Why is peacebuilding an imperative during the coronavirus pandemic?
Peace Brigades International is fully committed to the values of human rights, personal dignity and individual freedom and struggles against violence – physical or structural – as a means of establishing enduring peace.
PBI endeavours to overcome injustice and violence in order to build a peaceful and humane society. Our methods include physical accompaniment, observing, reporting, building international support networks, and peace education.
When PBI was founded on unceded Algonquin territory in Canada in September 1981, its first statement highlighted, “Peace is more than the absence of war.”
Given our principles and mandate, how does this extraordinary moment in contemporary history inform the work of peacebuilding?
Language is a good place to start.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has vowed to win a “people’s war” against the coronavirus, while Donald Trump wants to be seen as a “wartime president”, and French President Emmanuel Macron has stated, “We are at war.”
Sinéad Nolan, a past volunteer with PBI-Mexico, recently wrote in The Irish Times, “Why are world leaders choosing a metaphor that engenders militancy and taking up arms, the very opposite of what is needed?”
Nolan highlights, “Behavioural scientists agree that empathy is the only emotion likely to spur us into the kind of altruistic action needed now. Not fear, not anger.”
There are also concerns about this “war talk” in the context of the emergency measures being implemented by state authorities.
University of Warwick professor Christine Schwobel-Patel writes, “The worry about over-zealous emergency powers comes from a familiarity with other forms of war talk – from the ‘war on drugs’ to the ‘war on terror’. Indeed, we appear to be in a constant state of war. There is no more peacetime or war-time, there are only different phases of escalation.”
We are also seeing government’s making decisions about what is considered essential during this time of physical distancing.
On March 19, a branch of the US Department of Homeland Security, released a list of “the essential workers needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily.” That list included the “defence industry”.
The following day the US Department of Defense deemed “the development, production, testing, fielding, or sustainment of our weapons systems/software systems, or the infrastructure to support those activities” as essential critical infrastructure.
Furthermore, Defense News has reported, “Italy’s nationwide lockdown in response to the new coronavirus has not affected the production of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter parts in northern Italy, prime contractor Lockheed Martin said [on March 10].”
And yet, George Monbiot asks in his most recent column in The Guardian, What does ‘national defence’ mean in a pandemic?
He writes, “We now know that both the UK and US governments ignored warnings about the potential scale and impacts of pandemics, and failed to invest in genuine national defence: extra capacity in the health system, beds, training, ventilators and protective equipment.”
Monbiot concludes, “If ever there were a time for brokering peace, this is it. If ever there were a time for nations such as the UK and the US to meet their disarmament commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and work with Russia and China to put their wasted billions to better use, this is it. If ever there were a time to reassess the genuine threats to our security and separate them from the self-interested aims of the weapons industry, this is it.”
Despite this plea, Los Angeles Times staff writer Don Lee has commented, “The coronavirus pandemic, in an unexpected but potentially fateful twist, has moved the United States and China a big step closer to a new cold war.”
So, what is this moment teaching us about how to build a positive peace, a world without direct violence and structural violence?
It may be reaffirming that this task should include a collective and non-hierarchical process of exploring the principles of human rights, solidarity, internationalism, inclusion (anti-racism), equality (anti-oppression), peace (anti-militarism), nonviolent action (as an approach to end violence), the right of peoples to self-determination, as well as deepening our understanding of social, economic and climate justice.
Nearly 40 years ago, the founding statement of Peace Brigades International held out this hope: “We are convinced that this commitment of mind, heart and dedicated will can make a significant difference in human affairs. Let us all join in the march from falsehood to truth, from darkness to light, from death to life.”
For more on human rights in the time of this pandemic, please see the PBI statement: Now more than ever, we must all defend human rights.