Human Suffering at the World Trade Center Bombing -September 11, 2021
On September 11th, the world acknowledged the 22nd Commemoration to honor the loss of life of thousands of humans after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and also at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. At all of these sites of tragedy, memorials, and monuments have been erected to honor the lives of the deceased, as a site of memory for the families left to mourn, and for the world to remember the human cost of the tragic violence and the urgent need for peace.
Human Suffering in September – Birmingham, Alabama- September 15, 1963
On September 15th, the city of Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church acknowledged the 60th year since a racially motivated terrorist attack by the Klu Klux Klan who bombed their church and left “four little girls” to die in the rubble.
Why do We Need an International Day of Peace?
“United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Peace is needed today more than ever. War and conflict are unleashing devastation, poverty, and hunger, and driving tens of millions of people from their homes. Climate chaos is all around. And even peaceful countries are gripped by gaping inequalities and political polarization.”
Many humans are suffering under the umbrella of structural violence and actively fighting against oppressive, racist, homophobic, sexist, misogynist, classist, and religiously intolerant systems and regimes. Human rights are being violated and for many, peace feels like as author Langston Hughes would call it a “dream deferred.” Many would agree with Secretary Guterres that “…Peace is needed today…” and many more would argue that looking back through the historical record, peace has been needed for quite some time now.
Violence in Numbers
Beyond the devastation of the loss of life, according to National Today, since 2015 there has been $13.6 trillion dollars spent related to violence in 2015, 9,800 terrorism websites containing violent material, 11% of ceasefire agreements between 2015 and 2019, which included gender provisions, 15.9 million – the estimated number of people in Yemen’s population hit by the world’s worst food crisis, 135 million – the number of people in 2019 living with acute hunger, 60% of people struck with acute hunger living in conflict countries, 88 countries that had national action plans on women, peace, and security by October 2020, 417 policy measures enacted by national governments in response to the COVID-19 crisis and 408 million youth living in areas of armed conflict in 2016.
2023 Theme-“Actions for Peace: Our Ambition for the #GlobalGoals”
This year’s theme highlights our individual and collective responsibility to ensure that peace is maintained. This call to action works to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and through attaining these goals, it is believed that peace will be acquired by all. To learn more about the SDG’s, watch this video: Do you know all 17 SDGs? – YouTube
IHR Pictured with IPC Founders, Will and Carolyn Ratcliff, Rotary Club Members, Past and current UAB Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights with Graduate Director, Dr. Peter Verbeek, IHR staff and interns, and Dr. Rev. Bernice King. To learn more about IPC 2023, click here.
75th Year of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights & the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide
In the words of Congressman John Lewis, “Not one of us can rest, be happy, be at home, be at peace with ourselves until we end hatred and division.” Let us work to end the division and hatred, work towards peace and pave a new way forward together.
For more information about the International Day of Peace, you can visit here.
With the start of quarantine in 2020 and the rise of the social media app TikTok, many activist movements come to light and shed knowledge on the horrific injustices. One of the most prevalent examples is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020 and the period following it; it has become crucial for individuals to speak out against injustices. In a sense, it is part of “cancel culture” not to speak out, or if you speak out on the incorrect issues. As important as that is, it has been observed that many liberals and progressives only stand against injustices for specific issues. In a way, it involves choosing who is more worthy of having their rights protected. This may seem like an extreme notion or definition of selective activism, but it is essential.
The idea of selective activism was first introduced to me while reading “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics” by Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick. Even though this book specifically regarded the issues of Palestine and Israel, it dealt with an extremely important point and message; when we label ourselves as activists, we must be activists in all important issues. This is not to say that selective activism is always done intentionally; sometimes, it is by mere mistake or lack of knowledge on various issues. Everyone is guilty of this. Sadly, there are so many human rights injustices in our world that it is impossible to dedicate all your time to fighting for them. But what one can do in these situations is to be cautious of all issues at their prevalent times.
What is Selective Activism?
