Public Trust in the State

For a society such as the Norwegian one, public trust in the state is a cornerstone. But what happens when that trust is lacking?

CC0 Public Domain. Downloaded from Pixabay

In several cases over the past year (2012), the involvement of Norway’s Child Protection Service (“Barnevernet”) with families of immigrant background has been the subject of heated debate. The rights and wrongs of Barnevernet’s actions in individual cases are impossible for the general public to evaluate on the basis of media reports. For very good reasons, Barnevernet is subject to a duty of confidentiality in the child’s best interests. Despite an intense desire for more information, we must respect this confidentiality. But this respect is conditional on the existence of public trust in Barnevernet among the population at large – including among people of immigrant background.

This autumn, Polish people in Norway, as well as in Poland and in other countries, were able to view two documentaries made in 2012 about child protection in Norway. The documentaries included interviews with Polish families in Norway who had had bad experiences with Barnevernet and its working methods. There was a focus on the families’ lack of legal safeguards in the face of Barnevernet’s allegedly high-handed and arbitrary actions. The parents felt as though they lacked any legal rights against a state that had deprived them of what was most precious to them – their children. The extent to which there were grounds for Barnevernet to intervene in any specific case is beyond the scope of this article. Rather the article’s point is that among Polish immigrants in Norway the prevailing view of Barnevernet is one of scepticism and fear. In discussions both amongst Poles in Norway and with their relatives and friends in Poland and other countries, the predominating view of Barnevernet is that of an organisation that has no respect for the family, and that is almost above the law. At the same time there is little in the public debate in Norway that helps balance such a view of Barnevernet, even though the heated debate about Barnevernet’s role and position is far from confined to immigrant circles.

I have interviewed 75 persons from Norwegian-Pakistani and Polish backgrounds over the past year in connection with a research project, and the topic of child protection has been spontaneously introduced by several interviewees. My research project is about the attitudes of immigrants and their children towards their country of residence, and how they view the possibility of at some point moving back to their own or their parents’ country of origin. In other words, the project has absolutely nothing to do with children or child neglect. Nevertheless, the topic was raised. Given the media attention devoted to child protection cases involving immigrant families over the past year, this is perhaps unsurprising. At the same time, I think it is surprising that someone, in a discussion about life in Norway, would choose to raise the topic of child protection. I have no doubt that there is a basic lack of trust in Barnevernet as an institution among the people I have interviewed. In fact, there is a deep mistrust: when we spoke further about their experiences of life in Norway, the interviewees continually raised new issues concerning legal safeguards for parents, for example in relation to exchanges of information between kindergartens, public health centres, school psychology services and Barnevernet. The focus of the discussion was either on legal safeguards and possibilities for appealing official decisions, or quite simply on fear and disempowerment.

Most immigrants in Norway work and pay their taxes as law-abiding citizens. But many of those I have spoken to do not believe that the authorities, as represented by Barnevernet, act “in the child’s best interests”. This lack of trust cannot be explained in this context as the result of cultural differences concerning child upbringing or disagreement about the need in some cases to protect children against their own parents. Rather it is based on a genuine fear that Barnevernet does not safeguard the child’s best interest and that parents at worst may be left without any legal redress.

The starting point for a democratic society must be that we – the people – have trust in the institutions of the state. A fundamental principle is that we have trust in a legal system that enables us to challenge decisions that we do not agree with. At the same time we know that human error and system failures mean that even the institutions of the state are not always without fault. This is knowledge that citizens in Norwegian society acquire through a combination of school, personal experience, and information gleaned from the society around us. But how do we ensure that people who arrive in Norway as adults also acquire this knowledge, possession of which is in the best interests of both themselves and our society, including those institutions that sometimes make mistakes and need correction?

As one of the extended arms of the State, Barnevernet is dependent on having the trust of the entire population. Barnevernet works with families and children, and clearly has to take many difficult decisions. Where the question is whether a child should live with his or her biological parents, there will often be disagreement about the decision. In that situation it is crucial that we all have trust in the assessments and decisions that Barnevernet makes on our behalf and in the child’s best interests. This is true for all families, whether or not they have an immigrant background.

