Kai Brand-Jacobsen has 20 years experience working in peacebuilding and facilitation of peace processes in many of the most challenging and difficult wars and crisis situations in the world. He works upon invitation only, meaning that he only works anywhere in the world when he has been asked to be there – by the people affected, by governments, by the UN and other international agencies. He is Director of the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) of PATRIR, one of the world’s leading sources of expertise in peacebuilding, war and violence prevention, and post-war recovery, reconciliation and healing.

He has provided more than 300 training and executive leadership programs for senior government and political leadership, UN staff, and experts and practitioners in the field, and has experience working in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Nepal, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, Somalia, Liberia, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere. He is the author of “Searching for Peace in Iraq”, “Palestine and Israel: Improving Peacebuilding Strategies, Design and Impact”, the “Strategic Peacebuilding Handbook” and more, and an editor of the international Journal of Peacebuilding and Development. He has taught upon invitation at more than 40 universities worldwide including Oxford, Hacettepe, the United Nations University for Peace, Colombia, York, the European Peace University, Royal Roads, and much more. In 2015 he was one of four international peace workers featured in the documentary movie “In Pursuit of Peace.”

He has taught upon invitation at more than 40 universities worldwide including Oxford, Hacettepe, the United Nations University for Peace, Colombia, York, the European Peace University, Royal Roads, and much more. In 2015 he was one of four international peace workers featured in the documentary movie “In Pursuit of Peace.”

You’ve spent 20 years working in peacebuilding in some of the worst war zones in the world. For many people, the idea of “what is peacebuilding?” isn’t entirely clear. Could you help to describe it for us?

At its core, peacebuilding is about finding effective ways of dealing with conflicts: conflicts within communities, conflicts between communities and internationally. While the word itself may seem new or unusual for many people in the world, the act of trying to find practical and constructive solutions to conflicts within and between communities is as old as human society. As long as we have had conflicts in our communities we have had people working to resolve them. Personally, I find it incredibly interesting to see how many societies over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years have developed rich and healthy approaches to dealing with conflicts, preventing violence, and assisting healing and reconciliation.

In the last 20 years though there has been a dramatic and important evolution. Peacebuilding today refers to a dedicated field involving tens of thousands of people worldwide from across many different sectors working to address the challenging conflicts we face in the world today; and to find practical, evidence-based solutions to violence and strengthening vibrant, resilient, sustainable peace. It involves a huge area of work focused on preventing conflicts from ever becoming violent in the first place; efforts in the midst of wars to bring them to an end; and, after wars, to support healing, reconciliation and recovery, peace consolidation, and assisting individuals and communities in overcoming the visible and invisible impacts of violence.

Having spent 20 years working in the field in many different contexts – from Afghanistan to Iraq, Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, Somalia, South Sudan, Cyprus, Colombia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Nepal and elsewhere – I would suggest that peacebuilding is one of the most important and necessary fields to develop and promote in the 21st century. One that citizens and governments around the world are increasingly interested and engaged in.  When I began, I could name about 200 leading contributors to the field.

Today there are tens of thousands, with many different approaches. We have people working on early warning systems and identifying trends and dynamics of conflicts before violence breaks out, so that we can develop practical measures and policies to prevent violence from occurring; people working in mediation and peace processes, from local communities to those working to address wars within and between countries; and people working in contexts deeply affected by violence and division to build bridges and bring people together. What is important to realise is that peacebuilding is practical. It’s not just a concept or a theory or a ‘nice idea’ – it is working in real contexts, on real challenges, to find real solutions. It is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary. When you see what is being done in communities around the world and how it can work in practice it is also incredibly powerful and inspiring.

When we follow the news and see wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and violence in many parts of the world it seems like violence, war and instability are increasing in the world. Is this the case?

In some ways, yes, especially in recent years. If we look at the long-term trend though we actually see an incredible decrease in violence worldwide. We see a reduction in the number of communities and countries affected by war and a reduction in the likelihood of people dying from violence – compared to what we saw just 100, 200 or 300 years ago. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined is an interesting exploration of this. People may discuss or contest some aspects of it, but overall the trends are clear. At the same time, in the last few years, we’ve again seen an increase in many forms of violence and the number of wars taking place in the world. We are also seeing many governments adopting policies and approaches to conflicts, war and ‘terrorism’ which, rather than helping to solve them, are contributing to an increase in war, violence and instability.

The situations in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are clear examples of this but they’re not the only ones. The election of Trump in the United States and US involvement in numerous wars and conflicts in the Middle East and globally; Erdogan’s domestic and regional policies in Turkey; Russia’s engagement in Europe, the Caucasus, Middle East and elsewhere; and increasing tensions in the South China sea region and military expansionism by many countries in the region – all give reason for those interested in and committed to peace and security in the world to be concerned, and show clearly the need for bringing about fundamental changes in how our countries and the world deals with conflicts and crisis.

It’s important when we speak about violence though that we don’t only think about ‘wars’. On a global scale, more people are being killed through armed violence – homicides, gang violence, police killings – than all the wars in the world put together. The point to realise is this: over decades we have gained in experience and understanding of what can be done to reduce and in many cases prevent violence – both wars (armed conflicts) and homicides (armed violence). We have seen policies and measures implemented within countries that have had significant success. What this means is that someone who would otherwise have been killed is still alive. Communities that could have been ripped apart by war and violence are able instead to prevent it. A challenge is for us to take this seriously – and by and large for many governments and academics that is not being done. Not nearly enough.