Selective activism is closely linked to the idea of selective hearing, only hearing what you want to hear. Its advocating for specific things only. The best way I have found to explain selective activism is through this quote in the book: “progressives and liberals who oppose regressive policies on immigration, racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and other issues must extend these core principles to the oppression of others.” Some questions arise when speaking of selective activism; how do we choose? What makes one cause more worthy than another? The answer is simple. There are always causes that we feel especially connected to and that we constantly advocate for, but what is essential is that if one labels themselves as an activist, progressive, or humanitarian, then this needs to apply to all issues. If one is going to protest the killing of innocent individuals in America, then the same support must be shown to women in Iran. If one is going to advocate for Ukrainian refugees, then activism must be shown to MENA refugees and those whose countries are still under occupation. Ravyen Monroe, a writer for Affinity Magazine, explained it perfectly: “You can’t be an activist but stop advocating for certain groups when you get mad. You don’t get to pick and choose who is worthy of respect and who gets degraded by terms that have oppressed them for centuries…That’s not how activism works.”
Instances of Selective Activism
The most recent example of selective activism can be the world’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis compared to refugees from the MENA region (see blog on this topic here). Although what Ukrainians are going through is indescribable and is seen as an urgent humanitarian crisis, the problem is selective activism. The attention given to Ukrainian refugees was commendable. They were given the necessary aid and protection as needed. However, the same support was not extended to refugees from the MENA region. An Armenian writer explained this as a betrayal and stated, “it hurts to feel that certain people are prioritized in the eyes of the media, and thus, the world.” This type of selective activism is not limited to political activism and can also be seen in environmental activism. For instance, climate change activists. Many took the stance against using plastic and began investing in metal straws once it became a trend but continued to utilize plastic throughout their lives.
Impact of Selective Activism
Selective Activism has negative implications and effects on the world, like the forgotten issue of the Yemen crisis, Islamophobia in European countries, refugees, etc. The list is long and never-ending. Despite the many important human rights crises in the world, some face extreme critical conditions that tend to be forgotten. Many become activists when issues are trending, yet will forget about them once they are off the mainstream media. As illustrated, it is not possible for one to advocate for every cause or injustice. But, if one labels themselves an activist and sees many prevalent issues but ignores it, then that is participating in selective activism. An inclusive solution would be to continue the fight for human rights for all and to stay educated. If there are specific humanitarian causes important to one, make sure you are advocating for all the individuals affected. Below are books, movies, and resources that expand upon the notion of selective activism.
“Except for Palestine: Limit on Progressive Politics” By Marc Lamont Hill & Mitchell Plitnick (This book opened my eyes to the idea of selective activism and its existence)
Many movies educate one on the many humanitarian causes. My favorites are:
War continues to embroil Ukraine as Russian forces advance through the country. Putin’s assurances of only attacking military sites are belied by the mounting civilian casualties in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian individuals have picked up arms for the first time, putting up a valiant stand against the aggressors, while other are seeking safety in neighboring countries. The sanctions levied on Russia and their leadership are likely to have an impact on the country, although they have not yet significantly influenced the current Russian offense. There is, however, a constraint in terms of resources for the Russian troops. For more information regarding this issue, visit Dr. Tina Reuter’s blog post for the Institute for Human Right.
In light of these developments, the UAB Institute for Human Rights (IHR) and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration (PSPA) held an expert panel on March 3rd. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Robert Blanton, the Chair of the Department of PSPA at UAB. The panel was comprised of Dr.Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the UAB IHR and associate professor in the Department of PSPA as well as the Anthropology Department; Dr.George Liber, retired professor from the History Department at UAB; Scotty Colson, coordinator at the Jimmie Hale Mission and Alabama’s Honorary Consul for Ukraine; Dr. Renato Corbetta, associate professor in the Department of PSPA and Director of the UAB International Studies Program; and Dr. Peter Verbeek, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Director of the graduate program in Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights. Panelists discussed the past, present, and future of the Ukraine crisis and consideration of the implications for the people of Ukraine, international relations, and world peace.
Dr. Liber began the conversation by providing a historical background for the current crisis. Ukraine has been an independent country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and a majority of its people have supported a pro-democratic position including, but not limited to, free elections. Putin, in contrast, leads Russia as an authoritarian dictator, controlling the parliament, courts, and state media. Civil liberties have taken a toll under his leadership as the government goes as far as to reshape public opinion through its influence. Putin has always struggled to recognized Ukraine as an independent state and aims to restore Russia to its former power. Two significant events have led to the recent escalation. The first was the removal of the pro-Russian government from office in 2014, and the subsequent appointment of a more democratic leadership. In response, Russia annexed Crimea with the help of pro-Russian annexationists in Eastern Europe. The conflict between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists created great turmoil at the time. The second event that prompted the recent attack by Russia, according to Dr.Liber, was the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which signaled to Putin that the US may be hesitant to engage their military forces at the time of conflict.
