Participants Blog hosted by Center for Conflict Studies at MIIS

Author: Dylan Sparks

War and Peace

Today provided us with opportunities to further analyse the effectiveness of peace building, specifically with regards to reconciliation, as well as the rare chance to delve into the intricacies of interpretation (as opposed to translation).

During Elizabeth Cole’s session we learnt about reconciliation as the final stage of peace building. While this may be seen as the final stage, it is often the most elusive. She pointed this out by highlighting that a country recently out of a civil war, has a 50% chance of relapsing to violence in the first 5 years of post-conflict. This helps distinguish between negative peace (absence of high-level violence) and positive peace (sustainable peace). A country or community which has undergone a genuine reconciliation process and other forms of peace building, would be classified in the positive peace stage. Conversely, a country where high-level violence has just recently ceased to exist, it would be described as negative peace. I found the session really interesting in discussing how frequent the relationship between funding and reconciliation process. Resources are always limited, as is time, and these processes can often require a large quantity of both. We also examined the different dimensions of reconciliation during our morning session:

  • Truth
  • Justice: retributive (trials), restorative
  • Reparations
  • Apologies
  • Foregivness/Repentance
  • Acknowledgment
  • Ceremonies
  • Exhumations – related to truth/social
  • Commemoration
  • Guarantee of Non-Repetition

I thought the discussion of commemorations and memorials was really interesting, particularly pertaining to how to balance the past and the future in how conflict is visually represented. I remember visiting the killing fields in Cambodia, and being upset that the “memorial” to the victims of the genocide was a glass tower displaying 9,000 skulls. Reflecting, I think what I struggled with most about the memorial was that the focus was on the past and conflict, and not on looking towards what the future could look like. This relates to a question raised today about how does a community avoid developing a victim identity? Having said that, the memorial was a very powerful way of reminding future generations of the horrors committed – and in a similar way to memorials which include lists of names, this one (in a crude way) gave some sense of the magnitude of the violence.

Some of the rules that I learnt from the interpretation session were:

  • Interpreters always speak in the 1st person
  • Need to be perceived as neutral
  • Cultural and Confidential context are critical
  • The speaker and interpreter should work as a partnership, to ensure a smooth working relationship

Focus on Peacebuilding

Today’s sessions were all really thought provoking and interesting, although I was particularly struck by a lot of what was discussed in Professor Bock’s sessions. We discussed the role of religion in both peace and conflict, of which there are many examples. I appreciated the overview of Clark McCauley’s theories:

Iniquity theory –> conflict is about maintaining honour and guarding that which is considered sacred and important.

Equity theory –> conflict is a result of unequal distribution of resources.

Humiliation theory –> the combination of anger and shame.

All of these theories attempt to address different sources of conflict, in order to best develop strategies for effective peace building. Professor Bock acknowledged that many conflicts are viewed as economic or cultural, but actually for many actors in the conflict, religion does actually play a role. He cautioned against glossing over the point that conflicts might actually be religious, as without accurately diagnosing the flashpoint of conflict, any attempt at peace building will be doomed. I appreciated his introduction of the term “coreligionists,” and his argument that these individuals who represent different religions need to play a more active role in discouraging violence and deconstructing any religious justifications which are being used to promote violence. We looked at the example of Daesh and which religious leaders could help counter the theological arguments made by militants for their actions. I agreed with the arguments that he was making about using individuals from within communities who have the authority and credibility to deflate an argument (such as Daesh using Islam as a justification for violence).

I thought his evaluation of terminology was also really important – by dissecting what tolerance means when contrasted with celebrating diversity. I agreed with his analysis of the term ‘tolerance’ as something which does not have the most positive connotations.

Gender, Peace and Conflict

Today’s session with Dr. Moorti was dynamic and informative, pertaining to cultural and societal understandings of gender and sex – what the differences are, and how one forms another. This was a good base from which to explore the role of Gender (as opposed to sex) in times of conflict and peace. I appreciated her explanation of how sex has been mapped onto gender, because being a student at a liberal arts college in the US, these phrases are thrown around a lot, without much explanation or discussion surrounding them. I thought these discussions highlighted some really interesting points, such as the fact that patriarchal societies would not survive without females who are complicit. Furthermore, I found the relationships Professor Moorti drew between patriarchy which is propped up by certain capitalist structures. Similarly, the point that Victorian gender norms were imposed via colonialism, on countries which traditionally had more fluid views on sexuality and gender is interesting (and depressing).

