six principal components. Each one articulates strategies and goals, already demonstrated, in specific instances of “people power” from recent history.

  • Power is redefined not in terms of violence or force, but of active nonviolence. This component builds upon the experience of active nonviolence as a means of social change and its proven success during the 20th century -- for example, the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and the 1979-83 peace movement that led to the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty.
  • People are mobilized not in order to defeat an enemy but in order to build understanding, tolerance and solidarity -- to liberate the oppressor as well as the oppressed. An example is the end of apartheid in South Africa, including the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • The hierarchical structures that characterize the culture of war are replaced by a democratic process that engages people in decision-making at all levels and empowers them by the victories they achieve -- for example, the Solidarity movement in Poland and the liberation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
  • The secrecy and control of information by those in power is replaced by participatory democracy, though the sharing of information among everyone involved -- the goals of the democratic uprising in China.
  • The male-dominated culture of war and violence is transformed into a culture acknowledging and building upon special skills that women bring to the peace building process, with women at the center of institutions emerging from it. For example, the Madres de Mayo from Argentina succeeded in calling public attention to the plight of the disappeared.
  • The oppression that characterizes the culture of war -- slavery, colonialism, economic exploitation -- is replaced by cooperation and sustainable development for all. Working toward this goal are the anti-globalization movement and the Jubilee Year’s campaign for debt relief.

Price of the culture of war

Such specific guidelines regarding peace have not been a topic of general discussion. “In the past,” as one summary of the U.N. declaration says, “the struggle for human rights and justice has often been violent. But violence reproduces the culture of war -- authoritarian, hierarchical, exploitative, male-dominated, secretive and above all mobilized to destroy ‘the enemy.’ We have paid the high price -- the lives of millions and millions of people -- of this culture of war. Now we must build a culture of peace.”

The Culture of Peace talks about a “new road to peace and social justice -- the road of nonviolence.” It acknowledges that “a vast flowering of grassroots initiatives has grown up … initiatives to save the natural environment, to preserve cultural identity and diversity, for education for all throughout life, for the rights of women and many others.”

Violence and war are not inevitable. Like peace and nonviolence, they are choices made by people to achieve goals. Peace exists only if it is constructed and only if it is made by individuals and governmental and nongovernmental organizations that persist in their efforts to build it. What is required, writes sociologist Elise Boulding in her book Cultures of Peace, is a “continuous process of nonviolent problem-solving and the creation of institutions that meet the needs of the people.” This far-reaching process includes citizen diplomacy, nonviolent resistance, intervention and conflict transformation.

While providing a blueprint for the future, the U.N. program is also a powerful validation of the work being done every day, against impossible odds, by Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers; workers, students and women in South Korea; antinuclear activists in India; and School of Americas Watch and Voices in the Wilderness in the United States. They daily build a new culture of peace in the shell of the old culture of war.

Michael True, author of numerous books on nonviolence and social justice movements, has taught peace and conflict studies in this country and abroad. He is emeritus professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., and is president of the International Peace Research Association Foundation.

Peace in history

  • 1644: Eleven African-American servants in New Amsterdame file a petition for freedom, the first recorded legal protest in what Europeans called the “New World”
  • 1871: One thousand women in Paris block cannons and stand between Prussian and Parisian troops.


International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World

Boulding, Elise. Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History, Syracuse, NY: SyracuseUniversity Press, 2000

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002