The Situation on the Ground
Scotty Colson followed this historical summary with a description of the current situation in Ukraine. He recounted his interactions with former participants in the Open World Program, which is a government funded program that offers young Ukrainian leaders the opportunity to travel to the US and exchange ideas on key global issues with their counterparts. Mr.Colson relays the experiences of participants of this program who visited Birmingham and who are currently in the center of the war in Ukraine. One individual, a lawyer who advocates for the democratization of Ukraine, took up an AK47 despite his lack of experience handling firearms. He now mans a barricade in Ukraine after his regular work hours. Another individual that Colson interacted with was an entrepreneur who created programs to help people receive first aid. He is currently one of the leaders in providing emergency care for war torn areas. Another individual stands guard with a machine gun outside an airport. Colson also mentioned that advocates from other countries are being removed from social media platforms in Russia. He emphasized the connection we have with these individuals, and others, in Ukraine, as they were inspired by Birmingham’s history to lead civil reform in their own country.
Dr. Reuter detailed the human rights implications of the conflict. Undoubtedly, there has been an increase in human rights violations, including the right to life and civilian integrity. The air strikes and heavy artillery are in direct breach of international law, prompting an investigation by the International Criminal Court. The number of casualties is uncertain, with the. However, since the UN Office of the High Commissions for Human Rights only counts deaths that they can verify, the numbers reported by them are likely to be an underrepresentation. Moreover, the most concerning development in Dr. Reuter’s opinion is Putin’s remarks during his conversation with president Macron, in which he showed no sign of relenting. At the time of the panel discussion, approximately 160,000 people were displaced, and this number was expected to climb to several millions. Some individuals had to wait for up to 60 hours in in freezing weather before being allowed to enter Poland.
Despite this, the overwhelming attitude towards Ukrainian refugees has been one of warmth and acceptance: the European Union (EU) is set to grant Ukrainian refugees with permission to live and work in the EU, while receiving education and healthcare, for a year. While Dr. Reuter appreciates this response, she points to the problematic contrast in attitudes towards the refugees from Ukraine as opposed to refugees from the Middle East and Africa, who have not been received as positively. Another significant challenge is the delivery of humanitarian aid, particularly since the war conditions have made it more unsafe for aid workers. At the time of the panel discussion, Russia tentatively agreed to arrange for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians and deliver aid safely. However, since then, there have been reports of air strikes impacting these corridors and other civilian buildings as well, including a maternity ward.
Interventions by the International Community
Dr. Corbetta discussed the possible options for the international community to intervene in the situation at hand. The reason for the hesitancy of western powers in deploying troops is the risk of escalation into nuclear warfare. The escalation may not necessarily be due to a strategic attack but even just an accident by the troops stationed in the area. This is known as the stability paradox – conventional forces cannot be used because it might lead to the use of nuclear weapons, but the potential disastrous consequences of nuclear weapons will encourage the use of conventional warfare instead. Dr. Corbetta believes Putin is attempting to make it seem as if Russia is ready to use nuclear weapons in order to prevent the stationing of conventional troops.
Sanctions are one of the other ways the west will be able to influence the situation in Ukraine. Although the sanctions imposed thus far have been strong, they take act slowly. It is important that the sanctions are increased progressively rather than levying all of the most severe sanctions at once in order to maintain leverage. Hence, the gradual nature of the impact of sanctions gives Putin time to cause further damage in Ukraine. China plays a key role in the success of sanctions as well. Dr. Corbetta says that Putin will count on China to become their key economic partner to reduce the burden of the sanctions. China at the time had not chosen sides, waiting to see the reaction from the West and the precedent that will be set for Taiwan. Another intervention is to have negotiations between Ukraine and Russia with the United Nations present to mediate. This may be particularly likely if the Russian advance is not very successful in the future, although Putin has not been keen on negotiations until now. Mediation can take a more direct form as well, with a neutral group placing troops in between the two countries to prevent conflict.
