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article imageThe Modern Peace Movement: 'Peace is Practical' Conference Report Special

By Stephen Dohnberg     Apr 9, 2009 in Politics
An active movement is under way in the United States to establish a cabinet level 'Department of Peace and Nonviolence'. A 3 day conference in Washington, D.C. revealed a lot about the modern peace movement and the new urgency that surrounds it.
Given the current major economic downturn, it's impossible for one to imagine the U.S federal government engaging in establishing a new Cabinet portfolio of any type. Particularly one, that on the surface would seem to represent a nation experiencing time for reflection -- something akin to the slight cut in military budgets aka 'the Peace dividend' after the alleged 'end of the Cold War'.
However, since the Department of Peace was introduced in 2001 by Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a growing national and international movement has begun to understand the urgency of "waging peace". In defining the idea of a cabinet level organization, modern peace activists have adopted a new perspective.
The legislative wording has evolved over the preceding eight years from the 'Department of Peace'. Congressman Kucinich introduced HR808 in 2007 with over 60 co sponsors to create the 'Dept of Peace and Nonviolence'.
Peace Alliance Logo on Overhead Screen
Peace Alliance Logo on Overhead Screen
Stephen Dohnberg
The initiative is not the stereotype of the Sixties, but a sleek, evolved perspective and more defined activist movement that has adopted what FDR referred to as "the science of human relations". Within the broadened understanding of relations in a scientific context, peace is not , to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "the absence of war", rather the absence of peace is the presence of violence that has a very real impact on the economies of nations. It is a new perspective on understanding global violence -- internal and external -- that includes racism, poverty, unemployment, illness, crime, environmental disaster and domestic violence, as well as wars between nations.
On March 20-23, the second meeting of the Campaign to Establish a Cabinet Level Dept of Peace met at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, Arlington VA. The location itself felt paradoxical - conference goers met in this location surrounded by the offices of some of the biggest organizations that exist solely to profit from war and unrest: KBR (Haliburton), Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and any number of offices of lobbyists that are situated a stone's throw across the Potomac from the legislative core of the United States.
The national conference meets in off years, since the focus of the Peace Alliance is to engage in workshops, gather information,and to set their sights on their Congressional representatives. With Congressional elections happening in even numbered years, it gives the organization a chance to assess their new constituent representatives and lobby them in an organized, methodical, and unified fashion - rather than a scatter shot way, which is so often the downfall of activist movements. By taking advantage of citizen activism and political engagement, this method also allows them to gauge their impact with efficiency and economy. Over the years, the movement has gained respect for this approach.
2007's Conference saw a star studded cast of supporters joining citizen activists. A list of prominent citizens, including Walter Cronkite, Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Joaqin Pheonix, Yoko Ono, and Wille Nelson represent but a fraction of public figures who have promoted the movement. The 2009 conference, while still attended by close to 500 people, was more work intensive by comparison, as described by those I talked to.
Rep Dennis Kucinich - Closing Night of Conference
Rep Dennis Kucinich - Closing Night of Conference: "this isn't some airy fairy idea...peace is practical"
Stephen Dohnberg
While it is literally impossible to cover the full course of conference events (visit ThePeaceAlliance.Org for the sessions and workshops), a large number of the workshops were educational (and often moving) and featured phenomenal speakers well recognized within the movement, with many of these breaking into mainstream consciousness, thanks to their tireless advocacy and the occasional appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Some of the speakers included the son of former Baskin-Robbins heir and founder of YES (Youth for Environmental Sanity) Ocean Robbins, whose father sought a different path for himself, or as Ocean said of his father, "he realized there was no need to discover a 32nd flavour...". Azim Khamisa, a Sufi Muslim, whose own son Tariq was killed, a victim of a gang initiation rite. He now seeks leniency for his son's killer as part of his own peace-building initiative through forgiveness, and Steve Killelea, founder of a modern trade metric known as GPI (Global Peace Index) and producer of the documentary 'Soldiers of Peace'.
The laser-like focus of the organization was revealed in a Sunday afternoon session that almost all of the policy wonks agreed to have been the most useful, revealing that the campaign knows it needs to foster understanding of vast government structures to achieve the success it needs. Billed as 'Peacebuilding in the Federal Government', it clearly showed that the DoP organizers know what they need to understand about the minutiae of federal government
The expert panel, moderated by Wendy Greene, featured Margaret Kho, a designate for the the Community Relations Service (CRS) under the U.S. Dept of Justice, Lorelei Kelly, the National Security Program Director of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, and Lisa Schirch of 3D Security and Eastern Mennonite University.
In essence, they outlined organizations that already perform a function that overlaps with the stated goals of the proposed Dept of Peace and Non Violence, or mirror the same objectives, but are somewhat independent from federal government.
The Community Relations Service, as Irene Kho explained, is a federal body that deals with mediation, training, and technical assistance in areas such as protest organization and police-community relations. Established in 1964, the CRS was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights era, and initially dealt with ethnic issues as an agency of the Department of Justice. Post 9-11, CRS' areas have expanded to include training for airport security staff and cultural sensitivity when dealing with Arab, Muslim, or Sikh travellers.
Their objective is to intervene before disputes escalate into violence. But with 10 regional offices, staff has faced such cutbacks that these regional offices throughout the U.S. now barely employs 65 people. The scope of these cuts leaves one to question the commitment and focus of the federal government and whether it is aware of the tools it already possesses. One only needs to look back at the immediate 18 years from the Rodney King riots, to Arab "roundups" in the fall of 2001 to question the commitment of resources and focus, and why such a potentially useful organization is so poorly utilized -- under no fault of those staffing the agency.
