Ingeborg Breines on “MLK – It is non-violence or it is non-existence”

Ingeborg Breines – An Opinion Piece

Martin Luther King: It is non-violence or it is non-existence.

Some of us would remember exactly where we were on the day 50 years back when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered so hideously. Very few “survive” being killed in the way that Martin Luther King has done. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racism are forever linked to his name, his words and his deeds. As we mark the 50th anniversary of his death it is of high value to have this collective reflection in order to look more deeply into what his legacy means, and may mean, in the 21 Century.

Even though his name may be most strongly linked to the fight against racial segregation, his opposition to war and encouragement of non-violence remain of great inspiration. His criticism of the Vietnam War, of the drafting of young, colored men from disadvantaged families and the role of the military industrial complex, made him a very central person for “the 68-generation”. Those in this generation with links to the Hippie movement were particularly receptive to dreams about a new and more just society, less hierarchical and less authoritarian, without war and based on love and equal possibilities.

In his memorable speech in Memphis on the eve of his death, Martin Luther King expressed in clear terms the urgency and necessity of non-violence: ‘Men for years now have been talking about war and peace. Now no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world, it is non-violence or non-existence”.

This urgency is felt very strongly today by all who are angry and frustrated when decision- makers, again and again, fail to acknowledge that we human beings share one beautiful, but fragile, planet and that we need to find common answers to the various challenges facing us. Instead, we see confrontation, injustice, competition and rapid militarization. War has not yet been made illegal and more people than ever have to migrate away from war zones, barren land and lack of opportunities. Naïvely, mainstream politicians continue to give priority to military “solutions” that in fact only aggravate the situation. And the peace movement has not yet any real success in the struggle to reduce excessive military expenditure, devastating military pollution and misuse of natural resources. We are all pondering as to how to get our priorities right – how to become a sufficiently strong force for peace, sustainable development and non-violence.

The world is misusing its resources, financial and intellectual, for military purposes. We need to move the money and instead tackle the real security issues such as the threat to the very survival of the planet and humanity, be it by climate change, environmental degradation, nuclear weapons or quickly widening gaps of inequality. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated the obvious that “the world is over-armed, and peace is underfunded.

There is a clear line from Martin Luther King’s Ghandi- inspired non-violence and the hippie generation’s anti-war position to the culture of peace initiative launched by UNESCO in the 1990ies. The hope behind the culture of peace initiative was, with the end of the cold war, to finally be able to build trust, bridges and cooperation instead of pointing at others as being different and potentially dangerous enemies. The year 2000 was symbolically made the International Year for a Culture of Peace. The vision was to enter the new Millennium with a major peace dividend to build lasting peace, to be consolidated by the Decade for a culture of peace and non-violence for the children of the world (2001 – 2010). Youth organizations, women’s organizations, peace organizations, teachers, artists and others joined in. More than 70 million people signed the UNESCO Manifesto on a culture of peace promising to: respect all life, reject violence, share with others, listen to understand, preserve the planet and rediscover solidarity, thereby giving evidence to people’s longing for peace.

The 11. September 2001 attacks changed the scenario. Since then the world’s attention and resources have been geared towards a misguided war on terror, giving an excuse for strong military build-ups. For our security, as they say. What a dangerous illusion! As the youngest ever Nobel peace laureate Malala says: You may kill a terrorist with weapons, but you can kill terrorism with education. It should be obvious by now that nobody can win a war on terror or solve any deep disagreement by military means. Daring to start a conflict that could end with a new world war risks to ruin the only habitable planet we know about. It would be the breakdown of humanism – the potential end of humanity. The military is inadequate in guaranteeing our safety and the cleanness of the air, the water and the land. The main challenges today are linked to human security.

The International Peace Bureau, the oldest, functioning international peace organisation, has for several years struggled to influence political and economic decision-makers through the program Disarmament for Development (DforD). IPB presented an Action Agenda at the disarmament congress in Berlin in 2015: Disarm! For a Climate of Peace in order to help build a broader movement for a major transformative shift away from the present priority on the military sector in favour of the social and human sector. IPB suggested that all countries reduce their military spending by 10% per year over the 15 years of the UN Development Agenda (2016-2030) and use the resources to implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that all world leaders have agreed to. Although that would not change any power imbalance, which also should be done, it would go a very long way in meeting the needs and aspirations of people. But we are not there. On the contrary, as NATO member states we are supposed to spend two percent of our GDP for military purposes.