The Path to Peace
Dr. Verbeek was asked to speak about the prospects of peace and how to achieve it. He began by distinguishing the two components to peace. The first is negative peace, or the cessation of violence, while the second is positive peace, which goes beyond that to tackle social injustice that prevent the attainment of peace. Dr. Verbeek also cautioned against being quick to take sides and encouraged everyone to consider the human experience on both sides in addition to the actions of the leaders. He gave the example of a Russian soldier’s text message exchange with his parents, who wanted to send their son a package only to find out he was deployed in Ukraine. The soldier, distraught, told his parents that they were promised a warm welcome from the Ukrainians. Similarly, on the other side, it is important to ensure that refugees who are under assault are able to safely exit the country. Moreover, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Russia has ratified, should be invoked to reduce the suffering of children stuck in the middle of the war. Dr. Verbeek also believes it is time to reassess the necessity of NATO, as it was devised to combat the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. While some say it is needed for the situation in Iraq, it is worth considering if the way we have been doing things is the best way to continue moving forward.
With regards to sanctions, Dr. Verbeek mentioned that punishment is not very effective according to behavioral science. He believes more emphasis should be placed on negotiations, with the UN or western countries present to aid in coming to a compromise. There are currently talks underway in Belarus, and it is crucial that these continue. Thinking creatively and differently than in the past is necessary to find a solution to the crisis. As Dr. Verbeek put it, “it is very important for people to talk. As long as the guns are going, and people are not talking, peace will be far away.”
Other Key Points
When asked what Putin’s overarching goal may be, Dr. Corbetta mentioned that it would be difficult to say with certainty. His intention may be to restore Russia to its status in the past when the Soviet Union still existed. He also may not want Russia to take a back seat in the increasingly important US-China relationship. Colson added that Putin’s may be more financially motivated, aiming to take control of resources in the north and simultaneously undermining and dividing the Western powers. An example of such a resource is oil, which Putin may be able to leverage to exert influence over countries dependent on oil. In terms of the implications for international relations, Dr. Verbeek highlights the importance of not only addressing the current loss of lives but also paving the path for global cooperation in the future, a necessary prerequisite to addressing existential crises such as global warming.
When asked about the United Nations Security Council’s role in diffusing the conflict, Dr. Reuter answered by first stating that the UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s actions was a positive sign. However, the influence of the Security Council is limited by Russia’s veto power. The Security Council, having been established after WWII, may not accurately represent the distribution of power in today’s world. Dr. Verbeek believes that it is time to reconceptualize the way in which the UN operates. In addition to this, Dr. Liber brought up the point that the outcome of the Ukraine crisis will have implications for nuclear disarmament as well. After being pressured by the US and other world powers, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal towards the end of the twentieth century and sought a guarantee for its national sovereignty in return. In light of the invasion of Ukraine, other countries may hesitate to proceed with nuclear disarmament out of fear for their national security.
Is there reason for hope? The answer from the panelists is a resounding yes. Dr. Reuter believes that the dissenting voices in Russia that are creating pressure from within is indeed a case for hope. In addition to that, the possibility for a corridor to supply humanitarian aid is a positive development. There are numerous organizations that are providing humanitarian relief to Ukrainians, and a detailed list can be found in an IHR Blog post written by Dr.Reuter. Dr. Corbetta sees the cohesiveness of the western countries as a reason for hope, particularly if this can be translated to other global issues. Moreover, the invasion of Ukraine is not rolling out as smoothly as Putin would have liked, which may dampen further efforts. This conflict has also made people realize that environmental issues overlap with security concerns – becoming less dependent on fossil fuels will reduce the influence that Russia has over western countries in case such a conflict arises in the future. Dr. Verbeek also finds It reassuring that many UN members stand in agreement that Russia’s actions are wrong. He believes the UN can be reformed to more fairly distribute power and create safeguards to prevent such a crisis, and all its disastrous consequences, from occurring again. For more thoughts from Dr. Verbeek on the conclusion of this war and a more peaceful future, visit his IHR blog post.
