The United Nations’ (UN) International Day of Peace has been celebrated on September 21 each year (since 1981)to recognize the efforts of those who have worked hard to end conflict and promote peace. This year many people’s and nations marked the day with nationwide appeals to governments to see climate change as a major existential threat to humanity and as a major source of conflict in the future.
When we (a group of London Based Civil Society Organisations and the UN) were thinking about how to make International Peace Day more than just a talk fest, we focused on the idea of personal and political ceasefires for one day, to enable the delivery of humanitarian and medical assistance to people living in war zones.
This idea of delivering humanitarian and medical assistance on the 21st September has been realised in a number of different conflicts The reality, is, however, that there will not be lasting stable peace anywhere until we accord more weight to cultures of peace than cultures of militarism and war . This requires each one of us working to ensure that each day of the year is a peace day. The promotion of harmony and non-violent resolution of conflict has to become deeply ingrained in each of us for this to happen.
One religious group that has made a vocational commitment to peace for over 350 years is the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers. They have something to teach us as we grapple with current global turbulence.
Their peace testimony as articulated by Margaret Fell in a letter to King Charles II stated that
“We are a people that follow after those things that make for peace, love, and unity; it is our desire that others’ feet may walk in the same, and do deny and bear our testimony against all strife, and wars.”
This 17th century Peace Testimony is exactly what is needed in a world of autocratic, atavistic nationalism. The commitment to peace, love and unity flows from the Quaker belief that there is ‘That of God in everyone’ . This simple belief generates a need to respect and honour “the other “ irrespective of ethnicity, creed, and divergent values and beliefs. But more particularly it has resulted in a refusal to bear arms or take part in military service over the years. Many Quakers, have conscientiously objected to war through the years and have either been imprisoned for their beliefs or been given permission to develop medical and humanitarian assistance to all side of the conflict. ( e.g The Friend’s Ambulance Units of the First and Second World Wars) . This silent witness has made important contributions to civil liberties -the right to dissent on grounds of conscience- and has generated an alternative to those who say that war is the only way to solve global problems.
Quakers recognise that there are evils that need to be resisted, however, and choose to do so through non violent rather than violent action. They were early supporters , for example, of the Gandhian Independence movement in India, the Civil Rights Movements in the US and in non violent resistence to oppressive rule everywhere.
The peace testimony has also been harnessed to help victims of wars and conflicts in a totally non partisan fashion. Quakers have been deeply involved in providing relief and rehabilitation to victims of violence everywhere and have done so systematically ever since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and in every major conflict since. They were honoured for their relief work with a Nobel Prize in 1947.
Quakers have also realised, however the centrality of developing activities that are aimed at the prevention of conflict. During the cold war, for example, the Quaker Conferences for diplomats brought together diplomats from across the East -West divide for meetings aimed at looking at national interests in the context of international responsibilities. This track 1.5 diplomacy was enormously helpful in clarifying perceptions and for creating confidence and mutual understanding between warring parties. It was estimated that 10% of the world’s diplomatic community met each other under Quaker-sponsored auspices in the 1970s. These off the record meetings provided diplomats and experts with opportunities to discuss issues, weaken stereotypes, and have their concerns heard. The Quaker position in this work was defined as ‘balanced partiality’. Participants in these meetings knew that Quakers would not take sides but seek to help everyone equally out of the impasse and the violence.
In recent years more attention has been given to peace education and to building cultures and institutions of peace, capable of providing alternatives to cultures and institutions of war,militarism, masculinity and patriarchy. These programmes have been aimed at providing individuals and groups with strategies and techniques for the addressing aggressive and violent attitudes at the inter-personal, intergroup and international levels.
If New Zealand wishes to keep burnishing its peace credentials it is vital that our leaders intentionally and deliberately promote a culture of peace at the UN and in all bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. The government also needs to ensure that the causes of war; inequality, exclusion, marginalisation, humiliation and nationalism are replaced with more positive values and programmes that promote multilateralism, sustainable and inclusive development and global order under agreed rules. Quakers have quietly promoted these ideas over the years. It is vital that their testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality and environmental sustainability come into the mainstream as viable alternatives to 21st century pathologies.