Weekly Program on World Affairs


Peace and Conflict Studies: A Discipline of International Relations- Arlene Noronha

Peace and Conflict – Occur naturally or artificially?

As humans, we are built with the urge to achieve our needs. We would do so through any means possible, if necessary. When translated into nation-states, it applies in a similar manner. But when these national interests clash, conflict arises. So, in a simplistic manner, conflict occurs naturally, with or without provocation.

Moreover, when nations fight, there's no need for a norm to dictate how they should fight - instinct calls for the best battalion and arms to counter the enemy.

On the other hand, peace follows a different rule-book. There are norms for a peaceful world - to dictate what makes it peaceful and instructs nations to act in a certain manner. In this context, peace occurs artificially. It might be an instinct to think of peace in times of conflict, but more often we have skirmishes first, and peace talks later. Even to defend peace, we have conflicts. The perpetual India-China border skirmishes are reflective of this.

In international relations (IR) therefore, Peace and Conflict are not binary opposites. They are very closely linked due to circumstances of war and dialogues of peace. But, in the 21st century, the two words cannot be crudely attributed as opposites.

While we do imply at times: that peace happens at one time, and conflict at another. They, however, cannot be understood in an absolute or binary sense. They do not exist in a vacuum: devoid of historical, political, cultural, societal, and most importantly, religious, contexts. Rather these contexts all contribute to antagonism, not consensus.

Taking the example of the United States’ Global War on Terror. The US in 2001, post the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks, that shattered the misnomer: “US homeland was untouchable”, launched an all-out war on the terrorist organisation. They went into Afghanistan with hopes of removing the threat of terrorism to the US and the world, at large. The rationale behind the war was to establish a peaceful world, as deemed by the Americans. We see that proposition of war was to achieve peace - contradicting the notion that peace is only the end of conflict and not the means.

The repercussions of the US withdrawal in 2021, especially in the month of August, and the re-entry of Taliban into political power in Afghanistan, is also reflective of how the ‘absence of violence’ did not in fact lead to peace but created more chaos. This situation cannot be taken as a one-off instance. Humanitarian chaos, political instability and the power play of different entities is a common result of such withdrawals. 

India’s partition is an all too common and painful reminder for Indians and Pakistanis alike. As the Britishers ‘withdrew’, the humanitarian catastrophe was not the absence of violence, but its very presence. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was never a simple solution and competing ideas based on majoritarian-religious views, in India and Pakistan alike, continue to plague the region. While the conflict did not erupt in 1947, it certainly gave an impetus for more political imbroglios.

 Peace and Conflict Studies

The study of these closely linked yet antithetical concepts is credited to Johan Galtung. He propelled the study of peace and conflict into mainstream political dialogue, by including the concept of Positive and Negative Peace.

Starting with Negative peace, it means the absence of violence or the absence of war. It adopts a limited and exclusive approach towards attaining peace, obtained only through one way- no violence. Negative peace is not sustainable in an ever-conflicting world, where nations contradict constantly and aggressions are most often resolved without peaceful dialogues.

Positive peace has a broader and more sustainable lookout to attaining peace, beyond the absence of violence. This includes aspects of quality of life to peace, like justice, equality, political rights, literacy, economic prosperity etc, that determine whether a situation is peaceful or not. It has a more holistic approach to peace. By having an inclusive approach and bringing abstract notions into its fold, obtaining peace becomes more realistic. This is strongly propounded by Galtung himself. He believes that positive peace helps to understand and address the root of the conflict, instead of only facing the conflict head-on. 

Cutting a branch would not stop the tree from growing. Only when you axe the stump and uproot the base, will there be no sign of a tree.

Galtung goes on to explain the concept of peace in tandem with violence. He describes 3 kinds of violence in IR. 

 Violence: Direct, Structural and Cultural

Firstly, Direct violence. This is the direct infliction of pain, injuries (through physical harm or the delivery of hurt through even verbal abuse) where the outcome of death is common. 

Secondly, Structural violence. It is the infliction of violence through the orders of a system, organisation or state. Most commonly this is seen by majoritarian ethnic, political, religious or social groups which aim to detach, suppress and annihilate the minority group/s in society. Ethnic violence often goes beyond inflicting direct violence, but also aims to ‘cleanse’ society of them. Ethnic cleansing or genocides of Armenians, Jews, Tutsis and Albanians are some prominent instances in history.

Lastly, Cultural Violence delves into the deep-seeded roots of structural factors like ethnicity, religion, race, societal norms, sex, caste etc, which often coincides with structural violence. Propaganda and distrust are common tools to merge the two. 

As depicted in the diagram, the tip of the iceberg in direct violence but the underlying structural and cultural violence keeps growing below the surface; manifesting itself through direct violence. Political agendas, speeches and structural changes as was systematically done during Nazism in Germany, is an example of how violence was inherently festered in society with the aim to obliterate an entire race.

Galtung uses these three types of violence to highlight that the solution of such conflicts is not the absence of violence (Negative Peace), since these cultural factors will remain as long as humans exist. Rather Positive Peace aims to eradicate the root cause through developmental goals of justice, equality, education, liberty, economic freedom and opportunities, religious freedom etc. 

Civil society is often the agent of change in bringing about these developmental goals and Positive Peace in the world.

One instance to highlight civil society’s role is when a prominent leader in America initiated change in societal behaviour. 

In the 1950s-60s, while America was in the thick of racial segregation and Martin Luther King Jr was growing as a popular light for the Black community, Billy Graham, was another leader, an American evangelist who conducted nation-wide crusades, publicly denouncing race and talking about the love of Jesus Christ as the only solution. He was among the first to hold a meeting in 1950s with no segregated ropes to divide the Black Americans from the White. His action, though receiving raging dissent in the media, brought about physical and emotional change in the Southern states like Arkansas, Alabama etc that witnessed the most aggressive racism in the entire country.

He, a white evangelist and King, a black reformer, forming an unlikely friendship in trying times, were influential in using the power of peace and faith to unite races, on grounds of love. Thus, transforming the very notion of the racial structure in society.

Another stalwart in social change is Mahatma Gandhi. His role in South Africa against the rampant racial undertones of the Britishers against the Indian diaspora turned his loyalties back to his motherland. His learnings in the country paved the way for large scale non-violent satyagrahas in India. This time around, non-violence achieved positive peace, by congregating Hindus, Muslims, and people of other faiths and different classes, to attain their common goal: freedom.

IR is often restricted to theories of Realism, Liberalism, Feminist school of thought, Marxism and so on. These disciplines regularly focus or have an outlook of situations in the world through the lens of conflict or the aftermath of them.

Yet, we can find space for the discipline of Peace and Conflict studies in this myriad of theories, to embolden our understanding of the world through peace and conflict, together.

Arlene Noronha*

*Arlene N. is final year graduation student of AIIS, Amity University, Noida. 

Sources: All images: Google


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