2002 – Recovering Humanity: the Means of Peace with Justice

Recovering Humanity:  the Means of Peace with Justice


Stuart Rees

Defining Humanity

In personal disputes, in civil wars and in negotiations which cross cultures, the discovery of common aspirations can be a way to end such conflicts. These common aspirations refer to the ideals of a common humanity. This includes a quality of living, as in the enjoyment of political and economic rights, and to a set of values, as in the acknowledgement of responsibility to care for one another. A commitment to ‘humanity” illustrates a moral imperative to respect such rights and to live by such values.

Dictionary definitions of humanity speak of ‘the nature peculiar to a human being’, ‘of human nature’ or attributes.  They imply a notion of collective welfare which presupposes a thread joining people across class, caste, cultures and countries. Gandhi’s philosophy and language of non-violence expressed faith in such an interdependence which he saw as an ocean where even if parts were sullied by inhuman acts, the ocean did not become completely dirty.  His emphasis on interdependence implies that an injustice done to one member of a human family would affect not only immediate family members but could have world wide effects.  The Hindu poet and Gandhi supporter Tagore wrote that those we keep down inevitably drag us down.  A sense of hurt and accountability for injustice done to others stretches into the past and places obligations on present and future generations.  Martin Luther King taught that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The movement to effect reconciliation with indigenous peoples has been based on a willingness to re-write history by acknowledging past injuries and by saying ‘sorry’ in the present.  Yet this view of atonement has been derided as a ‘black arm band view of history’ as though those who apologise for past injustices are merely pessimists who think that history should not connect with the present.

However, acceptance of responsibility for a common humanity has an impressive history.  Socrates claimed that he was neither a citizens of Athens, nor of Greece but of the world. Arguments about global citizenship have been influenced by a vision of inclusiveness: the fruits of the world to be shared, no-one to be excluded. Commitment to international treaties concerning protection of the environment and to promote respect for universal human rights shows governments claiming to act as global citizens, though they may be motivated by self interest.

A belief in the indivisibility of peoples also carries the assumption that everyone feels pain, loss and grief, and everyone benefits from expressions of love, joy and compassion, those virtues experienced by people whatever their ethnic background, their culture or religion . This belief contrasts with the claim that hurt to others is no business of mine because I do not know these victims and I do not believe they merit respect. Such indifference and rejection has been promoted on religious and racial grounds when people of Islamic faith are perceived as not capable of feelings like non Muslims, or if indigenous peoples are seen as not being as civilised as people with better education, in particular if the better educated have embraced the values of commerce and have benefited from advances in technology.

The thesis about an interdependence between the world’s peoples presupposes common attributes of being human.  In Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words, it is best expressed by the African word ‘ubuntu’ which conveys respect for the indivisibility of peoples and for the qualities which achieve a common humanity. In elaborating the meaning of this word, he suggested that it should stay African and not be translated directly.

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language.  It speaks to the very essence of being human.  When we want to live high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu u nohuntu’, Hey, he or she has ubuntu’.  This means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate.  They share what they have.  It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs.  We belong in a bundle of life.  We say, ‘a person is a person through other people’.  It is not ‘I think therefore I am’. It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong’.  I participate, I share.  A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are. (Tutu, 1999 pp. 34-35).

In the preparations for the Middle East peace talks held in Madrid in 1999, Hanan Ashrawi the spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization stressed the importance of spontaneity in conveying her own sense of humanity.  In an echo of Archbishop Tutu’s description of ‘ubuntu’, she explained that if a Palestinian⁄Israeli dialogue was to stand a chance of simultaneously achieving mutual respect and confounding stereotypes, she would have to exercise her ‘option for directness and honesty’.  I brought with me an aspect of the innocence of the intifada, its willingness to confront, to take the initiative, to assert itself and not to succumb to intimidation.  But most of all, I brought to that encounter, and subsequently to all others, that one essential sine qua non that was to become the most salient quality of Palestinian political discourse: the human dimension..’ (Ashrawi 1995, p. 59).

