Exclusive Interview with director of Swisspeace, Prof. Dr. Laurent Goetschel - VIDEO

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article about 'Exclusive Interview with director of Swisspeace, Prof. Dr. Laurent Goetschel - VIDEO' and 'For Kitabistan'

It is widely acknowledged that peace is the most crucial factor for the future and prosperity of the world. Unfortunately, in recent years, the number of conflict and war hotspots has continued to increase. In such a challenging situation, how can we establish mutual trust among parties and achieve peace in general?

Since one of the values mentioned in Kitabistan's concept is peace, we decided to expand our research on peace and dialogue practices, methods to achieve sustainable peace, and raising awareness about peace in general. We also started interviews to highlight the significance of peace and to present the findings of our research in this area, as well as ideas for future research.

Experiences show that one of the key conditions for achieving long-lasting peace is the impartiality of the mediator facilitating negotiations between conflicting parties. Because only impartiality can ensure the principle of justice.

Therefore, our first interviewee on the theme of peace is Laurent Goetschel, director of the peace research institute "Swisspeace" located in the Swiss Confederation, which has remained loyal to its neutrality for two centuries. Swisspeace is a practice and research institute operating in Switzerland, aims to contribute to the improvement of conflict prevention and conflict transformation with the help of Swiss and international actors.

It should be noted that Laurent Goetschel is a professor of political science at the University of Basel and he was a visiting professor at Harvard and Columbia University. He also served as the political advisor of Swiss Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2003 to 2004

We present an exclusive interview with "Swisspeace" director Professor Laurent Goetschel to Kitabistan.

- Dear Professor Laurent, thank you for taking your time for the interview. As the director of Swisspeace, one of the esteemed institutions working in the field of peace in neutral Switzerland, I believe that our conversation with you is crucial in highlighting the significance of peace and dialogue. This is especially important given the resurgence of frozen conflicts and the expansion of conflict zones around the world. Therefore, it would be more useful if we begin our conversation with the history of Swisspeace.

Founded in 1988 at the University of Bern, what necessity led to the creation of Swisspeace and what has it achieved in the last 35 years in promoting peace and dialogue?

- Well, first and foremost thank you for having me as your guest for this interview. I must also add that I've been with Swisspeace for already quite some time now but I wasn't there in 1988. So, what I'm telling you now is based on the sayings from friends and peers and from writings. The idea in 1988 to establish the Swisspeace Foundation actually originated already quite some time earlier. It was more or less in the midst of the so-called Cold War when there was still the mutual dissuasion policies between the Eastern bloc and the Western bloc and particularly also the threat by considerable nuclear arsenals which also had the respective doctrines of First strike and Second strike capability and so on. And at that time, beneath the dominant political surface in Western European countries there was the idea that due to this tangible eminent threat to the existence of the people in Europe, in Western Europe but also in Eastern Europe there should be ways, attempts at trying to better understand how this all came about and what possible ways out of this dilemma existing. For this reason, mainly in Germany and in Scandinavian countries first peace research institutes were established. And last but not least, in Switzerland in 1988. You may know that Switzerland sometimes takes a bit longer to do things and then it claims to be better than the others. I'm not sure this was the case in regard to Swisspeace (laughs). But at least Swisspeace was established in 1988 with the ambition and also the statutory obligation to help shape peace and foreign policy of the country. And this is what the organization has been doing since then. It started as a very small organization but this general objective remains the same. Meaning that we combine research activities and practice-related activities in the most harmonious and synergetic way. Meaning that we do not see research as some kind of fantastic, separate activity, finding out about all the wisdom of the world and trying to convince practitioners about our wisdom. It's rather that we actually get our inspiration for research from practice, from our experiences in peace projects and peace programs and try to figure out gaps which we then translate into research. So, our research has the emminent aim, objective to contribute to the improvement of peace policy and peace-building practices.

- The famous English writer Herbert George Wells in his book "New World Order" points out that we have made many declarations and we have signed treaties for the abolition of war, but if we really want to achieve peace, there are things we must do and the price we must pay. Apparently, these ideas voiced 70 years ago are still relevant. Because the problem still remains, what do you think is being overlooked by states, international organizations and individuals in the restoration and sustaining of peace?

