HomeMember AreaPerspectives on Peace and Conflict

Perspectives on Peace and Conflict

It is easy to say we are International Volunteers for Peace but much harder to explain what we mean by peace. Often peace is only understood as the absence of war. This means that peace is only understood in terms of what it is not. Building up an idea of what peace might be is an important aspect of volunteering with any peace organisation. This section will provide some background to how peace and conflict are understood through a variety of perspectives. These perspectives are not included in order to tell you what you should think about these issues, but rather to provide some examples of how others have thought about peace and conflict.

What do we mean by peace?

International Decade for a Culture of Peace

A good place to look for a positive definition of peace is the UN’s notion of a “Culture of Peace”. They have defined this culture as “consisting of values, attitudes and behaviours that reject violence and endeavour to prevent conflicts by addressing their root causes with a view to solving problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations”. In order to foster this culture the UN General Assembly designated 2001-2010 as the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.

The UNESCO document “Mainstreaming the Culture of Peace” explains that the idea to use the term culture of peace was inspired by an educational initiative called cultura de paz developed in Peru (1986), and by the Seville Statement on Violence (1986) adopted by scientists from around the world, which stated that war is not a fatality determined by genes, violent brains, human nature or instincts, but is rather a social invention. Therefore, ‘the same species that invented war is capable of inventing peace’.

The Seville statement stakes out eight action areas, which are the focus of the Decade for a Culture of Peace. These areas are:
– Fostering a culture of peace through education
– Promoting sustainable economic and social development
– Promoting respect for all human rights
– Ensuring equality between women and men
– Fostering democratic participation
– Advancing understanding, tolerance and solidarity
– Supporting participatory communication and the free flow of information and knowledge
– Promoting international peace and security

Each of these actions areas are linked to specific tasks – so fostering a culture of peace through education includes promoting education for all, focusing especially on girls; revising curricula to promote the qualitative values, attitudes and behaviour inherent in a culture of peace; training for conflict prevention and resolution, dialogue, consensus-building and active non-violence.

If you want to find out more information about the UN’s action plan for developing a culture of peace you can download the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace (A/53/243) from the UNESCO website.

Conscientious Objection

This term commonly applies to those who refuse to participate in war. Conscientious objectors will refuse to be drafted or conscripted into military service and will also refuse ‘peace time’ military service. It is thus the refusal to accept war as a method of resolving disputes. Conscientious objection to war can also entail the refusal to pay taxes, which will support a country’s military. An example of this can be found in Henry Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience”, which influenced Gandhi’s methods of non-violent resistance, where he recounts his experiences of being jailed after refusing to pay taxes. A more modern Australian example is David Keenen, editor of the magazine Non-violence Today, who withheld 10% of his tax payments from the Australian Tax Office and instead donated them to an organisation researching alternatives to armed defence. Keenan eventually faced court and was threatened with bankruptcy. The full history is available from his website – http://users.bigpond.net.au/d.keenan/.

While Australian now recognises the right to conscientious objection, this was not always the case. From 1911 to 1929, all males aged 18-26, regardless of their personal beliefs, were required to complete military training. Australia also introduced conscription during World War II and the Vietnam War.

Compulsory military service was quite common in Europe and still continues today in countries as varied as Israel, South Korea, Sweden and Bulgaria. In Germany, for instance, nine months of military service is required by all males after they finish their studies, though there are provisions to complete was is called ‘civilian service’.

During the early 1900’s, at the time when SCI first began, there was no option of social service and instead military service and conscription were common. SCI’s founder, Pierre Ceresole, sought to challenge this and was himself a conscientious objector, refusing to pay military taxes and conscription and was imprisoned several times as a result. This was an irony because Ceresole had inherited a small fortune and believing that it was immoral to have large sums of money that he had not earned, he donated it to the Swiss government.

Ceresole set out to establish an ethical alternative to militarism and so developed the idea of “a peace army”. The early SCI workcamps were to be examples of this ‘peace army’ and showed that young women and men could serve the world in more peaceful and productive ways. Through this example and other direct action, the early SCI confronted the militaristic culture in Europe. SCI is partly responsible for the cessation of enforced military service and the recognition of conscientious objection as a legal alternative in many European countries.


