If ‘just peace’ requires peacemaking and peacebuilding to be sensitive to the cries of the poor and the cries of the Earth, how relevant is it to Australia’s present circumstances? If what is proposed is a holistic approach to the problem of violence that encompasses social and ecological violence as well as physical violence, is Australia capable of adopting the approach as a guide to its domestic and external policies? To judge by the parlous state of Australian politics and public discourse, at least as filtered by mainstream media, the omens are less than propitious. And yet, the possibilities are immense and tantalising, and the ground potentially more fertile than is often supposed.
The many failings of current policy design and implementation in Australia clearly point to the need for new directions of the kind suggested by just peace thinking. A case in point is the failure of successive governments to devise an energy policy that delivers low emissions electricity and affordable energy for those on low incomes. As of now Australia is poorly placed to meet the emissions target set by the Paris agreement of 26-28% reduction in national emissions compared to 2005 levels – a rather modest target when compared to that of other advanced economies.
The energy policy vacuum has proved especially damaging for our relations with Pacific neighbours. Rather than empathise with the concerns of Pacific Island nations for whom climate change is an existential threat, the Australian government has turned a deaf ear to their pleas, and recently added insult to injury by accusing Pacific leaders of a cash grab.
Unsurprisingly, Australian governments have shown little interest in World Bank suggestions that Australia offer open access migration to low-lying Pacific nations. Tuvalu and Kiribati in particular are acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels that have already started flooding land and homes.
The exodus of environmental refugees, not just from the Pacific but from the coastal regions of South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, is expected to become a major security threat over the next ten to twenty years. With climate change and other environmental pressures already reducing the availability of water, food and arable land in host countries, transboundary migration is expected to rise sharply, exacerbating tensions and conflict within and between countries.
What might Australia’s response be? If Australia’s refugee policies are any indication, the tendency will be to view these trends through the lens of military security. From the ‘children overboard’ fiasco in 2001 to the military-led ‘operation sovereign borders’ established in 2013 and the wilful neglect of the health of detainees at Manus and Nauru we see the same counterproductive response at work, which is to make the victims of humanitarian crises the primary targets of military force.
A just peace approach to such complex challenges as climate change, refugee flows, humanitarian crises, gross human rights violations, and military tensions and conflicts whether in Afghanistan, the Middle East or nearer home would be radically different, not just in policy content but in the processes by which policy is determined.
It would rest on a statement of principles arrived at after extensive community consultation that would guide Australia’s response to the critical challenges it will face in coming years. It would give voice not to conventional notions of ‘national’ or ‘military’ security, but to a richer understanding of human security. The accent would be on protecting persons, communities (not just national communities) and the environment, on reconciling communities with divergent histories, interests and grievances, and on integrating the needs, aspirations, insights, skills and resources of a great many actors within and outside Australia. The approach would be well integrated, comprehensive, and inclusive.
Australian governments have been in the habit of naming a selective list of threats (e.g. China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, terrorism, transnational crime, drug trafficking, nuclear proliferation, refugee flows), identifying one or more culprits in each case, and then devising specific measures that discretely address each of them.
By contrast an integrated approach would focus on the interconnection between different threats, in particular between physical violence and a range of cultural, social, economic and ecological disorders.
But integration can go only so far. To be effective it must also be inclusive. Australia cannot secure for itself a peaceful environment by focusing just on its own security, especially if this means acting in ways other nations perceive to be at the expense of their security. With almost every actual or potential conflict of concern to Australia, the key to its resolution lies in reconciling the competing security interests of different actors. This applies equally to the Korean conflict, Sino-Japanese tensions, rivalries in the South China Sea, energy security or refugee flows. In short, an underlying objective of Australian policy must be to achieve the ‘common security’ of all stakeholders.
Of course, arriving at an understanding of common security is a painstaking exercise. It is made all the more difficult by the fact that no single voice or authority, no government can realistically claim to represent the diversity of security interests of their respective societies. To illustrate, the ‘official’ Indonesian view cannot necessarily be taken as a faithful representation of the security aspirations of the people of Aceh or Papua, any more than the ‘official’ Australian view can be accepted as the final word on the security interests either of Indigenous communities or of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.
It follows that if Australia is to play a part in advancing human security prospects in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Myanmar or elsewhere, it cannot afford to limit its dialogue to the governments of those countries. Ongoing links with diverse communities and organisations is needed if conflict prevention, resolution or mitigation strategies are to have any chance of success.
Similarly, if Australia is to develop effective security policies vis-à-vis China, Japan, Indonesia, Afghanistan or Myanmar, civil society in Australia must be fully engaged. This should include not only think-tanks congenial to government thinking or development agencies with a presence in those countries but also religious, humanitarian, professional, educational and other institutions with relevant insights, expertise, resources and contacts. Beyond this, media must play their part, for without the consistent airing of factual information, analysis and ideas, policies are likely to falter in the longer term.
One final proposition: the role to be accorded to civil society in the development of a just peace framework inevitably places the spotlight on Australia’s social fabric. To illustrate, just peace principles call into question what society understands by the terrorist’ threat, how it has come about, and what sustains groups and individuals attracted to violent extremism. It requires society to think through what are appropriate remedies, the pluses and minuses of alternative solutions, and the implications of any given policy for civil liberties, democratic institutions, social cohesion, religious and cultural dialogue and much else.
As we have seen, the same can be said of policies relating to energy security and climate change, ‘border protection’ and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. What is in question is not just how a particular problem or threat is to be dealt with, but how any given response will impact on the ethical and institutional foundations of society. Whether one considers the laws of armed conflict, the nuclear ban treaty, or the growing body of international human rights and environmental law, it is not simply a question of Australia signing up to this or that legal instrument, important as this is, but ensuring that the new legal norms are embedded in the mindset, mores and discourse of society as a whole.
Similarly, if engagement with Asia is to be more than a slogan or a mere codeword for expanding trade links, than that engagement must be freed from the emotional vestiges of Western dominance and the psychology of dependence on the US military alliance. It must instead be sustained by familiarity with the histories, cultures and languages of our Asian neighbours, and attuned to the opportunities for cultural, religious and political dialogue.
Just peace points to the construction of an ethically based Australian narrative that reinterprets our past and reimagines our future. Such a narrative could begin to heal the wounds of Indigenous dispossession and colonial violence. It would endow Australia with a deeper appreciation of the value of cultural difference. And it would provide the basis for a coherent policy framework that integrates economic needs and environmental values, security and immigration, education, culture and foreign policy.
Joseph Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University. He chairs the planning group of a year-long project Earth@Peace, of which the landmark Conference on 23-24 April 2019 in Melbourne will be the highlight. Details here