Nonviolence, Peace, UN Report

Is it sufficient simply to acknowledge the nonviolent heroes among us?

by Mary T. Yelenick
Pax Christi International NGO Delegation to the United Nations

It is not difficult to find heroes at the UN: individuals and communities who, in the face of enormous challenges, maintain a commitment to peace and nonviolence. Najlaa Sheekh, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, exemplifies the power of nonviolence in the midst of the ravages and soul-grinding consequences of war.

I first met Najlaa late last Fall, at a forum at the UN sponsored in part by Peace Direct, celebrating women from around the world who were making a difference in their communities. The following day, Najlaa joined our UN-NGO Syria Working Group for a discussion of her life and work.

Najlaa and her family once lived a comfortable life in cosmopolitan Damascus. With the breakout of war in Syria, that life ended. A brutal barrel-bomb attack killed members of her family and demolished parts of her neighborhood. In the aftermath, her younger son could not be found. Najlaa and others searched frantically through the rubble for him, eventually finding him – alive, but seriously injured. The only way for Najlaa and her family to secure the medical care her son needed was to flee to Turkey. Her son did survive. But Najlaa and her family remain refugees.

Upon arrival in Turkey, Najlaa was haunted by the number of older Syrian women in the streets desperately begging for food for themselves and their families. She was also deeply saddened to learn that the only real way for young Syrian refugee women – many of whom had been raised in deeply conservative families – to survive was to join the local houses of prostitution.

Herself personally experiencing the deep loss and trauma of displacement, Najlaa recognized that the nightmarish existence now confronting Syrian refugee women could not be borne alone. So she approached and introduced herself to other women, inviting them to join with her, in her small rented home, to discuss what they could do collectively to adjust to their new realities.

These small gatherings gave birth, in 2013, to a new organization, Kareemat (meaning “women of dignity,” in Arabic). Over the years, Kareemat has functioned as a place of gathering and stability for Syrian women refugees and their families. Kareemat offers counseling and vocational training for women, teaching them sewing and other life skills. To Najlaa’s immense pride, young Syrian refugee women are no longer forced to work as prostitutes; instead, they have acquired , through Kareemat, work skills and community connections that enable them to live a less degrading and dangerous life. In addition to helping Syrian women lead better lives, these new avenues of employment for women afforded by Kareemat also help combat negative stereotypes of Syrian women in Turkey.

Kareemat also engages in a variety of peacebuilding activities: hosting workshops on the dangers of war; facilitating discussion groups regarding the impact of violence against women; and presenting film screenings to raise awareness of the important role of women leaders in effective conflict resolution.

Kareemat also engages in activities designed to dissuade young Syrian refugees, whose passions are sometimes stoked by their vengeful elders, from returning to Syria to pursue armed retaliation. When Najlaa’s own eldest son vowed repeatedly to return to Syria to seek vengeance, she responded that if he insisted on returning to Syria, she would also return, with him, to remain always by his side. Her threat of accompanying him – which her son recognized would place his mother in mortal danger – convinced him to relinquish his dream of retaliation and violence. Instead, both he and his brother have now renounced any plans of revenge, and are directing their energies instead to acquiring an education.

This accomplishment, Najlaa said – her turning her two sons away from perpetuating the cycle of violence – is her proudest personal achievement.

Najlaa’s vision, courage, and fortitude, alone, would have made her remarkable. But what will stay with me most is the message she had for those of us who might be inclined to simply romanticize her story, without connecting it to our ourselves.

Najlaa explained that she recognized that traveling to the United Nations was a once-in-a-lifetime gift and opportunity for her, and for the women of Kareemat. When she arrived in the United States, she realized that her first obstacle was the fact that few of the people she would meet spoke Arabic, and that she would thus not be able to convey, in her own tongue, the urgency, or nuances, of her personal story. Instead, she would have to rely on the sensitivity and goodwill of an interpreter. (Luckily, her interpreter, Lebanese journalist Sawssan Abou-Zahr, who had previously published an excellent article about Najlaa,, was both an effective and empathetic translator.)

Thus, the first words spoken to us by Najlaa – this woman who has accomplished so much, in unfathomable circumstances – were an apology to us for not being able to speak English. At that moment, I felt the tyranny and imbalance of a world in which people given vast power over the lives of others – the global decision makers – do not speak even the same language as those who suffer the consequences of their decisions.

Najlaa then described to us, repeatedly, her burning desire and goal of returning to her homeland, to help rebuild her country. It is the Syrians themselves, she said, who must solve Syrian problems. It is not for other countries to do. The people being sent to resolve the Syrian crisis should not be special envoys from international organizations, jetting in and out. It should be Syrian women. For it is the women of Syria who best know Syria. It is the women of Syria who best know Syrian families. It is the women of Syria who best know Syrian needs.

Najlaa’s story was both heart-wrenching and memorable. Yet I sensed her holding back.

Finally, after about an hour of questions-and-answers, there seemed to be a shift in our group dynamics. Najlaa sat back, paused, looked at us closely, and asked if she could be frank with us. She seemed finally to trust her audience – despite the imbalance of power and access – to hear what she was really trying to say. We (with some discomfort), urged her to speak honestly.

