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Honourable Liberalism

Civil Paths to Peace: Report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding; Commonwealth Secretariat

october 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly28book reviewHonourable LiberalismAchin VanaikIt is to the great credit of those who prepared the Civil Paths to Peace: Report of the Commonwealth Commis-sion on Respect and Understanding – an 11- member team, each from a separate Commonwealth country (under the chair-personship of Amartya Sen) – that it rises well above its originating constraints. The Report was mandated by the Common-wealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM 2005) and had to be submitted to the secretary general. For it to be accepta-ble, any such report had to be a consensus document careful to avoid direct criticism of the domestic and foreign policy beha-viour of any member-country. The result could have been a document full of anodyne platitudes and good intentions unwilling to stake bold intellectual claims or policy recommendations.On the one hand, there is careful refer-ence to Commonwealth agreement on human rights, liberties, democracy, gender equality, rule of law, i e, the “Common-wealth approach”. This sets a powerful standard behind which it becomes possi-ble to put forward all kinds of critical reflections and judgments that can cause some discomfort to Commonwealth gov-ernments themselves. On the other hand, there is no forthright condemnation of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and no position on the Israel-Palestine issue when the distribution of historical and contem-porary responsibility for this injustice is as blatant and one-sided as it was in the case of apartheid. The Taliban comes in for criticism but there is silence about the puppet government of president Hamid Karzai ruling in conjunction with brutal regional warlords.The term “civil” here expresses three related values concerning the peace path to be pursued in respect of key priority areas – “terrorism, extremism, conflict and violence”. The approach is to be non-military, i e, civilian. It is to be civilised, i e, humane and courteous. It is to take place in civil society and through its initia-tives as well as through rethinking and better policies by governments. This Report then does two things. It engages in an intellectual battle of ideas in defence of the importance of “respect and under-standing” and what would logically follow from acceptance of its significance. It puts forward proposals for institutional changes to be carried out by governments and in civil society. The first four chapters deal with the conceptual issues, and do so with admirable clarity, to arrive at a deeper analysis that must then inform the public debate which should in turn (the subject matter of subsequent chapters) feed into policymaking, actions, institutional changes and behaviour.Respect is different from deference which implies an unequal relationship because of status/power taken note of. A posture of genuine respect is based on the acceptance of the principle of a common humanity and the equal worth and dignity of all humans. Respect for the rights of others to their views does not entail respecting those views but it does entail trying to understand them and where they come from. Violence is the most recognis-able form of disrespect where such vio-lence goes beyond the notion of physical injury to include the psychological states of humiliation, contempt, disregard, even indifference. An enduring “sense of grievance” inter-generationally transmit-ted through media, education, community practices, can become the primary inspi-ration to violence which then begets counter-violence and the obvious degener-ating spiral. This “sense” must be under-stood and addressed. Culture theories of civilisational clashes fail to recognise the complexity of self-formation with its multiple and shifting identities, are crudely reductionist, and make the reli-gious prism primary for viewing the world. If there is a particular identity-form that needs promotion, then in a world of nation states, it is the consolidation of a secular, democratic national identity itself requir-ing the dispensation and protection of individual and group rights.Dialogue with even extremists must not be precluded. Certainly the “war on terror” only militarises the solution and is thus no solution. The current tendency to demonise Islam and Muslims is both un-justified and potentially disastrous. It is in the section on ‘Stark Problems of Double Standards’ (chapter 8) that the Report is sharpest and most forthright. Without naming any particular country it attacks arms exports from the west and rich to the rest and poor (but is silent on the avarices of huge arms importers like India); identifies Israel-Palestine and the Iraq in-vasion as part of the reason for the “radi-calisation of Muslim youth”; implicitly criticises even western democracies for not abiding by international law or accept-ing the verdicts of democratic elections elsewhere when results are contrary to expectations.Unaddressed IssuesIt is inequality and political grievances rather than poverty that have a stronger link to violence by non-state actors, and the virtues of dialogue, negotiation and efforts at reconciliation are highlighted by examples from the Northern Ireland peace process to the Post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the India-Pakistan “third-track diplomacy” of people-to-people contact to the collabora-tion between Tutsi and Hutu widows in Rwanda. Of course some issues are not fully addressed. Did South Africa’s poor black majority really approve this “recon-ciliation” or were they angered by the “lack of redress” for historical injustices, precisely the ingredient that theReport claims made for “success”? Was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission perhaps a mechanism for reconciliation between a Civil Paths to Peace: Report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding;Commonwealth Secretariat, London, 2007; pp 96, £ 15.
