Turning Point: In Gaza’s deadliest day since 2014, the Israeli military killed dozens of Palestinians and injured thousands more.
When the Second World War ended in 1945 there were 51 member states in the United Nations. Today there are 193. Many of the new states emerged out of struggle and conflict as old empires crumbled.
That cycle of political struggle continues today. The Brexit crisis may cause huge economic damage to Ireland’s economies and may even threaten the Good Friday Agreement. In Catalonia and the Basque Country, both of which seek independence from Spain, in Hong Kong and Palestine, people fight or have fought for the right to self-govern.
The world is dominated by nations’ struggles to make their own laws and to decide their relationships with other nations. But for people to have control over the decisions that affect their lives, we must empower them through diplomacy, cooperation and dialogue. When governments put simple human decency and the rights of their people first as they negotiate the world’s conflicts, democracy will follow.
That, however, is easier said than done, especially when the individual people responsible for upholding the law often value their own power over the common good.
When I was a teenager in Belfast I realized that my peers and I were not being treated fairly. Northern Ireland was created when the British government partitioned Ireland. People were divided on sectarian lines and Catholics were deemed to be disloyal. We were denied basic rights in what was effectively an apartheid statelet.
The inequality we experienced was deeply embedded in our society, to the point of being policy. Still, I thought that fixing it was only a matter of bringing it to the attention of the people in charge. Once they realized the problem they would rectify matters.
I soon learned that the people in charge relied on that inequality for their power. They were unlikely to eradicate it if that would cost them their leverage, and any solution would be tempered to a degree that would keep them in charge. People who have power, or even the illusion of power, are loath to give it up.
Those on the other side of this equation — the disadvantaged — include many who believe they cannot change their situation. Some are reluctant even to consider that change is possible. Some are afraid of change. Some are used to society being organized in a certain way, even when that society discriminates against them. Some are too busy surviving or living their lives to consider that things could be different.
There can be no progress without political struggle, but for it to succeed, people must be empowered. They need to have a stake in society and in their communities. They have to be cherished, and their humanity has to be respected and defended. They have rights and entitlements that must be upheld and promoted. Society needs to be citizen-centered, shaped around these rights.
The reality, of course, is that progressive change in society rarely comes of its own accord. It has to be engineered, negotiated for. Violence often breeds when people believe that they have been left with no alternative. And this belief can become more entrenched as states use extrajudicial and violent means to defend their interests.
Annual worldwide military spending is estimated to be over $1.7 trillion today, whereas the United Nations and its related agencies spend around $30 billion annually. Conflict is fueled by poverty, economic exploitation and the desire to control water rights, oil reserves and other natural resources.
Britain had fought dozens of counterinsurgency wars before it sent its soldiers to Irish streets in 1969. It had a well-established policy that saw the law, according to Brigadier Frank Kitson, as “just another weapon in the government’s arsenal … little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.”
Irish republicans and others succeeded in shifting from conflict to peace by building an alternative to armed struggle with the Good Friday Agreement. It provides for certain rights for Northern Ireland, including the right to a referendum on whether to remain a part of Britain or to end that relationship and establish a united Ireland. The agreement emerged slowly as a result of hard work, with parties and governments eventually being prepared to take risks, and with the support of the international community. It is still very much unfinished business.
In the conflict between the Spanish state and the Basque independence campaigners a similar process, closely modeled on Ireland’s, has succeeded in ending armed conflict, even though the Spanish government has not fully engaged so far. Sinn Fein leaders have often traveled to other conflict zones, including Afghanistan and Colombia, advocating the primacy of dialogue, negotiations and peace processes.
I have traveled to the Middle East on several occasions, speaking to Palestinians, visiting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and speaking to senior leaders in Israel and Palestine. Regrettably, the failure of governments to uphold international law and U.N. resolutions, and the Israeli government’s refusal to defend democratic norms and find equitable and fair compromises, has left many Palestinians living in desperate conditions, with no hope of a different, better future. As a result, the Middle East exists in a permanent state of conflict.
To change this demands a genuine effort to understand what motivates, inspires and drives people to make the choices they do. The dialogue that fosters that understanding is what ultimately empowers opposing sides of a conflict to come together.
Whoever described politics as the art of the possible was reducing politics to a mediocre trade. People’s expectations of their worth must be raised — not lowered. When we do that, we enable democracy to take hold in even the most dire situations.
Gerry Adams has been a member of Ireland’s Sinn Fein political party since the 1960s. He was an architect of the Good Friday Agreement, which helped to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and is currently a member of the Irish Parliament.
This is an article from Turning Points, a magazine that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.
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