I want you to listen to me, Najlaa said to us. I want you to remember my words. I want you to remember my story. I want you to think about the way that you, being privileged, are connected with this story. I want you to think not simply about what we Syrian refugees are experiencing, but about what you can and must do to change that story.

She then explained that, in preparation for this trip to the UN, she had made cards (no easy task, living as a refugee) to share with the people she met, listing the contact information for her and for Kareemat. Najlaa had made a significant effort the day before, she said, personally to hand a card to everyone in the room.

And yet at the end of the meeting, most of her cards remained on the table. People had accepted her card, but had not cared enough to take it with them.

Mary Yelenick is Pax Christi International’s Main Representative at the United Nations (UN) in New York. She is member of the UN-NGO Syria Working Group as well as the UN – NGO Security Council Working Group.


Syria: The forgotten war?

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor

Peace in Syria remains far away. The concern and commitment of the international political community and by international civil society, including NGO’s and the churches, is very low. The war in Syria became a far from my bed show! The civil war is no longer the first item in the news. Does it even have a news value? I hope that the (forgotten) war remains a news item. Especially because of the many innocent victims of this conflict.

International institutions have not been able to prevent the conflict and/or to end it. United Nations’ diplomacy is not or insufficiently visible in Syria. That leaves the door open for others like Russia, Iran and partly Turkey to impose its strategy. Syria is on its way to becoming a Russian – Iranian protectorate.

UN-led talks appear stalled

We can only hope that, after more than 7 years of civil war, constructive (silent) diplomacy or “diplomacy behind the scenes” is in progress. It is said that different sets of peace talks continue but have made only modest progress. UN-led talks appear stalled, while the Syrian opposition is reluctant to join Russian-sponsored talks. Russia and Iran are backing President Bashar al-Assad politically and military. Assad wants to remain in power. Will this civil war be concluded by military victories? The answer will be partly true but in the end, one needs a political settlement. Many believe that it is Russia that is best placed to broker a deal. Russia has made good use of the political vacuum that the West has left behind.

Largest humanitarian disaster of this century

The war context is the worst of all worlds: Assad remains in power; Iran and Russia are emboldened; extremism has flourished; half a million Syrians have been killed; many killed by chemical weapons; thousands have been killed in the prisons; a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions have been created; twelve million Syrians have fled their homes (half externally); destructions of large portions of major towns and cities; hospitals, schools and water supplies have been bombarded; and there is no end in sight!

The defeat of the Islamic State’s Caliphate in Syria and Iraq will not eradicate jihadism nor ISIS loyalists. However, the fight against ISIS is far from over. The current situation is that ISIS still exists despite large losses. They are still active in the east of Syria. That is at the border with Iraq. Many will go underground to fight another day in the same region or elsewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan. ISIS still has a small but significant following abroad.

The military defeat of ISIS would not have been possible without the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD and the Arab groups that merged around it. The Kurdish question should be part of a final political settlement in the region. Turkey has historically had a difficult time with the Kurdish population not only in their own country but also in the wider region. Turkish leadership is willing to discuss possible autonomy but is against a separate Kurdish state.

Where is the political soft power of the EU?

The European Union is not speaking with one voice and remains divided. Some of the EU member states are under Russian or USA influence. The profile of EU foreign relations and policies is very low. Does the EU really have nothing to say?

The basic question is: will the EU in the future ever be able to play an important and significant role in international relations and especially in conflict mediation and conflict resolution?

Maybe the only dimension serious discussed within the EU is the humanitarian aid and the possible reconstruction. Since 2011, Syria has received over 9.5 billion euros in aid from the EU and its member states. Most of this is humanitarian aid. Emergency humanitarian relief is also a priority.

The EU on at least two instruments has made more money available: (1) on Contributing to Stability and Peace and (2) for Democracy and Human Rights. Member States do also focus on local-level projects supporting civil society at least in those parts of the country where that is possible as well as on tackling the root causes of displacement and reintegrating refugees. Local peace building is vital because high-level peace deals between elites tend not to guarantee deep-rooted stability.

Ceasefire and political settlement

Supporting democracy, human rights and stability at the local level is obviously very good, but first work has to be done on reaching a ceasefire by all parties involved and then work has to be done on negotiations that can, systematically, lead to an imposed peace for everyone.

At the same time, a political settlement should also include the right of return for the many refugees and displaced. There is no return to pre-war Syria. The psychological gap on return will be deep. Refugees can hardly imagine returning to, and building a future in, their areas of origin, which have so changed that these people feel they would be unable to adapt.

Only a political settlement can create the conditions for refugees to return, by bridging the gap between the old Syria and the post-war Syria to which refugees could imagine returning. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands Syrians have been integrated in Western nations or are living (in refugee camps) in neighbouring countries.

Continue to pay attention to possible escalation

Syria’s war may go on for some time. Extending the conflict to other countries is fortunately not happening. Nevertheless, any fighting might escalate rapidly. Especially Israel is in a permanent alert situation so as not to let the conflict escalate. Israel has grown fearful that Syria is becoming an Iranian base. Israel wants to prevent its rivals from consolidating a permanent military presence anywhere in Syria. The protection of Israeli citizens is their main priority.

