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International Law – A Heaven or Hell on Earth?

(Part 4 - Peace)


by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law


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International Law promised a noble world at the end of the Second World War. Was that dream realised -- or was the dream a chimera? In this fourth of a series of articles, The Law Journal UK examines the promise -- and reality -- of Peace.



One of the biggest problems in International Law is the purely Western context of International Law.


This orientation is not a surprise, given the origins of International Law in the Westphalian regime forged by European powers after the Napoleonic Wars.


Even though International Law has moved well beyond the structure of Westphalia, where the leading countries met in summits to resolve issues and build treaties, the legacy of that origin remains.


An example of the difference in context came in a discussion between a Westerner and an Arab. The Westerner asked, with regard to the prospects for Israeli-Syrian peace, why Syria was saying ‘give us the Golan Heights back, and then we will talk’ – while from the Westerner’s perspective, you need to negotiate first, make an agreement, and then implement any land return as per that agreement.  The Arab laughed and responded that the Westerner did not understand the Arab approach. In the Arab world, a Mukhtar – a local official – did not negotiate – he told people what to do. Period. Negotiation is a foreign concept to a Mukhtar.


Similarly, there are different words for peace. In some languages, one word for peace means what a westerner would consider peace – people and nations co-existing in harmony. However, there are also other words for peace – but which mean that a truce (as we would define it) would occur until ‘we’ are strong enough to break the truce and impose our conquest and will on the other side. And there are more nuances in the concepts and wording of peace, making even defining this concept problematic.


Then there is the Western assumption that all reasonable men (and women) want peace – that we all strive for peace. Yet that is not the case all of the time. For various reasons, peace is less of an interest at different times than other priorities. For example, a government may need to use the ‘iron fist’ to assert its authority. Now, that does not mean that authoritarian goals are preferable to peace. But, as any student of history will tell you, governments and other regimes have established their power through the sword, not the ploughshare. A prime example is Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. President during the U.S. Civil War, who suspended rights such as Habeas Corpus.


Another reality is that the world will not care about regional conflicts unless there is a pressing reason to do so – or if intervening will not affect the vital interests of the intervening nations. Two prime examples – the genocides in Rwanda a decade ago, and Darfur today. No one cared about the tribal slaughter in Rwanda. It just did not matter, and the United Nations showed it by sending too few – and too weak – a response, utilising Article 6 powers instead of the more forceful Article 7 authorisation. In Darfur today, action has been glacial in its speed – despite the U.S. categorising events there as a ‘genocide’. Too many countries depend on oil and money from Arab countries who are complicit in the Darfur slaughter. Even the African Union peacekeeping response has been feeble and even questionable, with foreign soldiers looking out for their personal interests, as well as the interests of their government in controlling resources.


Western approaches to promote peace may even have the opposite effect. A classic example is that of foreign aid, particularly from private and church-sponsored groups. While well meaning, these groups send aid to the victims of local civil wars. This aid actually perpetuates the civil war, since it frees up the combatants from meeting the needs of their populace – and it frees up money for the gun trade.


At the same time that the West does not understand peace, it does not understand war. There are Western peace groups and thinkers who in a knee-jerk fashion define ‘good’ as the non-Western side and Western action as ‘imperialist intervention’. China, for example, is striving for naval supremacy in the world, and is buying allies in Africa with financial (aid?) packages. Clearly, there are increasing signs of belligerence emanating from China.


However, there is a deafening silence from the peace circles.


Yet any move by Western countries, even in providing foreign aid, is viewed and attacked as ‘imperialist’.


Then there is the butchery and totalitarian dictatorship in Zimbabwe. I have yet to see world protests against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe – yet the situation in that country hardly resembles peace.


If we are talking internal crimes by governments, let us go back to China for a moment. Only rarely do we see smuggled videos of protesting farmers being shot by the military – and it seems that there are protests and slaughters daily in that country. Yet I went to an art exhibit looking at future trends that pilloried the West and its technology, but praised China’s ‘miracle’ as the way of the future. There was no mention of China’s belligerent external and internal behaviour, just that this wonderful country is one to be emulated.


However, there is good news. Centuries ago, talk of peace – even local peace – was not the norm. In Europe, the only way that Kings – or Queens – could establish their authority was by war. If a Monarch was to achieve authority over the Lords and Nobles at home, they needed to war successfully against other powers. Few monarchs ever advocated peace – that would be tantamount to an admission of weakness. The situation was not much different elsewhere in the world. The Samurai sword ruled in Japan, Tribes in the Americas warred against one another, and wars were fought on religious differences more often than not.


What changed that made peace become part of the agenda?


No one cared if the King launched a war. After all, the armies were composed of officers – nobles – and enlisted men – largely orphans that had no family to care. Hence there was no one at home to worry about their relatives fighting wars. The situation became even better for these nations, particularly the European ones, when they conquered empires. They could recruit colonial natives as military forces. These colonials did not vote in the ruling country, nor could they revolt in that country. Hence a slaughter of colonial soldiers would have little impact at home – but a victory would bring glory to the government. War was, then, a low-risk, high-gain enterprise.


