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A New Gandhian Moment?



Richard Falk

Visiting Distinguished Professor, Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara and Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

TFF associate

March 12, 2004

War and Peace War Must be Made Illegal

AS EARLY AS 1931 Gandhi articulated his view that change, to be beneficial, needed to be achieved by nonviolent struggle: "I would wait, if need be, for ages rather than seek the freedom of my country through bloody means." Gandhi added some optimistic words, declaring, "I feel in the innermost recesses of my heart that the world is sick unto death of blood-spilling. The world is seeking a way out, and I flatter myself with the belief that perhaps it will be the privilege of the ancient land of India to show the way out to the hungering world."

Of course, from the perspective of 2004 this would seem to be a prime instance of false prophesy. Although Gandhi's literal coordinates of time and place were mistaken, we may yet be approaching a Gandhian Moment where there occurs a worldwide revulsion against war and violence. Perhaps "the world is seeking a way out," but the translation of this sentiment into political reality, given the emotional and material forces arrayed against it, was gravely underestimated by Gandhi. Nevertheless, his prophetic insight was valid then, and, if anything, is far more so today.

But should this hopeful possibility be actualised in the time ahead, it will almost certainly be a result of that other side of Gandhi's vision, the struggle against the forces of oppression. In Gandhi's words, the responsibility to act is a human duty in such circumstances, not a mere political choice. On this occasion already in 1921 Gandhi was addressing his remarks to the 'freedom' associated with British colonial rule: "We seek arrest because the so-called freedom is slavery. We are challenging the might of this Government because we consider its activity to be wholly evil. We want to overthrow the Government. We desire to show that the Government exists to serve the people, not the people the Government."

Elsewhere, Gandhi frequently makes clear that to achieve such ends of true freedom, whatever the context, no price is too great, including death, as well as the related insistence that nonviolent struggle requires the greatest personal courage. So when awaiting a Gandhian Moment we must grow sensitive to both potentialities of the human spirit: the renunciation of violence as a political instrument, and the engagement in struggle for the sake of justice. One without the other is untenable.

At this time in human history, it would seem that the glass is neither full nor empty. But the passions that rage on the planet suggest an impending encounter between those destructive forces that see the glass totally empty, and those that believe it is almost full; between the extremists, whether religious or secular, locked in total war, and the visionary warriors that constitute global civil society who believe in a future based on peace, justice, and sustainability. Looking back in time, we can understand that it is an error to be too literal in anticipating the Gandhian Moment, but it would be a greater error to dismiss the possibility, and reconcile ourselves either to endless and escalating cycles of violence or to the 'unpeace' of injustice and oppression.


Revived Gandhism of the 1990s

A SERIES OF developments, especially in the 1990s, created an impression that a new era of peaceful change and global justice was displacing war and violence on the world stage. The earliest indications of this trend can be connected with the rather remarkable Iranian Revolution in 1978-79 that toppled the military regime of the Shah. That occurred entirely on the basis of a massive popular movement that refused to rely on violent tactics in mounting its struggle for change. Somewhat later, a similar phenomenon was evident in The Philippines, where Ferdinand Marcos, a longtime corrupt dictator, was driven into exile by the People Power movement, which was also nonviolent in means and ends.

Other pro-democracy movements were evident in a series of Asian countries including China, Nepal, Indonesia, Burma, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea. And then in the late 1980s, encouraged by the new governing style in Moscow associated with Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership, impressive mobilisations of popular opposition occurred in a series of countries in Eastern Europe, culminating in the breaching of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. Two years later the Soviet Union collapsed, and the internal empire run from the Kremlin disintegrated, again without notable violence.

These developments reached their climax in some ways when the white leadership in South Africa decided to find a way to end its racist regime based on apartheid so as to avoid isolation on an international level and civil strife at home. To achieve this transformation of a country so long governed by an oppressive white minority depended most of all on Nelson Mandela's ability to step out of jail after twenty-seven years of confinement and assume the leadership of the black African majority's struggle for a constitutional democracy that was willing to accommodate itself, despite massive impoverishment, to the entrenched, yet exploitative, economic interests of the white minority. Somehow, Mandela's spirit of reconciliation and moral radiance was able to guide this transition, avoiding the strong temptations to demand social justice alongside of political justice, an admittedly high price for adherence to a nonviolent approach to conflict resolution.

These various moves were reinforced by a disillusionment with military approaches. Neither revolutionary warfare, of the sort that existed in a series of Asian countries, nor oppressive government seemed able to achieve stability. In world politics, the nuclear standoff symbolised the growing realisation that war was no longer a viable instrument of policy in relations among major sovereign states, and yet there remained an acute fear that an unintended breakdown of the precarious stability achieved by deterrence would produce catastrophic results.

