2001 Annual Lecture: Scilla Elworthy

Gandhi’s Legacy: The Vibrancy of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution in the 21st Century
Dr. Scilla Elworthy

In the extraordinary violence of the past four weeks, one sane phrase has been echoing through speeches, in conversations and across email channels throughout the world.  It originated, of course with Gandhi:

“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”

He went on:

“Violence ends by defeating itself.  It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

I would like to trace the contemporary picture of this spiral of violence of which Gandhi spoke, and how it can be broken.  I will describe what is happening today in terms of understanding the methods and techniques of nonviolence, and then show, by way of four examples, what ordinary people are doing all over the world to prevent or to stop war and killing, armed only with integrity, stamina and courage.

Cycles of violence
The classic cycle of violence, which ensures that conflict follows conflict, has roughly seven stages:  an atrocity is committed resulting in shock and terror, fear and grief follow, and then anger, hatred hardening into bitterness, followed by revenge and retaliation, resulting in a further atrocity.  In recent times this cycle has been evident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Rwanda, and repeatedly in different regions of former Yugoslavia.

It is nevertheless possible for the cycle of violence to be halted.  To do this requires a combination of determined powerful leadership, imaginative action, and adhering resolutely to some key principles.  Gandhi demonstrated beyond question how effective nonviolence can be.  His inspiration reverberates down the 20th century and into this century.  In the case of South Africa, Nelson Mandela became convinced while in prison on Robben Island that nonviolence, negotiation and reconciliation were the only ways to prevent mass killing on the route to independence and equality.  In insisting absolutely on these principles he is widely viewed as having saved millions of lives.  Martin Luther King intervened equally effectively in the violence of segregation of the American South; other leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama have shown recently how cycles of violence can be stopped.

The anger felt in the US and elsewhere after the attacks of 11 September is entirely understandable.  Nevertheless if it continues to result in retaliation causing yet more innocent victims, it plays into the hands of the perpetrators and will destroy the remarkable coalition of nations willing to support the US.  Western leaders have the opportunity to convince those segments of public opinion in favour of revenge attacks that more powerful alternatives are available. The coalition can follow the rule of international law in bringing the perpetrators to justice, setting up the necessary legal instruments to do this, as has been done in the case of the former Yugoslavia.  The coalition offers an unprecedented opportunity for intelligence co-operation on a global scale to undermine and isolate terrorist activity – physically, financially and in terms of preventing acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

The cycle of violence can be broken at a deeper level by an an analysis of the underlying causes.  An intelligent understanding of the antagonism that lies at the root of such atrocity, coupled with a willingness to address its causes, is the only long-term method to prevent its recurrence.

Nonviolent resolution of conflict
Some time ago the Oxford Research Group began research into the effective nonviolent resolution of conflict.  We set out to discover who does it, where, and what it costs.  We investigated examples from 240 sources all over the world, and selected 50 to write up in a book, recently published.  These stories show how powerful nonviolence can be.  First let me answer the general question “Can ordinary people actually make a difference?”

The answer is very positive: experience in what makes for effective nonviolent intervention in conflict in growing exponentially.  A few decades ago there were only a handful of analyses of conflict interventions; now there is an extensive body of knowledge – in Britain alone there are now 51 institutes studying conflict resolution.  In addition to inter-governmental agencies working to prevent and mitigate conflict, there are now several hundred NGOs competent in the field.  The application of theory and development of best practice are producing effective tools and techniques for conflict transformation which anyone can use.  These include: early warning; protection of human rights; promotion of democracy; election monitoring; support to indigenous dispute resolution; stakeholder dialogue; community mediation; bridge-building; confidence-building and security measures; civilian peace monitoring; violence containment; reconciliation measures and restorative justice.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 80% of those who died in war were military personnel; at the end of the century that figure reversed, and 80% of those who die now in armed conflict are civilians.  Whereas previously most conflicts were between nations, now the vast majority are within nations.  20 of the 34 poorest countries in the world are either involved in violent conflict or emerging from it.  Conflict massively reduces the willingness of domestic and foreign investors to invest in a country, thus increasing poverty.

Governments are still subsidising arms exports.  A US State Department paper comments

“in some countries it is easier and cheaper to buy a AK 47 than to … provide and decent meal”

– rather disingenuous given that the US is the largest arms exporter in the world.  Governments also commit vast sums of money to military interventions in conflict situations, which rarely solve the problem.  Funding for nonviolent conflict prevention and resolution work, in the other hand, is grossly underfunded.  One example, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe is the main intergovernmental organisation on conflict prevention.  Britain spends twenty times its OSCE contribution on continued military operations to ‘contain’ Saddam Hussein.  NATO member countries spend approximately £430 billion on defence, 215,000 times the OSCE budget.  The result of such policies is that in conflict areas around the world, warlords have instant access to weapons and attention is concentrated on the violent, while potential bridge-builders and peacemakers have few tools and fewer resources.

This is beginning to change.  Some national governments are beginning to realise that war prevention works, and to provide some funds for it.  The UK Government recently allocated £110 million p.a. to conflict resolution efforts coordinated between three government departments.  This is a step in the right direction.  The reason for the delay in getting our priorities right is partly due to the fact that many policy-makers are simply unaware of how much concrete, effective work is taking place in resolving and preventing conflict, all over the world.

Categories: 3. Annual Lecture


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