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It's time to upgrade the peace button as international tensions heat up

When radio news brought Donald Trump’s announcement of a trilateral Western strike in Syria -- US, UK and France -- my heart sank. When I conveyed the news to a friend, she burst into tears. We had reason to be anxious.

Sure, U.S. presidents have a tendency to try to counter political damage by flinging a few missiles, rattling a few sabres, and throwing down a gauntlet or two. This time, clumsiness could cost us all more than we can measure. We could lose the world over Syria, which is now a country in name only. 

At least half a dozen local (and Indigenous) factions are jousting for control over the ancient territory of Levant, ruled for centuries by the Ottoman Empire and then briefly by the French. Syria became a parliamentary democracy in October 1945, when the victorious Allies re-drew national borders after WWII.  Since then it has been in constant tumult, with countless coups and attempted coups from 1949-7171 and Emergency Law rule from 1963-2011.  

Al Jazeera counts five main sets of actors on the ground in Syria now: the government, the Free Syrian Army, ISIS, the Kurds, and other local groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Iran-backed Hezbollah, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

In the name of fighting ISIS, the U.S. and its Western allies have provided Assad with intelligence and military hardware. So have the Russians, who have spent years rebuilding Syria’s air defence, and who now say they intercepted dozens of the U.S., French, and British missiles intended to destroy specific military bases and perhaps chemical plants. Similarly, when ISIS attacked a Kurdish enclave, the U.S. protected it -- even though Turkey and Russian-backed Assad regularly send troops out to fight against the the Kurds. 

Should the U.S. and Russia get into a shouting match over their conflicting strategies, the world could be at risk of a nuclear war. For some of us, this is a nightmare we’ve lived with for 60 years -- blowhards bluffing about whose bombs are bigger while a misunderstanding could blow New York or Los Angeles off the map.

On the other hand, this kind of posturing and playing nuclear "chicken" also inspired the world peace movement, which did check the nuclear threat, to some extent. Sixty years ago, in 1958, Bertrand Russell designed the iconic peace button, a white upside down trident on a black background for SANE, a movement that morphed into Peace Action. The peace buttons are still available, by the way -- $1.25 each with a card about the history, or $.65 each without the card.     

Last January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (founded in 1945) proved that it’s still relevant. It moved the hands on the Doomsday Clock (created in 1947) from two and a half minutes to a scant two minutes to midnight -- the apocalypse.
   
In Canada, Voice of Women for Peace (VOW) remains quite active approaching its seventh decade. VOW is accredited at the UN as an NGO, a Non-Government Organization. Similarly, Project Ploughshares has been operating as an operating division of the Canadian Council of Churches since 1977.

Indeed, the fact the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize went to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, shows how strong the modern peace movement is.

ICAN was launched in 2007 and now works with 468 partner organizations in 101 countries. In 2013, ICAN initiated a UN Convention abolishing nuclear weapons, which 122 nations eventually signed in July 2017. Canada, unfortunately, did not sign. 

So some sturdy infrastructure is already in place, reinforcing a longstanding Canadian tendency to prefer peace over war whenever feasible. And peace-seekers are not about to allow Donald Trump and John Bolton to blow up the world by accident.

Still, this is a tough situation to resolve. This summer, two or three major peace-seeking conferences will invite local activists to build out on the existing groundwork for peace, and figure out ways to eliminate war completely, before war eliminates us.

From May 30-31, Science and Peace offers How to Save the World in a Hurry at the University of Toronto. Metta Spencer, founder and publisher of Peace Magazine and mainstay of Science and Peace, has assembled a stellar group of local advisers and partners to address the "Six Crises" facing us now. 

Next fall, the U.S. organization World Beyond War brings its annual #NoWar global conference to the Ontario College of Art and Design for two days of workshops and talks starting on September 21st, the International Day of Peace.

WBW Director David Swanson used to run World Without War, opposing the war on Iraq. This year’s theme is Designing a world without war: legalizing peace. Experienced activists such as CODE PINK’s Medea Benjamin are booked to lead workshops on topics on topics such as weaning the U.S. economy off of weapons. 

Organizers aim to render war obsolete by creating better options. "Let’s design and build an alternative system of global governance," they write, “one in which peace is pursued by peaceful means....We will explore how the rule of law has been used both to restrain war and to legitimize it -- and how we can re-design systems to abolish the institution of war and uphold human and ecological justice.”  

Not strictly Canadian, but likely to resonate here, the Poor Peoples' Campaign kicks off on Mother’s Day (May 13) in the U.S. The formidable Reverand William Barber and his co-leader Rev. Liz Theoharis have been building this project for two years. They plan to launch 40 days of national action based on a set of demands that includes an end to spending 53 cents of each dollar on war, and only 15 cents on human needs.

Despite all the anxiety that Republican antics create, the silver lining is that some very smart people are already hard at work on putting new (energy, food, water, human rights) policies and systems in place in order to make the transition to a more just and sustainable world.

The old anti-nuke peace movement pushed successfully to limit public exposure to atomic radiation. The new movement moves to abolish war, limit climate change, and uphold human rights. Failing to act would leave us facing Armageddon, or else slow extinction.

Time to give that old peace button an upgrade.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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