Severine Autesserre

What Does Peace Mean?

Air Date: July 6, 2021

Diplomat Severine Autesserre discusses her new book “The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World” and the process of peacemaking from Congo tribal wars to U.S. gun violence.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, I’m delighted to welcome to the program today Séverine Autesserre. She is a professor at Columbia and the author of a new book, “The Frontlines of Peace” She’s an award-winning author, researcher, humanitarian and peace builder. Séverine, it’s a pleasure to host you today.


AUTESSERRE: Well, thank you so much for having me Alexander.


HEFFNER: What have you not discussed in terms of your book and the peace building lessons that are applicable to preserving democracy? I wanted you to think about that framework or formula because in Western society, or at least in kind of the post-World War II democracy building, peace was associated with democracy. And I’m wondering if that that still, that formula or formulation still makes sense to you.


AUTESSERRE: So it depends on what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the United States today, yes, peace is very much associated with democracy because peace is already mostly in our society. And so everything that we can learn from conflict zones about how to decrease violence will also help us have a more robust and a more healthy democracy. But now if you’re talking about how to build peace and democracy in conflict zones, it’s another discussion.


HEFFNER: Right. And that’s something you’ve had a tremendous amount of experience with. I want to start with the U.S. and then, you know, use some examples from your book, because you say, even in those conflict zones, we can learn about how to improve our democratic processes and achieve peace, but I just want to get a kind of idea of your definitions of peace, kind of like the scale of peace. And Steven Pinker has written about this question of, you know, violence in the world today relative to prior decades or centuries. But, you know, there is peace in, you know the absence of criminal behavior that is, you know, genocide or murder or theft. But when we think about peace, we think of peace in society so that a journalist is not removed from an airliner overseas in, you know was the case recently, the prime minister of Belarus saying, I don’t like this dissident, I’m going to literally stop a plane in the air so that I can arrest him. And that’s not peace, right? So there, there are different gradations. There are different degrees of peace. And so when you, when you think about it from the American context, that word peace, you know, what does it mean relative to other contexts? I mean, peace is sort of in the eye of the beholder, but what is the way that you evaluate how peaceful relations are in a country?


AUTESSERRE: The one that I use in my work is the ones that people who are living in the situation tell me is peace, what is peace for them? So, for instance, when I was in Colombia, I remember a negotiator telling me, peace for me was when we had a peace agreement that was signed. And then he said that because the peace agreement collapsed, then there was no peace anymore. And then he met a woman from a very reverent village who told him, well, actually I think there is peace in my village because now I can sleep in my pajamas. Before, I was always worried about us sleeping at night and I would sleep fully dressed. And now I feel safe. I can sleep in my pajamas. And when I have friends and students and just people I don’t know, who’ve read the book and who emailed me about what some of them mentioned, you know, what I’m experiencing in my city, or what I experienced growing up in the United States was not peace.


And for example, I had a research assistant last year who said, you know, I grew up in Chicago and I remember sitting in the corridor in my apartment because there were shootings and my family wanted to protect me and didn’t want me to be hit by stray bullets. So to her, that was not peace. And obviously to me that wouldn’t be peace, and I’m sure to you Alexander that wouldn’t be peace as well.


HEFFNER: What you’re saying about speaking to the locals and hearing their insight into that definition of peace is helpful. And a lot of the work you’ve done as a humanitarian and peace builder is looking at how you can start the peace process after a massacre or after a mass casualty event. Take us through that process of how you try to establish the rudimentary basis for peace after that kind of event.


AUTESSERRE: So, what’s really important is that currently we have a way to build peace that involves sending big donors like the United States and diplomats and United Nations peacekeepers and working with elites. So with the presidents, with the governments and having this kind of big conferences that you’re familiar with, I’m sure, you know, the big conferences in Geneva, in New York and having this agenda, and all of these important people sign a peace agreement, and the idea is that peace is then going to trickle down and we’re going to have peace on the ground. And what I show in my research is that first, most of the time, it doesn’t work. And I’m not the only person who shows that, but very often the peace agreements that are signed don’t make any difference on the ground. Violence continues. And so for the past 10 years, I’ve really tried to look at places where peace is present, no matter what happens in terms of the warlords and peace and presidents’ agreements.


