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The Concepts of Negative and Positive Peace

Firstly, it is important to provide some sort of outline of what the term peace itself means. During my research I came across the notes of the Irenees’ Peace workshop held in South Africa in May 2007. According to these documents Peace does not mean the total absence of any conflict.

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It means the absence of violence in all forms and the unfolding of conflict in a constructive way. Peace therefore exists where people are interacting non-violently and are managing their conflict positively – with respectful attention to the legitimate needs and interest of all concerned.

In terms of explaining the difference of negative and Positive peace this definition seemed the most appropriate. Johan Galtung, who had been often referred to as the father of peace studies distinguishes between ‘negative peace’ and ‘positive peace’. Before I elaborate on these two concepts, Galtung grew up during World War II in German-occupied Norway, where his father arrested was by the Nazis. By 1951 he was already a committed peace mediator, and elected to do 18 months of social service in place of his obligatory military service.

Galtung eventually insisted that his social service should be spent in activities promoting peace, which lead to the Norwegian authorities imprisoning him for 6 months. Galtung’s theoretical work proposes that there are four ways in which conflict can emerge: conflicts within a person or between persons; conflicts between races, sexes, generations, or classes; conflicts between states; and conflicts between civilizations or multi-state regions. Peace, according to Galtung, is not just the absence of war.

Because two nations are not at war does not mean they are in peace. Negative peace refers to the absence of violence. When, for example, a ceasefire is enacted, a negative peace will ensue. It is negative because something undesirable stopped happening (e. g. the violence stopped, the oppression ended). The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States is the classic example, but look also to modern examples of negative peace between North and South Korea or Israel and Syria.

Therefore, the mere absence of physical violence or war is a negative peace because the conditions that inevitably lead to violence persist. Positive peace refers to the absence of indirect and structural violence and includes a state of collaboration and support between states, nations, or members of a society. It is closely tied to positive content such as restoration of relationships, the creation of social systems that serve the needs of the whole population and the constructive resolution of conflict.

Ironically I was not able to find examples of any situations which would constitute an environment of positive peace. What I did come across was Galtung’s insistence that peace studies shouldn’t seek simply to reduce or end violence but rather to understand the conditions that lead to violence along with the conditions that manifest peace. According to Galtung peace and violence need to be examined at all human levels if a state of positive peace is ever to be reached therefore instances of something such as inter-gender violence is equally as important as inter-state violence.

It isinteresting that in the UN charter, peace is not thoroughly defined. Instead, it is referred to as a negative definition of peace (the lack of war) and not a positive definition (the lack of war plus just institutions, structural equality, etc). In other words, officially the UN as an organization works with a definition of peace as the lack of interstate war.

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