Commitment to non-violence

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

We often speak of nations as if they were people, attributing to them the characteristics, the desires and the obligations of individuals. Even when there are useful parallels, however, we must be careful not to mistake the same for absolute correspondence – the same word applied to a human being will mean different things when applied to any other entity, even one composed of human beings. The pride of a person is not the same as the pride of a nation, and to apply the word “duty” to a State is to use it with a different meaning than when we apply it to an individual. The same is true when we speak of ethics, and of non-violence. Last Sunday, Oct. 2, was the International Day of Non-Violence and for this column I’d like to talk about non-violence, and explore what that might mean for a State.

For an individual, non-violence is a personal commitment, though it may have roots in ethical systems that come from a social or religious context. Non-violence can mean that we will not actively and consciously inflict harm on another, even when they harm us first. To turn the other cheek, as many a preacher has encouraged, can be an action whose consequences are borne solely by the one that makes the decision. This is not always the case, however, particularly when this involves a situation where one has the obligation or the capability to protect another in a position of weakness.

That is one of the reasons why applying the concept of non-violence to a nation means something very different – there are those other than the decision maker that are affected. No nation that currently exists, or has ever existed, can take the voices of all its population into account for its every decision, or even its major decisions. Even if such participation were hypothetically possible, no decision involving so many people would be unanimous, and thus there would be those forced to bear the consequences of choices they would not have made for themselves. No ethical calculus of the decisions of the State can ignore that these decisions inevitably afflict consequences on those other than the decision makers. When a nation goes to war, it is not the commander-in-chief that marches to the battlefield, it is not only those who agreed to go to war who are shot at and bombs don’t only fall on soldiers.

I mentioned earlier the possible complication of an individual having an obligation to protect and, where the State is concerned, an essential characteristic of a State is a duty to protect its people. Section 4, Article II of our Constitution makes this explicit: “[t]he prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the people.” Thus a decision made by a government regarding the use of violence, say the use of military might to repel a foreign invasion, must always have the ultimate end of protecting the people. The existence of a military – while at all times subordinate to civilian authority – is a clear acknowledgment that, for our government, the option for the use of force or violence cannot be completely removed without detriment to the people it is sworn to serve. At least, not in the world at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, and not in the world as it stands today.

So what then would it mean for a State to commit to non-violence? When it comes to individuals, non-violence is usually discussed alongside the concepts of “means” and “ends,” of justifications such as those found in criminal law for instances of self-defense. An unjust end possesses no just means, and just ends can be nullified by the gravity of the injustice in the means employed.

A State committed to non-violence must then be a State committed to a rigorous examination of the ends it pursues. Any goal it sets must be aligned with the public good, and by this I mean the public as a whole, for every just end must be inclusive rather than exclusive: a good sought after for all its citizens and not just those who are the right gender, religion, region or social class. And the only effective way to examine the goals of a nation is to listen to as broad a spectrum of voices from its citizens, duly informed and empowered.

A State committed to non-violence must be both aware and wary of its own capacity for violence. And not just through its positive acts but through its organs, its very organization – government institutions are the principal locations of structural violence, where inequalities are embedded in the systems and rules themselves. A commitment to non-violence must encompass a commitment to rooting out these forms of injustice, and of recalibrating systems to be more equitable and accountable.

A State committed to non-violence must also be committed to the international order and instruments that make peaceful conflict resolution between States possible. Recent world events have made clear how tenuous peace can be between nations. With every nation obligated to prioritize the interests of its citizens, it is essential that there be strong international institutions and an active international community to provide the necessary framework for diplomacy.

Finally, a State that is committed to non-violence must be one that sees its people as ends and not means, subjects and not objects. While the Constitution, in the very same section I mentioned above, notes the capacity of the government to call upon the people to defend the State, it is clear that this reciprocal duty is subordinate to that of the government’s duty to the people. The people are not to be used to advance the ends of government. All governments exist for the people, because of the people and through the people.

Non-violence for a State is not an easy task, nor a simple one. Yet it is only through a commitment to non-violence that a State achieves its authentic purpose: the good of the people.


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