Key ideals in Hanan Ashrawi’s and Archbishop Tutu’s description concern people’s openness and availability, a willingness to give respect and to affirm others’ identity.  In the dialogue of a pre-negotiation stage of peace talks, when the terms for negotiation are being laid down, such affirmation influences attitudes towards the prospect of even meeting again.  Ashrawi describes the numerous meetings which preceded the Madrid peace negotiations and whose purpose was to ‘untie and resolve the Gordian knot of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict’.  From these meetings a new language emerged and found its way into negotiations and political platforms.  “Gradually, we came to understand and to distinguish the sacred from the profane, the meadow from the minefield, the scar from the wound, the human being from the stereotype’.  She adds, however, that all that was not enough to make peace (Ashrawi 1995, p. 63).

Archbishop Tutu’s interpretation of ‘ubuntu’ stressed a quality which is realised in association with others.  When someone you cherish dies, loss and grief are experienced because a previous close relationship has ended.  When relationships which generate interest and joy are experienced, the significance of interdependence is underlined and a quality of being human is apparent, as in a silent understanding between friends ‘And my comrade stride for stride paces silent at my side’, wrote the poet Housman.

Expressions of love as the quality of being human were detailed by novelist Ian McEwan in an account of the last minutes of the hijacked passengers in the jet which crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11th.  In an article entitled ‘Only love and then oblivion’, he described how love was all the hijacked passengers had to set against the hatred of their murderers.  Through their mobile phones a few passengers were able to say to their partners, their children, their husbands and wives ‘I love you”.  A new technology, said McEwan. had shown an ancient, human universal.  ‘A San Francisco husband slept through his wife’s call from the World Trade Centre.  The tower was burning all around her and she was speaking on her mobile phone.  She left her last message to him on the answering machine…. A TV station played it.  We heard her tell him through her sobbing that there was no escape for her.  The building was on fire and there was no way down the stairs.  She was calling to say ‘goodbye’.  There was really only one thing for her to say. those three words that all the terrible art. the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies can somehow never cheapen ‘I love you’ (McEwan, 2001).

In an age when politicians and post modern theorists have suggested that individual freedom can be served by giving up on a search for universal* because nothing is certain, it is worth recalling that the besieged on those planes and in those buildings had only one thing left to say.  McEwan also suggests that empathy – the ability to put oneself into the shoes of another, to think of oneself in the minds of others – is also at the core of humanity, ‘the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality*.  He concluded. ‘If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed’. (Instead) the hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy’ (McEwan, September 2001).

Archbishop Tutu. Hanan Ashrawi and Ian McEwan have referred to humanity in terms of the traits of individuals and the characteristics of personal relationships which contribute to group solidarity and a sense of community.  Each form of association implies assumptions about a common good and ways to attain such an objective. Efforts to achieve justice, or to realise the argument that there are circumstances when humanity will come before justice (Campbell, 1974).

This account of the virtues which characterise humanity needs a warning label.  Humanity may sound too anthropomorphic, having to do with human beings and, by implication ignoring the environment, plants, animals and other living things.  Yet the philosophy of non-violence and the associated ideology of peace with justice include the belief that people are neither separated from one another, nor from the environment which sustains them.  Concern for individuals cannot be attained by viewing human well being as separate from respect for the environment.  A recovery humanity involves respect for an interdependence of society, environment and an even wider universe.

Inspiration from Great Humanitarians

Caught in the momentum of 20th century inhumanities, an Australian Federal Government has ignored even the letter of its human rights obligations and has behaved without compassion, as in its treatment of asylum seekers and in its relative indifference to the cause of reconciliation with indigenous Australians.  Against this background, it is reassuring to identify the practice of humanitarians and to ask why their examples are not imitated by governments and other influential institutions.  On the contrary, values such as aggression to obtain financial success, single minded pursuit of self-interest in order to dominate and, in the design of foreign policies, the build up of military forces to maintain control stay central to political agendas and economic management.  The values of great humanitarians remain on society’s periphery, admired but not central to policies to build a just peace and civil societies.

