Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Abadi once asked:  “If a country is not involved in a war, do the people of that country live in a green peace?”

For me, as the Greenpeace Peace Advisor, that is a very personal question. And one I reflected on this week, as the Institute of Economics and Peace released the 2012 Global Peace Index. This is a well-known and reputable index, ranking countries according to how peaceful they are. It is calculated by examining 23 indicators across 158 countries. Indicators, for example, include the number of deaths from internal and external conflicts, weapons imports and exports, or military expenditure compared with GDP.

For the second year running, Iceland is the No. 1 most peaceful country in the world. It is followed by Denmark and New Zealand. Also for the second year running, Somalia is the country least at peace, followed by Afghanistan. Parts of the world are getting more peaceful: for the first time since the Global Peace Index was launched in 2007, Sub-Saharan Africa is no longer the world’s least peaceful region. The Middle East and North Africa have now gained this dubious crown.

Crew Make Peace Sign On Arctic SunriseReporting on the index, the media usually focuses on the big ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, producing headlines such along the lines of  ‘Somalia is the worst country in the world!’ or ‘Iceland is No 1!’ (Which is impressive, in a way, given the economic crisis they have faced in recent years.)

But there is a more complex story not being told. Just as important as what is measured by the index, it turns out, is what is not.

Let me illustrate: in this year’s index, Norway dropped out of the top 10 to 18th position due to the horrific attack by Anders Breivik in July 2011 in which 77 people were murdered and more than 300 injured. 

Japan, on the other hand, remained one of the top five safest countries. This surprised me, as I was expecting that last year’s devastating tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster, would have impacted Japan’s status in the index. It did not.

Nearly 16,000 people were killed and almost 3,300 people are still unaccounted for and the vast social and environmental damage is likely to impact the country for years to come. 2011 was clearly an extremely unsettled and un-peaceful year for millions of Japanese citizens.

Nevertheless, Japan was last year ranked the 3rd most peaceful country in the world and this year it is still ranked 5th. The slight decline was not directly related to the disaster, but was due instead to an increase in the number of heavy weapons and a slight increase in military spending as a proportion of GDP.  

The reason Japan remained peaceful as measured by the Global Peace Index, but Norway was considered un-peaceful, is because ‘terrorist acts’ are one of these 23 indicators. Environmental disasters on the other hand (or any type of disaster for that matter) are not assessed as part of the index. So it is possible for a country like Japan to experience the worst destruction since World War II, but still be classified as being “at peace”.

There couldn´t be a better illustration of why we need to broaden our understanding of what peace and security really are. We need not just the absence of war, we really do need a green peace.

It is now broadly accepted that climate change is one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) threats to both international and national peace and security. This has been acknowledged by the security community at least since 2003 when the Pentagon produced a report warning that climate change threatens the world more than terrorism.

Many other reports followed. Climate change causes droughts, storms, fires, and sea level rise. These all lead to increased vulnerability, famine, poverty, migration and conflicts. Yet somehow we don’t factor that in when we rate a country’s peacefulness.

The people behind the peace index acknowledge that defining peace as the ‘absence of war’, what they call ‘negative peace’, is rather limited. This year, for the first time, they have made an attempt to build a complementary index – the Positive Peace Index (PPI). Indicators include infant mortality, gender inequality, life expectancy, GDP per capita, levels of education and unemployment.

This is a step in the right direction. But how is it possible that within the 23 indicators measuring ‘negative peace’ and the 21 indicators measuring ‘positive peace’, there is not even one ‘green’ indicator?

Why not include greenhouse gas emissions, which increase the likelihood of extreme weather events, or deforestation, which undermines the livelihoods of millions? Surely, it is time to start factoring in these elements into what we consider is a peaceful existence. What indicators would you choose?

Jen Maman is the Peace Advisor of Greenpeace International. She is based in Istanbul