What is Barnevernet doing today to address the challenge of Norway’s changing demographic make-up? Is it possible to respect a child’s rights so as to safeguard that child’s whole identity, even when radical measures are needed? For example, will it be possible to find families who have the same linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds, if this is also important for the child? Someone from a Polish background who suspects that a child in his or her circle is being neglected may perhaps not report his or her concerns to Barnevernet. This means that Barnevernet will lose the opportunity to resolve the problem at an early stage, which would be in the best interests of the child, the parents and of society as a whole. Even though many immigrants’ fears of local child protection services may be groundless, these fears hamper Barnevernet’s ability to do its job: to protect the children who need its help.


  • This text was published in Norwegian in the daily Dagbladet 19 December 2012: Tillit til staten
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

Peace for Our Time?

Azar Gat, giving the PRIO Annual Peace Address 2012. Photo: Kristian Hoelscher, PRIO

When the organizers of this event suggested ‘peace for our time?’, with a question mark at the end, as the half-whimsical title for this lecture, I accepted gladly. As you are all aware, this was what the British prime-minister Neville Chamberlain promised the cheering crowds that received him on his return from Munich in September 1938, waving the agreement he reached with Herr Hitler on the peaceful resolution of the Czechoslovakian conflict.

And yet, in less than six months Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, and in less than a year, Europe – and soon after the world – were in the grips of another World War which cost the lives of an estimated 55 million people. Chamberlain, with his umbrella, acquired an eternal image of a clown, and his prophecy of peace – together with similar prophesies of the ‘war to end all wars’ during and after WWI, and a New World Order after the Cold War – may serve as a warning against any pronouncement regarding the demise of war.

Such pronouncements are always in danger of being premature, as Mark Twain quipped about the news of his own death. Thus, I will not try to prophesize the future, which is always open and the realm of probabilities. Instead, I shall concentrate on past trends – including the close and most recent past – to show that war has indeed been decreasing and peace expanding. I shall try to explain why this has been so, and what fed pronouncements such as that by Chamberlain and the others mentioned here, never made by active statesmen – as opposed to prophets or moralists – before modern times. They weren’t entirely misguided after all.

The claim that war has been decreasing in stages throughout history has been made by several scholars during the past decade or two, including recently in Steven Pinker’s best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The first sharp reduction in human fighting resulted from the rise of the state-Leviathan from around 5000 years ago in the most pioneering parts of the world. In Norway, for example, one of the world’s late developers, like the rest of northern and western Europe, the process only took off about one thousand years ago – though you have done pretty well since then, in contrast to your earlier rough record. Indeed, several comprehensive studies of the subject have demonstrated on the basis of anthropological and archaeological evidence that Hobbes’s picture of the anarchic state of nature was fundamentally true. The Rousseauite image of a peaceful aboriginal human past corrupted by the adoption of agriculture, private property and the state, an image that dominated mid-twentieth century anthropology and popular culture, has been proven to be unfounded.

Read More

Leading the Charge Against Injustice

Abraham Lincoln once said: ‘It is hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.’ It takes belief and faith, it takes self-confidence and persistence, to lead a cavalry charge against injustice – and John Lewis has displayed all of those qualities. He has led many charges. I have for a long time been intensely interested in American politics, the civil rights struggle, and the rise of an incredibly strong field of African-American politicians and activists – from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jesse Jackson, Jr.; from Andrew Young to Barack Obama to, indeed, John Lewis, and so many others. It is a great honor for me to stand here next to one of these greats, a true hero. [This text is a transcript of Henrik Syse’s comments to John Lewis’ PRIO Annual Peace Address, given 28 Sep 2011).Read More

Non-violent Struggles: Scholarship, Policy and Realities

Thank you to PRIO for the opportunity to join you today and to Congressman John Lewis for his insights into the use of nonviolence in the American civil rights movement. [This text is a transcript of Kathleen G. Cunningham’s comments to John Lewis’ PRIO Annual Peace Address].

John Lewis giving the PRIO Annual Peace Address in 2011.

What I hope to add today with my own comments is a synthesis of the scholarship on nonviolence with the realities of nonviolent struggles today and to explore the pressing policy questions that emerge from the study of nonviolence and its application to these real world challenges.