Nevertheless, inspiration can be found from such humanitarians, including poets who remind us of a common cause which challenges exploitation, racism and other forms of violence.  For example, at the beginning of the 19th century, in a poem called Humanity, William Wordsworth foreshadowed the destructive effects of the unbridled capitalism which characterised the industrial revolution.  He began hopefully:

What a fair world were ours for verse to paint,

If Power could live at ease with self restraint !

Then he warned:

That to an idol Falsely called ‘the Wealth

Of Nations’, (we) sacrifice a people’s health.

Body, mind and soul a thirst so keen

Is ever urging on the vast machine

Of sleepless Labour, ‘mid whose dizzy wheels

The Power least prized is that which thinks and feels’

(from Humanity, 1829)

A more recent promotion of the cause of a common humanity occurs in Oodgeroo Nunucaal’s ‘All One Race’.

I’m for all humankind, not colour gibes,

I’m international and never mind tribes

I’m international never mind place;

I’m for humanity, all one race

I want to conclude this picture of humanitarianism by referring to three philosopher practitioners of non-violence.  The tone and content of their message could illuminate every conversation,  The benefits of non-violence are the chink of light in all peace negotiations and the cement of any civil society.  The three leaders I am referring to are Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Aung Sann Suu Kyi.  At different periods of history and in diverse cultures they were committed to the most powerless in the search for justice.  Their practice of non violence included an insistence on the discipline of quiet reflection and on the riches to be realised from conversations with supporters as well as opponents.  Gandhi’s humanitarianisrn was expressed in his humour and playfulness as well as in his willingness to sacrifice his life for the truth that might be found by harnessing every possible expression of non violence (Fischer 1992).  Martin Luther King was as much a social policy.

In the Australian context I will refer briefly to a Catholic sister, Mary Mackillop, who in the early 19th century worked for the poor, to a surgeon. Weary Dunlop, who was a Japanese prisoner of war who kept alive the hopes of fellow prisoners, to an opthalmologist, Fred Hollows, who developed medical services in Eritrea and who continued to travel and to operate even when facing his own terminal illness.  I will also make mention of Marg Barry, a community activist who held herself accountable to powerless people against the interests of powerful developers and disinterested politicians.

Three characteristics of such humanitarians stood out:

  1. They were risk takers who challenged conventional authority
  2. They consistently showed compassion for and commitment to the powerless
  3. They gave inspirational leadership which focused on humanitarian principles and transcended the materialist preoccupation of their age

Challenging conventional authority. Sister Mary McKillop questioned a patriarchal Catholic Church and an uncaring state.  Weary Dunlop represented the interests of his fellow prisoners of war against their Japanese captors.  Fred Hollows showed disdain for medical hierarchies, for bureaucratic rules and conventions.  The journalist Bob Ellis said of Fred Hollows, ‘All agreed on Hollows’ foul mouth, bad temper, lack of basic organizational skills, impatience, political ferocity, unreconstructed Marxism, residual Christianity, pioneering zeal, primitive humanism, companionship with jailbirds and low life and poets, and intolerance of bureaucratic fools’ (Ellis, 1994 25).

Commitment to the powerless: Mary McKillop’s vows of poverty were expressed through a fierce intelligence and considerable organizational skills – which in her biography (Gardiner. 1993) show her political understanding and her courage in staying accountable to the powerless.  Fred Hollows conceived his role and responsibility to be outrageous, to make a difference, never to be held back by convention, by rules for proper conduct or even by the suffering associated with terminal illness.  The obituary of the community activist Marg Barry reads, “She was gut-strong, mind quick, moral certain. Therefore formidable. But also light of heart, vivacious, funny and a self put-down merchant. She was single, single minded, singular. She was a young woman who had grown old trying to make things fairer and had, therefore, grown fair.  She was irreplaceable.  She was what every community needs.  If this society, Australia, hasn’t got a front-line of young Marg Barrys coming on, we’re in trouble,'(McGregor, 2001).