- Maybe, let me start by saying what, in my view, hasn't been overlooked and then I'll get to your question. Because you know in whatever humans undertake, it's always easier to point towards the failures and the Laocoöns and to forget about the achievement. I mean, in regard to international norms, to values linked to the functioning of the international political order and particularly also in regard to the values attributed to human beings through human rights and through possibilities for humans to exchange, to collaborate, to be protected, linked also to the establishment of international organizations and the strengthening of international law, a lot has been achieved. Now this being said, obviously, this wasn't something which developed, how to say, neither in a linear way nor in a singular way. Meaning that it's not because these achievements I just mentioned succeded, that, states as dominating international structures, as power-oriented structures and also as power-oriented actors without the world government, without an overarching power would have stopped from one way to the other to behave the way they did before. I mean, they were constrained and limited in certain ways and certain practices also changed. All what I mentioned before, all the achievements were only possible because the states, the very same state causing some problem today, agreed at some point to participate and to help establish these achievements. But on the other side, they remained what they were. And so, we had these two kinds of parallel worlds, if I may call them like this. So, we had the positive, progressive, evolutive aspect and we still had the old world where power politics remained and where particularly also large states still thought they could get it alone. So, these two worlds coexisted and maybe sometimes we tended to forget about this second, old world that they are also still existing. If I may add to this, thinking globally and thinking also a bit critically, this whole undertaking, this whole adventure - if you want to start it in 1945 with the end of the Second World War, but also if we only start it in 1989 after the end of the so-called Cold War - was dominated by the then still largely dominating Western Global Northern states. And even though other states, other societies and individuals probably to a certain extent, maybe even more than we think, also supported this development they were not to the same extent part of it. So, the progressive new order was not always developed in a way which was as inclusive and as diverse as it might have been.

- As you also pointed out in your answer, of course, many organizations, including the United Nations, work towards promoting peace around the world. And they have really made significant progress in conflict resolution, dialogue between the parties, humanitarian aid. However, recent global trends reflect the beginning of the Second World War. Again, imperial ambitions are promoted, militarism is encouraged, and universal rights are suppressed. Despite the efforts of states and international organizations, in my opinion, it is important for individuals, that is, ordinary people should also be involved in the process of ensuring peace. How do you see the participation of individuals in the peace process?

- Individuals are crucial. Because in their capacity as individuals - thinking, reflecting, acting human beings - they staff all these endeavours. So, when I'm saying individuals are crucial it's not that I mean that, me, Laurent should go to a conflict setting and call loudly for peace. But, me, as an individual I can decide to engage with an organization like Swisspeace, I could also be a diplomat or I could be an NGO activist, I could be a judge with a relevant criminal court and I could even be a business person with a sense of corporate social responsibility and good corporate behaviour in a fragile context. So, the way I act, I think, the way my value structure is conceived, makes all the difference. All these institutions, all these activities only exist thanks to humans and are being influenced by humans in their various capacities.

- It has also been observed throughout history, and even today, that people who use war rhetoric and promote militarism tend to oppose women's participation in governance and decision-making. However, it is women and children who suffer the most during conflicts. Swisspeace researches the role of women in effective conflict prevention and sustainable peace. Based on the institution's research, what role should women play in sustaining peace in conflict and post-conflict periods?

- As in all other parts of human activities, I think it is crucial for women to play an important part equal or superior to one of men. They should not only be included, they should be given the possibility to shape these activities according to their own views, values and role conceptions. Apart from this, regarding the content… But obviously, there is a link between the two because if more women participate in such activities they also have more impact on the substance of these activities… You mentioned the sufferings of women and children in war. This is an obvious factor. And sadly enough we can also now observe this both in Israeli and Palestine and also in Ukraine, in war between Ukraine and Russia. So, this also needs to be taken seriously into account with all endeavours trying to prevent civilian suffering and particularly also to respect the private lives of people, to respect the health institutions. These all refer strongly to international humanitarian law principles which should they be applied as expected, should prevent most of the civilian casualties and sufferings from happening. Now even thinking beyond this in the field of peace research, very important studies have been carried out, showing the added value of applying gendered research lens. So, looking deeper into the functioning of societies, particularly also at differences, intersections between different gender roles and power asymmetries could open up new insights in tensions, in fragilities of societies which if they escalate could also play a part in the start of violent tensions and conflicts and possibly war. So, formulated in a different way, having a more substantive gendered approach to research on the prevention of conflict could also help improve the capacity to early warning about potential tensions and their escalations and to prevent war from happening at all.

- Swisspeace has identified "Dealing with the past" as one of its eight primary programs, which is based on four pillars - the right to know, the right to justice, the right to reparation, and the guarantee of non-recurrence. Unfortunately, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern European and post-Soviet countries were unable to obtain these rights from the Soviet successor. The occupation of Georgia and Ukraine today is a clear example of the non-provision of these rights. Can you provide us with an example of a successful application of this approach?

