June 2008

Meet Our Featured Guest Columnist:
Dr. Peter van den Dungen

is an honorary visiting lecturer in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford. He has written many articles and book chapters on the history of peace movements, and general coordinator of the International Network of Peace Museums.

Q: What does "health and human rights" mean to you, in relation to peace and conflict?

A: Peace, since times immemorial, has been associated with plenty, and health, and happiness, and war with its opposite. In the world today, we do not have to look far to find ample confirmation of this truth. War suddenly puts an end to all certainties and makes for great insecurities all round; starting war is like opening Pandora's box. As the French philosopher Voltaire said so well, "War is a crime and a folly which incorporates all crimes and all follies". That is a lesson which the world should have learnt by now, but sadly has not, or not sufficiently so. In war, human rights get trampled upon, not only in the country on whose territory the war is mainly fought.

It is also corrosive of good governance in the country or countries which are waging war outside their borders. War invariably leads to regimentation, curtailment of traditional rights and freedoms, censorship, and impoverishment for the vast majority of the people. How much more is this true for the country which is the field of battle. War and violent conflict are the greatest destroyers of human life, and the things which sustain and nurture it (including schools and hospitals). Everything possible should be done to avoid violence; the 20th century has given the world plenty of inspiring and convincing examples showing that nonviolent conflict resolution is possible--and in an age of total warfare and the existence of weapons of mass destruction, has become a necessity. We must be determined to develop a culture of peace to take the place of a culture of violence which threatens the future of our common home.

Q: How/why did you decide to study the medical peace movement?

A: I studied the medical peace movement as part of the wider peace movement and believe that doctors and other health professionals--like some other key professions such as lawyers, and teachers--have a great contribution to make in campaigns for abolition of war, conflict prevention, and peaceful conflict resolution. Health, law, and education are key sectors of any society and those involved in them have a great responsibility for the physical and mental well-being of all its members.

The medical profession is the first to experience, and to have to deal with, the physical as well as psychological and emotional damage which inevitably results from war and other violent conflict (including abuse of women and children in the home). The effects, especially of large-scale violence such as war, typically amount to great numbers of often innocent people losing their lives or being seriously and permanently injured. Moreover, this is accompanied by economic disruption and people losing their livelihood (not least in the case of refugees!) resulting in a drastic deterioration in their standard of living, with hunger, poverty, and disease spreading rapidly.

The aftermath of war, even for the so-called victor, is always a catalogue of misery and sorrow on an enormous scale which explains the view, already heard in ancient times, that the most unjust peace is preferable to the most just war. But we do not passively have to acquiesce in an unjust peace, where people are denied their basic rights. In the last century, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., have convincingly demonstrated the power of nonviolent protest.

At the same time a growing number of health professionals, believing that prevention is better than cure, have joined the peace movement, broadly defined. The stronger their voice, the more effective their involvement will be.

Q: What can we learn from the history you have explored?

A: One of the first things to note is the fact that the medical peace movement has a rich and fascinating history which, however, has largely been forgotten until fairly recently. The efforts of the International Red Cross, established in the 1860s, are of course widely known and appreciated. Its founder, the Swiss philanthropist Henry Dunant, saw the organization--created initially to help wounded soldiers on the field of battle, and provide protection for army medical services--as a first step on the long road to the abolition of war itself. This is today reflected in the way in which development and conflict prevention have become an essential part of the work of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

Separate from these developments, already before the First World War, an "International Medical Association Against War" was established in 1905 in Paris by Joseph Riviere who urged his fellow doctors to campaign for the substitution of war by peaceful arbitration. At the start of that War, a prominent German physician, G.F. Nicolai, bravely issued an anti-war manifesto which was signed by Einstein and two other colleagues at the University of Berlin protesting the war as a barbaric crime and costly mistake. So it proved to be, for his country, and the world.

What is clear is that it takes great courage to go against the grain, to stand "above the battle" in the interest of a higher humanity. True patriotism does not identify the interest or honour of one's country with hostility towards or victory over another country. In much of Europe and also the wider world, the Chauvinism and Jingoism which led Europe into two world wars has given way to a more rational and healthy internationalist outlook (and political structures expressing it). However, irrational fears and passions can easily be aroused, and we are all too often being made aware of how fragile many of our societies are.

Still, despite the fact that the world in many ways has become a global village, virtually everywhere scarce resources are invested in weapons of war, rather than preparations for peace. This has a twofold consequence.

Firstly, it deprives the countless poor, illiterate, and ill of the essentials of what makes for a human existence. This misallocation of resources applies not only to relations between the rich North and poor South, but also to relations within the developed North where the gap between rich and poor has widened in many cases. Secondly, it perpetuates a vicious circle. The old saying, "If you want peace, prepare for war" may not always be wrong, but more often than not preparation for war has, not surprisingly, resulted in war. "If you want peace, prepare for peace" is altogether a much more sound, and obvious, counsel. However, resources invested in war avoidance and conflict prevention, and peace education, are infinistesimal when compared with the huge expenditures for "defence". It is no wonder that there is a growing demand in several countries for the establishment, at the highest level of government, of Departments of Peace--in order to start to address what is a highly unsatisfactory situation.