Let me begin by highlighting the phenomenal changes we have seen these past months in North Africa and the Middle East and roles that violence and nonviolence have played there. As you all know, in the past 10 months, we have seen social revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, civil war in Libya, uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, and protests breaking out in a number of other countries. Many of the struggles have relied on nonviolent tactics to press their governments for radical social change. In some cases, violence has erupted between protesters and government forces. In others, we see large scale uses of violence.

These movements, both nonviolent and violent have led to concessions from a number of governments, and three regime changes, but also to repression and conflict. These events were both riveting and in some ways shocking. Few would have predicted this change, or the means through which it occurred. The possibility of radical social change brought about through nonviolent protest in the Middle East was not something many people were entertaining prior to the mass protests in Tunisia.

These events, and in particular the stark comparison of how social change was achieved relatively peacefully in Tunisia and Egypt but though violent upheaval in Libya, have recalled the necessity of understanding when civil resistance can work, and why protesters turn to violence in some cases but not others.

Historically, much of the scholarship on nonviolence is instructive, descriptive, or normative. The work of Gene Sharp, for example, has served as a practical guide for nonviolent resistance and played a role in struggles to overturn dictators around the world. Sharp, and those that followed him, help us to understand what it means to apply pressure without using violence, and the ways in which this can be achieved – from sit-ins to mass protests. Other works provides inspiration to adherents of nonviolence through descriptive narratives of campaigns around the world from Russia to the United States to India and beyond. Critical lessons from the American Civil Rights movement and other successful campaigns for social change have illustrated the power of nonviolence in achieving these changes.

Many studies of nonviolence have emphasized the goal of delegitimizing one’s opponent or restricting an adversary’s use of power. Work on regime change in El Salvador and South Africa, for example, focuses our attention on the ability of civil resistance to impose costs on the state. Importantly, this ability is linked both to strategy choices of the resistance movement, and to the extent to which mass mobilization can be achieved.

Quite recently, there has been a shift in the study of nonviolence toward trying to understand its efficacy, that is, how and why civil resistance works. One study compares successful and failed nonviolent campaigns, showing that tactical innovation plays a role in determining which campaigns succeed. Indeed, the use of social media, such as twitter is presumed to have played a role in the recent successes in the Middle East. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s recent book Why Civil Resistance Works compares the violent and nonviolent campaigns. They argue that nonviolent campaigns draw more participation and in doing so, are able to create a fairly stable base of supporters who are willing to impose costs on the state.

Strikingly, Chenoweth and Stephan find that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones. This runs counter to many people’s impression that resorting to violence is the more effective way to impose costs on the state.

This recent scholarship on the success of nonviolence had highlighted an important gap in our understanding of the efficacy of nonviolence in different contexts. The recent social revolutions in the Middle East have brought this issue to the forefront. Many of those movements had peaceful roots, but only some survived as large scale nonviolent campaigns.

Several central questions emerge from this:

First, the relative success of nonviolent campaigns appears to be limited, to some degree, to pro-democracy movements. Research shows that nonviolent campaigns are much less successful when focused on the issue of territorial control and secession. Few groups are able to secede in the contemporary international system, but the dominant strategy through which this is achieved is violent resistance. This is troubling because war over national self-determination has become the most common type of conflict in the international system in the past few 40 years. Cases such as Chechnya and the Tamils in Sri Lanka exemplify these disputes. There is also a great deal of potential future conflict over this same issue. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a steady increase in the number of minority groups seeking greater self-determination over time.

Thus, we have some reasons to believe nonviolence works, but not particularly well for one of the more pressing challenges in the international system today. Why that is the case, and how it can be changed, is a critical question for the future.

A second question emerging from the evaluation of whether and how nonviolence works relates to the necessity of mass participation. Scholars and practitioners alike highlight the importance of mobilizing people in large numbers. Yet, we know little about the conditions under which this is likely to happen. The success of nonviolent campaigns hinges on achieving a high number of participants, and this can create a substantial problem of collective action. Moreover, many civil resistance movements are met with repression, which creates a strong disincentive for individual participation.

How do some campaigns overcome this? The ability to generate mass mobilization is likely to be influenced by a number of factors, such as the nature of the movement (be it regime change, pro-democracy, or separatist). The resources available to supporters, and support from actors outside the movement, such as kin living across borders and the international community, can also play a critical role in mobilization. Moreover, many successful campaigns for social change are inspired by charismatic leaders, such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi, and sustained by continual acts of courage and commitment by leaders such as Congressman Lewis.

