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MOST would define “peace” as “the absence of war”. Indeed it was the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy who wrote the epic novel War and Peace, contrasting one against the other. 

Two years ago, I received a Christmas card with a tearaway section that could be used as a bookmark long after you’d chucked away the card or (better still) recycled it. On the bookmark portion were the words “Peace is not just the absence of war”. It suggested that understanding the word “peace” as merely the absence of war was too simplistic, leaving the implications to one’s imagination.

In a situation of war, a ceasefire is a halt in the exchange of gunfire. But it is clearly not peace. The threat of violence remains, dangling over the situation like the sword of Damocles. Even when parties step back from the brink of war, peace cannot be said to have been established, as long as aggression or the potential for aggression remains.

(© Jayel Aheram @ Flickr)

I recently attended the Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. On the sidelines of this assembly was a meeting of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promoting the International Criminal Court. Present were representatives from NGOs from different countries. One of them was called No Peace Without Justice.

Again, this is self-evident. The ghosts of times past need to be exorcised before we are free to get on with times present and future. Otherwise, like overweight baggage, we will keep dragging the past along with us as we struggle under the weight and burden of historic injustices to move forward as a country.

Which is why in countries such as South Africa, it was important to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where people could confess their wrongdoings and be forgiven. Victims could talk about their hurts, and, by so doing — and through hearing from perpetrators of institutionalised injustice, racism and violence — they could begin to heal. There was catharsis. And with catharsis came the beginning of closure. And with closure, the ability to progress.

There can be no lasting peace in places like Palestine, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Darfur in Sudan, or indeed in many of the conflict situations in our world, if it is not accompanied by a just settlement of the various disputes. In the context of the International Criminal Court, this would include bringing to justice the perpetrators of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.


In Malaysia we have just celebrated Hari Raya Haji, and will soon celebrate Christmas. Both festivals deal with sacrifice, forgiveness and moving forward to lead a life of holiness and virtue. The Arabic word qurban, meaning the offering of a sacrifice to God, has its counterpart in the Aramaic (approximately qereb) and Hebrew (qorban).

(© Mike Kline @ Flickr)
In all the three major monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a story of Abraham‘s intended sacrifice of his son in obedience to God. The son was substituted in the end with a lamb. This story speaks of atonement for and expiation of sins, and forgiveness by almighty God. The only difference among the traditions is which son Abraham was prepared to sacrifice.

In the old Latin liturgy Christians refer to Jesus Christ in the following words:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata Mundi, miserere nobis;
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata Mundi, miserere nobis;
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata Mundi, dona nobis pacem.

(Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us; Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us; Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.)

Lasting peace with justice are matters of deep and central concern to us in Malaysia, even more so today. We are still grappling with the aftereffects of colonial injustices, 51 years after independence. We still have to deal with systemic discrimination. And we still have to deal with inherent inequalities.

Social and economic policies have been devised and implemented as a corrective. But the cure has not been the panacea that it was made out to be; instead, it has itself become a problem. Therefore, so long as these issues are not dealt with, they continue to fester and assault the body politic.

We argue over who is right or wrong. We dispute each other’s version of history and the truth. And because these issues are so ingrained and entrenched in the collective communal memories of the disparate communities that make up Malaysia, we deem the open discussion of such matters as sensitive. These days, we even consider them prejudicial to the continued peace and security of our country. Yet if we cannot speak about these things openly and frankly, how do we move forward as a nation?   

(© Les Cunliffe/Dreamstime)

So, as we reflect on the religious festivals, or simply enjoy the year-end holidays, spare a thought and let us together ponder over the true meaning of having peace with justice. Selamat Hari Raya Haji, merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy holidays, and a happy New Year!

Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator.

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One Response to “Peace”

  1. Justitia says:

    Peace is a process. You are right that it needs the element of justice, an elimination of discrimination and ensuring that there is substantive equality.

    The peace process also means change, and often that means NOT going back to the way things were. The process of negotiating is a challenge, no?

    Happy New Year! Peace and joy to us all.

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