Mixing peace and politics

With the current emphasis on war, is now the time to put peace into politics? A group pushing for a UK Ministry for Peace is in no two minds at its first debate.

Future generations might view it as a historic day, others may see it as just another day in history. Either way, the 100 or so people gathered at Friend’s Meeting House in Euston, London last Saturday kick started a debate over the idea of creating a Ministry for Peace within the British Government.
They want one spokesperson; a decision-making Minister for Peace with conflict resolution capabilities, sitting at the Cabinet table.

Although this was their first public meeting, the people behind this movement had already tasted some success with their ambitious quest.

Before the end of last year, the Labour MP John McDonnell took his Ministry of Peace Bill to a second reading in Parliament.

Not only was it unopposed but it also enjoyed cross-party support.

“Most of us were motivated by what’s happened over the last year in terms of campaigning for peace," a spokesman said.

"We wanted to look for practical steps, concrete steps for a way forward to secure peace in the long-term.

"This was such a good idea - it has been developing across Europe and America - so we thought it could be translated here.”

After the debate, Mr McDonnell told supporters MP’s had approached him offering their assistance to develop the project in practical terms.

It seems almost all politicians and civil servants who have had the idea explained to them have consequently offered their help and advice to make the idea a reality.

Mr McDonnell's near-neighbour and friend is John Randall MP, a man who despite serving as the Conservative's chief whip is also co-sponsored the Peace Ministry Bill. “This idea of promoting peace is far from being exclusive to one sector of the community, whether politically or inter-faith, it is something that affects us all and we are all interested in,” he says.

It was organiser Diana Basterfield who bought the idea to John McDonnell’s attention.

Diana had also been inspired by the anti-war demonstrations and the variety of people they attracted, as well as the news from the United States about the Department of Peace legislation that Democrat Dennis Kucinich was trying to pass a similar bill through Congress.

For Diana, the feeling for peace is strong with the public: “It’s the climate of the times. We are a mature peoples, we saw what happened in the last century, millions of people died because we got it wrong," she says.

"We don’t want to go down that road anymore.”

Having peace is apparently not only good for nations but also good for the economy.

Both Paul Ingram, a senior analyst with the British American Security Council and Tony Juniper, Executive Director from Friends of the Earth presented evidence that the financial and environmental savings by pursuing a peaceful agenda are potentially enormous.

The practical steps of peace-making were presented at the meeting by Dr Scilla Elworthy, three times nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

She has just completed her briefing paper "Cutting the costs of war".

She spoke about the "almost" successful mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), when they were operating in Kosovo.

The OSCE had deployed 1,300 European monitors, with orange Land Rovers, to report and check on instances of intimidation and ethnic violence.

Their presence and intervention stopped the violence. It was only after they were withdrawn, and NATO began bombing Serbia, did the eviction and killings begin in earnest.

The secret of the OSCE’s success is explained by Dr Elworthy.

“Everything depends on the manner in which these interventions are undertaken and if people have achieved a peaceful state within themselves then that communicates itself in some extraordinary way," she said.

"I’m not saying that all those monitors had done such a thing, but they had been trained to be present, in a way that wasn’t threatening and wouldn’t invite an attack on themselves.”

This type of training is expected, by Diana Basterfield, to be part of this new Minister’s background.

“The calmer and more settled as people, the better it will be," she believes.

"They will not have an easy task but we’ll be there supporting them. Civil society will have a role in this as the Commission for Peace.”

The Commission for Peace would report directly to parliament and is intended to monitor the government, as well as support and advise the Minister if they are feeling isolated in a certain situation.

But war and conflict are not the operational parameters of this intended Ministry. Areas such as race, faith and domestic disruption are also situations where it will try to create peace.

Simon Wolley, representative of Operation Black Vote, sees today’s youth as being forced to the margins of society where they meet either religious fundamentalist on one side, or criminality on the other.

He pointed out that the fundamentalist prey on these young minds with the fact that society doesn’t want them and the only solution is one with extreme effects. The criminal way gives the sense of belonging which isn’t currently forthcoming from society, he argues.

“What we need to do,” he says, “is bring them into the centre, to give them a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, to give them a British identity which is engendered with equality and respect.”

It is this side of conflict resolution that he sees the Ministry of Peace tackling.

The youngest speaker of the day had perhaps the biggest impact.

Kierra Box is co-founder of the Hands Up for Peace Campaign which collected 3,000 messages of peace written on school children’s handprints.

She created a stillness over the audience with her description of a visit to the graves of the unknown soldiers in France and her conviction that her generation wanted to a world of peace for future generations she received a standing ovation.

For the Ministry of Peace to become a reality the general assumption is that the public will need to show their support in large numbers.

People's initial reaction could result in an awkward shuffling of feet and accusations of "left-wing" liberalism but once the benefits and structure have been explained, their opposition might well turn to enthusiastic support and a new dimension in politics could be forged.