There is a need to become much better and studying and implementing systematically the lessons learned and experience gained in the field, and to move towards evidence-based policy making by governments and elected officials. This is the paradox: at the same time that we are gaining a better understanding of how to deal with conflicts effectively, we are seeing an increase in militarism, military budgets, bravado and military aggression by several governments which fuel instability and violence – either within their countries and/or regionally and globally. The people most affected, the ones experiencing this on the ground, are exhausted and, quite honestly, sick of it. The idea of a global citizens movement rejecting war and armed violence and demanding governments give greater focus to peacebuilding and practical and effective means of dealing with conflicts responsibly is something that should be given greater attention.

It doesn’t matter where I’ve been in the world, or what community, culture or religion people come from: around the world people are exhausted and tired of war and violence. There is a need for us, as individuals, as societies and globally, to recognise that violence itself is the failure to deal with real conflicts and real issues effectively. Investing in violence is the failure to learn the lessons of history and experiences in dealing with conflicts responsibly. Rather than glorifying, celebrating or legitimising war and violence as is often done, we need – as the World Health Organisation has done – to recognise it is an epidemic, a sickness.

We must begin working to ensure we invest the resources and capabilities needed to prevent violence, resolve conflicts, and help end the wars still going on in the world. And again, to be clear: this isn’t ‘idealistic’ or naïve. It is real, practical and necessary. Naïve would be to believe that the world can continue with the same dysfunctional policies and approaches to war/military based ‘security’ that have led to the deaths of so many millions in recent decades and centuries; or to not understand that humanity is capable of doing much, much better.

Photo: UN / PATRIR

You were leading a major UN-supported peacebuilding engagement in Nineveh, Iraq on behalf of the Department of Peace Operations of PATRIR and local partners through much of the last year – Nineveh being one of the areas where ISIS / Daesh has been strongest and where the current operations in Mosul are being carried out. How do you see the situation in Iraq? Is there any hope for peace there?

There is. There absolutely is. People in Iraq are sick and tired of war, of violence, of having their lives, their hopes, dreams, futures and families ripped apart. I had the incredible honour and good fortune of working with some of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met, people of every culture, religion and background in Iraq – from those who had been displaced and driven out of their homes from the fighting to Yezidi women who had been kidnapped and raped by ISIS fighters and managed to escape, to the President of Nineveh, Bashar al-Kiki, who won an international peace prize for his work to heal divisions and begin laying the foundations for real and lasting peace in Iraq.

In the middle of ongoing violence and war we had people – people who had seen family members killed, people who were living in IDP camps, women who had been forced into sex slavery, people who had experienced every horror you could think of or imagine – coming together to take practical steps to work for reconciliation and healing, to put in place local peace committees and community-based peacebuilding efforts, and to ensure that the current war and violence will not simply be one round in a continuing cycle stretching into the future. They are working to end the violence that has been affecting their country in one form or another for more than 30 years – often worsened or directly brought about by foreign countries involvement and invasions of the country as well.

It’s important to realise this: anyone under 30 years of age in Iraq has never lived in a country not at war, under sanctions, invasion or occupation. And yet, if people around the world had the opportunity to meet people in Iraq – to meet them and get to know them face to face – they would see a people of incredible courage, kindness, dignity and hospitality. But also a people that have lived through more terror and destruction than anyone ever should – again, very much of that brought to them from the outside as well.

From our experience in the Nineveh Paths to Peace engagement we have seen – practically – that it is possible to overcome the destruction of the war and lay the foundations for long-term sustainable peace in Iraq. My concern is that there is little evidence that international actors or the national government are investing or engaging seriously in this, or even understand what this would require. The primary focus is overwhelmingly on waging the war and supporting armed groups and armed actions in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. While governments in the coalition against ISIS pay lip-service to the need to ensure recovery and support peace after the war, few have invested even a minimal effort to plan or prepare for this.

It’s for this reason that it’s important for all of us to realise: there is a very real possibility that even if ISIS is militarily defeated, there will be no serious efforts to sustain peace. We have seen this before. After the incredible sectarian violence that ripped Iraq apart following the US-led invasion and occupation of the country, the people of Iraq, through courageous and largely unrecognised efforts, brought about a 90% reduction in violence across the country; in some areas that reached 100%.

It was years before violence broke out again; before the spread of ISIS across much of the country. That itself was a testimony to the reality that people in the country did not want to see Iraq go back to war. We faced the challenge, however, of an extremist, sectarian and highly corrupt government in Baghdad, and a so-called ‘international community’ that largely washed its hands and walked away from a catastrophe it had in many ways contributed to creating and inflicted upon the people of Iraq. Much of the current instability and violence across the region is a result of that.

We faced the challenge, however, of an extremist, sectarian and highly corrupt government in Baghdad, and a so-called ‘international community’ that largely washed its hands and walked away from a catastrophe it had in many ways contributed to creating and inflicted upon the people of Iraq. Much of the current instability and violence across the region is a result of that. If the same happens again after ISIS is ‘defeated’, if there are no serious, real attempts at reconciliation, healing, and ensuring that the needs and rights of all the people and communities of Iraq are recognised, protected, and given space in government, then ending the current war will simply be laying the foundations for continued division and possible violence in the future.

