Changemaker Chat: Dr. Dietrich Fischer

Dr. Dietrich Fischer is the academic director of the World Peace Academy in Switzerland. When we asked him to participate in a changemaker chat, he very humbly replied that he would prefer to share information about the work of others who have brought about remarkable change. What follows is his remarks to students in the Master of Advanced Studies in Peace and Conflict Transformation at the beginning of this trimester.

Dear students and colleagues,

Welcome to our third trimester!

The former German Chancellor Willy Brandt once said, “Peace is not everything, but without peace, everything is nothing.” Therefore, peace is probably the most important subject we can study. Thank you for studying peace!

I am sure you will make important contributions to help build a better, more peaceful world. Here are some examples of what individuals have been able to contribute to peace.

CLEAN WATER

A six year old Canadian boy, Ryan Hreljac, saw on television that there are people in the world who die from thirst, or because their water is contaminated. He was so concerned that he asked his parents to give him extra chores and pay for it, so that he could raise money to send to the organization “WaterCan”, a pun where the meaning of “Can” may be like in “beer can”, or in “Canada”, or in “you can do it.” By sending out emails to everyone he knew, asking for contributions, and asking people to forward the request to those they know, he raised 800,000 Canadian dollars. He made those funds available for drilling water wells in areas without safe drinking water, saving many lives. If a young boy can do this, what can we accomplish?

A SNOWFLAKE

Randy Kehler, who later became national coordinator of the Nuclear Freeze movement in the United States, was drafted into the Army in the early 1970s to go fight in Vietnam. Like many others, he refused to serve and was sentenced to jail. But unlike many others, he did more than that. Before beginning his jail sentence, he toured the United States, speaking out against the war on university campuses, in churches and to peace organizations. He had no idea whether this would make any difference, but his conscience demanded that he try to do whatever he could.

In one of his audiences was Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon analyst and co‑author of the “Pentagon Papers,” the secret history of the Vietnam war. He had become increasingly disillusioned with the way the United States fought the war, and had begun to doubt its justification. But he said that what finally persuaded him to do something was hearing Randy Kehler speak. Here was a young man willing to go to jail for his conviction that the war was immoral. So Ellsberg secretly made four sets of photocopies of the 7,000 page report, and left them anonymously in boxes in front of the offices of the New York Times, the Washington Post and two other major national newspapers. When editors read the reports, they realized that they contain so many accurate facts that they could not have been forgeries by someone outside of the government, and they began to publish them. President Nixon ordered them to halt publication, but the US Supreme Court ruled that prior restraint violated the first amendment of the US constitution guaranteeing free speech. When people read that they had been deceived all these years by their own government, and that the United States was not winning the war, they began to oppose it in large numbers. That forced President Nixon to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1973, and led to an end of the war in 1975.

At the right moment, one more snowflake can break the branch of a tree. Even if our efforts don’t show any immediate result, whatever we do makes it easier for others who follow to complete our work.

HOW HAITI ABOLISHED ITS MILITARY

A soft‑spoken, retired Quaker couple from Troy, New York, took a crucial step that led to the complete abolition of Haiti’s army, which in 1991 had violently overthrown the democratically elected government of President Aristide and arbitrarily arrested, tortured and murdered many Haitian citizens.

In 1994, Sue and Marvin Clark from Troy, New York, founded a small NGO, “Global Demilitarization.” In February 1995 they were able to meet in New York with Oscar Arias Sanchez, the former President of Costa Rica, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the war in Nicaragua. They asked him what country he thought might be the next to follow Costa Rica’s example, which had abolished its military in 1949.

Arias suggested Haiti, since most Haitians saw their army as threatening their personal security rather than protecting them from foreign aggression. From informal conversations with many ordinary Haitians, he estimated that about 80 percent wished the army were abolished. He was disappointed that nobody seemed to pay attention to his observations, but was convinced that if an internationally recognized polling firm could confirm his impressions, the world would notice. But that would cost about $20,000, and he did not have that money.

When Sue and Marvin Clark heard this, they wrote to all their friends and friends of friends, sending out about thousand letters, explaining this opportunity and asking for donations. Within a few weeks, they raised $27,000 and sent it to the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, and soon the poll was conducted.

At a news conference in Port‑au‑Prince on April 28, 1995, Oscar Arias could announce that 62 percent of the Haitian people wished to abolish the army, and only 12 percent wished to keep it, with the rest expressing no opinion. When President Aristide heard this, he stepped to the microphone and spontaneously announced, in front of the assembled military leadership, that given the clear wish of the majority of his people, he herewith declared the army abolished!

The international media almost totally ignored this important event. But when President Aristide was asked on a nationally televised interview in the United States after the election of his successor what he considered his greatest achievement during his term in office, he said abolishing the Haitian military.

