Death of a Giant for Peace: the Johann Galtung legacy

Feb 29, 2024
Johan_Galtung_-_“La_falta_de_recursos_no_es_excusa_para_no_construir_ciudades_de_paz”_(03) Image:Wikimedia Commons/By Diario de Madrid - Diario de Madrid - Johan Galtung: “La falta de recursos no es excusa para no construir ciudades de paz”, CC BY 4.0,

On Feb 17, aged 93, Norwegian Johann Galtung, polymath Professor of Peace Studies died. In a world riven with conflicts, whose leaders appear to know more about weaponry, destruction and murder than about peace making, Galtung‘s teaching offers a penicillin for peace, an antidote to the arms trade and to persistent violence.

Galtung’s significance derives not just from his massive productivity – the thousands of articles and 150 books – but on ways of thinking to resolve conflicts in any context or country. In Ukraine or Gaza, Myanmar or Sudan, in pandemics of domestic violence or concerning fear in city streets, the Galtung perspectives need oxygen. He distinguished between positive and negative peace, between structural, cultural and behavioural violence, but his peace making priority was to address underlying causes of conflicts – the persistence of structural violence.

Given the immediacy of genocidal conflict in Gaza, attention should be given to an understanding of structural violence affecting the lives of Palestinians. Galtung would have argued that by burying the structural violence across Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and in a myriad of refugee camps, a peace based on justice could be achieved.

He taught that political and economic structures which obstruct citizens’ ways of meeting basic human needs are inherently violent. Direct violence evident in the Naqba catastrophe of 1948 has been compounded by the physical, economic and military means of denying Palestinians their rights to self determination. Massive inequalities in life chances feed structural violence.

That theory applies also to economics. A neo liberal version of organising economies through privatisation, via bolstering the profits of powerful companies, by treating institutions and individuals as commodities bought and sold in a marketplace, contribute to inequalities, those primary sites of cancers likely to spread.

Galtung’s emphasis on dealing with structural violence heralds his distinction between negative and positive peace. An end to Israel’s annihilation by bombing and starving the people of Gaza would produce a negative peace but with no reference to human rights. Positive peace would address structural violence by promoting human rights, by campaigns to erase poverty and to address other inequalities.

Galtung’s interpretation of positive peace lead him to emphasise that justice for Palestinians would produce security for Israelis. ‘Why can’t you see that?’, he would ask. ‘Pay attention to the philosophy & practice of non violence and you will understand what I mean.’

He linked structural, cultural and behavioural violence. The structures affected life chances. Cultures absorbed and even justified discrimination against and violence toward the other. ‘How else to explain the utterances of Israeli leaders who claim that Palestinians are animals, in some cases that they do not exist?’ He insisted that questions about cultures which foster stigma and racism, the superiority of the powerful over the vulnerable, must be on any peace making agenda.

He showed that behavioural violence derived from structures and cultures and could seldom be explained only by reference to an individual’s psychological disposition. ‘How else to explain macho men’s abusive uses of power in the home, sometimes on the streets, and in the work place?’

Most tributes to Johann Galtung would mention his theories, the journals he created (the Journal of Peace Research) , the institutions he initiated (International Peace Research Association ) and the gratitude of thousands of peace scholars and activists around the globe. There is another lasting memory with direct relevance to today’s wars and inequalities. Whatever the status of people meeting Professor Galtung, he spoke truth to power and did not suffer fools gladly.

On several occasions when ABC’s Phillip Adams interviewed Johann on Late Night Live and partnered him with a government economist or with a representative of the defence department, the Norwegian could be scathing about the other interviewees’ assumptions about economics or state power. ‘You must be joking if you believe that nonsense’, would be a faithful précis of the essence of exchanges with Johann. He would have regarded the AUKUS nuclear submarines policy as top down, one dimensional, more likely to lead to war than to security.

In print and on radio he explained that abusive power is maintained by thoughtless governments, by profit mad corporations, by conservative institutions which have no idea about the violence they perpetrate in order to maintain their powerful positions.

During and following a Johann Galtung radio appearance, the ABC switchboards would light up with respondents fired mostly to say how refreshing the Galtung contribution.

Cantankerous he may have been, his massive intellect flooding many conversations, but he was a giant for peace. He taught millions how to break boundaries, the need to be curious, to think creatively.

If peace – instead of war – is to recover as a subject for research, study and action, the Galtung legacy will provide rich sources of theory and invaluable prescriptions to mediate in conflicts, to build and make peace. He is needed now more than ever.

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