We worry that the world is not heading in the right direction – that for all our progress in fields like science, technology and medicine, we will bequeath a more violent world to future generations. In the global battle of ideas, it seems that the forces supporting war – authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, populism, and protectionism – are in the ascendancy almost everywhere.
But peace is closer at hand that we think. Many regions enjoy a level of peacefulness not experienced in generations – if ever. War in East Asia is at its lowest point in recorded history and has been for nearly three decades. For all the talk of great power rivalry, there hasn’t been a war between states there since the 1970s. War is all but extinct in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Western Europe. It is now uncommon in Eastern Europe, Southern Africa, and increasingly so in coastal West Africa. Humans alive in the first decades of the 21st century are less likely to die as a result of wars, genocide or other mass atrocities than their parents and grandparents were in the 20th century. As far as we can tell, our immediate forebears were less likely to die violent deaths than their forebears.
We actually have many of the institutions, laws and practices we need to establish a more peaceful world. The problem is that we don’t use them. We don’t need to rewrite the rules, smash down our institutions and rebuild everything from scratch. What we need to do is put what we already have to work.
Building world peace starts at home. The basic building block of world peace is the state, but not just any kind of state. Legitimate, responsible, and capable states are unlikely to implode into civil war and are less likely than other types to engage in aggressive war. Peace-inducing states have five characteristics: they hold a monopoly on legitimate violence; they are accountable to their people; they protect the fundamental human rights of their populations, including individual rights to life, liberty, citizenship and rights to non-discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality and political affiliation, among others; they ensure that their populations have secure livelihoods and fair access to public goods; and they promote and protect gender equality.
Globally, international law already prohibits the use of force and gives the UN Security Council authority to enforce the law and keep the peace. The problem is not the lack of laws or institutions; it’s that the laws are broken and the UN often blocked by the big five powers – China, France, UK, US and Russia – using their vetoes. To support world peace, we should insist that no one violates the rules and that the UN Security Council be allowed to do its job.
Governments should contribute their fair share to implementing decisions taken by the UN and other international institutions. UN peacekeeping reduces violence, prevents wars and stops them reigniting. But even today, most UN missions don’t have the tools they need. The supply of arms is another problem, as the war in Yemen shows. Here again though, we have an Arms Trade Treaty that, if implemented in good faith, would stop governments selling arms to countries likely to use them for aggression or atrocities. The same goes for international protections for human rights and the idea that individuals, everywhere, should be held criminally accountable for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and armed aggression.
We can start to work towards a more peaceful world by getting governments to do what they have already committed themselves to do: obeying and enforcing international law, doing their fair share to uphold collective responsibilities, and respecting basic civil and political rights. It is not such a huge leap from the world we have today to a more peaceful world.
Alex J Bellamy, professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Queensland, Australia, is the author of World Peace (And How We Can Achieve It), published by OUP (£20)