It is impressive how much difference the efforts of individuals can make. Not even the U.S. Navy was able to abolish Haiti’s army. When President Clinton sent the navy in 1994 to land in Port-au-Prince and help restore the democratically elected government, it turned around in the face of a violent demonstration on the landing peer by a small group of backers of the military dictatorship. Who would have thought that two individuals, without power or wealth, would succeed in helping abolish the Haitian military, simply by talking to the right people and taking the right action at the right time. We can all take courage and hope from this. If we have a dream and pursue it step by step, never giving up, we can ultimately reach it.

After their initial success, Sue and Marvin have launched a campaign to dismantle all nuclear weapons, enlisting a support group of several hundred peace activists who send monthly appeals to the heads of nuclear states to give our children the gift of life instead of the threat of a nuclear holocaust.

THE BLACK HOLE

When Johan Galtung, widely recognized as the founder of the academic discipline of peace research, founded the first International Peace Research Institute in Oslo in 1959, he and his colleagues sent copies of their working papers regularly to about 400 social science institutes around the world, including the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. They received acknowledgements from many places, but never heard anything from IMEMO. It was as if the papers disappeared in a black hole, leaving no trace. Despite of this lack of feedback, the members of the Oslo team persistently kept sending their papers on alternative approaches to peace, security, development to IMEMO throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1982, Johan Galtung attended a conference at IMEMO. During a break, the librarian took him to the back of the library, opened a locked room, opened a locked cabinet inside the room, and showed him a pile of papers. Here was the entire collection of papers that he and his friends had been sending over the years. The “black hole” had been identified. Surprisingly, the papers were worn out from having passed through many hands, edges bent and torn, with portions underlined and numerous notes in the margins.

In 1991, Vladimir Petrovsky, then Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, came to see Johan Galtung in Oslo and said, “I really wanted to tell you once how grateful we were for all your papers that you kept sending us, even though we could never respond. During the Brezhnev era, I was part of a group of young scholars at IMEMO who met frequently to discuss new ideas, and we studied your books and papers intensively, among others. We knew that our system needed reform, and that the time for change was coming, but we had no clear ideas what form those reforms should take. You provided us with valuable new concepts and concrete ideas how to proceed. And you were neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist.”

The end of the Cold War has many sources, but new ideas developed by Western peace movements‑‑on human rights, economic and political participation, nonviolent conflict resolution, security based on mutual cooperation instead of threats and confrontation, conversion of military industries to civilian use, and nonoffensive defense‑‑which seeped into the former Soviet Union through various discrete channels and apparently found receptive ears, have played an important role.

Can individuals make a difference for the course of history, or are their efforts insignificant compared to major trends, like the movement of a single molecule in the wind? It is clear that if a situation is not ripe for change, if nobody wants to hear new proposals, one individual can make little difference. But if people are unhappy with their present conditions and search for new ways, a good idea, persuasively argued, can go a long way. Yet even when an opportunity for major change arises, someone must seize it or it may be missed. Similarly, if one plants a fruit tree in the desert, it will die. But even in the most fertile soil, under the best climatic conditions, only weeds may grow unless we plant something better. And we never know for sure whether an apparent desert may not hide fertile ground just below the surface, in which one seed can over time give rise to a whole forest. Even if we do not see the results of our efforts for peace immediately, we should not give up, because they may bear fruit some day in unexpected ways.

THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY

In 1835, Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the anti‑slavery gazette “The Liberator”, spoke on the Boston Commons against slavery. He was arrested by the police‑‑to protect his life‑‑ because an angry mob was ready to lynch him. He was secretly moved out of the city at night in an enclosed horse coach. But he continued to fight against slavery, and 30 years later, it was indeed abolished in the United States by President Lincoln.

The Quakers played a leading role in the movement to abolish slavery. Groups of Quakers traveled from town to town in the United States to preach against slavery, and they did not leave a town until at least one person had converted to their cause. In the end, their patience paid off.

When we see the billions spent for weapons today and the pittance available to work for peace, it is easy to despair. But the people who fought for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century did not even have any foundations to apply to. They made personal sacrifices and took risks, while the slave traders and slave owners accumulated huge fortunes. Yet the anti‑slavery movement prevailed in the end, because it had a just cause. For the same reason, the global peace movement will one day prevail over those who profit from war.

RUFUS JONES

Rufus Jones (1863-1948), an American Quaker, who helped found the American Friends Service Committee in 1917, went to England after World War I to help with the reconstruction. He noticed that there were large areas of public land around many cities, which remained uncultivated. He persuaded city governments to divide this land into small parcels and lend them to unemployed people so that they could grow vegetables to feed their own families and earn a modest income from selling what they could spare. One unemployed man was daunted by the task, but worked hard all summer, clearing the land from shrubs and thorns, fertilizing the soil, planting various vegetables, watering them regularly and removing weeds. He earned a rich crop in the fall. Rufus Jones said to him, “Is it not marvelous what God and you have done here together?” The man said, “Well, yes, but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.”

Unless we do good work, it is not going to happen by itself!

As the anthropologist Margaret Mead has said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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