Toward a Department of Peace

A Conversation with Bill Bhaneja

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2005-10-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: It was your idea to create a department of peace within the Canadian government. Tell me about it.

BILL BHANEJA: In meetings of the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee (CPCC), I've been representing Science for Peace in Ottawa. When we discussed the organizing of federal peace programs, it was obvious that a cause of problems being discussed was lack of a clear peace mandate -- a coherent mission.

SPENCER: Well, great. And you're not the only person with such ideas. In the US there's a similar movement underway.

BHANEJA: Yes, both in the US and the UK. When I was researching for the proposal I also found that in Victoria a working group for a department of peace was thinking along the same lines. Last November at a meeting of the CPCC (which is essentially a committee of NGOs who get together in Ottawa to discuss peace issues and provide input to the government) Hans Sinn approached me. He's been a founding member of Peace Brigades International and a key member of Coordinating Committee of PBI and Nonviolent Peaceforce Canada. They were to hold civilian peace service consultation in February and had invited practitioners from Germany, the US, and UK. Along with Hans Sinn and Peter Stockdale, I put together a paper for that conference: "Toward a Proposal for a Department of Peace." Dr. Stockdale chairs the CPCC Working Group on Conflict Resolution.

We see the need for such a department as driven by three imperatives: policy, organizational, and funding. At present, without an overarching commitment to peace, the policy and programs for peace within the federal government remain fragmented and are accorded low priority within the large departments such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, Foreign Affairs, and Department of National Defence (DND). Because of this fragmentation, peace remains a peripheral function rather than a major function. If we had a separate peace department, we'd have a well-articulated short- and long-term strategy on the prevention of conflict instead of just quick reactions to crises, which happen now.

SPENCER: How would you see it situated within the governmental structure? What would its relation be to Foreign Affairs?

BHANEJA: The paper recommends a separate federal department of peace with a cabinet minister, who will naturally interact with all other departments. When an issue arises, an inter-departmental committee is always struck to discuss it. What usually happens is that the department that chairs such a task force or committee has the ultimate say on what should be done. The peace element gets biased toward the priorities of that department. If it's Foreign Affairs, they put their spin on it. If it's Defence, they put their spin on it and so on. That's why we need a full-fledged independent ministry for peace.

The federal government spends nearly $16.3 billion annually on international peace and security through its departments and aid agencies. That's no small sum! I got that from a study on the security budget that Ploughshares did last year for the government. All that money is coordinated now only through the interdepartmental committees. But the Minister for Peace would have power equal to that of Foreign Affairs Canada, DND, Citizenship, Immigration, Justice, Health Canada, Finance -- all those ministries that are managing the peace envelope. Right now, there is no department that's devoted to fostering the general rule of peace. Today there's not even a single definition of peace within the government! The focus is on war and terror, and how to alleviate each crisis. There needs to be a program running from beginning to end -- from peacebuilding to peacemaking to peacekeeping.

So our proposal has three parts. First, it describes the problem and the reasons for getting a department of peace. Part two looks at the existing Canadian situation in the context of similar initiatives that are taking place in the USA, the UK, and Europe. It calls for citizen participation in conflict resolution work, education, human rights training, and contact with grassroots organizations that spread the culture of democracy.

SPENCER: Excellent. Are the initiatives in the US and elsewhere similar to yours in encouraging citizen participation?

BHANEJA: I don't know about them all, but certainly since 1999 there is a Civilian Peace Service in Germany which is part of the government programming. The government is involved in the recruitment, training, and placement of personnel in nonviolent conflicts.

SPENCER: Are those personnel NGOs or independent citizens?

BHANEJA: Germany is working with NGOs, who are deployed in Colombia and southeast Asia -- Sri Lanka and Indonesia or Thailand. A local organization involved in conflict invites the government to send people to act as witnesses or civilian negotiators.

In the US the movement is driven by a group of people led by Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, whose Bill HR 2459 was tabled in 2001. It now has 51 sponsors in the House. In the UK, MP John P. Macdonald presented a similar bill in October 2003. Many public awareness activities are planned over the next few months. In Washington, the Kucinich group is having an event on September 12.

SPENCER: Yes, I've received e-mail invitations to that.

BHANEJA: And not only Kucinich. The broadcaster Walter Cronkite is a key speaker. In the UK, the organizers are having a two-day conference in London on department/ministry of peace activities all around the world from the 18th to 20th of October. We hope that Saul Arbess, who heads the Working Group for Department of Peace in Victoria, will be attending that meeting. Last month they had a successful peace festival in Victoria to promote that.

SPENCER: You know many people in Foreign Affairs Canada. What is their attitude to this proposal?

BHANEJA: We decided not to take it to bureaucrats. The problem is, peace initiatives are handled by four or five departments without any integrated vision for peace. They would never say, "Okay, dismantle us and establish a peace department." There is money, staff, and a reorganization involved. They will be defensive, so we decided to raise it at the political level. We thought that when the International Policy Review is tabled, we would bring this as one of the options for the government. However, that review got delayed and I don't know whether there will be public consultations. So we decided to approach MPs in all political parties who are members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We've just gone through that phase. The members are giving us feedback, and the proposal has reached the heads of all four parties. We don't look at it as an NDP, Bloc, or Conservative or Liberal issue. Look at how we are spending this $16.3 billion on peace and security. We feel that MPs should be interested in our proposal to make government accountable for taxpayers' dollars on peace activities.