Ukraine is home to around 76,000 foreign students according to the BBC, the majority traveling from India and multiple countries in Africa. This is the result of attractive educational policies and an anti-imperialist stance cultivated since the soviet era. Characteristics like affordable living (relative to other European countries), high quality education, and easy visa access have established Ukraine as a gateway to high paying jobs in Europe. In the lead up to Putin’s invasion, many students petitioned their universities to move online. Not only were their pleas dismissed, but they were told fines would incur if they missed class.
Now, as students evacuate, they are met with obstacles at the border, harassment, and little help from their home countries. After making the harrowing trip from their universities to the miles long traffic jam at the border, international students are told that Ukrainian citizens have priority. Some reports state that for every 200 to 300 Ukrainians, only 5 to 10 people of other nationalities are let through. Yetunde Asika, a Nigeria-based international human rights attorney, told CNN “…the story of a [Nigerian] medical student who had walked about 11 hours overnight to the border and was then told she couldn’t cross until the Ukrainians had been evacuated first.” Similarly, Jessica Orakpo, another Nigerian student, describes in a video how she was forced to walk nearly 20 hours within the span of two days in her desperate attempt to reach Poland. Other reports include segregated lines, Black women and children blocked from trains, and a group of black students forced to make yet another journey to the border of Hungary after giving up hope on admission to Poland.
In some cases, representatives from the student’s home nation wait in neighboring countries to assist, but many international refugees assert that the more immediate need is advocates on the Ukrainian side of the border. Nigerians interviewed by a CNN reporter blamed the Nigerian government more than the Ukrainians, saying “It [government support] would have been so helpful in Ukraine, we were looking for someone to speak on our behalf there.” Some African students took matters into their own hands, creating a network of support and funding for other Africans and people of color trying to flee the country. Korrine Sky, Tokunbo Koiki and Patricia Daley created an organization called Black Women for Black Lives. Daley told NBC that “There was a gap in the access Black people and brown people were getting. There was no one offering their homes to Black people, no one offering to pick up the Black individuals”. As a result, the three started a group chat to share information and facilitate mutual support among other Black and brown refugees. They also created an online document outlining paths of least resistance out of the country, including warnings to avoid checkpoints where racial harassment took place, accommodations friendly to people of color, and drivers available to assist with transport. The three women estimate they’ve helped around 500 people cross the border and that number increases everyday. They’re bravery points to an unfortunate reality that people of color, especially Black women, are left to fill the gap in support as a result of governmental failings.
International Rescue Committee: Refugee aid, including food, hygiene and medical supplies, and other emergency resources for refugees, and there isn’t a way to earmark funds specifically for Ukraine on its website
World Central Kitchen: delivers warm meals to refugees and displaced people at various Ukraine border crossings
Global Empowerment Mission: emergency aid and travel assistance, operates a temporary travel and aid center in Medyka, Poland on the Ukrainian border.
Vostock SOS: Ukrainian-based humanitarian aid organization partnering with a German-Swiss nonprofit Libereco to help evacuate Ukrainian refugees out of the country
Children and other vulnerable groups
Voices of Children: Ukrainian organization providing psychological and psychosocial support to children
Save the Children: provides education, food etc. to children since 2014, provides protective services for unaccompanied minors who flee the country or are internally displaced
UNICEF: health, nutrition, HIV prevention, education, safe drinking water, sanitation and protection for children and families. You can earmark your donation specifically to its efforts in Ukraine on the donation page.
CARE: supports women and children in the fight against global poverty, Ukraine Crisis Fund
MAKE SURE TO SPECIFY THAT YOUR GIFT GO TOWARD RELIEF IN UKRAINE. Otherwise, money might go towards general causes, including operational budget. DON’T donate to the first crowd funding initiative you see, always vet the organizations carefully.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have additional vetted resources that could be added to this list or if you notice a broken link. We will update it over the coming days and weeks. Thank you!
World peace through nonviolent means is neither absurd nor unattainable. All other methods have failed. Thus, we must begin anew. Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., December 1964
On May 14, 1940, the Nazis aerial-bombed Rotterdam to smithereens. Utrecht, the city where I was born, was next up for annihilation if the Dutch were to continue to resist the Nazi invasion. Following the destruction of Rotterdam, the Dutch army gave up its resistance, and for the next five years the Netherlands suffered under Nazi occupation. Many thousands of Dutch Jewish citizens were transported to Nazi extermination camps where they died horrible deaths. I was born after the war and learned about the horrors of the Nazi occupation from my parents and other close family members, bit by excruciating bit. Many of the most terrifying facts I had to learn through sources other than my family members as my family either spared me or just could not bring themselves to relive them by recounting them to me.