The 1990s also witnessed a powerful global justice movement, unprecedented in history, that appeared to complement this willingness to limit challenges directed at the political status quo by renouncing violence. There were several different dimensions of this turn toward global justice: a series of initiatives associated with reparations for victims of the Holocaust; a greatly increased emphasis on adherence to human rights as the foundation of political legitimacy; serious inquiry into such historic injustices as the dispossession and destruction of indigenous peoples, colonialism, and slavery; the apparent readiness of the United Nations to act with the support of the United States and other leading countries to prevent, or at least mitigate, humanitarian catastrophes by accepting a responsibility to protect; and greatly enhanced efforts to impose individual criminal accountability on political leaders and military commanders guilty of crimes against humanity.

Although none of these initiatives was directly focused on nonviolence, their overall effect was to suggest to all sides of political controversy that peaceful means based on the rule of law was the only acceptable way to resolve grievances.

Of course, not everything was rosy in the 1990s. There were evident in many parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans, instances of civil strife exhibiting extreme forms of indiscriminate violence. The world watched as genocide unfolded in Rwanda. The Asian democracy movements either crashed or achieved only minimal results. The cold war ended without the nuclear weapons states moving to negotiate a disarmament treaty or at least proclaim the prohibition of all weaponry of mass destruction. The negative effects of globalisation that were causing growing disparities in wealth and income, environmental decay, and a pervasive disregard of human suffering cast a dark shadow across the achievements of the decade.

And so a mixed picture existed as to future prospects, but there were hopeful developments under way that have now, temporarily, at least, been eclipsed by a return to an apparent preoccupation with war as a consequence of the events surrounding and following upon the September 11 attacks. Despite such an adverse turn, there are signs that we may be approaching the moment where the world will finally heed Gandhi's call to nonviolence.


The uncertain September 11 effect

IT IS DIFFICULT to think about Gandhi's legacy for the twenty-first century without re-setting the global context associated with the impact of both the September 11 attacks on the US and its response. Both al-Qaeda and the US seem committed to waging borderless wars on a global scale. Both sides deem their opponent to be the embodiment of unconditional evil. Both sides are acting outside the framework of diplomacy, with the only acceptable outcome being victory for one side and defeat for the other through the medium of pure violence.

Neither adversary is a sovereign state in the normally understood sense; nor are the opposed antagonists engaged in a civil war for control of a state, or waging some sort of self-determination struggle. Al-Qaeda is an amorphous, dispersed, secretive network that is operative in as many as sixty states, while the US is a kind of global state that claims command of the oceans and space, as well as maintaining military bases in more than sixty countries.

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Such an unprecedented conflict, repudiating the restraints of international law, is without precedent in the annals of world history. Al-Qaeda proudly proclaims that all Americans are enemies who can be killed to fulfil its goals, thereby repudiating the fundamental precept of the law of war that only military personnel and targets are subject to attack. The United States, on its side, targets civilians suspected of terrorist links in foreign countries and denies captured al-Qaeda fighters prisoner-of-war status. It is a war, more than most wars, in which the idea of limits seems alien. Such an assessment should not be understood as romanticising the relevance of law to the conduct of past wars, but it is an important rupture with the attempts in both world wars to avoid superfluous suffering by finding common interests, such as protection of prisoners of war and wounded combatants, and sparing civilians so far as possible.

In such an atmosphere it might seem foolish to assert the relevance of the Gandhian legacy of radical nonviolence. Indeed, even the Dalai Lama, the most prominent living advocate of nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution, now entertains doubts about whether the renunciation of violence is sustainable in the face of this radical 'terrorist' challenge. The Dalai Lama was quoted as saying, "Terrorism is the worst kind of violence, so we have tocheck it, we have to take countermeasures," coupling this assertion with a refusal to join other religious leaders in criticising the US military approach generating the wars against Afghanistan, and especially the war against Iraq. The leader of Tibetan Buddhism did go on to say that "the real antidote" to terrorism was a reliance on "compassion, dialogue - peaceful means. We have to deal with their motivation." It should be noted that this admirable religious figure succumbed to the mainstream trap of associating 'terrorism' exclusively with anti-state violence, and exempting 'state terrorism' from scrutiny. Even worse, such a venerable figure calls this non-state violence "the worst kind of violence", in the face of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, more surprisingly, the terrible violence used by the Chinese government to crush Tibetan resistance back in the 1950s.What is significant here is that the radical nature of the struggle taking place is having a disorienting effect on settled categories of assessment, including those that proceed from the most principled of Gandhian views that any reliance on violence is degenerative and ineffectual.


