By Thomas Hindle
Countries are taking the wrong approach in trying to achieve world peace, a speaker said Wednesday at The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace conference.
The conference, titled “The Future of Humanity: The Challenge of Global Peace and Security” was a two-day event held at this university. It featured scholars and professors from the U.S. and Canada, as well as workers from non-governmental organizations from around the world.
Dr. Séverine Autesserre, professor of political science and African studies at Barnard College within Columbia University, spoke extensively on her work with the U.N. General Assembly in war-torn countries. Drawing on her experience, she claimed that grassroots movements are more effective than current methods in place for achieving peace.
“Peace building is a crucial task, and our current methods just don’t work,” she said.
Autesserre spent 20 years with the the General Assembly in 11 different war zones. During her time, she noticed that locals don’t often care about elections or mass change. She spoke about this when describing her time in Congo.
“The rebels didn’t care about conflicts between Rwanda and other neighboring countries. They just wanted the villager’s land,” Autesserre said.
She argued that national governments don’t put enough focus on smaller issues. Rather, they see democracy as the ultimate cure.
“Countries think that only top down intervention can solve violence. This means that to them, democracy is the key to peace,” she said.
Autesserre pointed to the ongoing conflict in the Congo, and multiple familiar stories of “democracy nearly working” as evidence for why a fresh outlook is needed. She said that this outlook can come from the idea that peace is down to individual citizens. Prosper Ishimwe, a fellow for the U.S. Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs, agreed with Autesserre’s outlook.
“I think Peace Corps volunteers get a good perspective. They get to form relationships; the local people get to trust them. You have to understand the intricacies of these conflicts,” Ishimwe said.
Autesserre referenced Somaliland, in Northern Somalia, and Idjwi Island, belonging to the Congo, as places where individuals have been able to cooperate and achieve peace. Both areas are in the middle of war-torn countries, yet death tolls are significantly lower than that of other parts of their respective nations. Autesserre argued that this is down to familiar relationships.
“In every country I have researched, I’ve found examples of ordinary citizens using personal connections to convince the leaders of surrounding armed troops to come and negotiate,” Autesserre said.
Dr. Jennifer Larson, speaking prior to Autesserre, made a similar argument, suggesting that cooperation is vital to peace. The idea of gossip, Larson insisted, is what enforces societal norms and prevents individuals from misbehaving.
“If you do something wrong in a close network, people will hear very quickly,” Larson said.
Autesserre argued that with a synthesis of her ideas and Larson’s, the world can take small steps toward global peace. Martin Yau, a junior computer engineering major, agreed.
“I agree with them both because being local is so impactful. When you get to know people… it can make a big difference,” Yau said.
While both speakers talked about possible changes, neither said they wanted a complete overhaul of current methods. Rather, they noted that the key is an elevated level of local intervention. Autesserre also said that she doesn’t expect change to happen immediately, but her suggestions would be a step in the right direction.
“All these ideas can’t be met at once… but they could definitely be game changers,” Autesserre said.