Tackling the challenge represented by ISIS (Islamic State or ISIL) is a tough assignment, both for governments and for civil society. Their barbaric killings and rapidly expanding control of territory have resulted in precisely the reaction intended: military intervention by the US and its allies. Despite the failures of the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, those with hammers in their toolboxes once again see every problem as a nail.
When such situations occur, we need to analyze carefully both the causes and the consequences of any armed intervention. ISIS did not emerge in a vacuum. Its transnational ideology appeals to many Arabs and Muslims, notably Sunnis, who are disenchanted with the existing political order and bitterly resentful of the West after decades – indeed centuries – of outside interference and domination. This alienation has driven many young Arab males toward extremism. Many millions in the Middle East suffer from poverty, inadequate education and healthcare, lack of opportunities and work. Though they dream of peace and social justice, it is perhaps not surprising that they end up participating in violent jihadi movements. Demonizing the leaders and their supporters and terrorizing them with missiles or remote-controlled armed drones only helps ISIS recruit further, generating an endless spiral of violence and destruction. This in turn only benefits arms suppliers and demagogues, and further perpetuates aggressive militarism on all sides.
It is important to recognize what is at stake here. What is left of our own humanity when we kill people like cattle because we lack the creativity to tackle the militants by other means? Can our leaders really be so naive that they think they can root out fundamentalism by bombing fundamentalists? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law forbid the taking of human life, as do all major religions. The UN Charter provides for armed action only in self-defence and with a Security Council mandate – which has even not been sought in this case. Why have the big powers moved so far from acknowledging these basic principles? If we want to create a just and civilized world, we must struggle to understand the roots of the conflict; talk with, listen to and empathize with people in the region; and explore non-violent alternatives. There is a vast range of experience in civil society and the UN system that should be drawn on to help broaden our understanding of the challenge. Most war-weary people would support an approach based on changing the mindsets that promote counter-violence as an acceptable solution. The UNESCO preamble is as relevant today as it was in 1945: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.
Of course no-one has all the answers and short-term fixes are in short supply. But it should be clear that we need to pursue political, not military action, and that pressure must be applied on the US and the other coalition governments to adopt a comprehensive international diplomatic response. This will supply the political power, economic incentives and support for rebuilding a non-sectarian Iraq; and will ensure that the desperately-needed humanitarian aid gets through to Syria — and that the war is finally stopped.
Despite the gravity of the current situation, IPB understands the view held by Western governments that they should not once again put ‘boots on the ground’. But a number of other alternatives could be implemented immediately:
- There should be an immediate halt to air strikes and an arms embargo on all sides – borders and national air space should be closed to military action but open for humanitarian aid.
- Washington and the member states of the EU should persuade their allies among the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, to stop financing and arming the Syrian rebels and to do everything they can to block private donations to ISIS and other extremist groups.
- Governments should intensify efforts to prevent sales of oil that bring revenue to ISIS – and certainly not purchase it themselves.
- Sufficient resources should be committed to allow the different bodies of the UN to expand their professional work in the region – including humanitarian relief programmes based on international norms. Human rights and peace organizations could be called upon to assist, and reliable civil society groups in the region should be identified as partners.
- Renewed international efforts, brokered by the UN and including all the parties, should be made to end the war in Syria. As many commentators have urged, this must necessarily entail new forms of cooperation with Russia and Iran in particular, which requires an end to confrontation and threats on all sides.
- Apologies should be offered for mistakes and brutal actions the West has committed, especially in the case of Iraq where the invasion and military occupation, coupled with 13 years of devastating sanctions, have resulted in an estimated 1 million Iraqi deaths and forced 4 million to flee their homes.
In the longer term we must take steps to build a peaceful and secure world based on non-militaristic approaches. This will involve measures such as:
- Researching the causes of conflict and strategies to eliminate them, whether they be territorial, resource-driven, military or economic power struggles or to further religious or political hegemony.
- Stopping the present undermining of the UN (including by-passing the Security Council) – and instead providing the political and financial support needed for its proper functioning.
- Outlawing foreign military interference and enhancing UN inspection and peacekeeping forces.
- Converting military industries to civilian production, calling on expertise at all levels, from local to international.
- Fighting poverty and illiteracy wherever they are found. Resources currently used for military purposes should be diverted to help provide decent living conditions, appropriate health care and relevant, quality education for all. IPB calls for a reallocation of 10% per annum from global military budgets.
- Reforming school curricula, to include the learning of skills in non-violent conflict resolution and how to live peacefully together.
- Helping build truly democratic institutions and organizations, notably through the holding of well organized and supervised elections.
- Supporting peoples’ diplomacy and building regional and international understanding, through cooperation among teachers, artists, journalists, trade unions, religious groups, youth groups, etc.
- Strengthening women’s groups and peace initiatives in all regions.
- Demanding parliamentary hearings and preferably referenda and referral to the UN, as soon as governments show signs of preparing for war. Efforts should be made to involve UN agencies such as the Human Rights Council, UNESCO, UNIDIR and UNRISD. Such organs become all the more important if the Security Council is unable to act, in which case a reference can also be made to the General Assembly.
- Moving away from secrecy, war propaganda, and the outmoded macho approach so often manifested in the defence, foreign affairs and national security sectors.
- Helping create peaceful and just societies –another name for which is building a culture of peace.
The International Peace Bureau is a global network dedicated to the vision of a World Without War. We are a Nobel Peace Laureate (1910), and over the years 13 of our officers have also been recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Our 300 member organisations in 70 countries, and individual members, form a worldwide community bringing together expertise and campaigning experience in a common cause. IPB has UN Consultative Status since 1977 and is the Secretariat of the NGO Committee for Disarmament (Geneva). Our main programme centres on Disarmament for Sustainable Development, of which the Global Day of Action on Military Spending is a key part.