And so, I found places where you have peace all over the world. And I found places like that, even in the most violent part of the world. In Congo, which is the stage of the deadliest conflict since World War II, I found a little island called Idjwi that has been a haven of peace, meaning no violence for 20 years. I found a village in Israel and the Palestinian Territories that were actually the, the village was founded precisely to show that Palestinian people and Israeli Jews could live in peace together and they could thrive, and they could manage their community together. I found places, in Colombia, in Somaliland, and the reason why I’m giving you all of these examples and why I’m telling all of these stories in “The Frontlines of Peace” is because there is not one single path to peace. Every story is different. Every pocket of peace has achieved peace according to their own culture, to their own opportunities. And so, if you want, I can give you a comment of broad principles, but what’s really important is that it’s everything is really context specific.


HEFFNER: I do want to hear the comments of broad principles. Absolutely.


AUTESSERRE: I’m so glad you asked. So, the common principles is that peace in every, every zones of peace that I found, this was built from the grassroots, from the bottom up, and it involved, in the peace building efforts, it involved everyone, so including ordinary people, including combatants, and the peace was always brought, according to the specific cultures and histories and the local specificities of the local society. And the last thing that’s come in is that sometimes you had outsider support, so support from the United Nations or from the United States government or diplomats or donors or nongovernmental organizations, but it was a very very different kind of support than the one that we currently see in peacebuilding and that I was telling you about, you know, the big conferences and million-dollar donors, et cetera.


HEFFNER: Well, the question though, Séverine is how you scale it, right? When you talk about those individual communities that are exceptions to the rule, the rule being in some of the zones that you described, conflict. And you would hear from the United Nations or Geneva, you know, we need to be able to scale this, and that’s why the funds and the infrastructure of a centralized organization like that is, those two things are necessary, but you’re saying to me that there is a breakdown right now when it’s top down. And so how do you model those individualized communities, and then, you know, don’t you still ultimately need the support from nation states or NGOs, the UN, NATO to make it scalable?


AUTESSERRE: Again, I’m really glad that you asked, because whenever I talk with the United Nations, or I just did a briefing to the United Nations Security Council and it’s a question that they often ask me, because I think that when people hear pockets of peace, they think that it’s very local, it’s a tiny place. And yes, Idjwi, for instance, the, the Congolese island that was telling you about is a tiny place, but then take Somaliland. And so that’s my favorite example. Somaliland is this autonomous region in the north of Somalia. And you know that Somalia is one of the most violent countries in the world. It has shootings and bombings virtually every day now. It has terror attacks virtually every day or every week. And it has been at war like that for the past 30 years, but you have an autonomous region in the north that is Somaliland that has experienced very little violence in the past 20 years. Very little terrorism, has well-functioning state, decent public services, and even some kind of functioning democracy, which I know is important to you, Alexander. And what’s really fascinating is that again, the usual peacekeeping, outsiders led approach in the rest of Somalia, why Somaliland, they managed to build peace by drawing on insiders, on local customs, local beliefs, including ordinary citizens, and then managed to build peace on the territory that is as large as Syria or yeah, Syria or Uruguay, and the population of Somaliland is bigger than the population of Bosnia, for instance. So we’re not talking about the fact that bottom of grassroots peacebuilding has to remain localized. We’re really talking about an approach that can, that can build peace over a very large territory and also a quasi-state


HEFFNER: The question is how has the pandemic impacted the process of peace around the world? And that’s a very broad question, but where you study it, has the pandemic destabilized peacemaking, in some cases, has it actually had a positive effect?


AUTESSERRE: Well, the pandemic hasn’t had a positive effect on anything that I study. Unfortunately, it has reinforced all of the dynamics of violence, all of the causes of violence. So, for example, one of the zone soft piece that I study in Colombia is in the middle of a region that is controlled by armed groups, by warlords. And the warlords, thanks to the pandemic have managed to be even more powerful and to assert their control even more. And everywhere, whenever I’m talking with my friends who live in the places I studied, they telling me that dependent make, has made discrimination and hatred and tensions even more prominent. And, and we’ve seen that in the United States as well with the rise of hate crimes and shootings and killings last year. And to me, the pandemic opened an opportunity. So you were asking, has it had any positive impact? And at the beginning, I was thinking that it could last year, a year ago? I thought, well, now that outsiders cannot travel so much to conflict zones, maybe we’re going to have this kind of different approach that I think works better. Where we build on insiders, where remained low profile. We put ordinary people in control of their own destiny, and we act in support rather than telling them what to do. And unfortunately, so far, we haven’t seen much of a change in the way the big peace building organizations approach the situation. But I think that we’re still just restarting and, and most peace building organizations are not back to the way they were working before. So I’m really hopeful that they’re going to look at the role models that I portray in the book, the people who come from the outside and who really managed to make a difference on the ground and who work for the United Nations, who work for donors, who work for nongovernmental organizations, and that they’re going to look at how they work. And they’re going to try to replicate that and to use the, all of the disruptions because of the pandemics to use that as a way to reform the way they view and they build peace.


