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Complete lies! (01/2024)

“Peace is a controversial term these days.”

Interview: Urs Hafner

Our world is again becoming dominated by war. It is especially during the hottest phases of conflicts that well-informed, level-headed discourse is most crucial, says Dana Landau of swisspeace.

Dr. Dana Landau
Dr. Dana Landau (Photo: Kostas Maros)

UNI NOVA: Dana Landau, the war in Ukraine is a serious concern in Europe. Have you and the team at swisspeace launched a peace initiative?

DANA LANDAU: No, we aren’t organizing any major peace conference. That wouldn’t be realistic at the moment, anyway. Organizing these types of conferences is not part of the work we do. We conduct peace research and implement peacebuilding projects. If an opportunity presents itself, we share our knowledge with those involved in diplomacy.  

Switzerland is attempting to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. Are you advising the foreign minister?  

Not at the moment, but we’d be open to doing so.

What can peace research do that diplomacy and politics can’t?

While we share the political goal of ending a military conflict, we can’t influence the politicians involved or exert any kind of pressure. We offer our expertise to interested parties and work together with researchers and local NGOs in conflict areas. For example, we recently collaborated with a Ukrainian professor who specializes in dialogue and mediation. In that sense, we’re definitely involved in a kind of peace initiative. But it’s not a one-way street; it’s reciprocal. We want to learn from those affected by the conflict. Universities are ideal settings for practicing outside-the-box thinking. And that’s more important than ever. It’s especially during the hottest phases of a conflict, such as the war in Gaza, that well-informed, level-headed discourse is most crucial. This kind of exchange makes it possible for people with different experiences and backgrounds to communicate. And I think research is more effective than politics in that regard.

Is the controversial policy of Swiss neutrality key to your work?

Swiss neutrality is less controversial among Swiss people than it is in media and politics. Neutrality is associated with a positive image of Switzerland – and the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN in Geneva play a significant role, too. That positive image still matters in peacebuilding. Switzerland is also known as a multilingual, peaceful democracy; it isn’t a global player and was not at the forefront of colonialism. Maybe Swiss neutrality is more symbolic than anything else, but it can be practical for the work we do.

How do you research peace?

My work revolves around mediation with a particular focus on inclusion. Who is involved in the peace process? Ideally, it’s not just politicians. NGOs, religious groups, academics and women’s rights groups should be included, too. My colleagues at swisspeace work with partners from Ukraine on what is known as transitional justice: We consider both symbolic and real reparations for past injustices, so that society can process conflicts in a productive way and carry on after the war is over. This also involves looking at conflicts within Ukrainian society that are more likely to erupt in some places, for example, in the liberated territories in the east, where people are being accused of collaboration with the enemy. There are already vast collections of video footage from the Russian invasion documenting suspected war crimes. Hopefully, they’ll be evidence in a tribunal someday.

Your institute was formed during the Cold War, when the communist Eastern Bloc and the capitalist West were exchanging threats. Is your work more complex nowadays?

It’s a fascinating phase for peace research. Following the end of the Cold War around 1989 – which, to be clear, was not cold at all in Korea and Vietnam, but rather extremely hot – a series of civil wars broke out, and these were central to our work. For a long time, our favored model of peace involved building compromises between conflict parties. We assumed that these various parties would have to share power in their countries after the war ended. But the situation is fundamentally different in interstate wars: Ukraine is rightly insisting on preserving its sovereignty. Any territorial compromise with Russia, even with a ceasefire, would mean subjugation for Ukraine, not peace. Peace has become a controversial term. The UN and its statutes are subject to increasing criticism. This is due, among other things, to “populist peacemaking”, which is a phenomenon I’ve studied: When Trump and other populists become involved in international conflicts, they want to throw out the established norms and UN resolutions. They demand attention for themselves and the spontaneous solutions they proclaim from on high. 

If you study peace, does that mean you have to study war, too?

Yes, you have to understand war in order to understand peace, but you can’t get too caught up in analysis of war, otherwise you won’t be able to develop any visions for peace. In our field, we differentiate between positive and negative peace. The latter is simply the absence of war and violence, while the former encompasses human rights and social justice. In that sense, peace is a constant struggle. I’ve spent a long time researching in Kosovo, and even though the war ended over 20 years ago, they’re still in the process of building peace.

Is the world becoming a more hostile place?

Based on the number of deaths, if you compare the current situation with the two World Wars of the past century, then you could conclude that the world is actually becoming more peaceful. But looking at the last decade, it’s safe to say that hostility is on the rise again. After the Cold War, the curve was trending downward, but since 2011, it’s rising again, and this year it’s likely to continue its upward trend. And not just in Ukraine and Gaza, either. Sudan is also in the middle of an atrocious war.

In your line of work, how do you avoid ending up in between warring fronts or being instrumentalized for a particular side?

Unlike natural scientists, I don’t work on experiments in a lab. I’m right in the middle of the action, particularly when conflicts are in the “hot” phase and emotions are running high. In emergency situations like that, I can’t even conduct my research on-site. And when I hold interviews, I’m doing so in a highly polarized context, speaking to people who have experienced terrible things. I constantly interrogate the ethics of my research: Who do I listen to, who do I offer a voice, who am I potentially exposing to risk? Which terms should I use to describe the conflict? Who even gets the opportunity to talk to me, and how does this affect the results of my research? Of course, I can’t allow myself to be instrumentalized, but I also have to acknowledge my responsibility not to instrumentalize anybody else, either.

At the beginning of the year, the legislature of the canton of Basel-Landschaft halted subsidies for swisspeace because it took issue with a statement made by your director regarding the war in Gaza. Does swisspeace frequently come under pressure from politicians?

No, they generally don’t take a close interest in our work. Of course, the legislature has the right to discuss any topic it wishes and make its own financial decisions, but the justification seems rather punitive. That’s dangerous, both for scientific freedom and for society as a whole. Particularly in this conflict, which relates directly to us and our history, we shouldn’t be restricting discourse like that. The outrage logic of social media isn’t getting us anywhere – we must engage in open discussion.

Swisspeace is an independent research institute associated with the University of Basel. Founded in 1988 as the Swiss Peace Foundation, the institute analyzes armed conflicts in Eastern Europe, Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia and develops peacebuilding strategies. The President of swisspeace is former diplomat Jakob Kellenberger, and the director is Laurent Goetschel, Professor of Political Science at the University of Basel.

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2024).

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