SPENCER: The comparison that comes to my mind is to the situation of peace studies in the universities. I used to coordinate a peace and conflict studies program at University of Toronto -- an interdisciplinary program that drew on courses which already existed. I have argued all along that until we have an autonomous department of peace studies, we'll be vulnerable. There are always ways in which peace studies gets compromised; it's often run by people whose specialty is not peace -- political scientists, psychologists, historians, and so on. I see a parallel to what you're saying. If you have a single department of peace, then people in it will focus on that above all else. Do you also consider that as a parallel situation?

BHANEJA: Yes, precisely. They say, "We all do nothing but peace!" But if that were the case, we wouldn't have these problems. In our proposal we have presented a model legislative bill for creating the department. It outlines the minister's general responsibilities, and shows that he will be supported by four assistant deputy ministers, responsible for six branches of operations. These include office of peace education and training; office of domestic activities; office of international activities; office of arms control and disarmament; office of civil resistance and nonviolent conflict resolution -- and we have described each of these in detail.

SPENCER: How ambitious!

BHANEJA: Some of these already exist within the government. We'll bring them out from the places where they are buried. Give it good leadership and have an advisory council representing peace groups and NGOs to assist the minister. Under that organization we would possibly also create a Civilian Peace Service Canada with responsibility for training in nonviolent conflict resolution. When you put all that together, we're not talking about something for $5 million or $10 million -- we're talking about half a billion dollar program. This is really something to start countering warfare with.

SPENCER: Have you thought about what the relationship might be between this department and the Montreal organization called Rights and Democracy? I don't know how much money they have to spend. They are encouraging democracy and human rights abroad, but they're not funding anything like a Civilian Peace Service.

BHANEJA: Most of these organizations say they are doing it on a piecemeal basis. There's also the Lester B. Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, which provides training to armed forces and others, but there's no coordinated vision of it all.

SPENCER: Yes, I was there last summer. So you would see it and Rights and Democracy as elements of the department of peace?

BHANEJA: In Canada we have lots of competencies. We have to put them together in such an effective way and develop something more meaningful with an international profile.

SPENCER: What country is now closest to what you have in mind?

BHANEJA: The Nordic countries are extensively involved in peacemaking and have lots of credibility.

SPENCER: Norway gives more than one percent of their GDP to development - besides serving as peacemakers by helping democratic opposition movements in places like Burma and Sri Lanka. So impressive!

BHANEJA: I agree with you wholeheartedly. We have to get back to the targets that Lester B. Pearson set for this country in the 1970s. We're talking about end the poverty. But ending poverty requires an end to wars.

SPENCER: Absolutely. Axworthy is pushing that. In the Globe he said that without ending war, the aid can't do much.

BHANEJA: Right. But we have three obstacles. One is lack of political will for creating a department of peace. Second is the bureaucratic tendency in the mainstream departments. Foreign Affairs, CIDA and DND defend their turf and are reluctant to think outside the box. And there's quite a big lobby of consultants and NGOs who don't suggest creating a new structure. As Science for Peace representative, I've found myself in a privileged position in these meetings, since I'm not looking for a government contract. The third obstacle to this is the absence of a national dialogue outside the government.

We're happy that a working group on the department of peace is strong in Victoria. We invited Saul Arbess in February to CPS consultations to speak on his vision of a peace department. We need similar working groups all across the country coming together with their own ideas. There are some who feel uncomfortable with the title "Department of Peace." You could call it, say, a "Department of Peacebuilding and Human Security" or "Peacebuilding and Disarmament," etc. -- but it won't do to make it a little branch within Foreign Affairs or CIDA or DND.

Our Ottawa group includes Murray Thomson, Hans Sinn, Peter Stockdale, and myself. We will continue to educate the parliamentarians here. We've got a pretty positive response, so far, from some Liberal MPs and from Stockwell Day, Foreign Affairs critic for the opposition, and from the NDP's Alexa McDonough's office.

SPENCER: Is there a web site?

BHANEJA: We have kept two projects separate - the department of Peace and the Civilian Peace Service Canada, which logically would fit inside the department of peace. This paper is on CPSC web site:

SPENCER: Tell me about yourself. You're a shooting star because I didn't know you until a few months ago.

BHANEJA: My last assignment was as a senior program manager in Foreign Affairs Canada's "Global Partnership Program," which is aimed at non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction from formerly Soviet countries. Most of my career in the department has been as a science diplomat with postings in London, Bonn, and Berlin. I have a Ph.D. in science policy from the University of Manchester. Having been in the government for 30 years -- 21 of them in the foreign service -- I felt that there were gaps in the government approach to the peace mandate.

SPENCER: How does it feel to leave the government and move into a civilian activist role? How do the two worldviews compare?

BHANEJA: People in government are mindful of how their policies will be accepted so departments' outreach focus is on information dissemination for program acceptance rather than input to policy or program development, or on any structural reform. When I was in government we did a pretty good job of selling what was government policy.

I took early retirement because I had worked on the other side all my life and I wanted to work from this side. It gives me more opportunity to work in terms of my own personal values. I was born in India. When I was six years old I saw Mahatma Gandhi and ahimsa gradually became a second nature. So now I look for ways of promoting non-killing, nonviolence.

SPENCER: Thanks for all your good work! I hope the department of peace idea will come true.

Mr. Bhaneja is a former Canadian diplomat and Metta Spencer is editor of Peace Magazine.

Bhaneja, and Peter Stockdale

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2005

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2005, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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