we need to talk about peace again

A cruise liner is not the first place you’d go looking for conflict prevention, sustainability education, disarmament diplomacy and international collaborations on everything from disaster relief to low-carbon marine transport.

First published at the Guardian

From the outside, the Ocean Dream looks like any other 32,000 tonne ocean liner; a long, seafaring apartment block slung with lifeboats, navigation equipment bristling from the top terraces. There are a few hints at something out of the ordinary though; the ship is splashed with huge logos for the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Ican, the disarmament insurgency that burst into public consciousness when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2017. And then there are the words “Peace Boat” emblazoned in letters four metres high down the flank of the ship.

Did you wince inwardly, even a little, at the name? In more fortunate parts of the world, peace fell out of fashion some time ago; the disintegration of the old Soviet Union, dramatic downsizing of nuclear weapon stockpiles, the eternal triumph of the global capitalist order; all of these things seemed to render the “peace” movement cheerfully redundant. The previous generation won a belated end to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and the slaughter in Vietnam. Made major progress on the restriction and abolition of chemical and biological weapons, land mines, cluster bombs.

And then, disaster. George Bush marched blindly, pig-headedly into Iraq. Millions mobilised globally to try and prevent catastrophe. We failed. Bush, Howard, Blair, the weapons contractors, oil industry and much of the establishment media knew best. Now each act of barbarity plants the seeds of the next. Iraq, Libya, Syria, endless bloodshed in Afghanistan, the incomprehensible disaster of Yemen.

A bleak procession of prime ministers and presidents continue to announce new campaigns to launch precision-guided munitions at the avalanching consequences of their previous announcements. At last we’ve reached the null point of this dismal regression: a spoon-fed narcissist with launch authority over thousands of hydrogen bombs. He seems baffled as to why he shouldn’t use them on the people of Korea, and he’s clearly not the only one. Malcolm Turnbull announced that he was “joined at the hip” to this individual, which would be a queasy metaphor at the best of times.

These are not the best of times. We need to talk about peace again.

More than 30 years ago, a group of Japanese uni students, alarmed at the textbook whitewashing of Imperial Japan’s wartime atrocities, took matters into their own hands. They chartered a small ship, packed it with students, and began taking themselves to places where Japan’s name was the blackest: Nanjing, Hong Kong, Singapore, out into the Pacific. Not to justify, but to try and understand, to apologise, and to work for the prevention of future barbarity.

Anti-nuclear campaigners at the Peace Boat.

Anti-nuclear campaigners at the Peace Boat. Photograph: Scott Ludlam

And so Peace Boat was born. The first round-the-world trip was undertaken in 1990. In 1995 the organisation played a frontline role in disaster relief after the Great Hanshin earthquake that wrecked Kobe. In 2002, reflecting its growing importance as a Japanese non-government organisation, it gained special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN.

In an average year it runs three global voyages and two regional voyages, each carrying a thousand passengers. After the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the Tohoku region in 2011, the organisation formalised its role as an emergency responder, deploying its volunteer network deep into the stricken area to supply food and emergency supplies and assist economic reconstruction.

Along the way, this radical social enterprise collaboration somehow became Japan’s largest cruising organisation. Don’t come for the luxury boutiques or the on-board casino; they tore them out and replaced them with organising spaces; the cabaret lounges repurposed for lectures and activist cinema. You still get exquisitely daggy décor and a small piano bar that looks to be composed entirely of pianos, but the vessel is now configured for a quite different kind of work.

Venues pack out among this willingly captive audience; at any given time there are half a dozen events on the go, hosted by guest lecturers, journalists, activists, or self-organised by paying passengers with their own life experience to share. A volunteer translation team works late into the night preparing an adorable daily newspaper in as many languages as the passenger cohort requires. Language is taken just as seriously by day; the ship has its own school if you want to learn a new one, because of course it does.

An international peace university, but one that moves.

Through simultaneous translation you and 500 others can sit and listen as a dapper Japanese elder relays his memory of the day he found himself less than 2km from the hypocentre of a fission bomb as it blew Hiroshima apart. His life’s work is now dedicated to preventing that from happening to anyone else.

Coming out of a darkened lecture theatre, having permanently memorised the history written into the lines of his face, and the wide ocean is right there. Endless, horizon to horizon, changing in tone and temper as we slowly traverse timezones. Thirty kilometres an hour, hour after hour.

An international peace university, but one that moves. As you’d imagine, it is in port where the real genius of the project is expressed. In the Australian tour just concluded, Japanese bomb-survivors and Fukushima evacuees shared stories of defiance and dispossession with Aboriginal land rights campaigners and environmental defenders from around the country.

On board, we covered everything from the emergence of the hard-right in Australia and Japan, to campaigns for LGBTI rights and how Aboriginal women from South Australia are starting to lose count of the radioactive waste dumps they’ve been called on to defeat. Hundreds of people attended “Making Waves” meetings in Australia’s southern capitals to hear how the UN nuclear ban treaty is transforming from lines on paper into genuine momentum for disarmament; the first real sign of progress and hope in decades.

Peace is back.

In other ports on other nights around our beleaguered world, other themes. The ship has been used as neutral space for peace-building between young Palestinians and Israelis. Dialogue between people caught on both sides of the Korean DMZ, meetings with diplomats and foreign ministers, a global youth ambassador programme, research into our rapidly changing oceans.

The dissonance of people riding around on a passenger ship burning marine diesel oil and lecturing others about marine pollution hasn’t escaped the organisers; it has instead inspired an ambition that I took at first glance to be science fiction. An eco-ship, presently under construction in a shipyard in Helsinki. Expected delivery date is 2020: a bio-designed liner featuring solar sails, closed loop water systems and giant indoor gardens that help feed the ship, consume organic waste and clean the air.

We’re in an age when ambition is called for. It’s not perfect, but a step along the way; something more than a gesture to the closed-loop economy that beckons a world that deserves better than war without end.

Peace Boat will be back in Australia before long. If you’re done with empire’s ceaseless appetite for high-technology carnage, you’ll find good company among the global networks of local people who are still working, even after all this time, to give peace a chance.