What is peace and justice?

Pax optima rerum:  Peace is the highest good.  This was the motto of the negotiators at the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the murderous Thirty Years War.  Peace is what today’s world needs most urgently, in Egypt, in Syria, in the Middle East, in Africa.  Peace and reconciliation.  Peace with rehabilitation of victims. Peace with understanding of causes.  Peace with a plan for reconstruction – but not only material reconstruction.  Moral reconstruction, value reconstruction, commitment to human dignity, faith in the future – this is essential to achieve peace with justice.

Justice, however, does not mean only punishment, reflecting the universal desire that war crimes and crimes against humanity not go unpunished.  However, the legitimate call for “no impunity” must be absolutely neutral.  If there is no impunity for the crimes committed by one side (the losing side), there must be no impunity either for the crimes committed by the other side.  Otherwise injustice is institutionalized and perpetuated.  The seeds of new conflict would thereby be sown.

How to foster peace and reconciliation in the Egypt and Syria uprisings

We the United Nations Special Procedures Mandate Holders have just issued a call to States and civil society in the context of the tragedy in Egypt.  We have written

“Political, religious and community leaders on all sides must not incite further violence and should take urgent steps to defuse tensions. In the current highly volatile climate, we call upon the Egyptian security forces not to respond forcibly to new protests… We appeal to all parties to fully respect international human rights standards and exercise restraint…A period of dialogue, reconciliation and inclusive political transition must begin that recognizes the concerns of all in society and has the objective of ensuring a stable, democratic and united Egypt”.

We also endorse the words of United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay: “I deplore the loss of life and call on all in Egypt to seek a way out of the violence… What is needed is genuinely inclusive reconciliation. I therefore appeal again to all sides to engage in urgent dialogue to avoid further violence and hate speech, with the aim of restoring constitutional order through free and democratic elections.”

In Egypt and elsewhere, what is needed is respect for the rule of law and for the  constitutional concept that a government must serve all of the persons under its jurisdiction.  Democracy means participation in decision-making and the opportunity to choose policy. The right to vote is only a tool to exercise democracy. Although founded on majority rule, every democracy must recognize and apply individual, minority and group rights.  In other words, majority rule must be understood within the context of the rule of law and human dignity.

As highlighted by the European Court of Human Rights, “Pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness are hallmarks of a ‘democratic society’. Although individual interests must on occasion be subordinated to those of a group, democracy does not simply mean that the views of a majority must always prevail: a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair and proper treatment of people from minorities and avoids any abuse of a dominant position.”[1]. This resolves the tension between populism and human rights, since democracy must not be abused to diminish human rights, e.g. by legitimizing torture or capital punishment, even if public opinion could be invoked or manipulated to demand it.  Thus, it is necessary to strengthen the enforcement of national and regional bills of rights to provide a process and atmosphere for democracy to flourish, ensured by an independent judiciary that provides the necessary protection of both majority and minority interests.

Alfred de Zayas

The United Nations (UN) Independent Expert on the Promotion of an Equitable and International Order

                        [1]   European Court of Human Rights, Case of Leyla Sahin vs. Turkey, Application no. 44774/98, para. 108