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 25, 200829non-state terrorism. Precisely because the tactic of terrorism is repeatedly used by states in the name of some grandiose end – national security/national interest, anti-communism, anti-imperialism, spreading democracy, etc – it is so much easier to either justify it or to deny that it is terror-ism. In the face of this historical and con-tinuing reality what one finds by way of reference to this issue in the conclusion (page 75) – “Even some of the military strategies to combat terror have made their own contribution to casualties, including that of civilian populations” – is distressingly inadequate.Peace, order, justice – are permanent trade-offs between them always unavoid-able? Or can they move in broad tandem, however unevenly or haltingly, across time and space? The former is certainly the view of the conservative tradition of realism that is dominant in big-power foreign offices. Liberal and radical tradi-tions subscribe to the latter view and the Report rightly and admirably situates itself here. However, the liberal and radi-cal approaches to promoting peace also differ with the latter generally insisting that an enduring “peace by satisfaction” requires wider and deeper structural changes in the capitalism of today, either in pursuit of a far more humane capital-ism, or for some, the transcendence of capitalism itself in the name of necessity rather than utopianism. The terms of ref-erence of theReport do not allow it to take up these larger issues. Nonetheless, it can be seen as expressing a radical-leaning and honourable liberalism and for just this reason to be welcomed.Email: Seminar on "Environment and Sustainable Development in India” at the Centre for Studies on Environment and Sustainable Development (CSESD), Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata on Feb. 20-21 (Fri-Sat), 2009. Abstracts (within 300 words) on any aspect (conceptual, empirical, sectoral, ecological, operational, spatial, measures & indicators, official policies, case studies etc.) of the above theme are invited within Jan. 15, 2009 to be sent at quoting correspondence e-mail/address. Accommodation and local hospitality will be arranged during afternoon of Feb 19 to morning of Feb 22 for all accepted paper presenters who are to submit their full papers at the time of the Seminar. An edited volume will be published with selected and presented papers. Registration Fee Rs. 300/-.Professor Raj Kumar Sen, Director, CSESDwhite elite and a newer and expanding black elite – a combination necessary for ensuring a “social stability from above”? Similarly is the view that it is “not beyond the bounds of possibility” that ultimately the Israel-Palestine issue would be “resolved through a long-term process of dialogue and deeper mutual under-standing” not a huge political fudge failing to recognise that in this case a profound shift in the regional and geo-political relationship of forces (not brought about by dialogue) against Israel and its prime backer, the US, would have to be the precondition for there to be any hope of a truly just settlement through negotiations!One of the best sections of the Report is chapter 5 which discusses not just what political processes to establish but how these are to emerge and function if there is to be a “government by discussion”. This would require the “democratic health” of various state structures from the local to the provincial to the national levels and of civil society associations so as to enhance their influence on government. Four pro-cesses need to be promoted: (1) overcoming the problem of representation; (2) culti-vation of dialogic courtesy; (3) generating confident female participation; and (4) bringing in the young. Thus the subse-quent chapters are about generating a more innovative and responsible media, creatively using the internet, making curric-ulum changes to promote value and cul-tural pluralism, a cosmopolitan ethic, a more student-centred pedagogy, special attention to promoting women’s political participation through affirmative actions and cross-Commonwealth sharing and training programmes (understanding the lessons of various “good practices” in dif-ferent countries), greater youth involve-ment in observer missions, peace-building initiatives piggybacking if necessary on the mediation, facilitation and “good of-fices” roles that the Commonwealth plays. Also to be supported are regularised cross-country youth parliaments and sporting activities.In a final tribute to the Commonwealth organisation itself, the Report extols mul-tilateralism which is not to be seen as a neutral technical arrangement of three or more entities whose purposes can be good or bad, but as an intrinsic good that helps sustain the principle of “dialogue and con-sensus-building” wherein the least power-ful also have a say.If the balance sheet assessment of the Report is that it is a thoughtful, dignified and above all humane contribution, it does have one major problem – its treat-ment of terrorism. While it correctly sees this as a tactic, it does not draw the logical conclusion that it is therefore available for use by all kinds of agents including states. Indeed, the very term “State terrorism” is completely absent. The closest the text comes to by way of definition is on page 23, “…the premeditated use of violence to create a climate of fear…but the real target is not the victim…is the ‘responsible authority’…to force a reaction – or over-reaction – by the responsible authority….It is this (over)reaction that makes it pos-sible to cast the government or responsible authority as the greater villain.”There is neither time nor place here to explain how seriously flawed on methodo-logical-conceptual, historical-evidential grounds this understanding is of the phe-nomenon of terrorism, even as the issue of defining terrorism is widely recognised to be a conceptual minefield. Suffice it to say that theReport lets the biggest dimension of the problem of terrorism – State terror-ism – off the hook. State violence gets a first-time mention on page 36, even an ad-mission that it is sometimes used to “in-spire fear” and is thus compatible with its earlier definition. But throughout the Report the overwhelming bias is towards treating terrorism as something under-taken by non-state actors. State terrorism by its scale (throughout the 20th century and today) simply dwarfs the horrors of

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