Our understanding of how and why different factors contribute to the success of nonviolent resistance remains limited, despite the wealth of practical and normative work done in this area. This question should be the focus of sustained research, much in the way that we have endeavored to understand the outbreak and consequences of violent campaigns.

Finally, we need to integrate our increased understanding of civil war and social violence with an understanding of nonviolence. Studies that evaluate the effectiveness of nonviolence have largely been comparisons of their success and failure, or more recently whether violent or nonviolent campaigns are more effective. What is missing from this existing approach is that nearly all movements for political change involve elements of moderation as well as radicalization.

Let us return to the example of struggles for national self-determination. Even among the most conventional political struggles, such as the Jura movement in Switzerland, there were elements of strategic violence

Moreover, disputes rife with violent conflict, such as the Chechen movement, contain organizations that forge ahead to seek political change by eschewing violence. Indeed, many social movements appear to be engaging in both violent and nonviolent resistance in an effort to secure political change. At times, organizations within these movements change strategies – transitioning from freedom fighters to activists and vice versa.

If organizations seeking political change make strategic choices about whether to use violence or nonviolence or both, then we need a better understanding of when and why they chose a particular strategy, and why individuals choose to participate in one way or another. Part of the answer is likely to be related to what others are doing, especially since successful nonviolence requires mass participation. But there are likely to be other factors that influence the strategic choices that these organizations make, and these are likely to change over the trajectory of a campaign. Thus, understanding incentives for the use of both violence and nonviolence at both early and later stages of social upheaval is important.

These questions, and the answers we hope to find, have important implications for real world policy choices. Recent events have shown us that the international community can play a critical role in determining the success of civil resistance, but it is not necessarily a straight forward role. If we return to the issue of secession, we can see clearly how the international community is both empowered and critically limited. Secession is nearly impossible without support from the international community. The referendum on independence in Southern Sudan highlighted the power of people to choose their own political future, but this ability is predicated on international support. Many groups that aspire to statehood hold similar referenda, but with little consequence. Yet the international community cannot universally support secession. States want to retain their own territorial integrity, and minority groups want to exercise their rights to self-determination.

How the international community responds to this tension is important. It creates incentives for separatists to use particular strategies, and this can make violence or nonviolence more or less attractive as a means to social change. We can see this same dynamic illustrated in the response of the international community to the Arab Spring. There was explicit support given for the armed overthrow of Qaddafi. Yet, we failed to see large-scale intervention in the cases of nonviolent resistance. This contrast may very well create incentives for the use of violence.

These are but a few examples, from which it would be quite difficult to discern a pattern of influence, and even more difficult to create coherent policy. We need greater attention to what kind of incentives the international community creates for agents of social change. Thus, there is a critical challenge for scholars and policy-makers alike. If we want to promote the use of nonviolence, we need to sponsor and engage in sustained research on it, such as the ongoing work at here at PRIO. We need to explore the conditions under which it is likely to work, and reach towards an understanding of what actions the international community can take to make nonviolence more effective and consequently more attractive to people earnestly seeking social change.

Thank you.


Kathleen Cunningham is an Assistant professor in the Department of Government, University of Maryland, and a Research associate at the Centre for the Study of Civil War, PRIO.

The Role of Non-violence in the Struggle for Liberation

US Congressman John Lewis gave the PRIO Annual Peace Address 2011. Lewis has been a Member of the US House of Representatives for the Fifth congressional district in Georgia since 1987. He was a prominent leader in the nonviolent civil rights movement in the early 1960s and President Obama has recognized his role as a source of inspiration. In February 2011 John Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US public award for civilian service. See also the 2015 marking of the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march in Selma. 

John Lewis giving the PRIO Annual Peace Address in 2011.

Read More

Norwegians Must Build Climate of Hope, not Fear

“Why do some people want to attack both my countries?” asks my 11-year old son with tears in his eyes. He is Norwegian and American, and this summer we are in California with his American family. He has just heard about what happened in Norway on 7/22. Our eyes are red, and we speak to him in low, sad voices. This is too much to take in for a boy who understands much but is not yet a grown-up.

