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'Peace cannot be won on the battlefield'

Peacemaker Ernie Regehr has some advice for Canada's new government

By Dennis Gruending

Since the 1960s, Ernie Regehr has been studying war and promoting peace. He has just produced another book called Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot Be Won on the Battlefield. It would make good reading for new ministers as Canada’s newly elected government contemplates changes to our defence and foreign policy.

In 1976, Regehr co-founded Project Ploughshares, a Waterloo, Ont. ecumenical peace research group. He then served as its executive director for 30 years, reviewing armed conflicts for the organization. “The lesson from 25 years of research is that conflicts aren’t settled on the battlefield but they rely on addressing the economic and governance issues that give rise to conflict,” Regehr told me in a recent interview.

He insists that resources devoured by the military would be invested more wisely in what he calls the four D’s: development, democracy, disarmament, and diplomacy. “We underfund those things and focus way too much attention on military responses to conflict,” he says. The world’s military forces spend $14 billion every three days, which is more than the entire annual budget of the United Nations for all of its activities, including peacekeeping. In 2014 and 2015, Canada spent $20 billion on defence, which is close to one per cent of GDP.

Project Ploughshares Co-founder Ernie Regehr
Project Ploughshares Co-founder Ernie Regehr
Regehr does not rule out, as a last resort, the use of “coercive enforcement” to protect vulnerable populations and restore stability. These interventions should be multilateral, usually under the auspices of the United Nations, and to succeed, they must be “in support of the full range of peace and security efforts.” In the Syrian conflict, for example, safe havens for civilians could be created within the country but near the border with Turkey, and protected by a multinational military force.

Of course, Regehr admits that groups, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, are outliers who challenge the existing “paradigm of conflict.” They are driven mainly by religious extremism, he says, and their goal is not linked to settling political or economic grievances; rather to establishing a Caliphate. “We must say with humility that we do not know how to solve some of these conflicts but, nevertheless, we are neglecting any attempts at negotiation and reconciliation. We can also say with pretty strong conviction that the bombing campaign is not going to prove effective.”

So what's Regehr’s advice as a new Canadian government revisits foreign and defence policies? “If you want to engage and to promote international peace and security, then you have got to engage in developing a means to respond to economic development, good governance and diplomatic capacity, and to control the arms with which wars are fought.”

He points to the Nordic countries as examples of what can be done, including the Netherlands and Denmark on his list. They spend as much on development and diplomacy as they do on the military, while in Canada, the ratio is four or five to one in favour of military spending.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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