Contributor: Donna J. Perry, PhD, RN
Like many people across the globe, I have spent the last week watching the news from Ukraine with disbelief, horror, and tears. The unfolding human tragedy is difficult to behold. As someone who has been part of the global peace movement and worked on international policy, it is shocking to see such blatant disregard of international treaties for protection of civilians. And it is deeply disturbing to see this war from the viewpoint of a nurse, committed to the dignity of each and every human being.
Nursing as a discipline was born out of war. Both Florence Nightingale, during the Crimean War, and Rufaida Bent Saad al-Aslamiya, during 7th century Middle Eastern wars, advanced nursing practice and education through knowledge gained helping those injured in combat. War has existed throughout history; yet, so too has the yearning for peace. After witnessing the bloody battlefield of Solferino, Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, persuaded the commanders to agree to a ceasefire so that he could arrange care for the injured. His writings and advocacy on this experience inspired establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the first Geneva Convention. This important treaty protects medical personnel during time of war. Nurse Clara Barton’s advocacy succeeded in ratification of the First Geneva Convention by the U.S. Congress in 1882. Further international treaties followed, protecting noncombatants during time of war and prohibiting particularly harmful weapons.
Following the monumental loss of life during the World Wars, leaders came together across the globe in a mutual process to choose a new future of international peace. This was embodied in the Charter of the United Nations in 1945. More recently, a global coalition has worked with the United Nations to establish the right to peace. In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly ratified the Declaration on the Right to Peace, stating that “Everyone has the right to enjoy peace such that all human rights are promoted and protected and development is fully realized.” I was fortunate in being able to work with international colleagues on this process and witness firsthand that the desire for peace transcends nations and cultures. It is a universal human yearning.
In research using my theory of transcendent pluralism, I have studied how people transcend bias towards other groups of people and even different species. One of my studies was with an Israeli-Palestinian group, Combatants for Peace. This inspirational movement was started by individuals who had been involved in the violence on both sides but chose to renounce violence and work for peace. Their stories of personal transformation are profoundly inspirational and the group has been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, their stories also reveal years of pain and suffering due to the ongoing conflict. Their experiences are a warning that we must intervene early in conflicts to prevent the trauma and bloodshed that comes with protracted cycles of violence.
Centuries of work reflecting the human striving for peace are now being desecrated through the war on Ukraine. Not only was this war unprovoked, but the actions of the nation of Russia have violated longstanding international law with regard to protection of noncombatants and medical facilities. The world watches in horror at grim pictures of civilians gunned down mercilessly as they flee for safety. At the same time, we are inspired by countless Ukrainians who creatively and courageously protect their country. We also have witnessed the arrests of brave Russian people as they peacefully protest the war. Innocent animals are suffering too. Many Ukrainians that seek refuge are clutching beloved pets as they make their hazardous journey to safety. Some of the animals in Ukraine’s zoos have been killed by the fighting and zookeepers struggle to provide care and solace to remaining animals terrified by the shelling.
Clearly our professional goal of advancing health cannot be achieved when nurses must care for patients in bomb shelters and populations have no access to medication, food and clean water. Nursing, through the International Council of Nurses, has formally opposed war in position statements that denounce armed conflict and aim towards elimination of weapons of war and conflict. (see the ICN #NursesforPeace campaign to call for peace, condemn attacks on healthcare, and support nurses on the frontlines).
Nursing organizations and individual nurses must articulate that war is a violation of the human right to health and the dignity of the human person. Together we must use every avenue to eliminate violence and advance peace. Nursing organizations can develop official statements and urge policymakers to work toward peace. This includes multilateral dialogue for nuclear disarmament. Moreover, all parties must uphold international law to protect hospitals, medical personnel, and noncombatants. Throughout this terrible war, nurses will be bandaging the wounded, just as Florence and Rufaida did. But war’s injuries and deaths are preventable. We in nursing can bring our disciplinary knowledge and values to help realize a mutual global consciousness of peace.
International Council of Nurses Position Statement: Armed Conflict. Retrieved 3/7/2022 from https://www.icn.ch/sites/default/files/inline-files/E01_Armed_Conflict.pdf
International Council of Nurses Position Statement: Towards Elimination of Weapons of Conflict. Retrieved 3/7/2022 from https://www.icn.ch/sites/default/files/inline-files/E14_Elimination_Weapons_War_Conflict.pdf
Perry, D.J. (2013, July/Sept.). Peace through a healing transformation of human dignity: Possibilities and dilemmas in global health and peace. Advances in Nursing Science, 36(3), 171-185. https://journals.lww.com/advancesinnursingscience/Abstract/2013/07000/Peace_Through_a_Healing_Transformation_of_Human.3.aspx
Perry, D.J., Guillermet Fernández, C. & Fernández Puyana, D. (2015, June). The right to life in peace: An essential condition for realizing the right to health. Health and Human Rights Journal, 17(1), 148-58. https://www.hhrjournal.org/2015/06/the-right-to-life-in-peace-an-essential-condition-for-realizing-the-right-to-health/
About Donna J. Perry
Donna J. Perry, PhD, RN is an associate professor at the UMass Chan Medical School Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing where she teaches in the PhD program. Dr. Perry’s research is conducted within a framework she developed called transcendent pluralism, which is grounded in human and ecological dignity. She served for several years on the Board of Directors for the Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester, MA and has conducted peace research with the Israeli-Palestinian group, Combatants for Peace. She is on the Academic Advisory Council for American Friends of Combatants for Peace. Currently Dr. Perry is studying the influence of wildlife immersion activities for veterans with PTSD through an R-21 funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.