A_sea_of_flowers_to_remember_the_victims_of_the_terror_attack_in_Oslo,Norway. Photo: Øyvind, via Wikimedia Commons

A sea of flowers to remember the victims of the terror attack in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Øyvind, via Wikimedia Commons

For us, the bicultural parents, the events in Norway are shocking, yet strangely familiar. On 9/11, our oldest son was 1 year old. He spent most of that day on his grandmother’s lap while everyone around him was watching with disbelief the TV scenes from New York and Washington. We were frantically calling friends and family to make sure that everyone was safe. Now we are in the United States communicating with friends and family in Norway via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and texting. Much is different, much has changed, but the feeling, the grief, the process of dealing with the event, are similar.

Read More

Terror Attacks in Norway on 22 July 2011

Streets of Oslo following 22 July 2015. Photo: Jørgen Carling, PRIO

A lot has already been written about the the events of 22 July 2011 their consequences. For me, the first weeks have been filled with emotionally draining experiences, coupled with debates that I haven’t felt prepared to engage in. Trying to see it all from a bit of distance, beyond the grief of those who were directly affected, these are the main thoughts I have:

First, what happened needs to be called what it was: a terrorist attack. It is sad to see how the events were re-labelled and dismissed by much of the international media as soon at is was clear that it wasn’t the work of radical islamists. The attacks might have been carried out by an individual, but they were inspired by a strong political and religious conviction, drew upon extensive support networks, and were meticulously planned over a number of years. In fact, Norway’s leading expert on violent Islamism has argued convincingly in the NY Times that this is the closest ting yet to a Christian version of Al Qaida.

Read More

Time for change in the Nobel Peace Prize Committee

It is time for the Norwegian Parliament to change its practice and appoint a Nobel Peace Prize Committee that includes both experts and internationals.

The meeting room of the Nobel Committee. Photo: Wikipedia

The Nobel Peace Prize is considered one of the world’s strongest symbols; the prize shapes the public agenda and gives voice to peace activists all over the world. Members of the prize-awarding Nobel Committee are appointed by their political parties in the Storting, the Parliament of Norway. This strong link to Norwegian party politics threatens the legitimacy of the prize, and it is high time the Norwegian Storting changes its procedures and includes both experts and internationals in the committee.

Alfred Nobel bestowed a great honor on the Storting. He states in his will that the prize for “champions of peace” shall be awarded by “a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting”, but gives no further instructions on the forming of the committee. Current practice involves having the political parties represented in the Storting divide the seats among them based on relative strength and then appoint one or more of their former MPs to the  Committee. This is hardly the best way to administer this honorable task.

Adapting to change

The prize has a high standing, largely stemming from its ability to adapt to changes in the world. This does not mean that nothing should be changed, however. Questions are increasingly raised with regard to the committee’s  independence, even by its own secretary, Geir Lundestad. How independent can a committee be if it exactly mirrors the balance of political power in Norway? And specifically recruits on the basis of party membership – preferably among retired members of parliament?

Chinese leaders are among those asking these very questions. In a one-party state where the National Congress is the closest parallel to the Norwegian Storting, the idea that the committee could operate independently must be hard to believe. China would likely have protested against Liu Xiaobo’s prize regardless of the committee’s independence, but their arguments could have been significantly weaker than they are today. The fundamental legitimacy of the prize is at stake, both in the 2010 laureate’s home country and in the rest of the world.

Friendly advice

In Norway, a debate has been raging around a conversation between Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre and his party colleague, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland. The minister disclosed to Jagland that the Foreign Minister of China had threatened sanctions against Norway if the prize were to be awarded to a Chinese dissident. Støre should not have done this. As it turned out, the committee still chose a Chinese dissident irrespective of the government’s preferences. But suspicion lingers over this not being the first time a Norwegian minister has given friendly advice to a committee of fellow party members and political colleagues.