The major open question is: what will be the post conflict political structure of Syria and how will a new Syria be integrated in the broader picture of the Middle East?

(Photo from×9&w=1200&$p$f$w=03a7614)

How do we move from powerlessness and complexity to a diplomatic solution and lasting peace in Syria?

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor

In the Arab world, Damascus, Syria’s capital, has always been one of the great centres of power, culture and influence, together with Cairo and Baghdad. Since 2011, the Syrian Arab Republic has been embroiled in a sectarian and geopolitical conflict of sustained and terrifying violence. The bitter civil unrest and war in Syria is approaching its seventh year in March 2018.

The years before the violence

From 2006 to 2011, there was an historic drought in Syria and the surrounding countries, the worst in nine hundred years. In the northeast of the country, which was heavily agricultural, more than 60 percent less rain fell, more than four-fifths of livestock was starving or had to be slaughtered, the share of agriculture in the gross domestic product in Syria was minus almost 10 percent, and 800,000 people lost their livelihood. Many of those people went to cities, mainly Damascus and Aleppo, where they lived in the slums where, in 2011, the riots began that finally led to civil war.

Certainly, the years of persistent hunger, in which hundreds of thousands of Syrian rural residents had to live on bread and sweetened tea, led to a wave of displacement to big cities, with no jobs for these recent migrants. This wave of migration and the growing desperation of the suffering population caused a powder keg where a small spark was enough to destroy an entire country.

In Syria, the strong population growth (from 6.5 million inhabitants in 1970 to almost 23 million in 2013) had a substantial role in the eruption of violence. The interweaving of population growth, climate change and organised violence will increasingly occur, resulting in problems in the future.

Undoubtedly, the events in 2011, including Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries, led to growth for change and democratisation within the young Syrian population.

When it rains in Cairo, it will drip in Damascus!

This uprising has not been about a person or a party. It was a collective effort to own politics and to seek ownership of Syria. People strove for things like the right to talk about public issues and gather in public spaces. Syrians were confronted with brute force from the very start. President Assad wanted to crush the will of his own people. This led to the militarisation of the uprising. It triggered uncontrollable dynamics of radicalisation, Islamisation, and sectarianisation, which led to a breakdown in the national framework of the struggle and the influx of wandering global jihadis, as well as inviting regional and international interventions.

Unseen number of people were affected by the violence

In a civil war spawned by demonstrations against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the southern city of Dera’a in March 2011, by December 2017 more than 13.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, with 6.3 million people displaced internally (some have had to move several times), and an additional 5.4 million fleeing as refugees to sanctuary in Lebanon (1 million – where Syrians now make up a fifth of the population), Jordan, Turkey (3 million) and even turbulent Iraq. By the spring of 2016, Syria’s death toll, according to the United Nations, had reached at least 400,000 and ancient cities such as Aleppo and Homs had been devastated.

A mix of armed fighters!

Initially, the fight against the regime was spearheaded by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), formed by defecting officers from the Syrian armed forces. Its political equivalent was the Syrian National Council (SNC), formed in the summer of 2011 in Istanbul and beset from the start by ideological and ethnic frictions in a membership that included not just Sunnis and Christians but also Kurds, Muslim Brothers and even representatives of the tiny Assyrian minority. In November 2012, the SNC joined with other opposition groups to form the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – also known as the Syrian National Coalition — and was recognised in December 2012 by the USA, France and the Gulf Arab states as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The effectiveness of this coalition has been questioned right from the beginning.

Meanwhile some Islamic groups, notably Jabbat al-Nusra, refused to join the coalition. The FSA began to be supplanted by Islamist groups supported by some Gulf states. Many jihadist groups remained independent of the Islamic Front. There are said to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups struggling for advantage. In recent years, rebel groups have been fighting not just the Syrian regime but each other as well.

The Syrian armed forces have been crushing the opposition with modern Russian armaments. The Syrian regime employed extreme brutality, from chemical attacks on civilians to the use of barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters without discrimination on civilian populations supposedly hostile to the government.

Large gap filled by ISIS/Daesh

It is in this mess of division and political disagreement that the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) was able to fill a large gap in 2014 by issuing a caliphate in Syria (and part in Iraq), a state defined by belief, not ethnicity or nationality. ISIS rejected the existing state borders as originated by the Sykes-Picot (secret) agreement between Britain and France in 1916. ISIS not only allows but advocates brutal violent conflict to achieve legal and political aims.

Since 2014, ISIS has committed mass atrocities and war crimes on a scale that is hard to fathom, sanctioning violence against Shiite Muslims, indigenous Christian populations, Yazidis, Druze, and others. It has enslaved some members of these ethnic minorities – in many cases under the most brutal possible conditions. It also extended violence to Sunni Muslims who do not subscribe to the particular brand of Islam preached by their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or those whose governments cooperate with the USA and Europe. Several thousands of ISIS fighters came from abroad. For instance, about 1,500 jihadists with Russian passports were said to be fighting in Syria (and Iraq) in early 2015. The USA took the lead in an international coalition launching air strikes on ISIS first in Iraq and later on in Syria.