I’d like to also make a comment about ISIS / Daesh – one that might be challenging but at the same time is important for us to understand. This is an organisation which has been presented as ‘absolute evil’ to people across the world, and much of what it has done is absolutely evil, violent, horrific and indefensible – particularly mass brutal rape and killing. It’s important to remember though that those who have suffered most at the hands of ISIS/Daesh are the people of Iraq and Syria. The point I want to make however is a different one. Many of the individual members who have joined have not done so because they share ISIS’ ideology or vision.

In Iraq, many individuals joined ISIS in response to violence and sectarianism from the government. Others joined because they were in cities/areas controlled by ISIS, and may have done so to protect family members – especially to protect female members of their families from rape or abuse – or as income in areas in which there were otherwise little to no job opportunities.

In Syria, many joined ISIS because it was seen by many as one of the only organisations really fighting the regime. There is a difference between those who joined for income, to protect their communities, to protect their families, and those who are the hard-core ideological supporters and extremists within the movement – similar in some sense to the difference between the Wehrmacht and the SS in Germany during the second world war. It’s also important to consider the impact of decades of war, authoritarianism and violence – and of seeing your country brutally invaded and occupied and members of your family or community mistreated, arrested or killed – on youth who grow up in that context.

This matters. It should and needs to inform how we will deal with ISIS members/fighters after the war. There needs to be a difference to how these individuals will be dealt with. If we do not understand that there is a difference between someone who joined to be able to earn enough money to provide for their families, and whose job was to watch checkpoints and someone who was responsible for managing mass rapes and killings of people of different faiths and communities, we risk deepening and continuing cycles of violence, discrimination and hatred.

There is a profound and very real need to explore how crimes that have taken place – by ISIS as well as by actors on all sides (the governments in the region, neighbouring countries, foreign powers such as the United States, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others who have been intervening) – will be addressed, as well as how to support healing and reconciliation across, between and within communities as well. Violence and killing did not begin with ISIS – either in Iraq or Syria – and at least in the case of Syria far more killing has been done by the regime and foreign governments. These issues also need to be looked at if there is to be any hope of real peace.

From my own point of view, after nearly 20 years working in the region, I would also suggest: ‘ISIS’ isn’t just an ‘organisation’. It’s an idea. A way of dealing with conflicts. With the ‘other’. The idea that a person can be killed, raped or brutalised because they come from a different identity, community or religion. In this sense, the US invasion of Iraq was also ‘ISIS’. The bombing, destruction and attack on Falluja were ‘ISIS’. The sectarianism of the Maliki government or the barrel bombings by Assad; the intensification of conflicts and divisions in Turkey by Erdogan; the Saudi mass bombings and killings of civilians in Yemen; are also ‘ISIS’. In this sense, ISIS is an ideology of war, violence and killing, which legitimises itself by painting the absolute evil of the other; not just a single organisation or group of people. It’s this ideology, and the practice of waging violence and war, which needs to be transcended and overcome.

A major issue in Europe through the last year has been the influx of refugees from the war in Syria. How do you see this?

This is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in contemporary European and world history. It is not a ‘refugee’ crisis. It is a human, ethical, moral, political, human rights and security crisis. It is not an easy issue. It is one over which people have many questions and many concerns. Unfortunately, there has been very little space for honest, authentic discussion of what is happening, and how to address it. Instead, we frequently see very polarised and polarising arguments and even a great deal of misinformation and hate messaging actively put out. We have witnessed the failure by the governments in Europe to address this situation responsibly. Some reacted, at least in the early months of the crisis, with integrity. Sweden. Germany. Overall the focus has been on ‘how to keep people out’ and how to put the responsibility on front-line countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan), often without giving significant support and turning Turkey into a ‘border police’ for the EU.

There has been far too much language, propaganda and posturing reminiscent of the 1930s and 40s. Language that fails to properly address the human being – not the ‘refugee’, a label, a term which distances us – but the human being, the mother, the father, the child, student, grandparent; the citizen who has been driven from their homes by violence that our own countries have contributed to.

At the same time though, two key points: First, the response by citizens across Europe–those who have gone to pick people up in their cars, those who have welcomed displaced people into their homes and communities, and the volunteers working in the Mediterranean and on islands in Greece to provide support and comfort–has been the largest civic, humanitarian response in Europe since the second world war, if not in European history. These people are heroes, bringing forward the best in all of us. The second point: not everyone who has concerns or feels uncomfortable with the idea of people coming to their communities or countries from Syria and elsewhere is ‘racist’.

The idea that they are is insulting and not helpful. Some people have authentic concerns and questions. These may often have been fuelled by fear and hate mongering by some politicians, media or organised groups, but it doesn’t mean they are any less real to those who hold them. What we need is less demonization and demagoguery and more authentic respect, deep, real listening, dialogue and working together to find answers that address people’s concerns and needs on all sides, while upholding our humanitarian and human responsibility.

Photo: No Glory in War / Source Unknown

We’ve seen “Brexit” in Britain and the election of Trump in the United States. What do you think is behind these phenomena and what significance do they have for domestic dynamics in Britain, Europe and the United States and the world?