Conflicts particular to Norway

Geir Lundestad, committee secretary for two decades, made a forceful statement before the announcement of the 2010 prize. He claimed that not awarding the prize to the European Union was a sin of omission surpassed only by Mahatma Gandhi not getting it. Lundestad’s explanation for this oversight was indeed that the committee reflects the Norwegian political landscape, and that awarding a prize to the EU is impossible given the national controversy over EU membership. This is harsh criticism, coming from one who probably knows what goes on behind the closed doors of the committee better than anyone. Regardless of whether one deems the EU a worthy laureate or not, it is hard to argue in favor of allowing Norway’s domestic squabbles to affect the choice of candidate.


The Storting has every opportunity to rise above party politics in nominating members without violating the spirit – or letter – of the will. Rather than letting individual political parties nominate their own representatives, the presidium of  the Storting could do it. This would allow consideration of the composition of the committee as a whole. Having experienced politicians among the members certainly benefits the committee. But the current practice entails the risk that the committee seats are seen as a type of reward distributed on the basis of long and faithful service to the party, rather than on the basis of an interest and expertise in peace and conflict.

Nothing is stopping the Storting from including members on the basis of their professional expertise. Scholars, analysts and political commentators could contribute to expanding the committee’s horizons, as well as to strengthening its assessments and foundations for decision-making. Several former committee members possessed considerable expert knowledge, which has been shown to be an asset. This does not mean that the majority should be experts, however, and expertise should not be confused with neutrality.  The Peace Prize is a fundamentally political prize: it is only interesting when it makes a statement.

Purely Norwegian?

There is also the matter of the nationality of the members. The committee’s mandate, defined and revised multiple times throughout the years, does not limit membership to Norwegian nationals alone. Neither politicians nor experts need be Norwegian. What about thinking in terms of people who are recognized across religious, geographic, economic or political divides? Perhaps former Nobel laureates, like Kofi Annan, Shirin Ebadi or Jody Williams? Or maybe other wise men and women like author Amin Maalouf or economist Amartya Sen? Perhaps non-Norwegian politicians such as Australia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans or Brazil’s former President Lula could be considered? The problem hardly lies in finding suitable candidates.

Change of nomination procedures has been made before. Up until 1937 it was common practice for current members of government, including both the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs, to have seats in the committee. The
Storting changed this after the controversy concerning the German anti-Nazi and peace activist Carl von Ossietzky’s prize. The then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Halvdan Koht, and the former Prime and Foreign Minister Johan Ludvig Mowinckel gave up their seats in the committee prior to the decision to award the prize to Ossietzky. The Royal Family, contrary to tradition, was not present during the award ceremony. As with this year’s prize controversy, the Norwegian government cited the committee’s independence in response to criticism from the prize winner’s home country.

Free and unbiased

In 1978 another change took place, abandoning the practice of having current members of parliament take part in the committee. This change was also made to communicate the committee’s independence. Guttorm Hansen, President of the Norwegian Parliament at the time, stated during the parliamentary debate that the committee must be able to “award prizes contrary to Norwegian foreign policy, contrary to views of a potential majority of the Storting, contrary to possible public opinion”. Furthermore, Hansen argued, the committee must be “free and unbiased, without direct or indirect instructions”. These are lofty ideals. But as long as the parties appoint committee members from their own ranks, it is difficult to imagine that they enter the committee without such an “indirect instruction”.

In less than a year, two of the committee seats will become vacant. This year’s prize has not had a negative impact on the prize’s public image and reputation. Now is therefore a good time for another change in practice.

Alfred Nobel trusted the Storting to administer the prize and refrained from giving detailed instructions. It is now up to the Storting to decide to rise above party politics and prove worthy of this trust.


This text was published as an Op Ed in Norwegian in Aftenposten 21 October 2010.

Justice, Truth, Peace

Jon Elster gives the PRIO Annual Peace Address 2010.

The human mind seems to have a natural tendency to assume that all good things go together. This may be a result partly of what psychologists call tradeoff aversion and partly of wishful thinking. Let me offer some examples.

Marx asserted that in the transition to Communism, one should try to “shorten and lessen the birth pangs”. For a given duration of the transition, less violence would obviously be desirable. For a given level of violence during the transition, the shorter it is the better. But a more gradual transition might involve less violence.

The movement for “socially responsible investment” is based on the premise of “doing well by doing good”. In some cases, the profit motive and community benefits may indeed be maximized simultaneously, as when consumers refuse to buy goods produced with the use of child labor. Typically, however, mutual funds that refuse to buy alcohol and tobacco stocks do less well than others, because they cut themselves off from a valuable source of diversification.

