What is peace work?


Source: Johansen, Jørgen. 2012. “What is Peace Work?” In Medical Peace Work, 2nd Edition, Curse 1-7, edited by J. Salvage, M. Rowson and K. Melf. London: Medact.

Lesson 1.2.4: What is peace work?

Learning objectives

By the end of this lesson you will be able to:

  • Discuss some of the main arguments on what could count as peace work
  • Highlight different forms of peace work in the world today
  • Explain how peace work has developed from protests to also include more positive forms of peace work and peace building



Peace work can be described as actively and peacefully reduce all forms of violence and to build strong, sustainable, and good relations. But such a broad and vague statement needs some discussion. Here follows some suggestions for what such a discussion could include.

How much engagement?

What is the minimum form of activity required to call yourself a “peace worker”? Would you be a peace worker if you joined a public demonstration against the war in Afghanistan? Some people are employed full time with peace work; many more do it on their free time. In movements, organizations and networks all over the globe people engage in a wide variety of activities to reduce violence. I would argue that we should be generous in our view on who is a peace worker. Everyone can contribute!

What sort of activities?

What sort of activities should be included in a definition of engagement? Would participation in national elections count as peace work? Or must it be something more than casting the vote every time the parliament asks citizens to make up their mind on who should have seats in the legislative assembly? Many would argue that ordinary elections do not count as peace work.

But when Apartheid ended after a long struggle in South Africa and many had the opportunity to vote for the first time in their life I am sure a majority saw that as a very important peace work. It is obvious that various contexts will give different answers to this question. We should have respect for all who participate, no matter how much time they can allocate to peace work. And be aware that a lot of good work is done with little or no recognition and visibility.

Be visible and loud!

What is meant by “actively and peacefully reducing all forms of violence”?  To be “active” indicates something more that having the “right thoughts” or “good intentions”. There is a notion of activity, maybe in form of disseminate these ideas or maybe even in taking part in actions of different kinds. (You will read more about different kinds of nonviolent social actions in lesson 1.3.2.)

I would argue that all forms of taking part in the public debate on issues related to reduction of violence or building up of good relationships should be counted as peace work. Writing, giving speeches, teaching, sending letters, and talking to friends and neighbours are good traditional ways of “sending the message”. And in today’s world of electronic communication the possibilities are numerous. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, the use of mobile phones, and the multiple other forms of relatively cheap and easy communication makes the potential enormous. These means of communication can be used to inform people, allow them to take part in discussions as well as mobilising, teaching, and organising people. Only our fantasy sets the limit.

Main stream media no longer has a monopoly on informing the people!

Just War?

To end all forms of violence is probably not achievable, in the same way as it is not achievable to eradicate all diseases. But to reduce violence is for sure not only possible but an ongoing process. When we include direct, structural, and cultural violence (see lesson 1.1.3) there is no lack of work to be done for anyone who wants to reduce these intolerable and inhuman conditions.

A central question is; What are the means to be used? We can divide the means into two main categories: Violent means and nonviolent. Ever since the establishment of a state system in 1648 the state as an actor has had monopoly of the legal use of violence. And armies have frequently been used to handle conflicts between states. We have heard arguments like “the army is our largest peace movement”. The justification has been that wars will solve conflicts and create peace. Some will argue that a weapon for a peace worker is like a knife for a doctor in a surgical operation. Other will say that the means influence the outcomes and that the tools of war are more similar to a chain saw than a surgical instrument. All military weaponry is specially designed and developed to kill people, and not to build good relationship.

There is an old and huge discussion on “Just War Theory”. World War II is frequently used as an example of the necessity of armies to create peace. However, there have been used many different nonviolent actions against Nazi-Germany; some with enormous success (Johansen YYYY). Another often ignored fact is that it took Germany more than one generation of humility and restoration in order to build up good relationship again with all the 18 countries it had occupied during this war.

Others have argued that the institutions of war are nothing else than the institutions of slavery and imperialism were in our history and patriarchy is today. They are inhuman and should be abolished.

Peaceful means

Civil society actors have another toolbox of means when they engage in the struggle against violence. They have a wide range of nonviolent means to use. Let me just mention some of the main categories.

We are all familiar with public demonstrations of different kinds and we have witnessed strikes at workplaces. In recent years we have even seen several large scale peaceful revolutions in authoritarian societies (Johansen 2009, pp 69-124). The fall of the Berlin wall and hence DDR was as a symbolic end of the Cold War.  Almost all social movements have applied some or all of the following six categories of peaceful means:

  1. Nonviolent protest and persuasion.

A typical case would be a picket-line or a peaceful demonstration.