My family’s story is but one that is relevant to the current invasion of Ukraine. Today, February 26, 2022, while writing this piece, I noted this entry on Twitter by @Val_Voschchevska that tells another poignant story:
“My aunt: it is impossible to imagine that my mother, who lost her parents and became orphaned at 7, fought against Hitler with the Russian people, had to hide in a haystack from Nazi German soldiers, today, at the age of 85, is hiding in the basement in Kyviv from Russian soldiers.”
My family owe their survival and freedom to the blessed souls, American, British, and Canadian, who stormed the beaches of Normandy while their fellows were gunned down all around them by Nazi soldiers and who continued to fight their way on the Western Front through France and Belgium to liberate the Low Lands from Hitler’s henchmen. From the East, it was the Russian soldiers who died and fought to rid the world of Hitler’s fascist scourge. Now, early 2022, Russia and the United States of America, formerly aligned against fascism, and now each harboring contemporary fascist elements at home, are at war. Yes, let’s call a spade a spade; the country of which I became a citizen out of conviction, and not by birth, is, de facto, at war with Russia. Levying harsh sanctions on Russia is an act of economic and social violence in response to Russia’s deadly violence in Ukraine. Violence begot violence. No amount of semantic wrangling about the meaning of “war” is going to challenge this fact.
I will leave it to geopolitical analysts to disentangle fact from fiction regarding how it could have come to this, and what the predicted chances of escalation are in this violent confrontation between two nuclear powers that each have a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying most of life as we know it on this planet, effectively and thoroughly. And I will just clearly state that I call on all people of good will to stand with and speak up for all who are victimized by the violence instigated by Putin and his henchmen, and to join UNICEF’s call for a cessation of all violence, for the sake of all of humanity, and, in particular, for the sake of children, the world’s next generations. (Currently, Russia is arresting children for leaving flowers and messages of peace and hope outside of Ukraine’s embassy.) We need our children. The world needs them to grow up healthy and strong, to flourish, and, when they grow up, to clear the messes that we are leaving them. To do better than we did. Much better. To live in peace and to experience happiness. To respect and propagate Life.
Here I offer a peace perspective on the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine. It is a perspective based on the nascent behavioral science of peace that arose from traditional Peace and Conflict Studies, which, in turn, trace its origins to the end of World War II (1). It is a perspective rooted in the conviction that diplomacy, dialogue, negotiation and collaboration. In sum, nonviolence coupled with reason and perspective taking, is the only way to end or prevent war and other forms of collective physical violence (negative peace). It is also based on the conviction that the cessation of physical violence needs to be followed by an end to structural violence, including an end to social injustice, discrimination, prejudice, social or moral exclusion, and poverty linked to these conditions, so as to pave the way for a sustained positive peace of reciprocally beneficial and harmonious interactions between people and nature, and among human communities and nations (1).
The peace perspective that I offer here is a comparative perspective. It takes into account our evolutionary history as a species which cannot be seen apart from that of the rest of nature nor from our species-specific cultural histories (1). As an example of this, humans are susceptible to ideological indoctrination. Our early evolutionary history most likely predisposed us for this trait, and it can be culturally modified and enhanced. Ideology is the seed from which ‘us versus them’ thinking can take root and flourish. Such collective exclusionary thinking comes in handy when dictators and potentates want to mobilize citizens and soldiers to support and fight their wars (2).
As a species, we also have an ability to discipline our thought processes into critical evaluation and reflection, and this faculty can also be modified and enhanced by culture. It most likely is part of a more recent set of evolved faculties that provided us with the adaptive advantages that allowed us to be the only complex animal of which the population spread to the four corners of the world. Critical thinking requires the specific allocation of mental energy, but, with effort, we are quite capable of acquiring this cognitive ability, especially when we are privileged by an education that nurtures and scaffolds it (3). War thrives on indoctrination, while peace thrives on critical thought. However, beware, our species ability for critical thinking can also be a factor in war when criminal dictators put it to use for plotting and conducting non-provoked warfare and violent oppression. It is not difficult to identify criminal dictators in our past and present who used critical thinking for their evil ways, nor is it hard to think of people who used this faculty for peace and to benefit our world.