Another response

AT THE SAME time, a kind of secular Gandhiism is becoming visible in unexpected places. The recently retired Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mohamed Mahathir, delivered a stirring anti-war address to open the XIIIth Summit Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur on 24th February 2003. Mahathir acknowledges that world order, as understood in modern times by reference to state sovereignty, has been undermined by both sides. A perceptive passage is worth quoting in full:

We may want to remain uninvolved and avoid incurring the displeasure of powerful countries. But our people are getting restless. They want us to do something. If we don't then they will, and they will go against us. They will take things into their own hands. Unable to mount a conventional war they will resort to guerrilla war, to terrorism, against us and against those they consider to be their oppressors. They cannot be ignored any longer. We cannot incarcerate them all for we do not always know who they are or where they are. September 11 has demonstrated to the world that the acts of terror even by a dozen people can destabilise the whole world completely, put fear into the hearts of everyone, make them afraid of their own shadows.

As with the Dalai Lama, Mahathir is also complicit in the statist logic of associating terrorism exclusively with non-state actors, but he at least condemns both sides in this bloody encounter. His words directed at the response of the United States, without naming, are also notable for their lucidity. Mahathir says that the provocations of September 11, and before and since, "have also removed all the restraint in the countries of the north. They now no longer respect borders, international laws or simple moral values. They are even talking of using nuclear weapons." The Malaysian leader goes on to insist that the US response "is no longer just a war against terrorism. It is in fact a war to dominate the world - the most important threat that we face now is the tendency of the powerful to wage war when faced with opposition to the spread of their dominance," and, he significantly adds, "We cannot fight a war with them."

Then, in language unexpectedly echoing Gandhi, Mahathir notes: "Fortunately many of their people are also sick of war. They have come out in their millions to protest the warlike policies of their leaders. We must join them. We must join their struggle with all the moral force that we can command." The goal is also clearly expressed: "War must be outlawed. That will have to be our struggle now. We must struggle for justice and freedom from oppression, from economic hegemony. But we must remove the threat of war first." Mahathir proposes in this important speech that war must be made illegal, and the enforcement of this illegality entrusted to "multilateral forces under the control of the United Nations. No single nation should be allowed to police the world, least of all to decide what action to take, when.

"There is a final element here in this conception of how to end political violence. Mahathir asks the assembled representatives of the great majority of the world's peoples a rhetorical question, receiving, according to press accounts, thunderous applause: "When Japan was defeated, it was allowed to spend only one per cent of its gdp on its armed forces. If such a condition can be imposed on Japan, why cannot it be imposed on all countries?"

Mahathir concludes this extraordinary speech - perhaps the most visionary address by a statesman since Woodrow Wilson gave voice to some comparable statements after the carnage of the First World War - by considering the dynamics of the struggle. He acknowledges that the countries of the South are "weak" but that they have allies among the peoples and governments of the North, and insists that "we must work with them." And he proposes that the Non-Aligned Movement be revitalised to realise "a world order which is above all free from the age-old belief that killing people is right, and that it can solve problems of relations between nations."

I have emphasised this one statement by an important political leader, but there are other indications that a subtle and complicated process of reassessing the dynamics of change and conflict resolution is taking place in the deeper recesses of collective human consciousness. The nuclear age highlighted the essential self-destructiveness of war and political violence. The long unresolved internal wars that have take so many millions of lives in the decades since the Second World War have underscored the terrible costs of relying on political violence, and the tragedy of interactive violence in struggles of state and society in which neither side relents. Scholars and academicians have increasingly looked to such goals as the abolition of war and a geopolitics of nonviolence as the only sustainable foundations of world order, accepting as pillars of such a transformation of global security the essential role of respect for human rights and the international rule of law, as well as an energetic implementation of the global justice agenda so promisingly initiated in the 1990s.

If the Gandhian Moment is to be realised, then it must encompass concerns with both the violence of weapons and the violence of inequitable structures of domination and exploitation. Perhaps, unwittingly, the visibility of this violence, due to the globalisation of media coverage, especially tv, will hasten the process by which the peoples of the world, sick from violence and the suffering entailed, will accelerate the awakening of conscience and the commitment needed to carry forward the struggle for a nonviolent world order. This is as much as we can hope for at present, but such a hope will certainly prove vain if we do not also act to the fullness of our individual and collective capacities to rid the world of war and violence.

Richard Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He is author of many books including The Great Terror War (2003).

© TFF & the author 2004  



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