There are many factors behind the results of the referendum in Britain and the election in the United States – some specific to each country and some shared. That itself is something important to recognise. Analysts are sometimes driven to focus on ‘single issue’ causes, but reality, life, is more complex than that. Some of the issues that need to be looked at closely include: an increasing gap between citizens and those ‘governing’, including a very real loss of confidence and trust by citizens in our political ‘class’ and systems; increasing insecurity experienced by many, particularly economic/financial; and a serious challenge with political campaigning and media coverage that often fuels misinformation rather than informed discussion and analysis.

The electoral campaigns in the United States and the Brexit campaigns in the UK were extraordinary in the extent to which they were willing to distort and manipulate or even directly falsify and fabricate information – essentially, in the extent to which they were actively willing to wholeheartedly and completely lie to citizens in order to win. Much of the media did not bother to fact check or report this, and it’s important to realise that if media had responsibly carried out that role results in both cases may have been significantly different. The campaigns – on all sides – were also extraordinary in the degree of polarisation they fuelled and built upon, and the absence of space for respectful, meaningful dialogue and discussion on the very real issues and challenges facing our societies.

Across Europe, the United States and many other countries, people are increasingly recognising that our political and economic systems are not working well enough in the way we want them to – at least parts. One key driving factor that much analysis has overlooked is that current political developments are themselves part of the ‘long crisis of politics’ linked to other phenomena including: the failure to address the extreme dysfunctionalism of our global economic system and the financial crash of 2007-2008; the parliamentarians’ spending scandals in the UK; the failure to hold the UK and US regimes which brought us the wars and invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan to account; and more.

Measures adopted to respond to the financial crisis often fuelled inequalities and extreme wealth for the few, coupled with massive cutbacks in key services affecting large portions of our populations, such as infrastructure, health, education, and wages. The result is that today the top 1% of the world’s wealthiest control more wealth than the bottom 99% put together. There is a crisis in governance, not only in Britain and the US but in many countries. These votes, rising right-wing extremism, hate messaging, and what is often incorrectly referred to as ‘populism’, is part of that. It won’t end with Brexit and the election of Trump. There’s every likelihood that these events will increase the problems and challenges we’re facing.

The Chinese symbol for ‘crisis’ is itself made up of two symbols: the one for danger and the one for opportunity. While we focus often on the danger and risk that Brexit and the US elections have made visible, it’s equally if not more important that we recognise the opportunity and need to reinvigorate and in some ways reinvent our political and economic systems to meet our needs in the 21st century. And by needs, I mean the needs of all our populations, not just a narrow selection of corporate interests and oligopolies. There is a tremendous opportunity, in the wake of Trump’s election, Brexit, and politics in far too many countries which don’t serve the needs and interests of the vast majority of their people, to reinvigorate movements seeking to transform our political and economic systems – and to realise the incredible potential we have as human beings. We are quite possibly on the threshold either of radical worsening of tensions, inequalities, and drivers and dynamics of violence and war; or of a dramatic reimagining and transformation of how we exist and coexist as human beings in the world. My commitment and effort and that of those of us working in peacebuilding are to prevent the former and do everything we can to nurture, seed, support and realise are the latter.

You’ve mentioned Rebecca D. Costa’s The Watchman’s Rattle in several talks and events around the world. What do you see as the relevance of this book and why is it important?

This links to what we’ve just been discussing. It’s the key thesis of Costa’s The Watchman’s Rattle that I find most interesting. In the opening of her book, she addresses the question of why civilisations ‘collapse’. She reviews what were seen as the most advanced civilisations of their time – the Mayan, Khmer, Roman and others – and the fact that each of these ‘civilisations’ in their time, at one point, collapsed. As Costa discusses, academics and experts have given many different reasons for how and why they collapsed – often ‘single causal’ reasons, from the constant waging of warfare to over taxation/depletion of natural resources, corruption of those in government.

Here are the points Costa raises in response. First, to some extent, each of these ‘explanations’ holds some truth – with different principal drivers/causes in the different cases. Second, for each ‘civilisational collapse’ there weren’t simply ‘single’ issues driving, but what we might call multiple, dynamic crisis – challenges that built up and interacted with each other. And third, none of these ‘crises’ or ‘systems challenges’ appeared overnight. In each case, they existed and built up over years, sometimes decades or more.

How is it that the most ‘advanced civilisations’ of their time, faced with these challenges, were unable to find effective solutions to them? This is what makes her book particularly interesting and particularly relevant to what we are facing in the world today: multiple, dynamic crisis and systems challenges which our current social, economic and political systems have proven unable to fully respond to / address. Climate change; increasingly unaccountable governments and power structures; systemically entrenched economic, social, and political inequalities; a global economic system waging extraordinary and overwhelming destruction of our environment; wasteful and inefficient military expenditures and war waging which not only fails to achieve security but increases insecurity and destruction.

These are some of the challenges facing us today. Challenges we are well aware of. Challenges – and crises – which have not appeared overnight but accumulated (and are in fact intensifying and deepening) over time. Challenges which we have not yet fully managed to face/solve, and which not only ‘risk’ causing damage and danger but already are for many hundreds of millions worldwide.