Last, and by no means, least, note that the peace perspective presented here derives from the increasing scientific evidence across species and cultures of behavioral processes that preserve harmony in social relations, for example through the active pursuit, establishment, or deepening of mutual or reciprocal interests, tolerance, helping and sharing, the active avoidance of aggressive confrontations, and the restoration of valuable relationships in the aftermath of aggressive conflict. The peace perspective recognizes the empirical distinction between aggression and violence, where violence, such as war, is escalated aggression that is out of inhibitory control. In nature, as well as in human affairs, aggression and peace are not antithetical but, rather, linked in recurring relationships. Aggression, while as seemingly widespread as peaceful behavior, is commonly kept in check through natural behavioral mechanisms such as ritualization, dominance hierarchies, and avoidance, and the damage to relationships is often repaired post-aggression through processes of consolation and reconciliation (1). However, importantly, and with few exceptions, uninhibited aggression, such as the violence of war, is unique to the human species (1,2). Violence is our uniquely human problem. We need to deal with it courageously and definitively.
How can we bring this peace perspective to bear on the invasion of Ukraine? To start, it brings into the light that diplomacy and negotiation have utterly failed to prevent this war. People in the opposing camps need to hold their leaders accountable for this abject failure. In our own country, the United States, people in government from both major political parties need to stop tittering about partisan issues and beating the drums of war and get on with the pursuit of a negotiated settlement that stops the killing and holds off the prospect of unfathomable global catastrophe. Our leaders need to use whatever nonviolent means it takes to reach this immediate goal as there is no alternative. The majority of the people in Russia, Ukraine, the US, the UK, the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world do not want war. This sentiment against war comes natural to people. It is part of our evolutionary inheritance from which cultures unfold and thrive. Political and national leaders represent the people – they need to act on what the people want and need. If that means, for example, that the President of the United States should fly on Airforce One to Moscow to conduct the negotiations there, then so be it, get on with it. It would be an excellent use of taxpayer’s money.
All parties need to freeze sanctions to set the stage for negotiations for peace. The sanctions of the US and its European allies are being described as a form of punishment for Vladimir Putin for ordering his troops to invade Ukraine, but an extensive literature in behavioral science shows unequivocally that punishment does not change behavior while incentives do. The most likely consequence of the US sanctions will be that Russia reciprocates in kind. Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, already proposed today (February 26) that the sanctions offer the Kremlin a pretext to completely review its ties with the West, and he suggested that Russia could opt out of the New START nuclear arms control treaty that limits the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. If Russia opts out of the agreement now, it will remove any checks on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and raise new threats to global security. Medvedev also raised the prospect of cutting diplomatic ties with Western countries, charging that “there is no particular need in maintaining diplomatic relations” and adding that “we may look at each other in binoculars and gunsights.”
A peace perspective further emphasizes that the world needs to focus its attention and resources on threats that require us to unite as opposed to divide, including the global existential threats of climate change and biodiversity loss that interact to challenge and exceed the planetary boundaries that make human life and much of the other forms of life that we share this planet with possible. These existential threats are not going away while we are preoccupied with war, but rather, they will be amplified by the ravages of war. We also need to finish what we started in fighting the spread of SARS-CoV2. With much of the world still unvaccinated it can be expected to be only a matter of time until new variants evolve with a potential to add significant more COVID-19 deaths to the current tally of close to 6 million deaths worldwide and close to 1 million in the US. We must urgently trade in our missiles for syringes.
We must care about peace now. We must pursue peace now. The reasons for it are clear. There are no alternatives and no excuses. Peace is attainable. Nature has equipped us with behavioral and cognitive means to pursue and sustain it. Our human cultures have nurtured and built on these natural means in a great variety of effective ways. We must respect and use these culturally varied means and advance peace – now.
I end, in all humility, as I started this essay, with a quote by a champion of peace whose eternal words we should all heed when we pursue peace, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” Strength to Love
(1) Verbeek, P., & Peters, B.A. (2018). Peace ethology. Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers.
