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Why conflict can be necessary to bring about justice

This sculpture in London commemorates Nelson Mandela, who set up the African National Congress’ armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), in 1961 when he lost hope that passive and non-violent resistance to the apartheid government would bear fruit. (Creative Commons)

Why conflict can be necessary to bring about justice

Each week, it seems that fresh incidents of violence, aggression and hatred emerge. The threat of nuclear war, terrorist attacks, mass shootings and the ongoing brutality in Myanmar continue to confound us. It’s as though conflict is to be expected; it’s inevitable.

It would be easy to fall into despair about the state of our world given recent events that have caused so much human suffering, death and anxiety.

As a professor of political science and a researcher in conflict resolution, I see and hear the despondency in my students. Many send me emails expressing fear that the world is heading towards very serious trouble. There is a high level of anxiety about what is happening in distant lands, across the border and here at home.

Given the prevalence and persistence of violence and conflict throughout history, and in the present day, it would also be easy to draw the conclusion that it’s an inescapable part of the human experience, something we ought to resign ourselves to, and a fact of life that we will never be rid of.

Should peace always mean no conflict?

From my perspective, it’s not clear whether the situation now is worse than it was in the past. Some, in fact, argue that our world is more peaceful and less conflicted than it once was.

This might be good news to some. But I believe it’s important to reflect on the possibility that peace and stability may not serve the interests of everyone.

If we seek justice or liberation in our world, then we must change the conversation about conflict. This is because conflict has, in many cases, proven integral to achieving a more equitable and secure society.

If we place justice above peace as the ultimate goal, the discussion about contemporary violence and conflict shifts into an examination of the complexity of these issues, and the different attitudes, expectations and circumstances that drive conflict.

It seems to me that talk of peace is often no more than a championing of the status quo by people or nations in positions of power and privilege.

Mandela forced to resort to conflict

At the same time, those who champion change, those driven by a desire to upend the status quo in the interest of justice or liberation, are often fully prepared to use violence to achieve their goals.

Think of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, which was willing to pursue a peaceful solution in South Africa. When the white minority did not reciprocate the desire for that peaceful solution, armed struggle was viewed as the only recourse.

I see many cases of contemporary violent conflict arising from the fact that people must live in countries with arbitrary borders — countries that lack any single political tradition, and that have institutions that are too weak to manage conflicting pressures from within. Such situations exist everywhere from Iraq to Congo and Somalia.

If we continue to prioritize peace over justice, then we will also continue to live in a world in which far too many people are suffering injustice. And that means, ironically, such a world will remain unstable and conflicted.

I struggle with the dilemma that the humane solutions are often ineffective, and the effective solutions are often inhumane. The status quo makes many states in Africa and elsewhere vulnerable to ongoing conflict, yet the changes necessary to address these problems would likely also involve intolerable amounts of upheaval and conflict.

For now, the international community appears willing to tolerate the status quo, believing that it provides a tolerable level of stability.

But can we be certain that this stability serves the interests of everyone?