This Day in History: Peace vs. Justice

It’s a pretty uninteresting “week in history,” so I’m going to let that feature take some time off and come back reinvigorated next week. But one event this day in history prompted some reflection:

October 24, 1945 – The United Nations comes into being

When the five members of the Security Council (USSR, US, Britain, France, and China) and most of the other member-states ratified the UN Charter.

I’m not sure how widely it’s read among Americans today (or how widely October 24th is recognized as “UN Day”), but the UN Charter is a pretty remarkable document. It starts by proclaiming that its peoples are determined to do four things, the first two of which are:

• to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

• to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt (chair of the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) looking at her proudest accomplishment

Noble as these two sentiments are, the relationship between saving the world “from the scourge of war” and “[reaffirming] faith in fundamental human rights” is not a simple one, as law school professor and former diplomat Margaret MacGuinness explains. Writing the lead article for the November 2011 issue of the journal Diplomatic History, MacGuinness examines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — one of the signal accomplishments of the young United Nations, which ratified the document in December 1948 — and how drafters like René Cassin and John Humphrey “considered (or failed to consider) the role of rights protection as either a necessary precursor or a hindrance to an enduring global peace” (Diplomatic History vol. 35, p. 750).

First, MacGuiness points out a fundamental asymmetry in the peace and justice statements and how they were built into the new international system. While the United Nations was designed with the idea of collective security in mind, and it has mechanisms in place to implement this idea (e.g., the Security Council’s responses to the invasion of South Korea by its northern neighbor in 1950 and of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990), human rights protections are “less robust.” While peace is the business of the most powerful group within the UN (the Security Council), justice is promoted by the historically ineffective and sometimes laughable Human Rights Commission, whose membership has included some of the worst violators of human rights and is “created under the umbrella of the General Assembly, a plenary body of member states that permits a universal approach to setting norms but possesses no binding legal authority or enforcement mechanism to compel member states to action” (p. 750). Crucially, the former goal (to prevent war) preserves state sovereignty; the latter (to protect human rights, often violated by one’s own government) threatened the same principle of sovereignty.

And that points to the larger philosophical problem that concerns MacGuiness: how do peace and justice relate to each other? Is one a presupposition for the other? Can seeking one prevent the other?

Now, from a Christian (and Jewish) perspective, peace and justice as the terms are used in Scripture are inseparable: there is no such thing as unjust or unrighteous shalom. Few have conveyed this principle more effectively than Pope John Paul II, preaching at Pentecost in 1982 in Coventry, England:

Peace is not just the absence of war. It involves mutual respect and confidence between peoples and nations. It involves collaboration and binding agreements. Like a cathedral, peace has to be constructed, patiently and with unshakeable faith.

Wherever the strong exploit the weak; wherever the rich take advantage of the poor; wherever great powers seek to dominate and to impose ideologies, there the work of making peace is undone; there the cathedral of peace is again destroyed.

John Humphrey
John Humphrey (1905-1995)

Peace is not simply the ability of unjust states to avoid violent conflict with each other. Indeed, one might suspect that tolerating states that do violence to their own people might lead to such states being more likely to do violence beyond their own borders. During the drafting of the UDHR, something like this argument was promoted by the Canadian international law expert John Humphrey, whose draft preamble included these two principles:

1. That there can be no peace unless human rights and freedoms are respected.

4. That there can be no human freedom or dignity unless war and the threat of war are abolished.

Peace and justice, in this view, are fundamentally interdependent: threats to one imperil the other.

In the end, the UDHR’s Preamble was more directly influenced by the French lawyer Cassin, whose version of Humphrey’s argument shows up in the following statements:

WHEREAS recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, and

WHEREAS disregard and contempt for human rights resulted, before and during the Second World War, in barbarous acts which outraged the conscience of mankind and made it apparent that the fundamental freedoms were one of the supreme issues of the conflict….

To MacGuiness this stops short of arguing that rights deprivations caused WWII, but notes a correlation. And

In declaring “fundamental freedoms” one of the supreme “issues” of the war, it opens the door to questions of causation: Is the protection of human rights a necessary perquisite for peace? Are rights-regarding states less likely to go to war with one another? The contemporary debates over these questions reflect ongoing philosophical divisions over the connection between rights and war as well as some healthy contestation of empirical claims about the causes of war and peace. (p. 758)

What emerges, then, is a debate among scholars, lawyers, and others who endorse the international system that started to take shape after WWII but disagree about its central goal. On one side are those who argue that “human rights protection should not be subordinated to the quest for peace” (e.g., by refusing to countenance the use of military force, say, to end a genocide) and that “justice, as reflected in backward-looking mechanisms of accountability and forward-looking instruments to protect human rights [again, some perhaps not so peaceful], is a central normative goal of the collective security order.” On the other, those who emphasize “that the maintenance of peace is the central normative goal of the international order.

In an era of protracted and complex armed conflicts, many of which are fought within state borders between state and nonstate actors, and are accompanied by atrocities committed by state and nonstate actors alike, the argument is made that rigid considerations of justice must be set aside to stop the killing and abuses. And because modern wars are unlikely to end with unconditional surrender to a state actor, the argument is made that accountability and human rights protections can and should be bargained away in the pursuit of peace. Under this account, conditioning peace on accountability—whether domestic or international—is not only unnecessary but may create perverse incentives that prolong war and suffering. (pp. 758-59)

While MacGuiness acknowledges this central tension — is peace or justice the “central normative goal of the international order”? — historian Eric Weitz (in a response printed in the same issue of Diplomatic History) is not convinced by her conclusion that, in the years since 1945, peace and justice have “continually influenced one another” (his summary of her conclusion). In his view, the latter argument (that peace trumps accountability/justice) has prevailed:

The Dayton Accords legitimized ethnic cleansing. The Cambodia Tribunal is presided over by a government with a murky record, to say the least, in regard to human rights. Western aid flows to Paul Kagame’s government, which has established internal peace in Rwanda but has also helped unleash the multitudinous conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet today. It is probably better to accept the fact that so long as we live in a world of 195 sovereign states, the tension between peace and justice will surface in every conflict situation, rather than to presume that justice is on the slow march to victory. (p. 794)

What do you think: can the international system, as presently constituted, seek both peace and justice, or does one necessarily need to take precedence? Can there be peace without justice, or justice without peace?


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