Excessive military expenditures not only represent a theft from those who are hungry and suffer, but are also an ineffective means of obtaining human security and a culture of peace. Substantial reductions in military costs could eliminate the crushing poverty whereby nearly one-third of humanity lives in insufferable conditions, a majority being women, children and young people. Since one year military spending equals about 615 years of the UN annual budget, such a reduction in military costs would also strengthen the United Nations’ efforts and possibilities to “ save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.

Rich and poor states alike seem to be pressured into arms races, spending more on armament than they need and can afford. To continue a process of militarization, often outside democratic control, that mainly serves the arms producers and dealers and even brings corruption, is a dangerous path that will not bring hope to young people in desperation. In order to move towards just and peaceful societies, we need to address the root causes of conflicts, not only the symptoms. Globalization, with supranational entities and multi-national corporations, has brought new challenges also to the UN that may necessitate a broadening of both international laws and regulations and the relevant institutions.

The fact that the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made prevention and disarmament his top priorities is encouraging. It should bring new possibilities for the peace movement to join forces with the UN in an effective way. It is insane when the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, spends more than 1.7 trillion dollars a year on military expenditure leaving insufficient resources to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

More than 100 billion dollars of these resources are devoured by nuclear weapons, whose production, modernization and use should be ruled out on military, political, legal, ecological and moral grounds. Member States of the UN are called upon to sign and ratify the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. With a normative instrument against nuclear weapons in place, as we have for other weapons of mass destruction, we would be able to start a real security process of destruction of the most dangerous weapons ever made. How to do it in technical terms is not obvious and requires brainpower. We cannot but feel pity for the nine nuclear states and those who are under the so-called nuclear umbrella, for having such devastating arms in their possession, creating fear also among their own population.

Instead of seeking potential enemies, existing military forces should be retrained to fight global climate change and environmental degradation, which warrants urgent remedial actions and a holistic approach. In order to do so, we need to find ways to change attitudes and rethink unsustainable and destructive production and consumption patterns. The military’s ability to create jobs is not an excuse for keeping a system that, paradoxically, is undermining the security of both humanity and the planet. Besides, recent research projects have shown that a job in the military in general costs the society two-three times the cost of an average job in the civil sector.

It is important to bring also young people on board in advancing the culture of peace. That can best be facilitated by relevant peace education in its widest sense. This and other positive social purposes are however difficult to achieve as long as our resources are devoured by military expenditure. UN Security Council’s resolution 2250 on Youth, peace and security, a follow up to UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, peace and security, requires of UN Member States that they support youth-led conflict-prevention and peace-building programs and urges states to support youth violence prevention and encourages investment in the promotion of a culture of peace.

Quality education, including learning to live peacefully together and tackle conflicts and disappointments without resorting to violence, should be the order of the day – from early childhood to higher education. In the actual situation we may have to give particular attention to young men who feel that what life offers is not in accordance with their expectations. They may feel that globalization, neoliberal growth models and also the quest for gender equality have undermined their work possibility and dominant positions in the family, in working life and in politics. These groups of men are already, and may become even more so, a risk factor both for themselves and for society. They may seek adherence to fundamentalist gangs or groups where there is possibilities both to use force and have a supporting peer community that they have difficulties in finding elsewhere in society.

One important thing that our generation can do for these young people and for generations to come is to provide healthy, democratic, participatory opportunities for and with them. We can ask the young people of Colombia, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Libya or other countries if they want peace, human rights, justice and equal opportunities. Listening to them, it seems obvious that we have to use all the tools in our toolbox to help them make their visions and dreams of a world without war come true.

We need to listen carefully and empathically to Martin Luther King’s famous dream and also echo the words of Bertha von Suttner, who was the one to inspire Alfred Nobel to make a prize for champions of peace, when she in her book Down with the weapons states that we need to develop “an active disgust for war”. In fact, war should be criminalized and put in the dustbin of history as something human beings undertook in their less mature stage.

The path of confrontational policies and accompanying militarization we are on is not leading us ahead. The UN Action Plan for a Culture of Peace must now come into full use. Let it reinvigorate international organizations and Member States alike! And let us state with Martin Luther King, with insight and in righteous indignation:

The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.