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Ukraine and Gaza are proof we need politics of non-violence more than ever

One of the four fundamental principles of the Green Party in Northern Ireland is ‘non-violence and peace’. 

Recent atrocities in Ukraine and Gaza show that we need a vigorous and active politics of non-violence more than ever. 

Peace is not just the absence of violence; it is a willingness to resolve conflict in a constructive manner with a spirit of good will and respect.  By contrast, the politics of violence perpetuates itself by creating a spirit of suspicion, hostility and contempt.

If peace is our goal then violence can rarely be justified, as it only serves to cement the very divisions that cause conflict.

When faced with unbearable situations like Gaza, or the downed airline in Ukraine, we tend to respond by seeking someone to blame.  This often results in grouping of individuals on the basis of religion, ethnicity or nationality - or more simply, ‘us’ and ‘them’ - to the point where acts of mindless thuggery, such as the recent attacks on a Belfast Synagogue, become possible.

The ambition of peace and resolution is quickly reduced to a simple mentality of winning or of asserting ‘right’.  If your side is right then any action can be justified especially if it is deemed necessary to win.  Of course both sides will believe they are ‘right’ and therefore conflict persists.

Such oversimplifications are invariably wrong, precisely because they are oversimplifications; and they are almost certain to perpetuate and deepen, rather than help resolve, the conflict in question.

Long before he became Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin spoke of defending the interests of ‘the Russian people as a great nation’. It is in the name of the ‘responsibility to protect’ the Russian ‘people’ that Putin seems to have decided to annex Crimea, and is now trying to exonerate the pro-Russian militia in Ukraine.

It is a good example of the way reading conflict through the lens of national or other group identities obscures, rather than clarifies, issues of violence.  Decisions tend to be made, and actions ‘justified’, on the basis of which ‘side’ we support, and which ‘side’ we blame.

This is not the World Cup and we are not playing football.  There can be no winners in war and death and suffering is no trophy.

While history is littered with examples of politicians playing games with people’s lives, this does not have to be the story of our future.  Different choices can and should be made.

We cannot justify acts of violence in the name of ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’ or any other kind of ‘denomination’.  We cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility by blaming the other like the boy in the schoolyard who, caught beating another, says ‘but he hit me first’.

Violence is the true enemy, and must be opposed regardless of which ‘side’ it emanates from.

We must each take responsibility for our own actions; stand down the violence of our own ‘side’, and indeed learn to stop thinking in terms of ‘sides’ at all.  Rather, we must come together, for all our differences, not to try to defeat our ‘enemies’, but to solve the problems themselves.

In the words of the remarkable Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor who lost his three daughters to an Israeli army shell, conflict ‘is the result of fear, mistrust and suspicion. We need to smash these artificial barriers we have created in our minds because nothing will change until we change what is in our own hearts, minds and souls’.

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