In the same way I appreciated the deconstruction of patriarchy, I also enjoyed the discussion about feminism not as an identity, but rather as a political process/activity. Also, the discussion of gender needs to be informed by other categories, such as class, caste, sexuality, economics and sex. This discussion led to the introduction of the effects that certain development programs have had on societal dynamics between different genders. While there were a number of issues with these programs (such as the fact that they viewed women in reference to their context as reproducing subjects), often the ‘issue of women’ was viewed in isolation, resulting in unintended consequences. Dr. Moorti raised the example of efforts in Bangladesh to empower women economically, which had a positive relationship with a rise in domestic violence. The main issue was that the development apparatus had completely ignored what the potential ramifications might on other elements of society.

I enjoyed the discussion surrounding the militarisation of women in conflict zones, particularly because this was a concept I was introduced to recently during a Critical Security Studies seminar.  The example of Laura Bush securitising the lives of Afghan women living under the control of the Taliban as a justification for US military intervention there, during a speech at the UN is the perfect example. Ironically, she is also behaving as an actor in relation to her husband and his administration, to help them achieve their military and political goals. She too, becomes complicit in the militarisation of female bodies in conflict.


Jailhouse Blues

Today was another action-packed day in our case study on Salinas gang violence, and provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on the causes, effects and solutions to said violence. During our panel with the Mayor, CASP Director and NGO workers, it was interesting to learn about the progress made under the Obama administration in terms of shifting investment in law enforcement to investing in prevention. Director Jose in particular seemed proud of the progress made under Obama by using 6 cities as a pilot to generate a strategic approach to combating violence levels. While I didn’t necessarily always agree with the Mayors style or policy, there is certainly a lot to be said for him given his popularity in Salinas as a Republican, in an overwhelmingly Democrat city. Furthermore, his background in law enforcement, as the self-proclaimed “biggest arrestor” all make him an unlikely advocate of preventative measures and strategies. However, despite his obvious commitment to these programs, he did admit that “maybe we can save ’em, maybe we can’t.” I guess this is something for us to keep in mind as we analyse these situations as outsiders. Prevention may seem like the best plan in the world, but at the end of the day suppression is going to be employed for those who break the law. And whether we liked what we saw in the prison or not, functional societies are governed by laws with the goals of order and public safety.

I appreciated the inclusion of the two ladies who are playing such an active role on the grassroots level, which in this case means in homes and on the streets. While I would have liked to hear more from them, I was really interested in the ideas of the “violence interruptors” whose role is to focus on a hotspot and identify at-risk kids as a preventative measure of keeping them out of trouble. A major challenge to this work, which was brought up during the session was the fact that gangs subscribe to not interacting with service providers such as the one’s we met today. This makes the lives of at-risk youth that much more vulnerable and the cycle of violence that much harder to disrupt. I appreciated the Mayor’s assertion that we are all a step away from being in the situation of the many people whose lives were discussed today: whether they were at-risk, incarcerated or had fallen on hard times. I think this was an important admission, coupled with the statement that “no one is born mean.” From what we have learnt about the Criminal Justice system so far, coupled with our experiences today, it seems like CASP (whose mission is: prevention, intervention, suppression, reentry) has had some positive effects on cross-community communication and prevention strategies. However, it is easy to see how the organization can be criticised. For example, I think as a group we all shared concerns about the lack of minority and youth representation at the meeting we attended.

I thought that Sneha asked a provocative question, when she pressed the leadership on how they evaluate the effectiveness of their programs. Jose mentioned the use of 3rd party cultivated data (ie MIIS student-run surveys) and other outside groups collecting data as the basis for a lot of evaluation. Based on this data, 2-3 year plans are derived. During this discussion, when the panel was asked about the biggest challenges they face in implementing these policies, the issue of sustainability between successive administrations was raised. It appears that this issue is being addressed by the Mayor embedding the costs into the actual budget, which moves away from the precarious status of the grant-based model.

Behind Bars

Today’s sessions provided a unique opportunity for us as private citizens, or as Sneha put it, “civil society” to interact with a community of society who we usually learn about through pop-culture, stereotypes and the media. We were afforded a privileged opportunity of interacting with them directly, particularly in the afternoon — as humans, without other people speaking for or about them. Tangentially, this made it somewhat ironic that their presentation to us began by describing themselves and their peers as statistics. Up until now this was the only interaction I had had with prisoners – they were numbers on a page, as part of a system which I saw as a vicious cycle. So I guess in a very idiosyncratic way we were learning about statistics, from human beings who represented the statistics – we saw prisoners both as the numbers on the board and as their individual stories. We were seeing them from behind the Lethal Electric Fence and from the inside.