Who holds the keys for diplomacy?

The fighting is still not over. Today, the Syria regime has the upper hand in the conflict largely due to Iranian and Russian backing. Diplomatic efforts at the UN and in several rounds of talks in Geneva and Astana, and lately in Sochi, have failed to find a political solution to the continuing horrors in Syria. Some warring parties refused to talk to other armed and political groups in negotiations, excluding the others. Regional and international powers disagree on a settlement.

The rebels and most outside powers insisted that President Assad would have to go into exile. He always refused and has been supported heavily by Russia, Iran and other countries. Clearly, the conflict has been not only regionalised but also internationalised. There cannot be a military solution to Syria’s agony – and the agony can continue for many years to come.

An extra complication is the Kurdish question. Kurdish armed groups have been involved in the fighting both in Syria as in Iraq. Ankara will never permit the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state along its southern border – autonomous, de facto, or de jure. In combating ISIS, the Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units) held out the implicit hope that finally Kurds would be “rewarded” with some form of “state” recognition. Turkey is fighting a “war after the war” in Syria against elements of the Syrian Kurds, groups that have also been partners in defeating ISIS. Russia is committing Turkey in this offensive against the Kurds in that part of Syria.

It will clearly take many more years for the Syrian people to recover from its horrors. This civil war has also diminished the USA’s influence and increased that of Russia, Iran and Turkey, not least with their espousal of the Astana peace talks.

Russia has the keys

Ultimately at issue is Syria’s future as a unified nation. Given the years of bloodshed and brutality, some kind of federal system may be the only way to keep Syria’s religious and ethnic mosaic from shattering beyond repair. Moscow keeps a strong key in its hand and wants to see a solid centralised government in Damascus. Russia intervened in September 2015 in Syria in support of the regime of al-Assad. In the following years Russian air strikes against ISIS and other rebel groups not only changed the tenor of the Syrian civil war but also gave Russia a leading role in peace talks. Russia has invested a great deal in Syria and now strives to maintain its long-term presence in the Levant. It is interested in having a stable and reliable regime in Damascus capable of serving its objectives. However, Russia has no interest in funding, and not the capacity to fund Syria’s post- conflict reconstruction.

Towards cease fire, negotiations, solutions and reconstruction?

The various peace initiatives aimed at helping Syria should continue in a constructive climate of growing trust between parties, so that the lengthy conflict that has caused such immense suffering can finally end. The time for a cease fire, negotiations, solutions and rebuilding has now come. This whole process should be in the hands of the United Nations.

Yet even more than rebuilding material structures, it is necessary to rebuild hearts, to re-establish the fabric of mutual trust, which is the essential prerequisite for the flourishing of any society. There is a need, then, to promote the legal, political and security conditions that restore a social life where every citizen, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation, can take part in the development of the country. In this regard, it is vital that religious minorities be protected, including Christians, who for centuries have made an active contribution to Syria’s history.

(Photo by Muzzafar Salman, Reuters, at
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Adel Albaghdadi – (Re)claiming the labels

The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about Adel Albaghdadi, a Syrian refugee living in The Netherlands. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 


Refugees might have disappeared from our screens and news feed, but they are present and active in our society. This is another story of integration, special because it contradicts the myths and the labels put on most refugees that have crossed the Balkans to find a safe place in Europe. After talking with Razan about her journey and her work with the “We” organization, we wanted to know more about the activities and scope of this “young social initiative aiming to develop projects tackling difference in society, fight xenophobia, build bonds and promote social inclusion”. So we sat down, aided by modern technology, with Adel Albaghdadi, founder of the organization.

Adel told us that the organization was born of a desire to shift the burden of refugees, from being (usually) seen as passive recipients of aid and solidarity, to being themselves igniters of change in their hosting societies. As he recalls, “when I came to the Netherlands, I noticed that most initiatives were from the host society to the refugees, but not all of them were targeting and reaching their goals”. This story of self-empowerment and inversion of expectations, started with a video made by Adel showing his life in the refugee center and continued with short presentations in schools, universities and companies. Now the organization is a relevant part of the city.

One of its most striking features is the work with elderly people, a neglected segment of our societies. This initiative, aptly named “We are the elderly”, is based on the need to convey other cultures through music and entertainment to a population that is mostly isolated in elderly houses and apart from their families. Elderly are also, in Adel’s words, the segment of the Dutch population that is generally more “scared and afraid of the immigrants and of the refugees”. This is why, not to mention Adel’s passion and affection for the senior, these cultural soirées were born. The plan is to expand them and to present different cultures, other than his own Syrian culture.

The reaction of Dutch citizens, young and older, to the activities proposed by Adel and Razan is generally positive, despite the negative images of “new comers” portrayed in the media and public discourse, sadly prevalent and enduring. The most important thing to avoid this trap, Adel states, is the human touch, the one-on-one meeting, the moment where change and togetherness is allowed to happen:

“I remember one time, we danced with the elderly and a 102 years-old Dutch lady was on a wheel chair, but she was so energetic. I carried her from the front and she put her hands in my shoulders. And she was super joyful, it was such a nice experience. For me, those were really touching moments.”