HEFFNER: How much of the peacemaking process Séverine should incorporate vaccination and specifically, you know, the idea that getting back to an economy that will work is important and establishing public health protocols will enable you know, countries and their populations to resume the process of their lives and preserve their livelihoods in a way that’s been in the crosshairs. You know, how much are you thinking about getting supplies of vaccine into countries and that being in effect fuel for the peacemaking process right now?


AUTESSERRE: Well, as an individual citizen, I would want, you know, to ship vaccines all over the world, I would want everybody to have the opportunity to get vaccinated, because I’m a huge believer in the fact that vaccines all going to help us get out of the pandemic situation. Now, when you ask me the impact on peacebuilding, I would be more careful because usually when we try to help conflict zones or inhabitants of conflict zones, we try to promote everything as a package deal. So, we promote peace and human rights and democracy and gender equality and good governance, and thinking that everything reinforces each other and that we can promote everything together. It’s a package deal. And I wouldn’t want to add something to this package deal, to add vaccinations to this package deal, because that would be counter-productive, because what I’ve shown in my research and what a lot of people have told me over the world is that there are tensions between the different components of the package deals. So…


HEFFNER: I would think that that food, water, and vaccines are the prerequisite for any kind of negotiation for any kind of settlement of peace.


AUTESSERRE: So, I would think that as well, personally, because these are priorities for me, and that’s what I want my families and my friends to have. But then when you ask people in conflict zones, sometimes you hear answers that are completely different from what you think. So, for instance, I had, when I was talking with people in the Palestinian Territories, they told me what I want first of all, is justice. That’s my first priority. The rest is secondary to me. When I was talking about people in Somaliland and I was saying, but you know, you still live in extreme poverty. They were telling me yes, but what matters to me above all else is peace, and peace is my first priority. So again, to me, these are different things. We’re talking about, you know, development, public health.


HEFFNER: It’s fascinating to hear you say that, because it’s so subjective in that sense, because you would think that there would be a stakeholder, if not the people you spoke with, but there would be someone in a negotiation position with the two people you just mentioned, who, you know, we’re, were talking about other of peace or talking about it from the philosophical perspective or the social justice perspective, you would think though, that they understand that, you know, when, when there is a negotiation or when there is a process of achieving social justice, that usually comes about because stakeholders, there are multiple stakeholders there. And I just, I wouldn’t think of it as a subjective idea, that there would be enough stakeholders who would require those things. You know, the, you know what I mean?


AUTESSERRE: Yes. And that’s why it’s so important to go back to the basics that we were discussing maybe 10 minutes or 15 minutes ago involving everyone in the definition of what is the problem? Why do we have violence? What are your priorities? What are the solutions to the violence? How did you want us to help you? And that’s why I portray in “The Frontlines of Peace” these organizations that instead of being like the common United Nations or United States peacebuilder and saying, I know what the problem is. I know what you need. You need peace or you need democracy, or you need vaccines, and I’m going to give it to you because I have the expertise to improve your situation. I show organizations that arrive and spend years talking with residents on the ground and saying, okay, what do you think, what do you need? And what’s important to you? And then they support ordinary people to resolve conflict in their own situations, according to their own values and their own priorities. And again, not only in conflict zones, but also that’s something that works fairly well in the United States. There are wonderful organizations that do that in the United States as well.


HEFFNER: Tell us about a few of the case studies that, you know, you’re most passionate about from the book.


AUTESSERRE: Ok so, in the United States, right?


HEFFNER: Or, or internationally. Yeah. Either way. Why don’t you give me one example in the U.S. and one example, globally?


AUTESSERRE: Okay. So, I’m going to give you one example from the U.S. that I absolutely love it’s Mothers Against Senseless Killings. Do you know them?


HEFFNER: Go ahead.