We have the ability to solve these challenges, but to do so we need to evolve our capacity to handle – and solve – complex and dynamic conflicts and crisis. Again, this is part of what makes the field of peacebuilding so incredibly interesting and relevant to our world today and in the future. It is in its very essence about bringing together the knowledge, understanding and practical approaches that can enable us to solve these challenges.

There’s also a huge potential for learning and connecting with exciting work being done in the fields of design, systems thinking, chaos thinking, change management and other fields, all of which are bringing forward new innovations in solutions thinking, approaches and processes that could help us actually meet the scale of challenges we’re facing while at the same time evolving new social, economic and political systems based not upon misuse, exploitation, corruption and ‘bankrupt approaches’ to conflicts such as military expenditure and war, but upon creating the actual conditions to achieve the incredible potential we have – as individuals and as a species – and enable a quality of life and well-being for all human beings that is now already within our grasp but being prevented by extremely outdated, iniquitous and inefficient political and economic systems and practices.

Photo: UN / PATRIR

“Terrorism” is a topic in the headlines and on the agendas of international summits and states around the world. What would a ‘peacebuilding’ perspective bring to this and how could peacebuilding contribute to addressing the phenomenon of terrorism in the world today?

By actually focusing on solutions and dealing with the real – and known – problems giving rise to what we call ‘terrorism’. Too much of what is done by states today is trapped in the same rationale and thinking that gave us the holocaust, World War II and the Cold War’s constantly looming threat of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) – a term coined to describe the ultimate outcome that would result from continual development of weapons and confrontation-based approaches; rather than actual solutions to real issues and conflicts. The approach of many governments today is to label those they are describing as ‘terrorists’ as ‘evil’ or psychopaths – the ‘enemy’ that is an existential threat to all that is moral, good and decent, and therefore deserving of, indeed requiring, ‘neutralisation’ or elimination. To see it as a problem of ‘radicalisation of the individual’ – essentially a psychological, ideological or religious flaw of the individual who becomes a ‘terrorist’.

A former Canadian intelligence officer who was responsible for addressing terrorism pointed out that this approach suffers from pretending or acting as if ‘terrorist attacks’ happen in a vacuum, ignoring or trying to pretend that the actual political, economic and conflict situations which give rise to terrorism and attacks don’t exist. The cause is only because ‘they’ are evil, psychotic, irrational. We are ‘good’ and as ‘good’ we must not only ‘defend’ ourselves from evil but are fully justified in using drone strikes, warfare, invasion and other measures (including torture) to eliminate evil. We see the attacks in New York, on the Pentagon, in Bali, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere as the work of illegitimate and indefensible ‘crazies’ – “evil people”, “terrorists” – but we fail to recognise the Fallujas, Raquas and elsewhere that we have created; our own attacks on civilians, Abu Ghraibs, Guantanamos, French bombings in Syria, drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Many senior military officers, intelligence experts and drone pilots have recognised these are not only failed policies, they are bankrupt, destructive and counter-productive,

We see the attacks in New York, on the Pentagon, in Bali, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere as the work of illegitimate and indefensible ‘crazies’ – “evil people”, “terrorists” – but we fail to recognise the Fallujas, Raquas and elsewhere that we have created; our own attacks on civilians, Abu Ghraibs, Guantanamos, French bombings in Syria, drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Many senior military officers, intelligence experts and drone pilots have recognised these are not only failed policies, they are bankrupt, destructive and counter-productive, creating the very problems they are meant to ‘solve’.

To be very clear: our military ‘solutions’, war waging, weapons sales and support for authoritarian regimes not only fail to ‘solve’ or overcome terrorism, but provide many of the conditions and drivers which fuel it. Our own policies and measures have in many cases been the greatest recruiting tool for organisations like ISIS and Al Qaeda, rather than the means to overcome them. More than that, in the eyes of many in the world, they are themselves terrorism. When US drones and bombs kill civilians, when French, Russian or Turkish bombs kill civilians, their families and people around the world don’t see this as the ‘justified and legitimate act of rational governments’. They see it for what it is: terrorism.

Martin McGuinnes once said that the best recruitment tool for the IRA were the acts of violence carried out by the British military. We have also seen that part of the solution to the troubles in Northern Ireland, and the achieving of what is widely known as the Good Friday Agreement, became possible only when parties were willing to engage together to find actual solutions to valid and legitimate grievances, while agreeing on both / all sides to put away the use of violence.

So how does a peacebuilding approach differ to what we’re seeing today? First, it’s based on evidence and rigorous fact-based analysis and identification of drivers, conditions and causes. It maps out the factors which fuel and drive or create the conditions for terrorism as well as looking at the paths/trajectories of individuals. It doesn’t begin in an ideological framework which labels one side as good and the other as evil but identifies all the actors and parties involved and how what each is doing – or not doing – is contributing to creating the dynamics of the conflict, as well as identifying clearly the legitimate goals and interests of all actors. You might not accept an ‘organisation’ such as Al Qaeda or ISIS, but you do have to ask and identify why individuals are joining – what are the factors pulling and driving them – and what actions are being done which are creating these conditions?