Non-violence can be understood as a group of doctrines that reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes. This understanding links non-violence to pacifism, though there is a difference in the approach or the two groups and the methods that they might use to achieve their goals. Non-violence might refer to a personal commitment to reject violence in all its forms. But non-violence has also come to refer to certain methods of bringing about revolutionary social change without the use of force.

One of the key ideas that underlie the possibility of non-violent social change is the recognition that those in power can only remain there with the co-operation of the larger population. That is, without a police force, without tax collectors, without transport workers, or even without people to patronise business, a society cannot operate. As Henry David Thoreau writes in his essay “Civil Disobedience” – “when the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished”. A system can’t work if no one will participate in it.

A second key idea is that to end up with just ends you must use just means. For many, using violence to fight for a more peaceful society is self-defeating. But further, non-violent action for social change fundamentally relies on co-operation of individuals rather than their obedience. This can help develop the seeds of democracy, as Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall suggest in their book, A Force More Powerful. They argue that non-violent resistance movements, which do not use top-down power, are more likely to be run democratically from the start and so have the potential to produce quite different end results than more violent revolutions.

There are many different methods that can be used by non-violent activists including; strikes, consumer boycotts, factory slow downs, petitions, raising media-profiles and vigils. However, you are really only limited by your imagination. Gene Sharp’s book The Politics of Non-violent Action, for example, provides a suggestive list of 198 methods of non-violent action.

In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced non-violent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations … If we add all the countries touched by major non-violent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa … the independence movement in India…) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that non-violence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world – Walter Ives

New Wars and Old Wars

In her 1999 book New and Old Wars, Mary Kaldor argues that understanding war as a conflict between states, fought by adult male soldiers, obscures the modern day realities of armed conflict. She suggests that there are three key differences between new and old wars. These differences include why wars are fought, how they are fought and how they are funded. Traditionally wars are understood as conflicts fought by state actors with the aim of capturing territory, paid for by the state itself. New wars are more likely to be motivated by identity politics with the aim of population control and may be funded by a variety of global actors. Because aims are often to create a ‘purified’ state, new wars are marked by dramatic increases in refugees and the internally displaced. They are also more often directly specifically against civilians. Those fighting in new wars are not exclusively male soldiers, but include women and children. Examples of such new wars include the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and the Darfur region of Sudan.

In the following sections, we will look at three different aspects of these changing forms of conflict; the place of gender in conflict, the plight of child soldiers, and refugees.

References and further research:
Coombs, Moira “Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Australia” Australian Parliamentary Library Research Note no. 31 2002-03
Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Fact Sheet, “Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Programme”
Hathaway, J., 1992, “The Emerging Politics of non-entree”, Refugees, December
Kaldor, Mary (1999) New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era Cambridge: Polity Press
Noll, Gregor, 1999, New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper 4, “Rejected asylum seekers: the problem of return”, University of Lund, Box 207, Lund/Sweden
www.unhcr.org/research/RESEARCH/3ae6a0cd0.pdf –
Non-violent Peace force International
Thoreau, Henry David (1993) Civil Disobedience and Other Essays New York: Dover
UN, “Resolution adopted by the General Assembly – on the report of the Third Committee (A/61/436), 61/137”, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sixty-first session, Agenda item 41, 25 January 2007, United Nations, General Assembly
UN, “1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees”
UNHCR, 2007, Informal Consultative Meeting 27 February 2007 – The Protection of Internally Displaced Persons and the Role of UNHCR
UNHCR, 2006, Internally Displaced People, Questions and Answers, UNHCR
UNHCR, 2006, Measuring Protection by Numbers – 2005 November, 2006 Release
UNHCR, 2006, Refugee Numbers 2006 Edition, Basic Facts
“The Wall Behind Which Refugees Can Shelter – The 1951 Geneva Convention, 50th Anniversary” in Refugees, Vol 2, No. 123, 2001
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia