Nonviolence: Its Role in Preventing Genocide - A Guest Blog by George Wolfe
Genocide is one of the most difficult issues for peace activists to address. Many people who are ardent pacifists will make an exception to their anti-war stance if genocide is occurring. Whether we are trying to prevent or stop genocide, intervention is necessary. But what kind of intervention: diplomatic, economic, military, educational? Should the intervention emerge from within a country's sovereign borders, or should it be imposed by an external power? And what role can nonviolence play in stopping or preventing genocide?
Nonviolence is not complacency or inaction, or giving into corrupt leaders to appease them. The term nonviolence comes from the Sanskrit word ahimsa and refers to action that does no harm and is intended to show reverence and respect for life.
Peace educator Michael Nagler, in his book The Search for a Nonviolent Future, explains that nonviolence can be obstructive or constructive. It is obstructive when activists resist injustice and refuse to cooperate with evil. It is constructive when they work to build collaborative relationships, cooperating with that which promotes the greater good. Prior to and during WW II, individuals and organizations operating underground, offered resistance to Nazi efforts to rounding up Jewish citizens.
In the 1840's, Unitarian minister Adin Ballou spoke of "uninjurious benevolent physical force." By this, he meant that it is acceptable to restrain or otherwise preventing a person from doing harm to others as long as our intention is to preserve life. If we stand by and not act when we could have intervened, our inaction could actually facilitate the harm that would occur. When it comes to preventing or stopping genocide, one can argue that by not taking action one is causing harm by virtue of one's complacency.
One can extend this reasoning to conclude that in times of genocide, taking military action to destroy weapons systems or establish a no-fly zone to prevent the massacre of civilians is justified as long as the intention is to protect, respect and maintain reverence for life.
Unfortunately, military action, even with the best intentions, is invariably sloppy and problematic. Too often, it leads to an escalation of the conflict and the killing of civilians. There is also the risk that a powerful government could use the principle of the Responsibility to Protect passed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, not to prevent genocide, but as an excuse to protect corporate economic interests, preserve access to natural resources and expand political power. For these reasons, it is by far preferable to prevent genocide rather than to allow it to begin and then have to stop it.
Initially, most people think of violence as action intended to cause physical harm. But violence can be solely of a psychological nature.
Psychological violence is present when a person is experiencing emotional hostility, threats, intimidation, name-calling, verbal abuse, or forms of passive aggression. Another type of violence is known as structural violence. This occurs when a political, social, or economic structure disenfranchises a certain group of people and fails to meet their basic needs, denying them adequate housing, health care, employment and educational opportunities. Poverty is perhaps the most devastating form of structural violence.
Although historically, genocides have grown out of unique socio-political circumstances, there are underlying preconditions, many of which are present as a result of psychological and structural violence. Some examples of these underlying preconditions are: political power struggles within governments; ideological fanaticisms and demonizing a target group of people; religious and ethnic hatred and discrimination; poverty; economic crises or the lack of economic upward mobility; labor unrest and poor working conditions; and the lack of equal educational and employment opportunities.
When considering these preconditions for genocide, it becomes clear that preventing genocide through nonviolence requires multinational, multidisciplinary efforts. It must involve a combination of assertive diplomacy, governmental cooperation, economic sanctions, grassroots civilian resistance and, in cases where the civilian population is too weak to apply nonviolent strategies and organized civil disobedience, international peacekeepers. Preventing genocide demands that every developed country look beyond its own self-centered economic and defense postures to define its interests, cooperatively striving to alleviate poverty and the various manifestations of structural violence that plague the underdeveloped world.
George Wolfe is the Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies where he served as Director from 2002 to 2006. He is also a trained mediator and the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.
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