Giving inspirational leadership: A third virtue in these humanitarians is the by-product of their courage and compassion.  They gave inspirational leadership.  Their concern for others (it would not be too lofty to say it was a vision for all of humanity) transcended the materialist preoccupation of their age, let alone the demands of due respect for authority.  In this regard they had much in common with the inspiration to be derived from poets over several centuries and from different countries.  Now in his eighties the Nobel prize winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz looks back on a century of inhumanities.  In the poem This World, he is imagining either that none of this ever happened or that humanity might be recovered in spite of the past:

It appears that it was all a misunderstanding.

What was only a trial run was taken seriously.

The rivers will return to their beginnings.

The wind will cease its turning about.

Trees instead of budding will tend to their roots.

Old men will chase a ball, a glance in the mirror –

They are children again.

The dead will wake up, not comprehending.

Till everything that has happened has unhappened.

What a relief! Breathe freely, you who suffered so


(Milosz 1995 p. 58)


Humanity has a universal connotation, applicable to relationships in the home, on the streets, in reconciliation between races, as a guiding principle for preventing human cruelties, and for planning long term provision of humanitarian aid.  Visions of humanity are implied in the ideal of equality of respect and equality of opportunity for all peoples. In the actions of humanitarians, the goals of equality and justice are communicated through love for those they know and for those they do not know but for whom the> feel that responsibility which comes with membership of a common humanity.

To attain these visions of a common humanity requires a transfer o the discourse from rational and warlike cultures to the promotion o a culture of peace, from policies preoccupied with economic efficiency to those fuelled by humanitarian agendas.  Recovery of humanity could emerge as a vision to create a greater sense of hope.  Previously given little attention in policy circles and almost none in deliberations about conventional economics or in cliches about efficient management, humanity is not cluttered with controversies of different official definitions.  It is multidisciplinary, multicultural and multinational. It can draw from infinite sources of inspiration and can breathe new life into everyday communication about peace with justice and ways to attain it.


  • Ashrawi, Hanan (1995), This Side of Peace, London, Abacus Publications
  • Aung Sann Suu Kyi (1995), Freedom From Fear, London, Penguin Books
  • Campbell T. (1974) Humanity Before Justice, in British Journal of Political Science, No. 4, pp 1-6.
  • Carson. Clayborne, Ed (1999), The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, London, Little Brown & Company
  • Ellis, Bob (1994) Eyes are the prize, in Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, August 20lh.
  • Fischer, Louis (1992), The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, New York, Harper Collins
  • Gardiner, Paul (1993) Mary MacKillop: An Extraordinary Australian. Sydney: E.J.Dwyer⁄David Ells Press.
  • Habermas, Jurgen.(1979), Communication and the Evolution of Society, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • McEwan, Ian, (2001) Only love and then oblivion, in The Guardian, September 15
  • McGregor, C. (2001), Marg Harry a tribute, in Sydney Morning Herald, March 12th
  • Milosz, Czeslaw (1995), Facing The River, Manchester, Carcanet
  • Moses, G (11997), Revolution of Conscience, New York, The Guildford Press
  • Pusey, Michael (1987) Jurgen Habermas, London. Tavistock Publications

Stuart Rees is Emeritus Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Sydney Peace Foundation at the University of Sydney.

He held the chair for Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Sydney from 1978 to 2000. He has worked in community development and social work in Britain, in Canada, in the War on Poverty programs in the USA and with Save the Children in India and Sri Lanka.

He has taught at leading universities in the UK (Aberdeen and Southampton), in Canada (Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier), in the USA (University of California at Berkeley, University of Texas).

His publications include over 100 journal articles on evaluations of health, welfare and legal services, the attributes of peace negotiations and humanitarianism in social policy.

He is the author and co-author of nine books, including A Brutal Game (1986), Achieving Power (1991), Beyond the Market (1993), The Human Costs of Managerialism (1995) and Human Rights, Corporate Responsibility (2000).

Awards include a Simon Fellowship at the University of Manchester, a Humanities Fellowship at the City University of Hong Kong and the ‘Award of Highest Honour for Contributions to World Peace’ at Soka University of Japan.

For four years he was an elected fellow of the Senate at the University of Sydney. He is currently a council member of the Toda Research Institute into Global Governance and Human Security and a member of the Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee of New South Wales.

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