Language of peace triumphs over hatred

14 November 2003

Hanan Asrawi with the Peace Prize
Hanan Asrawi with the Peace Prize

When the standing ovation subsided, Hanan Ashrawi, recipient of this year's Sydney Peace Prize, promised to respond to the hundreds of e-mails of encouragement and hope she had received from the Australian public. Giving the annual peace lecture at the University's Seymour Centre, the Palestinian rights activist and scholar acknowledged that there existed in Australia a "common commitment of humanity, a message of peace that goes beyond all the hate language and diatribes".

Right: Hanan Asrawi with the Peace Prize.

She thanked Professor Stuart Rees, director of the Sydney Peace Foundation, for maintaining his "sanity, humanity, kindness and sense of humour" in the face of criticism. She acknowledged Jews Against the Occupation for a bouquet of flowers displayed on the stage and thanked performers for a peace song in Hebrew and Arabic.

Outside the centre, arriving guests were greeted by a handful of opposing groups displaying banners for and against Dr Ashrawi, the 57-year-old former Palestinian spokeswoman and minister.

The demonstrations remained orderly and peaceful, despite a media furore in the run up to the presentation of Australia's only international peace prize.

The selection of Dr Ashrawi came under attack from a range of sources including Australian Jewish groups, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Health Minister Tony Abbott. Sydney's Lord Mayor, Lucy Turnbull, refused to meet Dr Ashrawi, describing her as an inappropriate choice, even though the City is the main sponsor of the prize.

supporters and protesters in position outside the Seymour Centre.

Supporters and protesters in position outside the Seymour Centre
Supporters and protesters in position outside the Seymour Centre

At the peace lecture the 700-strong crowd in the main theatre was augmented by another 500 in a spill-over theatre, and the audience listened attentively as Dr Ashrawi often digressed from her prepared speech.

Dr Ashrawi, who has dedicated two-thirds of her life to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, believes a two-state solution is still possible, "even though many say it's a pipedream" and stressed the need to recognise the two separate peoples.

"I don't believe the only good Palestinian is a Palestinian who abandons his or her struggle," she said.

"I believe that a good Palestinian is a Palestinian who remains true to his or her own legacy, identity, cause and struggle and at the same time understands that the other [people] are part of common humanity and that peace can be made on the basis of mutual recognition and accommodation."

Peace is not made by defeated people, through capitulation, or by exhausting the weaker party through bloodshed, she said. Rather it is "conviction, courage, strength and tenacity" - qualities she also attributed to the Sydney Peace Foundation for resisting opposition - that creates peace.

Without naming any specific groups, she called for an immediate halt to acts of violence against civilians, such as suicide bombings, and condemned extremist thinking, radicalisation and evading accountability as barriers to peace. "It's very easy to dehumanise the other and avoid responsibility or culpability," she said. "It's too convenient for people to say 'I am doing God's will'."

She also cautioned against biased third-party intervention, driven by the special agendas of radical groups from Riyadh to Washington to Sydney. They intensify the conflict, subvert dialogue and reinforce misconceptions that there are no peace partners, when in fact those peace partners should be empowered rather than excluded.

"Those who said Australia is too far away or can't make a difference are mistaken," she said.

A complete transcript of the 2003 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture, including the comments Hanan Ashrawi added to her written speech, is published as an Occasional Paper by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. For more information please see the CPACS website