The happiness, joyfulness and self-assurance of Adel is easy to spot, not only in our conversation, but in his Ted talk, and in a video captured by a Dutch television of an earnest and heartfelt conversation with an old lady, where both allow themselves to discover and be discovered. Was this charisma and will to live, to do and to create that got the attention of fellow Syrians and Eritreans living in the center, who got together, through Adel’s initiative, to clean the forest and cut a path for the pedestrians? Pedestrians who, in their turn, were happy and supportive of the initiative? This was one of the ways to start a dialogue with the locals and to occupy the people in the center. Is this why Adel titles himself “an igniter of change”?

Despite the humor and positive vibe that Adel gives out, the experience in a refugee center marked him. Adel’s warning for everyone to pay attention for refugees’ mental health and to offer viable alternatives to life in camps and afterwards is strong. After all, as he asks, what will happen to “people that are mostly living alone, without contact with their family and possibly facing traumas, due to persecution or war”? Mental health among refugees seems to be the least of priorities for public officials, preceded by broader concerns for employment and integration, but it surely is not without its consequences.

But what is remarkable in Adel is this willingness not to allow anyone, not even himself to be limited by any label. The words we give or that were given to us, the words we fill with meaning, are to be disputed. Why should society as a whole, Adel rightly inquires, judge and penalize people that did not choose to be part of a minority or suffer from a disease, blindness or handicap? Adel won’t let anyone define him or the labels that inhabit him. He does that by reversing the expectations, images and boxes that are deposited upon the new comers. And mostly, as he says, by “claiming his experience” and asking with a big exclamation point: “I am a refugee, what is wrong with that?!” Indeed Adel, what is wrong with that?!

Find this article and others by Alexandre Fonseca on BalkanSteps  –


Legitimate defence and the ideal of nonviolence

By Fr. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

War is not a solution for conflicts. Within Christianity there is a constant discussion about the area of tension between justified defences versus just peace. There remains an area of tension between the evangelical call to nonviolent resistance – to only return evil with good – and the daily reality of violence, terror and wars worldwide.

In this short reflection, I will discuss more in-depth the relation between legitimate defence, geopolitics and nonviolence as a political style. The considerations must be understood in the light of the ideal of evangelical nonviolence and thus in the light of a world without wars.

The nature of war has changed. The Romans were convinced that nearly all of their wars were justifiable. What is warfare like in our contemporary world? Wars are still being waged. Just as slavery some time before, war should be abolished. Billions of dollars are spent every year on troops, firearms, missiles, bombs, frigates, tanks, submarines and all other preparations for and “remedies” against a conflict. We must continue believing in a world without war. “Answer violence with violence” is not what the Bible tell us Christians to do.

War is of all time. However, the number of interstate wars has decreased in the last four centuries. Whereas in the 16th century about 22 wars took place between what were then the great powers, this number decreased to 11 in the 17th, 8 in the 18th, 5 in the 19th and 6 in the 20th century.

Different ways to fight war

A common definition of war is: (1) a situation of armed conflict between states or nations, (2) and/or between identified and organized groups within a state, in other words a civil war. Civil war is more common than interstate war.

A total war is a situation in which all means are present and are being used uninhibitedly in order to beat the enemy. International laws are then often violated, with enormous consequences for the civil population. Asymmetrical warfare usually takes place between unequal parties or combatants, such as between a conventional army and a guerrilla group, as was the case in Vietnam and more recently in Afghanistan.

More than ever wars are being fought out in the midst of the civil population, which is often used as a human shield. Civilians thus are a key part of modern warfare. Military actions take place in the presence of civilians, in order to protect the civilians or even against parts of the civil population that have joined an opponent.

Modern warfare is best characterized as war amongst the people. A scenario of the kind has been happening for decenniums in Afghanistan. Whoever wants to win that kind of war must gain control over the local population among which the conflict is taking place.

There is a significant ethical difference between aggressive warfare and warfare that is about self-defence. Here, one often has to make the difficult consideration whether or not military interventions are aggressive, whether one can speak of self-defence, or whether it is to protect a “third party” – often innocent people.

Occupying a territory is not an act of legitimate defence. The Russians have occupied – or rather annexed – the Crimea in 2014 and continue stirring up trouble in the eastern part of the Ukraine. The disturbances have become part of a “frozen conflict”. In Europe, the Ukraine is spoken about as “the mother of all frozen conflicts at the front door”. Some observers speak of a “warm war”.

Does something good come out of a war? Even after the shooting has ended, the consequences are dramatic. After the Second World War, there were about 40 million refugees in Europe. The war in Syria, which started in 2011, has resulted in more than 12 million people on the run. More than 330.000 people died. The human dramas and traumas are often indescribable. Insecurity is very high, both during and after an armed conflict. War and violence are never a solution.

Legitimate defence as a right and an obligation

With legitimate defence, there can be two reasons to deploy violence or to wage a war when all nonviolent means have really been exhausted: (1) self-defence against aggression, and (2) defence of those that cannot defend themselves against aggression by a third party.