I’ve never had any involvement in a 12-step program except for having friends who have gone through them. But from my experience today I was really impressed by the positive affirmation and camaraderie displayed by the participating inmates. However, I also think it is worth noting that we were viewing the process as outsiders who swooped in at the end of what would have been a long and arduous process on steps to recovery, as well as the work of collecting data. It was also a reminder of how simple activities of self-reflection can have profound impacts. It was interesting to see the reactions of the inmates towards the numbers and how they could relate their own experiences to the statistics on the board.

In our group the facilitator and mentor did a great job including us in the discussions and debates about the activity. The one counsellor asked us all to describe the criminal justice system’s in our own country, which proved to be a really thought provoking process, to compare what situation some of the inmates would be in in other countries. I also think it was a positive experience for people who are confined to interacting with a certain social group, to be exposed to a group with such diverse backgrounds, who are all engaged with each other. Common ground in practice.

I really enjoyed speaking with Julie about whether the gangs design prisons. I definitely found the amount of influence the gang-members had over their jailers to be surprising. The fact that they dictated who shared cells with who, and many other dynamics in the facility seemed counter intuitive to me. As an outsider it seemed like the jailers should have absolute control over the prisoners in a facility of this severity. Which requires us to ask the question: are jails disrupting gangs or enabling them?

Violence in Monterey and Beyond

Today was perhaps the most intense day of the program, but also one of the most interesting and engaging. I really enjoyed Professor Laurance’s session this morning, because of the way he related his own life, theoretical work and work as a practitioner into one session. I would have loved to hear more about the DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) process, but certainly the insights and experiences he provided definitely indicated that this was an effective method of reducing violence. I found the moral and ethical questions raised by inviting groups who were previously rebels or violent into participating in the formal political process to be fascinating. Whether there is a right or wrong answer, I definitely feel it depends on what the priority of the country or community is at that time. Has the violence become untenable that compromise comes easy? Through this difficult question and Professor Laurance’s discussions afterwards, it became clear that he was right: peace is not about fairness or about development (at least in these instances, of intense violence).

I think that DDR can be extremely effective if it is accepted that DDR is a first step, and that the process that follows is just as arduous as laying down the guns. Similarly in his discussion about the CURE model, it became clear that he is a pragmatist. Conceding that there is nothing he can do about the quantity and accessibility of weapons on the streets of Chicago, it is clear that him and his colleagues are serious about finding creative ways to curb the amount of violence and homicide in that city. Overall, his talk was a good real word example of connecting much of the theory we covered last week (ie structural violence, trauma informed care etc), to hands-on practice – which I really appreciated, and I think the timing of his session was perfect. The thing I like most about the CURE model was the approach of assessing gun violence as a public-health dilemma. To me this seemed like an acknowledgment of past policy failures, and a commitment to finding a new path forward.

I think a lot of what Professor Laurance said was reinforced by what Julie Reynold’s included in her discussion with us, particularly relating to how peace building happens at all stages of the process. Without going into her talk in too much depth, I found the level to which the gang violence in California (and prisons here) is entrenched in a vicious cycle to be alarming. I really appreciated the level of depth and context which she went to great lengths to provide, as I found it particularly helpful as someone from outside of the U.S. who was pretty much oblivious to the extent of the unique criminal justice situation here. I think for me the most interesting take-away from her talk was the question she posed to us: Do the prisons design the gangs, or do the gangs design the prisons? In light of the discussion with Willie later on, it definitely seems clear that despite the fact that many of their rights are violated, privileges are restricted, and they are imprisoned, gangs and their members still seem to wield an enormous amount of influence for people who are supposed to be controlled by the prison-industrial complex, which is carrying out ‘justice.’

What are we afraid of?

Richard Rubenstein introduced some important themes and discussion into the program, particularly in our discussions of structural violence. The idea that there is a system generating violence, which produces inequality, which manifests in structural violence. The example of prisons was used, where prisons serve as a machine for the production of violence. Relating this back to Richard Matthew’s talk, whee he highlighted the fact that 1/3 of the world’s incarcerated population are in the US. I’m sure we’ll be learning much more about this next week with a visits to prison facilities and law enforcement professionals. Obviously there are different groups, contexts and environments where structural violence and conflict can occur. I found Rubenstein’s analysis of the 2016 US election to be insightful and quite frankly, it made total sense. He discussed how Democrats did not effectively capture the mood of the country – citing that they ran on a platform of a $15/hr minimum wage, transgender bathrooms and putting the first women in the White House. Obviously, the issue was more complex and nuanced, but his acknowledgment that Republicans had been asking the right questions by challenging the existing system was definitely something that I could understand. Furthermore, his acknowledgment that they may have been asking the right questions — it was just that the answers they came up with were vicious.

While I found his ideas about terrorism hard to follow, I did enjoy the discussions afterwards between all of the participants. This past semester I took a Critical Security Studies class which spent a lot of time examining terrorism and how the state manifests itself. This class was a total eye-opener, and made me question a lot about the world around me, particularly when it comes to terrorism. Without discounting or diminishing the catastrophic events of 9/11, I do not believe that terrorism poses an existential threat to the existence of the US. If we look at the average number of people killed on US soil by ‘terrorists’ is relatively low – official statistics put the number at around 75 people per year. While I am not diminishing or cheapening those lives, this class and the divergence of opinions relating to Professor Rubenstein’s talk has made me wonder what the cause of the media and political obsession with terrorism is. If the main concern behind all the hype is the unnecessary and indiscriminate murdering of people, then surely gun violence in the US should be receiving all this attention? Over 30,000 people are killed each year as a consequence of gun violence. If the state is so concerned with saving lives, then tightening gun control laws, addressing other causes of violence and gun loopholes should naturally be their priority. Sadly, as we all know this is not the case. Instead, often misguided and misinformed policies are put in place to “combat terrorism.”

Equality of Ingenuity

During Richard Matthew’s talk I found a lot of the content we covered, particularly pertaining to inequality and wealth disparity, to be a good way of setting up the discussions we had with Richard Rubenstein about the effects of systematic violence. For example, Dr Matthew’s point that if the bottom 50% of the world’s population liquidated all their assets, they still would not be able to afford a night in a hotel in Monterey, CA. I found his frame of analysis when describing the trends of the 20th Century, and the goals in the 2nd half — to prevent another world war to be an effective way of understanding the geopolitical events and relationships post-1945.  Obviously these goals have now changed drastically, as have the challenges – and these two areas are not necessarily aligned. While we are all pretty well-versed on the challenges of climate change – the effects that are already changing our weather patterns, ecosystems and resources – I had never given much thought to the concept of what environmental feedback the planet might have.

How is the planet going to respond to these changes? Will there be positive effects which actually stimulate life, foster great equality amongst human inhabitants and push the boundaries of human ingenuity? Only time will tell. And just because there is the potential for our planet to have some positive responses to climate change, and some positive adaptations, the science still paints a pretty dim view of the situation, which further highlights the need for action, awareness and preventative measures. I think the work Dr. Matthew’s has been involved in with regards to including the environment as an aspect of peace-building is important, but I had been unaware how important it actually is. He referenced that since 1960, 40% of all internal conflicts have been linked to natural resources. Similarly, since 1990, 18 civil wars have been financed by illegal exploitation of natural resources. I think there is a lot of hype in the media about the future of war being related to resources and their scarcity, but as Dr. Matthew’s explained, this has been going on for decades. The positive thing about it being an ‘old’ problem, is that sustained systemic and grassroots efforts to combat these damages is clearly underway, as demonstrated by Richard’s work and career.

Something which Richard said towards the end of his lecture, I found to be particularly relevant to the SPP as we all look ahead to working on our projects with our various organisations. When talking about global populations, he said “there is an equality of ingenuity, but an inequality of financial capacities.” I thought this was a profound and important statement as we all begin working on different projects for organisations who are working to advance the rights or interests of different peoples around the world. It highlights the need for respect and open-mindedness when outsiders are attempting to help facilitate or mediate solutions.