Kelly pointed to other bodies, "intra government offices" that work as an "arm" for example, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and USAID. But at this stage, Kelly noted that core of the aims and exercising of such offices relies on what the perception of the U.S. is: Does the U.S. exist to aid the poor and hungry of the world and export justice and democracy, or do various government bodies exist to create, or force, favourable trade conditions in other countries, thus making it OK to have dictators friendly to the U.S. remain in place?
The USIP engages in, or funds relevant research projects on violent conflict, its causes, and ways to deal with conflict. Funded annually through Congress, the USIP has to tread a fine line and this can be a Catch 22 situation for any group. Obviously, criticism has to be very tempered and one presumes this is also mandated by the foreign policy that exists at the time.
United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is another body that Kelly presented as an example. Similar to CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) the mandate of USAID is to "extend a helping hand to those people overseas struggling to make a better life, recover from a disaster or striving to live in a free and democratic country..."
It is an independent agency of the federal government, meaning that it is an executive branch agency of the government and exists outside of the federal executive departments. Similar agencies include the CIA, the United States Postal Service (USPS), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). USAID is involved with humanitarian and economic assistance programs in developing countries, and money is allocated by proxy organizations that research a number of criteria before a project is given funds.
But with many of these executive branch agencies, issues of alleged corruption and ideological influence over the years have become sore spots, .especially when multimillion dollar development and aid packages fall into the hands of corrupt regimes. In the past, the U.S. has looked the other way. Kelly noted that USAID needs to focus on "small scale civil projects" This approach would go a long way in assisting USAID's work, and one presumes would strengthen USAID's focus on the simple definition of "what America is".
Shirch of 3D Security was equally eloquent in her assessment of the need for stability globally and pointed out that the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan would "shape policy for the next hundred plus years". The need for new bodies is found in the question "what is the division of labour between peace and security?" Operationally, the U.S. still looks to the Army for conflict resolution and civic rebuilding in conflict areas. It's a backward operational tactic that in modern times leans on an organization that is not equipped to engage in these operations. It's also into this void that the private sector steps. It's a linear, Cold War mentality.
With these being but a fraction of the organizations in place to deal with peace in a broader context, she noted that selling the idea of a Cabinet level department would be difficult. It would not necessarily be a Department of Peace as a solution, but would require a President with a focus and defined idea of what peace achieves. More money for existing structures, as well as, restored budgets, could do wonders.
The costs of maintaining domestic and international organizations focused on peace-building is a huge prospect, but with the limited time allotted for the panelists, a very concise question emerged. In essence: If we took the existing structures off the table, what could be put in place to deal with this very broad spectrum of issues, domestic and international?
The point being, a Department of Peace would be a massive step toward the "sharing of duties" with the military that even Robert Gates and General Petraeus have called for.
Advocates are moved by the practical simplicity of something that is a preventive measure. Decades of statistics that show, for example, that a few hundred dollars allocated for a student in a school board budget saves $85,000 annually, from the cost of maintaining a prison inmate.
One of the fascinating components of the Conference itself was that it organized conference goers by state. On the final day, after three days of information workshops, activists converged on the Capitol to meet with their Congressional and Senate representatives or their legislative assistants. I followed the New York delegation as they traversed the halls of the Cannon and Rayburn buildings and dropped packages off or met with Congressional aides who were receptive and respectful of the organization and effort that these citizens put into participating in the process. As a reporter, it was something to witness and a story in and of itself - participatory democracy as it should be. One's built-in cynicism can be easily allayed by watching these activists from all walks, steel themselves to a task one imagines only for hardened, cigar chomping back slappers.
If there was any question as to the success of their work, on April 7 Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) signed on as the 66th cosponsor.
One could only imagine the stress put on the offices as the California delegation of almost 50 marched into the offices of everyone from Duncan Hunter (R-CA) to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But they did it.
Listening to the stories at the end of the Monday, and the excitement and surprise that many first timers to Washington corridors expressed, was fascinating. To think, one can walk into the office of someone who is elected and Constitutionally mandated to represent you! Like the ideas behind the Department of Peace, it all seems so simple, so...obvious?!
As Rep Kucinich noted on the closing evening, "peace is practical - this isn't some airy fairy idea". By "monetizing peace" a breakthrough has been established.
Although other attempts to establish a Department of Peace, including ones initiated by the Founding Fathers, have been put forward, a bill as comprehensive hasn't emerged until now. With the efforts of DoP activists and 68 co-sponsors, Kucicnich noted that the over 40 million citizens are represented.
The idea of a Department of Peace also placed 2nd in the top 10 ideas of Change.Org's massive national initiative to solicit citizens' involvement on new ideas for the U.S. The top ideas have been presented to then President-elect Obama.
According to official stats, "Department of Peace grassroots activist groups exist in about 300 congressional districts in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam" That doesn't include the international movement, including Canada. The Hamilton chapter has their AGM and conference on the weekend of April 17.
Nepal has it's own Department of Peace, and in Costa Rica the idea is taken very seriously, with an MA in Peace Studies being offered at the Academy For Peace .
Co sponsor, Rep John Conyers, reminded activists that it took over 15 years for the Martin Luther King Day bill to finally pass legislation. "There's way more of us that want to do the right thing". If we have a Department of War, why can't we have a Department of Peace?"
Rep John Conyers address Peace Alliance Conference
Rep John Conyers address Peace Alliance Conference:If we have a Department of War, why can't we have a Department of Peace?"
Stephen Dohnberg
As Richard Nixon responded to a similar movement in 1969,"I consider the Department of State to be a department of peace. I consider the Department of Defense to be a department of peace, and I can assure you that at the White House Level in the National Security Council that is where we coordinate all of our efforts towards peace. I think that putting one department over here as a department of peace would tend to indicate that the other departments were engaged in other activities that were not interested in peace."
40 years of immediate history should make you consider.
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