Before one switches to violence, all peaceful means must be used to protect the civilians. Diplomacy and mediation take preference thereby. To this day, those peaceful means are too little developed. Moreover, too little money is spent in order to develop “workable nonviolent actions or initiatives” that can prevent or resolve armed conflicts.

Governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens, if necessary by specific military means, but always under clear criteria and conditions. If governments are incapable or unwilling to protect their citizens, the international community – usually the United Nations or the Security Council – must take measures in order to discourage the (escalation of) violence. That too, happens according to strict principals.

There exists a strong need for alternatives to prevent armed conflicts and to settle them without violence. “A war is always a defeat for humanity”, Pope John Paul II once said. The beginning of shooting signifies that talking is done! To repeatedly answer violence with violence only leads to the destruction of humanity, especially when we are speaking about all destructing weapon systems.

Breaking up the spiral of violence

Christianity is a nonviolent and pacifistic religion. Justice desires a stop to the chain reaction of violence. Christianity is a religion of forgiveness and reconciliation. We shall love our enemies. Pray for our enemies. Love your enemies – and turn them the other cheek (Luke 6:27 and Matthew 5:44). Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain in chapter 5 is an ode to pacifism. In fact, each form of violence (and thus not only war) shall be prohibited by Christianity; yes, even self-defence is not allowed (Romans 12:19; “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath”). Matthew 26:52 says: “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword”.

Christians will also reference “You shall not kill” from the book Exodus (The Decalogue). God’s ‘words’ are also ‘boundaries’ that want to honour love. Like: “You shall not kill”. What it actually says: “You shall not murder”. The Bible does not prescribe that we should let extermination take place. There is, however, a biblical commandment that calls for us to protect the weak.

Since Augustine in the 5th century after Christ and up until today, Christianity has developed a Christian ethical social doctrine. This has reflected the evangelical call for nonviolence in responding to the necessity for legitimate defence. The doctrine of justified war was developed. Reason was at the centre of the thoughts of great minds like Thomas Aquinas (13th century). There are clear criteria along which to decide whether or not to go to war and there are clear criteria along which the battle should be held. Political philosophers like Vitoria, Franscisco Suarez, Hugo Grotius, Hobbes and Kant have all concerned themselves with the study of the criteria of waging war and, if unavoidable, the way in which to wage it.

Up until today, popes have plead for diplomacy and peaceful politics – most expressively with Pope Benedict XV (1915) , who called the First World War a useless massacre. Many church documents, mostly since the Second Vatican Council, speak plainly about first and foremost abolishing war and to use limited violence only under strict conditions, out of self-defence or to protect the lives of civilians.

Christian militias

What will you do when you have to stand your ground in the midst of a lawless environment? What will you do when your wife, children and other members of local communities run the risk of being murdered? What will you do when there is no longer a decisive protective force?

A recent example is the way in which Christians in Iraq and Syria, among others, have responded to the murderous activities of Islamic State (IS). Christians tried to defend themselves: in Syria, the Christian militia Syriac Military Council was grounded. The organisation expanded from a couple of hundred men to the largest force of Christian self-defence. In this case, these were Assyrian Christians that successfully defended themselves against IS alongside Kurds and Arabs.

Another group is the Nineveh Plain Forces in Iraq. From its base in Tellskof, it protects the IS-free zone of the Nineveh plain (Bible Belt) and prepares itself for the liberation of the entire area. These people and many Christians have let the outside world know that they are perplexed by the fact that they receive so little concrete help from the West. Is this not purely about self-defence? They have asked and still ask the West for weapons and military equipment. Can we deny these victims their right to self-defence? Their choices are often limited: fight or be murdered. It is not fitting for us to judge or condemn.

Responsibility for prevention

Individual states, and subsequently the international community too, should do anything to prevent genocides. Timely detection of possible scenarios in which violence breaks out, and escalates as far as massacres, is a must. To prevent these with diplomatic and other nonviolent means is also a must: responsibility for prevention. When necessary, military interventions should take place. However, this can only happen after careful considerations and with ratification by the UN’s Security Council.

Modern warfare has undergone drastic change, mostly technological and thus also in nature. In many aspects, however, war is still the same: people kill other people, in more and more advanced ways. This has raised new and pressing ethical questions. The development of technology will continue and cannot be halted. The central question remains: how do we keep civil and military use apart? In other words, which position do we take on dual use of that technology. We are witnessing the deployment of unmanned armed machines and there is the prospect that such machines will not only be unmanned but autonomous as well. There are robot weapons. There are drones that kill, like “the Predator” and “the Reaper”, which have been used in Afghanistan and in the border zones of Pakistan and Iraq.

To delegate decisions over life and death to armed machines that are unmanned, is not in line with humanitarian law, especially not where it concerns endangering innocent civilians that are not involved in the conflict. Will a code of conduct concerning new weapon technology put a check on what is acceptable and what is not? There is a risk that new – immoral – weaponry will be used with the argument of being ahead of the other, the enemy.