Public policy is usually guided by concerns of distributive justice as well as efficiency. In practice, however, equity and efficiency may be at odds with each other, because of the problem of “the leaky bucket”. When transferring wealth from a rich person to a poorer one, some wealth is usually destroyed or not created.

The French Revolution was based on the – mostly tacit – assumption that the values of equality, liberty and fraternity supported and reinforced each other, so that more of one led to more of the others, not less. Although each of the three values is endlessly ambiguous, on many common understandings they are more likely to work against one another than to favor one another. Radical thinkers claim that liberty is inconsistent with equality. Libertarian thinkers argue that fraternity is inconsistent with liberty. Rawls claimed that strict equality was inconsistent with fraternity because it might make the worst-off worse off than they would be under a regime of moderate inequality.

In this talk I shall examine another trio of values in this perspective: justice, truth, and peace.

Read More

Roots of conflict : Don’t blame environmental decay for the next war

When Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan known for her work in human rights and environmental conservation, including efforts to fight deforestation, won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, many took note that the Nobel Committee had evidently expanded its notion of “peace.” “Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment,” it proclaimed, seeming to embrace an extended concept of peace as “human security.”

Wangari Maathai. Photo: Gianluigi Guercia

More probably, the committee intended to highlight scarcity of renewable natural resources as an important cause of war. Their statement, it is true, didn’t deal with that issue directly, but Maathai herself said that “the environment is very important in the aspects of peace because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that” — an idea that was widely endorsed in news coverage of her award.

In fact, speculation about “water wars” and other apocalyptic scenarios lacks solid foundation. Some studies find a relationship between low-level conflict and scarcity of resources like arable land, forests and fresh water, but others do not. In any case, this link is trumped by poverty, political instability and a region’s history of conflict. Researchers haven’t closed the book on the question, but the most dramatic scenarios can be dismissed.

The lack of fresh water has been suggested as a particularly important factor in conflict. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former United Nations secretary general, is one of many officials who predicted in the early 1990s that “the next war will be over water.” Since then, we have witnessed major wars in Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq and elsewhere with no obvious link to water shortages.

Scarcity of fresh water is one of the world’s major health problems and constrains economic development in many parts of the world. But that is not a “water war” unless we radically redefine our concepts of war and peace. Countries that share a river appear to have a slightly higher probability of low-level conflict over and beyond the simple fact of being neighbors. Such countries also seem to cooperate more. There are hundreds of international agreements regulating the use of shared water resources, but one is hard put to name a single case where a conflict over water led to large-scale violence.

What about scarcity of land? Population growth, deforestation, soil erosion and migration can increase pressure on arable land. If such conflicts follow ethnic or religious lines, they may lead to local conflict. However, the probability that such conflicts will escalate to major violence is low.

Population pressure and scarce land resources were for a while standard explanations in the media for the civil war and the subsequent genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Today this conflict tends to be interpreted as more of a traditional ethnic power struggle. Statistical studies of civil war also indicate that countries with high population density or high population growth are no more prone to civil war. Some even argue that population growth stimulates economic growth and thus indirectly reduces the risk of civil war.

Recently, attention has to some extent turned away from resource scarcity and toward the problems faced by countries endowed with abundant natural resources. In Sierra Leone and Angola, rebels have financed their operations by dealing in “blood diamonds,” and in Colombia and Afghanistan drugs have played a similar role.

Once again, though, we should be wary of premature generalization. In Botswana, diamonds have created the economic basis for the closest thing we find in sub-Saharan Africa to a democratic welfare state. The impact of the so-called “curse of natural resources” is itself highly dependent on economic and political factors, as well as the nature of the neighborhood.

Environmental destruction and scarcity of renewable resources can present a danger to life and livelihood in many third-world countries. But these hazards are not primarily linked to a danger of war. Exaggerating the security aspects of environmental decay hardly helps our efforts to overcome the negative effects of resource scarcity.

Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement have done pioneering work for environmental conservation in Kenya. But her work for democracy and human rights may well be seen as a more substantial contribution to peace than her tree-planting.

This text was published in the International Herald Tribune November 22, 2004