Guest Post: Dr. Steven Schroeder, Peacebuilding in Turbulent Times

Peacebuilding in Turbulent Times

Steven-SchroederThe hallmark of the UN International Day of Peace, which is observed annually on September 21, is a  24-hour period of nonviolence and ceasefire in conflict zones.  The UN intended to have people focus on how to foster peace work around the globe in keeping with an established theme.  This year’s theme, “Shaping Peace Together”, emerged in response to the COVID-19 crisis.  It is a call for all of us to work together to defeat the common enemy that threatens human life around the world.

The UN calls us to “celebrate [peace] day by spreading compassion, kindness and hope in the face of the pandemic, ” and claims that these turbulent times have galvanized people around the world to some extent.  This is a good call to action.  However, the pandemic has also divided us in some ways, and has exposed clearly the inequities in our world in general, and in access to health care in particular.  It has also served as a distraction from the deep underlying issues that have risen to the fore during this tumultuous time.  To illustrate, the UN statement relating to the COVID-19 crisis claims that “it has been clearer than ever that we are not each other’s enemies…our common enemy is the tireless virus.”  But we still are at war with each other, in many ways.  The violent attitudes, words, gestures, policies and practices that characterize the wars remain unchanged.  The corresponding expressions of frustration, anger and violence that we see today attest to this fact.

The UN’s call for temporary ceasefire is also a positive thing, but it is only one very small step in the possibility of establishing durable peace.  The ceasefire leaves the conflicting parties to the extremely difficult work of maintaining the halt to violence, and to the much more daunting work of transforming the conditions that led to the conflict in the first place.  For us here in Canada, the term ceasefire also conjures up images of far off places that are remotely, if at all, relevant to our lives.  However, our country is steeped in the violence of the past and present, seen most clearly in the realm of settler-Indigenous relations.  In practice, Canadians have yet to fully dismantle and discard the Indian Act, nor have we enacted a ceasefire when it comes to bigotry.  To sideline these facts as being part of a ‘challenging issue’ rather than recognize them as being part of a longstanding war on Indigenous people is to perpetuate the violence begun long ago, devalue the lives and experiences of the victims, marginalize the voices of the oppressed, and thus further the damage already caused and deepen the divide between settlers and Indigenous people.

If we want to “shape peace together,” we need to examine thoroughly the roots of conflict, and apply the findings in the development of a peacebuilding strategy.  When working toward social justice, we need to examine our own privilege, power, self-referential worldview and the accompanying hubris.  Underneath the umbrella of these human traits – which we all hold to some degree, often blindly – reside the noxious elements of racism, sexism, homophobia, emotional abuse, physical abuse, unjust social structures and governance models, a punitive-based legal system, and domestic and international policies that inflict harm on others in Canada and beyond our borders, and fan the flames of protracted  violent conflicts and their toxic underpinnings.  In shaping peace, we would do well to learn about our own blind spots, and to respond in a way that ensures that all people encounter the same acceptance and respect that we expect and demand for ourselves.

Most of the violence in the world, including in our personal lives, is not related to physical violence and war but resides in hierarchies of power, control, privilege, coercion, bigotry, abuse, and the like.  One could say that indirect violence is ubiquitous. It is embedded in organizations and institutions.  It is part of the fabric of our daily lives.  Left unrecognized and unaddressed, this insidious violence grows exponentially over time as it fuels many negative aspects in society, and furthers the harm done to people.  History reveals that when fundamental human needs are not met – or worse, when human rights abuses run rampant – people eventually rise up and demand change in some manner.  It would behoove us all to view fundamental human needs, and the corresponding human rights, as the most crucial realm in which vigilance of inequity, injustice, and bigotry is paramount.  Moreover, we would do well to sideline reprisals when encountering injustice and, instead, employ empathy, compassion, kindness, patience and the like.  Needless to say, our personal lives would change if we could practice these traits consistently, and adoption of these practices in all levels of governance and authority would be nothing short of revolutionary on a much broader scale.

We know all of this, but most of us – and the leaders of the countries in which we reside – believe that the kinds of things raised here reside in the personal realm, and that it is unrealistic for them to be practiced broadly in society, to be found in public policies, or to impact international relations. When I ask students in the Peace and Conflict Studies courses that I teach if their family or friends have questioned (or worse scoffed at) the fact that they have chosen to take a peace-focused course, the  majority of students smile and nod, and then share their related stories.  Clearly, the widespread assumption is that human beings are incurably inclined toward violence, and that there is no other realistic way to address conflicts.  I am thrilled when students think otherwise, and take the courses to explore things on their own.  We would all do well to encourage young people to think differently than the generations before them, and to actively shape peace in our world today, and in the future.

Naturally, most of us cannot affect change to events on the global stage, but we do have agency in fostering positive change in our own lives, and in our communities.  In the Fraser Valley there are many organizations that labor in peacebuilding work every day.  These organizations are shaping peace in their own spheres, and they also often work together.  Among them are Archway Community Services, Abbotsford Restorative Justice and Advocacy Association, Mennonite Central Committee, Cyrus Centre, More than a Roof, Salvation Army, United Way, Rotary clubs, Positive Living, and numerous harm reduction centres, to name a few.  I include these organizations here in order to draw our attention to them, and also to encourage us to get involved in their good work either via donations, or volunteer work.

The UN calls us to “commemorate the [peace] day through education and public awareness on issues related to peace.”  Peace work is happening at UFV, which is evident in the work of many individual and group activities, in course work, and in academic programs.  Students, and student organizations, the Race and Anti-Racism Network, and the UFV President’s Task Force on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (to name a few) are involved in social justice work in various capacities.  Numerous UFV programs work in analyzing conflict and in building peace in many ways.  The people involved in these programs are working collaboratively.  As we shape peace together, we recognize the opportunities to deepen and expand peace work at UFV.  Furthering this kind of collaborative peacebuilding is UFV’s Peace and Reconciliation Centre, which holds a mandate of implementing peacebuilding strategies at UFV, and in the broader community.  You are welcome to attend the formal launch of the Centre, which will take place on Thursday September 24, at 12:00.  Information on the event and registration is found here.

Peacebuildling is difficult and exhausting work – often extremely so – but that should not deter us, particularly if we wish to change things at the fundamental level.  In the dynamic realms of peace and conflict, it is necessary to maintain, guard, and further develop the positive results of peacebuilding work.  We can all be involved in these aspects of shaping peace, with the long view in mind.  Shaping peace begins with our own lives, in our relationships with friends and family members, and in other relationships.  In order to do this work effectively, we will have to recognize and analyze the elements of the conflict, determine how we will transform the conflict, and then actually do the work.  In short: we need to get informed, then do it!  I can’t think of a better way to commemorate this international peace day.

Steven Schroeder, PhD
Associate Professor, History
Teaching Chair, Peace and Conflict Studies