Q: What are some of the challenges in this type of work?

A: The peace movement, and this applies to its medical component as much as to the movement as a whole, has traditionally been a minority social movement. (This has been a characteristic of most social change movements--whether at issue is the position in society of women, or of black people, or of those who were colonized, or those who have pleaded for animal rights, or for greater respect of the natural environment). What is more, it has also been marginalized in at least two ways. Firstly, it has typically been ridiculed as utopian, or attacked as being unpatriotic, or both. Secondly, it has been ignored and neglected in the way in which we learn about war and peace whether this be in school, or via the media. Indeed, "peace people" and their movements have often been suppressed if not a worse fate has befallen them. But more often than not time has proven them right, and their societies have caught up with them, even though after much time, and much hard learning. It therefore takes courage, self-belief, and determination to work for peace in the face of apathy, cynicism, disbelief, hostility. If this is already the case in democratic societies, how much more demanding it is to work for peace in societies where the freedoms and rights that we take for granted are lacking.

History shows that progress has often been made precisely in this way, and that it is the prophetic minorities who have suffered and who have been persecuted whose enlightened views or practices eventually prevail. Barely a century ago, war was widely regarded as an inevitable, necessary, and even positive social institution. This is no longer the case, even though we have not yet learned how to live together without war--despite the fact that the weapons of mass destruction which are widely deployed today carry a great risk of global destruction. At the same time, we fail to take seriously the real threats facing humanity because of climate change.

Activists and social reformers always had to struggle, with a minimum of resources, against a disbelieving world, in a highly unequal struggle where only their burning convictions, passion, and hope kept them going. It was precisely to give such individuals a helping hand that Alfred Nobel instituted the annual peace prize named after him. He realized, and knew from first-hand experience of the peace movement of his day (he died in 1896), that its members were not having an easy time. In a hard and cynical world, they were idealists who believed in a world where war could be--should be, and would be!--replaced by an international system in which disputes between countries would be settled by peaceful arbitration, and where growing international cooperation and interdependence was making the world, as we increasingly recognize today, one common home for all of humanity.

Thanks to his generosity, those who are involved in peace work around the world have before them inspiring examples of what is possible--given hard work, creativity, and conviction. Not everyone can be a Nobel peace laureate, but we can all learn and take heart from them, and realize that each one of us has a contribution to make, no matter how small or insignificant it may appear to us. A dear friend of mine, professor Irwin Abrams of Antioch University, Ohio, has devoted the last 25 years of his long life to putting before us the inspiring lives of the Nobel peace laureates; what better preparation for budding peace-workers than to become familiar with their ideas and achievements (

Q: How can young people concerned about weapons proliferation and war make a difference?

A: It is indeed important that young people take an interest in these issues since their future will be affected by them, and young people should realize that they are not helpless.

There are many ways in which they can become active--amongst their fellow classmates and friends, in their families and cities, and beyond. Talking about these issues, discussing them in youth and church groups, starting a local peace society, inviting a well-known expert to your school or local community, writing to the newspaper, showing documentaries, making an exhibition, visiting a peace museum (Dayton, Ohio, has a wonderfully creative and inspiring peace museum which hopefully will lead to more such institutions in the country, ( and another one is under active consideration in New York City, (see These are some of the many ways in which one can become actively involved in raising awareness--which is the first step in encouraging others to do something--and then becoming actively involved. You may find that in the process you are also helping to inform and educate your family, which is no bad thing.

Young people should insist that they are being taught about weapons proliferation and war, and the means to overcome both. There is a wealth of excellent resource materials of the most varied kinds available, not least on the internet.

Students and other young people should be prepared to face up to some of the potential difficulties mentioned above--including apathy, cynicism, and allegations of being unpatriotic or showing weakness. It will help to be with others, and together stand firm and work patiently and with conviction for one's deeply held beliefs--including the urgent necessity for the abolition of weapons of mass destruction as well as the need to resolve conflicts, whether at home or internationally, peacefully.

There are organizations specifically for young people to address these issues, such as Student Pugwash USA (SPUSA, In Europe, young people from more than a dozen countries connect with each other through the European Youth Network BANg (Ban All Nukes generation) which is working for a nuclear-weapons-free Europe and world ( In Japan, a major newspaper publishes regularly a "Peace Newspaper" supplement called Peace Seeds for, and written by, teenagers. This is also being published in English translation (

Another wonderful organization, based in the USA, which shows young people what it means to be a peacemaker, and which enables them, through their schools, to become involved in workshops led by Nobel peace prize laureates, is PeaceJam (

The more young people become involved in the campaign for a peaceful and just world, from which nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction will have been banished, the sooner this will come about. On the long way to this lofty (but not unrealistic but vitally necessary) goal they will experience, next to frustrations, also the joy of success and deep satisfaction which derives from being associated with the wholehearted pursuit of a great idea.