|“If You Want Peace, Work for Justice”
So read the bumper sticker on the car on the highway ahead of me today. It has a nice ring to it, and it does make sense on the surface: When they are constantly treated unjustly, how can we expect the oppressed to follow a peaceful path? The poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless, and minorities are treated appallingly all over the world. The only surprise is that there are not more violent uprisings among the billions who have never experienced our world as a just place.
Arundhati Roy, acclaimed author and advocate of both peace and justice, has made this point on many occasions, most recently when she gave her speech last month as spokesperson for the World Tribunal on Iraq, a group opposed to the political and economic oppression of the Iraqi people by criminals of every stripe, from the religious fanatics and despots past and present who brutalize, steal, terrorize and deprive citizens of their rights, to the Halliburtons and other war profiteers who cheat and steal from the country and its people out of bald greed, to the warmongers and imperialists who have used and continue to use lies and deception to justify atrocious actions, and to use that country as a whipping boy to advance their cynical partisan political agenda. None of these groups is interested in peace or justice for the people of Iraq or anyone else — injustice and war are far more profitable, politically useful and expedient.
Here are some of the points she made in an earlier speech, when she was awarded the 2004 Sydney Peace Prize:
The Iraq war is a sign that the world has lost the will to fight for true justice. Sometimes there’s truth in old clichÈs. There can be no real peace without justice. And without resistance there will be no justice. Today, it is not merely justice itself, but the idea of justice that is under attack. The assault on vulnerable, fragile sections of society is so complete, so cruel and so clever that its sheer audacity has eroded our definition of justice. It has forced us to lower our sights, and curtail our expectations. Even among the well-intentioned, the magnificent concept of justice is gradually being substituted with the reduced, far more fragile discourse of “human rights”.
War mongering is criminal. But talking of peace without talking of justice could easily become advocacy for a kind of capitulation. And talking of justice without unmasking the institutions and the systems that perpetrate injustice is beyond hypocritical. It’s easy to blame the poor for being poor. It’s easy to believe that the world is being caught up in an escalating spiral of terrorism and war. That’s what allows George Bush to say, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.” But that’s a spurious choice. Terrorism is only the privatisation of war. Terrorists are the free marketeers of war. They believe that the legitimate use of violence is not the sole prerogative of the state.
The group No Peace Without Justice identifies four elements of a just society: human rights, democracy, the rule of law and international justice (recourse outside the country when the first three elements cannot be found within). In his book The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria argues there can be no democracy, and hence no justice, without first having constitutional and economic liberalism, which he defines as including the rule of law, the separation of church and state, earned and reasonably distributed wealth (as calculated by the Gini index), defensible civil liberties and a balance of power (a system of check and balances to ensure no group accumulates enough power to be able to ignore the will of the majority). So all told justice has seven elements:
This is a tall order. History tells us that rights and freedoms are hard-won, and must be won again and again when despots come to power to curtail or eliminate them. Democracy and church/state separation are both fragile, and few countries have achieved either without a prolonged and violent period of popular unrest. The rule of law is ephemeral — not only do the laws need to exist and make sense to the people, they have to be enforceable and enforced, a situation that exists in few countries on the planet (many Latin American countries, for example, have strong environmental laws, but no money to enforce them and a high level of corruption and indifference among the few who are employed to enforce these laws). As measured by the Gini Index, only a handful of Northern European countries can reasonably claim that their wealth is earned and reasonably distributed — in many countries it is acquired by force, inherited for centuries, or claimed as a divine right, and in many others, including the US, its distribution is grotesquely skewed. And in even more countries one small group has an untrammeled monopoly on power.
The position of the US is particularly notable. Laws like the Patriot Act have seriously undermined human rights and civil liberties. Gerrymandering, unregulated campaign financing and a completely unreliable electoral system make the country’s claim to be a democracy highly dubious. There is no rule of law when overzealous, under-regulated and power-crazed enforcement agencies have the personal discretion to imprison people they don’t like without recourse to legal counsel and without limit, and to deport people to barbaric countries in order to outsource their torture and murder. There is no rule of law when the president, who has no respect for the concept or its importance, simply instructs federal employees not to enforce laws he and his corporate cronies don’t like. The separation of church and state in the US is unappreciated and under siege. The distribution of US wealth is among the most skewed on the planet, and a majority of the country’s rich elite inherited that wealth (and are working furiously to repeal the estate tax so that will continue). The checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judiciary (and the ‘fourth estate’, the media) are now extremely fragile and in danger of unraveling, and unelected corporations wield staggering and ever-growing power. And the US is one of the only first-world nations to have not only not ratified, but openly repudiated the International Criminal Court of Justice, and are now routinely using their veto power to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the UN. The current administration even believes it can ignore the Geneva Convention on torture of prisoners of war.
So on all seven scores, the US fails to live up to the standards of a ‘just’ society. Yet while this gun-crazed nation has a huge rate of violent crime*, it is politically a remarkably peaceful nation. If there is ‘no peace without justice’ how can this be?
I would argue that justice is a political and economic construct, while peace is essentially a social construct. Political and economic systems and dynasties are self-perpetuating — they are, after all, in control of the law, and they use it to hold on to the wealth and power they have become accustomed to. I have argued before that if we want to change — or save — the world, we are unlikely to do so by political and economic means — there is just too much of a vested interest in the status quo by those with all the political and economic clout.
By contrast, social change can occur quickly. Change to social systems is powered by information and education, not by laws and economic transactions. Information travels fast, and new technologies like the Internet allow it to travel much faster and more effectively than ever before. Information is, in its own way, power. Those with wealth and political power can sustain that wealth and power for a long time, but not indefinitely. Just as our remedy for an economic system that is ruinous and unsustainable is to use our social power to walk away from it, persuade others to join us, and starve that system to death as we set up a new, responsible one, so our remedy for a political system that is unjust is to use our social power to disassociate ourselves from it, persuade others to join us, and starve that system of legitimacy. Gandhi showed us how to do this, with non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, organization, and the establishment of a new responsible, responsive, community-based politic. It will take much longer to undermine the unjust political systems of this world by creating new political systems that work better — and we can expect a lot of angry backlash from those who find their power and authority and legitimacy undermined by our actions. But ultimately, now that the world is so crowded that there are no new frontiers, no refuges from political repression and injustice and outrage, this is the only answer.
There is no justice. With what we know about human nature and human history we should not be foolish enough to expect it in large, conservative, unwieldy governments, corporations and nation-states. And the road to peace, in the absence of justice, is a social one, not a political one. It’s a hard road, but we can have it, now, if we want it.
* a number of recent studies have indicated that it is the fifth of these elements of justice — earned and reasonably distributed wealth — that correlates most closely with the level of domestic peacefulness
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