International Day of Peace: Peace, Enemy Images, and Human Rights

Gert Sommer, Professor Emeritus, University of Marburg, Germany


What kind of world do we live in, that we need a Day of Peace? What is wrong with mankind, that armament (still) plays such a dominant role? Psychology may help to answer these questions.

According to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) nearly 2 Billion US-$ (Amer. 2 trillion) have been spent for armament in 2020. The greatest spenders were the USA (39%), China (13), India (3.7), Russia (3.1), Germany and France (2.7 each).
Wars do not only produce inconceivable amounts of mental and physical suffering, but also destruction and the nucleus for the following violence.

According to the Costs of War project from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, Providence, USA, “the United States has appropriated and is obligated to spend $6.4 trillion on counterterrorism efforts through the end of 2020. For comparison: The regular annual UN budget is about US$3 billion, and the federal budget of Germany in 2019 was about €350 billion. A separate report estimates “that between 770,000 and 801,000 people have died in post-9/11 wars. The total estimate includes civilian deaths — some 312,000 or more — as well as deaths of opposition fighters (more than 250,000), members of the U.S. military (7,014) and journalists and humanitarian workers (1,343).” Also, several times as many died due to the reverberating effects of war. For comparison: the famous German city Heidelberg has about 150,000 inhabitants. More than 30.000 suicides among U.S. service members and veterans have been registered and in the Iraqui War about one third of the military developed major psychological problems like depression, addiction or Posttraumatic Stress Disorders.

Former US-President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech of the military-industrial complex: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

The development of ever more modern weapons includes the illusion that “my” group will be invulnerable. Alas, the other side is subject to the same illusion. The consequence is a spiral of armament, which has happened in recent years and which was one of the major characteristics of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nowadays, NATO and its allies (e.g. Israel) spend nearly two thirds of the world’s amount for armament; nevertheless, NATO countries like Estonia or Poland feel endangered by Russia – can the solution really be even greater NATO armament? And at what time will it be “enough”?

The costs of armament and wars are tremendous. Imagine what could be done with that money, material, human knowledge and intelligence instead, to improve human life worldwide: The extinction of poverty and hunger, the reduction of social inequality, environmental damage, epidemics, and so on.  Belief in armament and wars is based on the belief in power and force: “My group” (nation, religion…) can and will apply violence to enforce its aims. Also, persistent armament requires an enemy. To justify armament an evil and dangerous “Other,” who is willing to attack and destroy “us,” is needed. The development and strengthening of enemy images is an important psychological method for armament and engaging in a war. The Other is characterised as being evil, negative events are attributed to them, a double standard is applied to comparable events, and finally the Other is dehumanised. With this dehumanisation of the Other, often enough oneself loses his or her own humanity. Also, since the other party is bad, I belong to the good one – this increases the collective and the individual self-esteem.

The culture of war and violence, nowadays predominant in many nations and many brains, has to be transformed into a culture of peace and non-violence.

The inhumanity of World War II guided countries and extraordinary personalities to develop two most important documents, the UN Charter in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. These are the basis for a culture of peace. As defined by the United Nations , “a culture of peace is a set of values, attitudes, traditions and modes of behaviour and ways of life based on: Respect for life, ending of violence and promotion and practice of non-violence through education, dialogue and cooperation.” The major contents of this culture of peace are peaceful settlement of conflicts, education for peace, respect for the sovereignty of States, promotion of all human rights, promotion of sustainable economic and social development, equal rights for women and men and democratic participation.

The transition from a culture of war to a Culture of Peace requires strong institutions like the United Nations, strong leaders in organisations and states, and a well-informed public. All these and many more, like the media and the churches, must be convinced of the Culture-of-Peace-Project. Even if they will be convinced, it will be a long-term process, which however will be worthwhile for mankind.  The Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung makes the distinction between negative peace, which is mainly the absence of war, and positive peace. The latter is defined as the absence of structural violence, or in positive terms, the realisation of human rights.

Human rights are defined to belong to every human being, without distinction of any kind, such as the discrimination because of sex, colour, religion, political opinion or social origin. The underlying document is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which consists of 30 articles with more than one hundred single rights. Human rights are characterised by the Universal Declaration “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. Included are civic and political rights, such as the right to life and security, prohibition of torture and slavery.  Also included are social, economic and cultural rights, such as the right to work and the protection for unemployment, right to equal pay for equal work and to a limitation of working hours and periodic holidays, the right to form and to join trade unions, the right to a salary ensuring a dignified life and the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing and medical care. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993) revitalises and broadens the International Bill of Human Rights, which comprises the Universal Declaration and the two Human Rights Covenants (1966).

The basic principles of human rights are universality – they apply to all human beings –, and indivisibility – all human rights are important and interrelated. The Universal Declaration is a standard of achievement, an ideal and very comprehensive, which results in every state violating human rights, even though to a different extent. Well known are the annual reports of Amnesty International that state nations and their human rights violations such as restriction of freedom of opinion, having political prisoners, applying torture or mutilating women. Western States, too, violate human rights, although their self-image and their public announcements often suggest something very different. Western States are involved, if not responsible, for significant human rights violations like discrimination, slavery-like working conditions in agriculture or abattoirs, killing by drones, the intent of regime change, restriction of the right to asylum and the economic exploitation of the Third World, which contributes to poverty, hunger and flight.

Human Rights are not only violated, but also continuously misused. Three main misuses can be distinguished. (1) Selective presentation: When human rights are reduced to some civic and political rights, whereas economic and social rights are neglected, the principle of indivisibility is violated. (2) Selective critique: When human rights violations are depicted mainly in foreign countries, and not within the home country or its allies, then the principle of universality is violated as human rights apply to every human being. (3) The most important misuse, however, is the justification of warswith presumed human rights violations. History shows that wars are the major violators of human rights.

In my opinion, the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belong to the most important written documents of mankind: The international community agreed that conflicts must be solved non-violently and that human rights belong to every human being.

Psychology can contribute to these goals in many ways. I will just give a few examples. Explaining basic human needs; working out concepts that contribute to violence, e.g. supremacy, enemy images or victimhood; developing and applying methods for non-violent conflict resolution, such as mediation, problem-solving workshops or graduated and reciprocated tension reduction; increasing the knowledge of these UN documents through research and education; promoting knowledge, attitudes and behaviour regarding human rights; identifying the misuses of human rights and making them public; analysing motives for the violation of human rights and promoting values, attitudes and behaviours to support human rights; examining the effects of human rights education on commitment; giving professional support for victims of human rights violations. Altogether, psychologists have a great responsibility to raise awareness of the importance of human rights as well as the importance of peace.

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