  1. Social noncooperation

Students on strike is an illustration of social noncooperation

  1. Economic noncooperation: Boycotts

The boycotts against South Africa during the last decades of apartheid are well known cases of boycotts. Today disinvestment, sanctions, and boycotts of the Israeli state are examples.

  1. Economic noncooperation: Strikes

Workers on strikes are the most used means in this category.

  1. Political noncooperation

In the liberation of India Gandhi asked the bureaucrats working in the British administration to stop working. That proved to be an effective technique of political noncooperation.

  1. Nonviolent intervention

The Freedom Flotilla sailing with medical equipment, food, building material, and other necessities to Gaza in the May 2010 was a typical, but tragic case of nonviolent intervention.

Gene Sharp’s book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, from 1973 has studied and categorized hundreds of nonviolent actions. There you can read more on the historical use of these actions. (Sharp 1973)

Good intentions are not enough!

Engagement in such activities, when they are aimed to reduce violence, are clearly good examples of peace work, and we need to be aware that a number of these means can be used for purposes other than reducing violence. Just like any other tool there are possibilities for misuse. A knife is an excellent tool to cut a slice of bread, but can also be used as a murder weapon.  This is why the peace worker needs to combine the right intention with good skills to use the tools in her toolbox while at the same time have a combination of a good understanding of the problem she is engaged in, and the skills to use the tools in an effective and proper way.[1]  Good intentions have frequently proven not to be enough!


Who are the actors to do the job? In other words; who are the peace workers? I would argue that it could be everybody. Everybody can contribute to reduction of man-made suffering in the world. While armies recruit the physical fittest (and often only  males) to be engaged in their activities, the peace worker can do a good job independent of gender, age, disabilities, class, religion, or position in the society. A list of prominent peace workers in our history will include Nelson Mandela who, for most of his life was a prisoner, the spiritual leader Dalai Lama, and the brave civil rights activist Rosa Park.  Others were the electrician Lech Wałęsa who led the Solidarity movement against the communist dictatorship in Poland and the Maya indian Rigoberta Menchú who worked for Human Rights in Guatemala and later got the Nobel Peace prize.[2]

Peace Building

Most of the activities discussed above have focused of reducing violence and suffering by protesting, arguing, and directly intervening. Another growing branch on the peace worker’s tree is to start building a peaceful future here and now. The idea is that even if the enormous forces of violence in the world are too much to take on, we can at least start building small unites of peace within the present society. In situations of ongoing armed conflict, after a ceasefire, or in the midst of structural violence, we can create islands of peace. They then may flourish, multiply, and hopefully result in an archipelago of how we want the whole world to be in the future.

Many successful movements combine different forms of protests with building peaceful alternatives.

Peace building is focused on what people want to have rather than what they oppose. It is “Yes” to positive rather than “No” to oppression, violence, exploitation, and unjust decisions. This can be illustrated with the change within the environmental movement in recent decades. While previously there were protests against nuclear power, pollution, pesticides, and other types of threats against our ecosystem, environmental activists have moved on to build their own wind-mills, buy environmental friendly products, local organically grown food, and travel with ecological sound transport systems. This may be a form of “peace building with nature”.

Mahatma Gandhi called this strategy the Constructive Program. In his last years of life he regretted that he had not put more emphasis on that sort of work than the civil disobedience campaigns in his struggle for the liberation of India. His Khadi campaign was a part of the constructive program. The idea was to have Indians producing their own clothes through spinning two hours a day. They would then no longer need to buy cotton clothes imported from Britain and hence realize parts of the Swaraj (independence) long before the declaration in 1947. We still find the spinning wheel from the Khadi campaign in the Indian flag.


Reconstruction, Reconciliation, Resolution

Peace building can take many different shapes and forms. In societies that have gone through violent clashes and atrocities there will be a need for Reconstruction, Reconciliation and Resolution (the three R’s) as a part of peace building.

For reconstruction the peace building is very much practical work: to rebuild the destroyed societies. Houses, hospitals, infrastructure, power stations, sewage systems etc must be reconstructed. Here are many options for earlier conflicting parties to work together. For reconciliation the individuals and social structures need mending and looking forward despite the inner wounds. It is not a question of forgetting what has happened but to be able to move on with some sort of dignity despite the horrible past. Compensations, apologies, ceremonies, truth commissions, and dialogs can be important ingredients in such processes. And resolution is peace building through finding a sustainable and acceptable solution to the reasons for the conflict in the first place.