We have a lot of evidence of programmes that can work – from creating more inclusive governance to accountability and apologies for past atrocities to improving economic conditions, housing and livelihoods, to youth empowerment programmes, introduction of peace education into schools, responsible messaging and leadership by media, celebrities, religious, community and social leaders, and much more. There isn’t a single ‘magic wand’ or single policy solution. This is foundational. There need to be intelligent, situation- and evidence-based measures addressing the different dimensions of the problem.

The reason we are using war waging and weapons-based approaches is not in fact because they work – we have extensive evidence that they don’t – but because there is a ‘cult’ of militarism/war waging which sees ‘military’ as the response to conflicts, as well as a massive profit-based industry behind weapons production and sales. Interestingly, many within the military themselves do not support aggressive wars and military actions as the ‘solution’ and are at the forefront of calling for real economic, social and political measures, and transformation and resolution of the actual conflicts fuelling terrorist organisations and acts. We also see many within the military calling – sometimes discreetly – upon governments to change economic, social and political policies which create conditions for terrorism.

At the moment the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) of PATRIR is part of a major EU-wide process working together with other organisations, agencies, think tanks, universities and governments to evaluate and assess policies and measures for addressing, reducing and preventing ‘terrorism’ and organised crime. We are hoping this programme will help bring about a fundamental shift and reorientation of government policies and programming, moving us away from some of the heavy-handed military aggression, attacks on civilian populations, and restrictions on civil liberties and increases in government surveillance and we’ve seen since 2001 and towards more comprehensive, practical and effective policies and measures.

The United Nations and governments often speak about the importance of ‘prevention’ rather than simply reacting to wars and violence. Is this something that’s actually feasible? Is it possible to prevent wars and conflicts from happening?

It is.  It’s being done all the time. But, we do need to give far greater resources and attention to it. When a war breaks out or continues over years it’s often front page news. Successful measures to prevent violence and bring about agreements between parties which prevent wars from happening in the first place aren’t as well reported. We’ve seen impressive advances the last 20 years in the development of what we call ‘early warning systems’. These enable us to identify, analyse and understand causes and drivers of risk and vulnerability and – in the best cases – to take practical measures and steps to address them and prevent violence.

For a long time, it’s been said that the problem is ‘political will’. This is part of the challenge, absolutely, but it’s not really the whole picture. Imagine for a moment we take a parallel from medicine. If you have a heart attack and need attention and care it shouldn’t be about ‘political will’. It should be about whether pacemakers, ambulances, and cardiac units have been invented/created, and whether doctors and emergency response teams have been properly trained and equipped to deal with it. It could also be about lifestyles and early recognition of risk – and taking measures to reduce negative risk while increasing positive health. The same is true in many cases of violence and war prevention.

It’s not just about ‘political’ decisions, but about whether we have early warning and then the ‘doctors’ and ‘tools’ in place. In the case of peacebuilding, this would mean trained peace workers and local and national ‘infrastructure’ for peace. By this we mean early warning systems, local peace committees, mediation bodies, local and/or national Departments of Peace, and the actual architecture and capabilities within our communities and countries to deal with conflicts effectively, constructively and through peaceful means and peace education in schools so that we are all learning basic skills and tools to help deal with conflicts more effectively and constructively. It’s interesting to note that in the discussion of the World Economic Forum’s listing of key skills and competencies people will need in the job market in the near future many people have asked why we’re not learning those in schools today – competencies like negotiation, complex problem solving, teamwork and collaboration. Those skills and competencies are at the very heart of what peace education is all about.

The UN, many governments and civil society organisations around the world have taken impressive steps in these directions over the last 10+ years. UNDP carried out a global review of their experiences in prevention. The Mediation Support Unit has been improving mediation support including in contexts which have not yet turned violent. The Department of Political Affairs and UNDP for many years had a programme to strengthen the capabilities of governments to deal with conflicts effectively. While there’s much, much more to do, we are getting better at it.

The challenge is: while our ‘professional capabilities’ and understanding for how to do peacebuilding and prevention are improving, some – even many – political and economic conditions and drivers of conflict are in fact worsening, creating the contexts in which conflicts and violence can become more likely. Here the parallel with medicine is also relevant. While it shouldn’t be only or even primarily about political will in the case of an individual heart attack, we do need the political will and leadership to choose to invest in medicine – in building hospitals, training doctors, buying ambulances and cardiac units, and ensuring all people are covered. The same is true in peacebuilding.

Today many governments are willing to spend billions of dollars a year on training soldiers and investing in the development and deployment of weapons – most if not all of which can in no way actually address, solve or prevent actual conflicts. No matter how advanced or deadly a weapons system, it cannot solve actual economic, social and political drivers of conflicts. It is, quite simply, the wrong instrument/tool for solving the problem. At the same time, governments invest almost nothing in training and preparing capacities to deal with conflicts effectively. Often those in government and key state structures may not themselves have even rudimentary knowledge and understanding of effective approaches to prevention and peacebuilding. This is part of what we have to change. That means engaging both with governments  and with citizens to bring about a paradigm shift in our understanding and recognition that what is needed is not more nuclear missiles, weapons systems, new generation submarines or military invasions and arms trade, but actually training and supporting the work of peace workers, mediation teams, local and national peace committees and the capabilities for addressing real conflicts, real problems and searching for real solutions.