Security calls for more than going along in military logic. Many politicians and experts believe that one needs to have and use enough military material in order to counter the threat to security. And adequate military means are indeed necessary to guarantee a population’s safety, also in situations of self-defence and civil protection. Military collaboration is then understandable. But “security” is a complex matter that has much to do with the quality of our society and the lives of its citizens. This demands not just military, but socio-economic measures too. A population’s standard of living and morale can also play a significant part.

War should be “de-institutionalised”

Throughout the years, war has become an institution. “De-institutionalising” war could be a first step towards disarmament. The supply, the training of personnel and the provision of military means is a given in almost all states.

Governments’ defence contracts play an important role in the economy. Military personnel are respected, honoured, often applauded as well: and deservedly in those cases where a nation and her population’s defence is safeguarded by their courage and effort. But it can also be witnessed how the whole matter of military means, the budget, the relations between arms industry and economy in general represent an encouragement for those who regard warfare as a form of entrepreneurship. In a word: business. All this leads to the institutionalisation of the idea of warfare: it becomes embedded in the DNA of our society and the economy.

One of the causes for war is the fact that the war machine exists and is oriented towards warfare. When President Dwight Eisenhower left the White house in 1961, he warned against the military industrial complex (Presidential farewell speech Dwight Eisenhower, 17 January 1961). That was a period of significant tension between the NATO and the Warsaw-Pact. He warned against the militarisation of society, economy and culture. Indeed, after the Second World War there developed in the US, more so than in other countries, a national security state: a mighty complex of companies, institutions and political lobbies, which derive their position, financial means and other privileges mainly from a permanent atmosphere of crisis and insecurity. It is a gigantic system that converts tax money into commissions, company profits, election contributions and votes. Countless think tanks, publications, TV-stations and lobbies (not in the least the influential arms industry) further feed this monster by continuously observing new threats – and by subsequently coming up with a military solution. It keeps growing! Eisenhower feared the political, even spiritual influence of the military industrial complex, which made itself more and more apparent in each city, in each statehouse, in each office of the federal government.

Instead of war being regarded as an incidental dire necessity, the idea of warfare has become too much of a self-evidence. Warfare is ingrained in the budgets, decisions and relations of states. De-institutionalising the idea of warfare would mean: thinking differently, out of the box, and developing other means to prevent or confine armed conflicts.

Disarmament should be central pillar for diplomacy

Meanwhile, we must continue living with the possibility of war. It is therefore very important to prevent it, or in case it does break out, to restrict it where possible. Much more could be achieved with diplomatic means than with military efforts. A war always has more than one cause. Each armed conflict is characterised by its own history and context and will get its own solution. There are hardly any parallel examples with the same causes of war.

The underlying question will, however, always remain: why do people go to war once all other efforts at a solution have failed? And why do these efforts fail? Maybe the cause can be found in the fact that the system of interstate relations does not function adequately. In other words, that the system itself is wrong?

Some wars have developed out of fear, desperation, threats and real hardships and injustices. A special problem today, is the risk of conflicts that grow worse through extreme poverty and inequality, ongoing marginalisation and social exclusion, and the alarming tempo of environmental change. Seen in this light climate change can be regarded as a silent war on the planet and the Paris Climate Agreement as an “agreements agreement”. Other wars are motivated by the search for profit, territory, resources, glory, revenge, income or geopolitical advantages.

States remain the most prominent actors within the international political world system. Disarmament, human rights and development should be the central pillar of international diplomacy. States are supposed to work together in a world government like the United Nations, as already advocated by Pope John XIII in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. A possible contribution could be to stronger educate civilians as world citizens. Such a disposition could lead to a universal attitude of hospitality and solidarity, as well as freedom of speech and free movement of people and mutual acknowledgment of rights. In other words, the global aspiration for solidarity, for exchange, for economic and political collaboration, etc. The solution for war resides mostly in integration and mutual connections and in the elimination of conflicting interests.


Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Interview with a 12 year-old Syrian refugee

The following interview was done by Clare Shanley, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 


Rimy, is a 12 year old boy, who fled Syria, hoping to find refuge in a different country and who now lives in England. When I met him, I was immediately struck by his enthusiasm and excitement to share his story with me. His powerful and honest story highlights the hardships that he and thousands of other children go through.

First, I asked Rimy to tell me a little bit about himself. He told me his name and that he is a Christian from Syria. He also told me that he is good at science and ‘a bit good at music’.  I then asked him about his life in Syria, the journey from Syria to England and integration into British society.

Do you know why you left Syria?

‘We left Syria because it is at a very, very, very bad war, electricity would keep going off all of the time and it’s only cold water, and there is not hot water. It was a very hard life in Syria, just before we left, our house got exploded by a bomb.’

Can you describe what everyday life like was in Syria?

‘Everyday people just woke up, children go to school, and some people take their children to school because they are scared that something may happen to them, or the bad people might kill them. Some people, who are a bit bad, give their sons a knife, so if there was any problem, they could protect themselves. The men go to their job. Many men don’t go because they had lost their jobs. The women stay at home to cook and clean. Because the electricity was very bad, people were not able to do a lot of things and the prices were very expensive. Very small things were very expensive.  That’s why many people were very poor.’

Can you explain the journey from Syria to England?