From the conflict triangle you learned about in lesson 1.1.2, these three R’s are related to the three corners. Reconciliation is a question about attitudes (the A-corner), reconstruction is about how to behave (B-corner), and the content or contradiction of the conflict (C-corner) corresponds with resolution.

How is peace work related to conflicts?

The obvious would be that peace is the opposite of conflict. But a closer study reveal that it is not so (see lesson 1.1.1). A lot of peace work activities are even cases of escalation of conflicts. When Rosa Parks decided to sit up-front in the bus she knew it would create reactions and escalate the conflict. It was done in order to expose inequality and unjust conditions and bring it into the public sphere for discussion. Rosa Parks wanted to force more people to take a stand. Lech Wałęsa led strikes and occupations of the shipyard in Gdansk because he knew that would escalate the conflicts they had with the government.

The fact is that a lot of the peace activities we have seen in history are cases of conflict escalation; but with peaceful means. That is a crucial difference from what is meant by escalation in most textbooks about conflicts. Escalation is in most cases understood as escalation of the violence.

This is due to a common misunderstanding of some basic concepts. First of all conflicts are not necessarily bad. Almost all development of individuals and societies include conflicts. The problematic side comes if or when one or more actors take up violent means. The most successful cases, i.e. the most peaceful ones, are often underreported, invisible, not documented. It seems that media as well as academia doesn’t recognize conflicts unless there is massive violence in them. That goes for conflicts on the individual level as well as societal conflicts.

When a couple has a quarrel it is only paid attention to if there is violence included. And when states are divided or in conflict with other states the interest seems to be solely on the disastrous cases. There was for instance a lot of focus on the split of Yugoslavia and almost nothing on the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia. One sad consequence of this is that we hear so much more on how not to act in conflicts that the most interesting cases are ignored.

I believe that most conflicts are handled in a wise and peaceful manner, but they are never counted. Let us give all conflicts equal rights to recognition!

A better definition of peace work?

Based on the above I would argue that the most valuable definition of peace work is based on the following definition of peace (see lesson 1.1.1): ‘a capacity to handle conflicts with empathy, creativity and by non-violent means’ (Galtung 2002:8).  Then peace work is when the skills and knowledge you need to act in conflicts combine with empathy, creativity and nonviolence are used for the best of humanity![3]

But peace work can be more than this. In addition to peace work in conflict situations we can include work that reduces structural violence, improves the conditions for our vulnerable nature, reduces pain for living beings other than humans, creates respect for Human Rights, and builds the base for a deeper understanding of differences among people!


  • Galtung, Johan (2002) What is peace studies? In Johansen J and Vambheim V (eds). Three papers by Johan Galtung. Tromsø, Centre for Peace Studies, University of Tromsø.
  • Johansen, Jørgen (2009) ”Waves of Nonviolence and the New Revolutionary Movements.” In Seeds of New Hope, Pan-African Peace Studies for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Matt Meyer and Elavie D. Ouédraogo. Asmara: African World Press
  • Johansen J (2010). Hitler and the challenge of non-violence. Available at www.opendemocracy.net/5050/jorgen-johansen/hitler-and-challenge-of-non-violence [accessed ….]
  • Lederach, John Paul (2002) A Handbook of International Peacebuilding : Into the Eye of the Storm. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Sharp, Gene (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Vol. 2: The Methods of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers
  • Boulding, Elise (2000) Cultures of Peace : The Hidden Side of History. 1st ed, Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press



1. Who can be a peace worker?

  1. Only those who have an education within Peace and Conflict Studies or related fields
  2. Only individuals who are engaged in an organized movement aiming to reduce violence
  3. Only people who are engaged in conflicts and are using peaceful means
  4. Everybody

2. Why does the Indian flag have a wheel as a symbol?

  1. It symbolized that the Indian peace movement was ”on the move”
  2. Gandhi preferred bicycles.
  3. It is the symbol of the sun.
  4. It is the wheel of life.
  5. It is the spinning wheel from the Khadi campaign Gandhi initiated.

3. Can peaceful actions escalate the conflicts?

  1. Yes, only unintentionally.
  2. Yes, some of them are aimed at escalate and make the conflict more visible
  3. Only the unsuccessful actions escalate conflict.
  4. Yes, if some activists take up arms.
  5. No, never.

4. Can participation in national elections count as peace work?

  1. Yes, if you vote for a party that will work for a peaceful future
  2. No, parliamentarian activities cannot count as peace work.
  3. Only in very specific cases
  4.  It is up each individual to decide [5]

5. ….?

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Posted in In English, Nonviolence

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