“Post-Conflict” doesn’t exist

I think the most important take-away from the first day of the program was discussing the importance of knowing ourselves –– in order to better achieve our goals of peace-building and conflict resolution. Being aware of where our values come from (whether culture, faith, family or experience) is an important way of evaluating any potential biases or predispositions we may have towards a certain side or idea. Similarly, I found the discussion of the distinction between responsibility and behaviour to be informative as a launching pad for the program.
I felt that the discussion that we then went on to have during Pushpa’ session where we examined the difference between needs and interests was an important way of highlighting the challenges that conflicting sides and mediators have to prioritise. This was a critical starting point to examining other conflicts and looking at how best to approach tricky situations of conflict, because when mediating between two sides (or when self-reflecting on our own part in a conflict) it is important to be able to acknowledge these differences. I really appreciated the acknowledgment that “conflict is not negative — it is about how it is managed,” because this highlights the potential positive effectives that conflict can have if managed effectively. This is not to say that it is always easy to manage conflicts peacefully to produce positive outcomes. I think discussing some of the theoretical groundings of peace-building was an effective starting point, because I know that for me personally it allowed me to ground any previous knowledge, understanding or experience with the topic into a more formal theoretical framework.
I was also struck by the notion that there is no such thing as “post-conflict.” I think this is an important idea because it highlights the fact that peace (and the absence/prevention of conflict) is a continual process that all aspects of society must remain actively engaged in. For me personally, this idea resurfaced at the end of the week with Professor Rubenstein when he referred to the “current political solution in South Africa.” This was an interesting perspective for me to hear, being a South African who was born a year after the election of Nelson Mandela, it struck me as jarring to hear the country I grew up in and know as a “current political solution.” This implied that the state was temporary and prone to change, which the notion of post-conflict not existing suggests too. However, when analysing the matter objectively it is obvious that his phrasing was correct. The state that exists right now is the current political solution to the systematic racism and segregation of the past.

SPP Intro

My name is Dylan Sparks and I am currently a Global and International Studies major at Bard College in upstate NY. Originally South African, I graduated from UWC South East Asia in 2014, which was where I had my first opportunities to get involved in peace-building on a personal level beyond discussion. During my time at UWC, I was part of the Initiative for Peace group where we organised and facilitated a peace building conference in Sri Lanka. The goal of the conference was to bring together Sri Lankan youth from all different ethnic and religious groups — mainly Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims — who were between the ages of 18 and 25, for a 10 days conference. We underwent facilitation and conflict resolution training over the course of 1 year. A primary focus of the conference was normalising interactions between people had had very little interaction between their respective groups in their lives. The conference was residential, which meant that all of the different participants shared dormitories, meals, ablutions and leisure time.

Despite all the training we went through, the workshops organised and guest speakers who presented various different theories and agendas — the most effective tool of integration was bonding over mundane daily activities. This experience allowed all participants and facilitators to be reminded of the universality of youth: there was far more that united, than divided. It is much harder to paint negative images of an “other” when the “other” lives in a different village or province — but a bit harder if you are sharing a room. A memorable activity was asking participants to draw up a timeline of the history of civil conflict in Sri Lanka. Once everyone  had completed their timeline, they had to present their perspective of history to the group. The result was interesting differences between demographics — what had been viewed as “key” or “critical” events for some, had been left out of other peoples timelines. During the conference, a peer (and fellow South African) and I did a presentation on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Through a role play we demonstrated what might have transpired at one of the sessions. During the course of this we decided that it holding a mini-TRC might be a good idea. However, in order to keep things civil (we had no idea how things could transpire) we decided that it was going to be an open platform for people to discuss their grievances, experiences, memories and emotions about the conflict.  We decided that the platform would be 1-way, and there would not be an opportunity for audience members to challenge their peers. So in this critical sense, the exercise did differ from the original TRC. Anyone was allowed to go up to the podium and speak — no one was allowed to respond to them, and there was no obligation for anyone to share at all. After explaining the guidelines we sat down and waited for someone to volunteer. Eventually they did, and the enthusiasm for the exercise was fantastic. Again, things didn’t necessarily go according to plan, and again, this was not a bad thing. Many people discussed issues which were not directly related to Peace per se, such as bullying, social/family issues — but they all further contributed to the greatened sense of trust between participants.


Other experiences that I’ve had with this area are quite academic – the focus of my major means that Security Studies, as well as Inequality (of which violence is often a symptom) are at the forefront of my course load. The majority of my other experiences with the topic have been focused on education for children in South Africa and Kenya — while these efforts, which mainly relate to assisting NGOs with marketing, private-public partnerships, social media and donor outreach — I am a strong believer in the value of education as a tool to combat misunderstandings, conflict, hate and violence.

I am excited for the SPP program, particularly sharing ideas with my peers, interacting with instructors and learning about different perspectives. I look forward to meeting everyone and sharing an enriching few weeks together!

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