No one pretends this is easy. It’s not. At the same time, we simply don’t have the luxury anymore of holding to the illusion that arms and military are solutions to real conflicts. Prevention requires political, social, economic and peacebuilding measures. We should be taking the same approach to discovering and understanding which of these work best as we do to finding solutions to malaria, HIV-AIDs, ebola and other viruses.

These means both having the capabilities, technologies and infrastructure for peace, as well as looking at what social, economic and political models, structures, systems reduce direct, structural and cultural violence and improve well-being and ‘peace’ for individuals and communities. The work of the Institute for Economics and Peace is very interesting here, and the production of the Global Peace Index which seeks to identify those social, economic, institutional, educational and other ‘architectures’ and policies which increase peace and reduce the risk of violence.

Citizens of Brussels respond with messages of peace after terrorist attack / Source Unknown

Each year the World Economic Forum produces its Global Risks report. One of the things these illustrate is the complexity and interconnectedness of crisis and systemic challenges in the world today. Is peacebuilding relevant to these?

Again: absolutely. As we have been discussing peacebuilding is a deep dive into identifying and implementing the tools, methods and processes which can help individuals and communities find solutions to sometimes simple but also often complex challenges, conflicts and crisis. In the case of peacebuilding, this is often applied in the context of conflicts and wars. The lessons and approaches we can draw from it are also very relevant for dealing with the broader spectrum of social, economic and political crisis and challenges the WEF identifies.

Personally, I’m very excited about the as yet unrealised potential that could come about if we could bring those working in peacebuilding together with those working on finding systems solutions to these problems from business and other fields. There’s a lot of innovative and pioneering work being done by many different actors – working on addressing climate change, on improving how economies and political systems function, and much more. The benefit that could be achieved by bringing some of these actors together, to evolving our ability to find real solutions to these issues, is tremendous.

Two years ago you gave a speech in Bahrain on the “Economic Benefits of Peace” in the Middle East and the “Costs” of war and the failure to prevent armed conflicts. Is ‘peace’ something that should be of interest to businesses and what role can business play in finding alternative solutions to war and violence? Isn’t war something that’s “good for business” as people often say?

The idea that “war is good for business” is a misconception. Or rather, war is good for some types of the business. It’s good for the weapons industry. It’s good for drug trafficking and the black market. It’s good for human trafficking and sex slavery. What the idea that ‘war is good for business’ blinds us to though is a stark and well-documented truth that war is overwhelmingly bad for most business and industries. What our research showed – and this is backed up by every major study and analysis of this field worldwide – is that the overwhelming majority of businesses and sectors of an economy in a country affected by war suffer from war.

The Institute of Economics and Peace estimates that the global cost – burden – of war to the global economy is in excess of 12 trillion dollars. It’s also been estimated that in the Middle East alone, the cost and impact of wars in the region from 2003 through 2014 – in terms of destroyed infrastructure and lost investment – were in excess of US$ 14 trillion. War and violence create situations of instability in which both domestic and international actors are much less willing to invest; in which we often see massive ‘brain drain’ and flight of human, social and financial capital; in which infrastructure from roads and businesses to schools, housing, hospitals and more are damaged or destroyed; and in which the wasteful expenditure of governments and others into military is increased – often fuelling further cycles of violence and destruction.

Peace should be of interest to businesses and business leaders both because it is much better for business – and is essential to the conditions for many businesses to flourish and thrive – and because businesses themselves can be key actors in helping to bring about a shift from wasteful/destructive models and approaches to conflict to those which can offer real help and real solutions. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, we saw the incredible importance of leaders in business stepping up to help bring about a shift in the conflicts in those countries. Globally we also see many in tech industries and more broadly at the forefront of working to find solutions to major global challenges – from climate change to malaria, HIV-AIDS and more. If we could see that same engagement by business leaders and innovators in supporting a shift to sustainable and effective ways of solving conflicts and preventing violence and war – to supporting peacebuilding – the impact could be significant.

Do you believe that democracy and democratic values are under threat from terrorism and the rise of extremist and populist movements in Europe and elsewhere?

I would suggest that real democracy, both in terms of parliamentary elections and even more so in terms of citizen’s engagement in governance, is far more threatened by authoritarian and non-democratic measures of domestic governments and our current global than by ‘terrorism’, and that much of what we are seeing as ‘extremist’ and populist movements today are in fact responses to and results of this non-democratic governance and abuse of our political systems for narrow and ultimately unsustainable economic interests.

It is the passing of legislation with little transparency or public discussion, negotiation of trade agreements in secrecy, lack of accountability of elected officials to citizens, increasing corporate control of media, increasing of surveillance measures, increasing of military aggression abroad and militarisation of policing at home, increasing of economic inequalities and in some cases de facto economic apartheid, and withdrawal of basic government services from parts of our cities and populations, which are perhaps the greatest threats and challenges to real democracy within Europe and internationally today.

What role does Europe have in addressing terrorism and war? Is Europe a relevant player? Can it have an impact?

Countries within Europe have had extensive experience with armed conflicts and armed movements, both domestically and, in many cases, internationally. We need to learn from these experiences and take a hard, rational look at what is working and what is not working. The reality today as we’ve discussed above is that many governments are promoting conflict and instability – from the war in Syria and engagement in Iraq to the arms trade and more – often worsening the problems rather helping to solve them. At the same time, individual governments, the European Union, and civil society organisations and citizens across Europe have a tremendous potential to help support more effective, real solutions. This should be at the heart of Europe’s domestic and external engagement in the coming years.