‘I went from Syria to Lebanon. From Lebanon, we went to Turkey with the UN and from Turkey we went to England, to London. In Lebanon, it was more of a hard life.  When I came to Lebanon, people were rude and the school didn’t accept me, they didn’t let me learn. They said I couldn’t come because I was from Syria, they were racist to me. I had no friends in Lebanon.

‘After, we changed house and we kept changing house until they asked my Grandma and Aunty to go to England. When they left, my mum and I went to a church in the mountains, where we would be safe.  We stayed there for two years and there we had a good life with God and with the sisters. After the two years, we prayed very much to come to England and when we left the church and we came to the capital city which is called Beirut and we stayed there for two days.  After, we went to the airport, then we went to Turkey and stayed there in a hotel for two days and after that we came to England.’

Do you enjoy school in England and is it different to the schools in Syria?

‘Yes, I do enjoy school. It is a bit different, because in Syria, some teachers, if children do bad things, then they slap them on the hand with rulers, but here it is different, they don’t do that. In Syria they don’t really care if troubles happen, if anyone was being racist or swears or is being rude about other people’s religions or colour, the teachers do not say anything about it. In RE the only thing we learn is Muslim, we don’t learn any Christian or anything else because it is a Muslim country.’

Did you find anything hard about coming to England?

‘It was a bit hard. Like some things I have never saw in my life, like those things that heat the water, and the toast thing, what’s it called? A toaster? The first two days, I didn’t know how it worked, I was burning all of the toast that I wanted to have for my breakfast. The houses, I had never saw them in my life. I was watching cartoons and I saw those houses (uses hands to show square shape of house) I never thought that they were real. When I saw it, I was really shocked. In Syria, there are no houses, there are just flats. And the language was a bit hard when I first came, because I didn’t speak very good English. But now I am better.’

What games did you play in Syria, are they similar or different to the games you play now?

‘A bit different and a bit similar, in Syria they don’t really sell tablets, laptops or computers. People can’t buy them because they are very expensive. People used to play with very small balls, play football or they just go to the parks and some parents don’t let their sons leave home so they don’t get kidnapped or killed or anything like that.’

Who did you leave Syria with?

‘I came with my mum, first my Grandma and Aunty came to England, and we stayed there for about two years in Lebanon, and then we came to England.

Are there any stories or memories that you would like to tell me about what you remember from Syria?

‘I want to talk about the religion of Syria, because there is a very low number of Christian, Arabic people.  The life there was very hard. Some people hurt the Christian people because of their religion, some of them get killed, some get shot, some of them get told, ‘Become a Muslim or we will shoot you.’ That is why many people turn to become Muslim and many people die because they are Christians. Before, in Syria everyone would speak Jesus’ language, but when the Turkish had a war with Syria, Turkey won and they made Syrians talk Arabic, because that is the language of the Quran which is the Muslim holy book.’

What were the first days that you arrived in England like?

‘On the first day, I was a bit still shocked because it was very impossible to come to England. It was very hard. So on the first day, I was like, ‘Oh gosh, how did I get to England?’ When I first got to London, I was like, ‘Oh wow, I am in London now, where is Big Ben?’ But it wasn’t there, because we were in the airport.

‘The first day at school, I didn’t want to come out of the house, I wanted to stay inside and talk to my mum in Arabic, and not do anything. When I came to school, I really opened my eyes and I was very shocked, because everyone was speaking English. I thought, how can I speak like that, I am never going to be able to speak like that. When I first came to my new school, I didn’t want to come in the first few days. People say stories about secondary school – like people are very older than you and they bully you, they hurt you and do bad things to you. I was very scared, but after those two days, I was brave and I thought I would come. When I came, I found it a very happy thing, I didn’t expect it to be that good.  It was fun. Although it was a bit hard at first, I found new friends, learned new words, had a new teacher, and they were very nice.’

What advice would you give to a young boy coming from Syria to England?

‘I would help him with the language, so he can speak with other people. I would help him to get friends. I would show him where different places are, so that he doesn’t get lost, I would help him with his lessons as well.’

What would you say if he was feeling scared?

‘I would tell him that he doesn’t need to be scared.  When I came, I was like you, I was very scared, I was not ready, I was very scared of people because some people they say bad things about people in England. When I got here I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they are very nice.’ English people are very nice. So don’t be scared, I was in your place and I know your feelings, be brave and go to school, make new friends and let them help you.’

Do you know what you want to do when you leave school?

‘I want to be a lawyer, or maybe a detective. I want to be a lawyer because it is a really great job, to keep with the rules of England and try and make the troubles go for England. If you are a very good Lawyer, you would make the bad people go to prison and the good people win. I would like to be a detective, because it gives you a lot of money.’

When doing this interview, it really stood out to me that Rimy accepted what he had experienced as a part of his personal journey and life. His trust and faith in God guides him and keeps him so hopeful and optimistic for the future. Through this interview, Rimy’s words not only show his bravery and strength, but also shows how despite it all, he still has the charm and wit that so many boys his age share, whatever country they are from.


Clare Shanley is a teenager from England who has a passion for literature and writing. She hopes to continue in education and, in the future, have a career surrounding these two fields and also continue with peace and justice work.