AUTESSERRE: It’s an organization that’s in Chicago. And so, it’s an organization that started because women in the south side of Chicago were really fed up with seeing so much violence and bloodshed around them. So, they decided to hang out on street corners and the brought folding chairs and the sat on them for hours and hours. And because nobody wants to kill someone in front of their own mothers and Chicago, the number of shootings and killings in their communities has decreased a lot. And to me, that’s really an example of how you can use your local culture, your local network as an ordinary citizen, to improve the situation in your community. And there is another organization. I know you asked me just for one, but I want to mention another one. It’s called Cure Violence. And they use the same kind of bottom-up, insider led approach. They work on for gang violence, and they have managed to reduce shootings and killings in more than 20 us cities, by more than 73 percent, again, by working with former gang members, with members of the communities and really using the bottom-up, insiders-led approach that we’ve been discussing. And to me, again, really interesting, because we’re looking at outsiders who come me, but they work with insiders from the bottom up. And they also work with governments because we need always top-down and bottom-up as you were mentioning five minutes ago. So, they, they work also with governments and with the mayors, et cetera. So, they, they really work from the top down and the bottom up to decrease violence. And so, I’m going to give you as you asked for an example from abroad.


Okay. Let me talk about Congo because that’s my favorite country in the world. And it’s also one of the deadliest, the stage of the deadliest conflict since World War II. In Congo, there is this little island called Idjwi, which I find absolutely fascinating. So, Congo again has been at war for more than 20 years. It has an enormous United Nations peacekeeping mission, one of the largest and one of the most expensive mission in the world. But despite all of that, despite the peacekeepers, despite plenty of donors and nongovernmental organizations, violence continues, and hundreds of people continue to die every day, right now. But Idjwi itself has avoided mass violence for the past 20 years. And what’s fascinating about Idjwi is that the island has all of the same preconditions that have led to violence in other parts of Congo. So you have a two strategy location, you have natural resources, ethnic tensions, lack of state authority. You have extreme poverty, local conflicts over land and traditional power, et cetera. And when you’re in Idjwi and when you talk to people, you realize that it’s not the state or the police or the army who manage to control tensions. And it’s not foreign peacebuilders either, but it is the members of the community themselves. And they do this by fostering what they call a culture of peace. They are also organizing grassroots and local structures that help resolve conflicts. And they build on very strong beliefs that help prevent violence by both insiders and outsiders. Like blood packs, blood packs are traditional promises between two parties who agree never to hurt each other. And so the story of Idjwi to me shows that local community resources can build peace better than the usual elite agreements and outside interventions.


HEFFNER: Severine, we’re running out of time, but I think you’re mentioning this in the leads me to think about Parkland and, and the massacre at Parkland in Florida, and the fact that the students really galvanized local discussion around public policy in their communities in Florida. And, you know, unfortunately that faded, and the legislature is no longer responsive to those concerns. But just as a final question, you know, in the United States we had the insurrection on January 6th, we have an epidemic of gun violence, and mental illness, and we have a lot of the dynamics of countries that have, you know, pretty active conflict zones. I mean, it’s just, I, and this has to be the last question, but I just wonder, do you see that there’s kind of an, I don’t want to say an illusion, but a sort of conditions for that trending violence, even though we don’t see it as physical violence, are you concerned with the trajectory of the United States, that it has all the conditions that you would find in a conflict zone?


AUTESSERRE: Absolutely. I am concerned about the situation in our country, and that’s why I specifically made sure that in “The Frontlines of Peace” I think about the lessons we can learn from conflict zones to address the tensions in our own communities. And that’s why the last chapter of the book talks about examples from the United States, from Chicago, from New York, from other parts of the country. And what’s really important is that the things that actually work to build peace in Congo, in Somalia, in Colombia, work at home as well, this idea of, as an ordinary citizen, the fact that we can do something, we can develop personal relationships with our opponents. We have the power to help decrease violence,

HEFFNER: Séverine, I’m sorry to interrupt we’re out of time, but I do think that think this is strong, but there is an invisible war zone out there. And we have to address the conditions in the political process and in our communities to alleviate that burden other than otherwise, it will metastasize, Séverine. Thank you so much for your insight today, and please check out her book “Frontlines of Peace.”


AUTESSERRE: Thank you so much for having me on your show, Alexander.


HEFFNER: You’re very welcome.


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