Photo: Nigeria workshop – MSSP Early Warning / PATRIR

For people who may sometimes feel overwhelmed or powerless in the face of conflicts and violence – whether in their own lives or in the world – what would be your advice?

Before giving advice I would prefer to listen. To understand why people are feeling that way. I’ve asked more than 10,000 people from over 100 countries worldwide how they ‘feel’ when they are in a conflict. The most consistent answer I’ve received all over the world is: powerless. That can be about a conflict in our own lives, conflicts within our communities or some of the conflicts and challenges we see in the world. Part of this also comes from what we’re seeing of conflicts. When we watch news reports or listen to analysis and commentary the focus is often on the violence and what’s not working. Very little of what I’m seeing done in the field is ever reported. I think if people saw what is actually being done in peacebuilding – by people on the ground, by local communities, organisations, governments – it would be deep, powerfully encouraging and inspiring. It would also help us to have a more realistic understanding of what’s happening – and what we can do about it. Examples are important. Sharing success stories and making visible what “I” / “we” can do.

My “advice”, if I were to give any, would first be to breathe. Breathing is actually much, much more important than we sometimes realise. If we’re feeling stressed, anxious, disempowered or depressed, deep, calming breaths can help us ‘recalibrate’ and be able to think more clearly. Then let’s voice our questions and concerns. Let’s hear and listen to each other. “Diagnosis” in peacebuilding is as important as it is in medicine. If we see conflicts or challenges which seem overwhelming to us let’s stop and take a moment to try and make sense of them together. From that, let’s look for solutions.

One of the responses that have always encouraged me the most has been when people take part in our training and at the end of them say: “I used to think that it was only those in key political and decision-making positions that could do anything about this. Now I see that I can. It’s common sense. I wish more people knew about this.” And that’s part of the challenge for all of us working in peacebuilding, and for every single human being who is concerned about what’s happening in the world today and wants to do something about it: we have to make solutions, and the knowledge, skills, and processes which can help us find them, more visible, and in the same way we’ve developed our capacity across so many other areas of human activity, do the same for peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

One of the projects you’re currently working on is called ‘PeaceTraining.EU’. What is that project about, what is it trying to achieve, and why do you think it’s important?

PeaceTraining.eu is a project that has been developed by a consortium of organisations, agencies, universities and government ministries across the EU and is supported by the European Commission. Its purpose is to develop curriculum for training EU officials, national governments, military, police and security forces and civil society organisations in peacebuilding and prevention. In all the years I’ve been working in this field I would see this as one of the most important and significant projects I’ve been involved in: to bring together the ‘state of the art’ of the field and develop hands-on practical tools, methods and materials to train people in how to do it more effectively.

Could you tell us a bit about ‘peace education’? What exactly is this, and why should governments, citizens and others support it?

Peace education is about learning how to deal with conflicts constructively and effectively. It can be both formal – introduced into school systems – and non-formal, through training programmes, workshops and more. Importantly peace education isn’t only about or for children and youth but is relevant for people of all ages and backgrounds. Think about it this way: we all learn math and basic health and hygiene in schools. It doesn’t mean that everyone of us is going to become a physicist or a surgeon. We’ve decided as societies that having basic skills and knowledge in mathematics and health helps people in our lives – and at least insofar as medicine is concerned, is an important component of prevention and ensuring the health of individuals and the community.

We all have conflicts. It doesn’t matter where we’re from, our age, gender, ideas, politics, class or other characteristics. The fact that we have conflicts though doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to deal with them well. Peace education teaches people practical skills, tools and approaches to problem-solving, creative and constructive thinking, collaboration, dialogue, active listening, nonviolent communication, teamwork and much more. It can include both strengthening / improving our ability to deal with conflicts, tensions and stress individually as well as between individuals and communities. Again, as with medicine and math, it can be taught at a ‘general’ level to improve competencies across society as a whole and improve basic skills we all have, as well as is a ‘specialisation’ for the “doctors” of the field – peace workers.

I was struck years ago by the fact that I can ask school children anywhere in the world to give me the names of 10 war or military ‘heroes’ or wars that have happened around the world, and for any child above the age of 12, that’s quite easy. For politicians, journalists, scientists, professors and others as well. If I ask those same schoolchildren, politicians, journalists, scientists, professors and others to give me the names of 10 conflicts that have been transformed peacefully, or 10 successful nonviolent movements or leaders – and I have done this – I’ve met less than a handful of people around the world able to do so. We wouldn’t expect to be able to deal with health, illness, disease and medicine without knowledge.

Why do we think we will be able to deal with conflicts more effectively without empowering ourselves and our societies with the knowledge, skills, values and abilities to transform them effectively, creatively and constructively by peaceful means? School systems, teachers and students around the world are already beginning to take these steps – introducing peace education into schools, introducing peer-based mediation, replacing ‘detentions’ with meditation sessions, and much more. In the not too distant future, it will be as normal – and central – a component of our education as maths and hygiene. When that day happens, it won’t be too far off before we have to go to a museum to remember what a soldier was and what war was, while every human being will know what peacebuilding is, and how to deal with conflicts constructively.


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