That changed in World War One, where actual, non-orphaned civilians were the combatants. There were families at home, families to grieve, and families to revolt. The slaughter led to the fall of many monarchies that had lasted for centuries. Although the UK’s monarchy did not fall, the lack of support for returning veterans led to the first Labour government and land reform in the 1920s. The concept of helping returning veterans was simply foreign to governments such as that in the UK – after all, no one ever called for benefits for returning orphan soldiers before.


Hence, peace became important. For no particular reason, the war of 1914-1918, then called the Great War, was deemed to be the ‘war to end all wars’.


Yet the emphasis on peace was illusory at best. Whether it was due to the Versailles Treaty of 1919 ending that war, or was a result of socio-ideological trends, Fascist regimes such as the Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler took power and built for war in order to regain perceived ancient romantic legendary power.


Hence, a vital lesson was ignored until almost too late – namely, there are times when there cannot be peace, and war is the only option. Just as the police have to sometimes shoot a dangerous criminal, the Allied nations had to put a stop to the Axis powers.


Though few realise it, a similar situation existed prior to World War One. There had been an assumption that World War One was an unnecessary war, a war between Kings, Tsars, and Kaisers who were cousins (let us ignore the fact that France was a Republic with a President). Yet the fact was that the German Kaiser Wilhelm was preparing for war. This is a man who had poisoned his father to take the throne, and had placed his mother under house arrest because she was of British birth (one of Queen Victoria’s daughters). If it would not have been an assassination in 1914 that sparked the war, there would have been another event to cause the conflict. Wilhelm was looking for a fight and he was going to get it.


There is a disturbing parallel between the pre-World War One scenario and that of today. You have Islamic religious fundamentalists who do not seek peace with their neighbours, but seek to destroy any other beliefs. There is an assumption that there can be a tolerance between beliefs. Yet the Moslem fundamentalists have shown not only no interest in such tolerance, but in fact total distain. That is not reflecting on all Moslems. But just as fighting the Nazis did not mean that all Germans backed the totalitarian regime, fighting the Moslem extremists is not precluded because there are Moslems in favour of moderate co-existence.


Yet many in the West keep up an illusion that peace is the ultimate goal of all people. A perfect example is that of Hamas who have now taken over all power in Gaza. Hamas has made no secret of its plan for the destruction (read: war) of Israel. Yet some Westerners condemn the boycott of Hamas because it does not ‘help peace’. What peace can come from Hamas? The basis of most peace plans has been two states – Israel and Palestine – living peaceably side-by-side, respecting each other’s existence. Yet the election of Hamas, and now its complete seizure of power in Gaza, makes a mockery of that goal for peace.  The situation is no better from Lebanon – Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, likewise seeks the destruction of Israel and launches attacks from Lebanon. Yet peace elements in the West keep insisting that ‘land for peace’ will solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The evidence so far has been the opposite – instead of using the land evacuated by Israel to build a functioning state, it has been used as a springboard for even closer attacks – witness the missile volleys – on Israel.


Again, not every Moslem seeks war. But watch the news. On one recent night, the first five items --  covering ten minutes of the national newscast -- was related in some way to Moslem extremism, whether internally in the UK or around the world. Clearly, there is a problem.


Most people do want peace. However, that should not preclude those who want peace to take action, when necessary, against those who threaten the peace.


Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law 


Your thoughts? 

Comments on this Article from our readers:

From Tom Porter, United States:


Brian Risman’s article on the concept “peace” stated explicitly what the Middle-Eastern wars made obvious long before Brian stated it: much of the world has no strong desire for peace without conquest. The essential long-term danger is the proliferation of nuclear weapons among uncivilized tribes, whether through Iranian technology, the changing of the guard in Pakistan, or some unforeseen application of ideology or oil money.


Brian’s article shows beyond doubt that, left to their own devices, such tribes will not sort things out peaceably.  9-11 shows they will involve us even if we pay off all the governments involved.


“Kill them all” is not a reasonable response.  Is there an alternative? 


Yes.  The key, the single element, without which civilization and peace would thrive in the middle-east, is fundamentalist religion.  Its guidance is obvious and necessary behind the bloodthirsty and barbaric tribalism. This is the weak spot, indeed the only weak spot, in the otherwise inexorable onslaught of middle-eastern conflict.


And fundamentalist religion has a weakness, a pressure point its proponents know all too well, while we ignore it in fine liberal tolerance.  That weakness is humor.  Humor can penetrate the darkest corners of the universe, completely without warning.  If someone has something to hide, such as religious doubts, this threat can be excruciating. Remember the Islamic tantrums of the Cartoon Jihad?  They know their weakness even if we’re too generous to conceive it.


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