(2) Verbeek, P. (2013). An ethological perspective on war and peace. In D.P. Fry (Ed.), War, peace, and human nature: The convergence of evolutionary and cultural views. New York: Oxford University Press.
After weeks and months of rising tension, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian troops moved over the border into Ukraine and the Russian air force started attacking cities and strategic locations like military installations and airports. These attacks have happened all across the country, not only in some of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine. These areas have experienced violence and fighting since 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders have condemned Russian actions, with the U.S. and EU announcing additional sanctions on Russia and security-related, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. NATO and the UN have held emergency sessions.
While this conflict seems far away for us here in Alabama, these developments are impactful, significant, and not to be underestimated for multiple reasons.
From a geopolitical point of view, the invasion highlights Russia’s expansionary tendencies and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to assert his power and restore regional dominance. Reinstating direct or indirect Russian control over Ukraine – a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union and before of the Russian Empire – has long been on Putin’s agenda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the following eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include countries that were formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence (e.g., Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and the Czech Republic) have humiliated Russia’s ambitions to be perceived as a major world power and undermined its influence in Eastern Europe. NATO announced in 2008 that it would consider membership of former Soviet Union states Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin considered a direct threat to Russia’s influence. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014 and a pro-European government was installed, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and started to support pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Tensions have grown since then, culminating in the Kremlin calling the Ukraine “not a state”, designating it an artificial country, and Putin’s speech justifying the invasion by accusing the Ukrainian government of a genocide against the country’s Russian-speaking population. He has also issued warnings to NATO and the U.S. that interfering would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.
This has implications not just for the Ukraine, but also for other former provinces of the Soviet Union like Georgia and Kasakhstan. Further, it might set a precedent for other countries like China, which has long contested the independence of Taiwan and the validity of Taiwan’s statehood, or Serbia, which has disputed Kosovo’s recognition as a state. If the international community and Western power show a weak response, China might feel emboldened to take military action to annex Taiwan.
The Human Rights Perspective
From a human rights point of view, there are two particular points of concern I want to highlight. First, there is the potential of grave human cost. In the first hours of the invasion, 40 Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and dozens more wounded. While Russia’s defense ministry promised not to attack cities or put civilians at risk, we all know that this is not how war works out or how Russia has fought its past wars (think Chechnya and Syria). Human rights violations, especially against women, children, and other vulnerable groups, tend to be widespread in armed conflict. A number of agencies have already called for a ceasefire to protect people in the Ukraine and to allow for humanitarian action, but so far we have yet to see any progress on this.
Second, there is the larger issue of authoritarian regimes expanding to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The “democratic recession” or the decline of democratic institutions and individual rights even in countries that were traditionally stable liberal democracies with high levels of freedom (including our own…) has been demonstrated by political scientists over the years (the term was coined by Larry Diamond, but see also here and here for other approaches). While scholars are debating the impact of democratic decline, Freedom House scores have consistently declined since 2005, showing democracy and human rights in crisis.
It seems that the foundations of international peace, democracy, and human rights are at risk. Russia’s open aggression shows that these foundations are crumbling or at least are perceived to be crumbling. Putin is not alone in his interpretation – other authoritarian leaders in China, Venezuela, and Iran, and even some heads of state of democratic countries like Poland and Hungary, have openly defeated traditional avenues of political interaction, trade, treaty making, and diplomacy in favor of hard power and force.
Where does this leave us? At this point, it is unclear how the war between Russia and the Ukraine will unfold, how long it will last, and what the exact human and economic costs will be. We also don’t know yet how the world will respond beyond strong condemnation and imposing sanctions. What we do know is that there is great volatility and potentially long-lasting consequences from this fall out. This is a dangerous situation that we need to observe carefully. It has major implications for geopolitics and will affect us here at home.
What can you do to support the people in the Ukraine?
Franz-Stephan Gady (International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS, in London–short analyses of the evolving military situation)
Steeven Seegel (Historian of Russia and Ukraine, UT Austin, actively bringing the community together)
Learn more about the conflict, context, and potential implications. We will post the recording of our Panel The Ukraine Crisis: Implications for Geopolitics and Human Rights that took place on Thursday, March 3, at 4:00 pm CST soon.
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