- We operate with many models, best practices and visions, also regarding peace instruments, programs, strategy. You now mentioned Dealing with the Past and Transitional Justice. We could also have looked at the political early warning mechanisms as I just mentioned before or we could also be looking at the best practices in the field of mediation. So, these are tools and concepts used to train, used to reflect, maybe also used to research. But then when you confront them to practice there's hardly ever, I think, a situation in which they will be applied one to one. This is just a call for precaution regarding the expectations. But of course, we also have to show some impact with what we are doing. If you want me to name one example linked also to what's happening actually in the world, I would mention the ongoing peace process in Colombia which is still not terminated. I mean the war, the civil war which has lasted for decades and caused dozens of thousands of victims and finally mostly came to an end. Because still not all factions are part of the peace process but more and more are. And as an important part of these negotiations which took place in several countries for many years with different actors participating, also in a supportive manner in these negotiations, the whole question of how to deal with past crimes and past sufferings and the potential for reparations but also punishment, various types of punishment but also a certain degree of amnesty and reintegration of former combatants played a very important role. And when there was a popular referendum a couple of years ago on the peace accord between the FARC and the then government this peace accord was even rejected in the popular referendum. Analysis showed that one of the reasons for the rejection of this peace accord was that some groups thought that “dealing with the past” parts of this agreement were not strong enough. So that the former war actors were being treated too mildly. Because it was Colombia and not Switzerland there was the possibility then not to go for a second referendum but to have parliament accept the peace accord (laughs). I would say luckily. Because what has happened since then is very positive and things moved forward. There was a commission for, I don't remember the exact appellation, I think for truce and reconciliation which has been working for many years and which also has archives and which collected many data, information and then not for all people to be tried in court immediately or to be imprisoned but also for the possibility to research and to find out about what happened. In the end, I think, the actors managed to find a kind of equilibrium between punishments, retribution, reconciliation which was acceptable. So, I think this was a result for that society in that moment which played an important role as a component of the peace process. I would wish very much that this would also be possible in your region. If we are looking at the situation in Ukraine now, Swisspeace is not conducting many activities in Ukraine right now. But from the few activities we’re conducting, most of them are linked to this issue of Dealing with the Past and Transitional Justice. Because we are trying to support the actors in place, to collect evidence, to collect information in order to have a basis to deal with what has happened and unfortunately is still happening in the not-too-distant future. So, this may sound very modest but, believe me, this is very important for what I hope will start happening in not all too distant future also in Ukraine.

- Switzerland is a great example of how peace can be achieved, even in a country with diverse languages, religions, and cultures. Despite these differences, Switzerland has managed to reconcile them. So, there is still hope for peace. What do you think are the key lessons nations with historical conflicts on coexistence can learn from Switzerland?

- I am always a little bit careful to position my home country as an example for others. Because particularly when we talk about examples we tend to shed light mainly on the positive or sunny side and to forget about the others. But let me do an exception for you now (laughs). So, what I think is very special in a positive way in Switzerland, lies in the high trust people put into political institutions. We have a tradition, but also an actual way of doing things in which if we have a decision taken even by a very thin majority of the people, we will respect it. Maybe in some situations the votes will be recounted and so on. But then it will be accepted. It will be accepted even if it touches about very delicate questions. So, I'm not talking only about the elections, one party winning against the other. But we also have many referendums on political themes regarding social policy, expenditures for some army projects or educational reforms and so on. We have a strong tradition of debate, of participation but also of readiness to accept when the opponent is winning. So, I think, this is one very important aspect. I am not saying it should be implemented exactly the same way this is happening in Switzerland. But the trust in institutions and the readiness to accept the others to win, I think, is an important criteria which can be achieved in some different ways. The other element I would stress is federalism. Switzerland is a very small country and we have many units. We have 26 units for 9 million inhabitants. I don't know, if a country like Russia, India, China or the US would be organized in a similar way, it would be a countless number of units (laughs). But the principle remains the fact that you try to have political structures which don't include too many people in order to take decisions and to discuss issues. It reduces the distance between the people in charge of executing policies and the sovereign, the people, the population itself. It eases the communication between them. And secondly, it also allows to vary in regards to certain priorities but maybe also in regard to certain views - be it on education, be it on religion, be it on whatever - between different parts of the country. Some might call it dysfunctional. I mean, during the pandemic, Covid period a few years ago in Switzerland sometimes the regulations varied from canton to canton in Switzerland. This sounded a little bit silly when looking at it from the outside because the viruses wouldn't stop at the border of one canton and to the other. Still, in one place the restaurants will be closed and the other place the restaurants will be open (laughs). So, this wasn't possibly the best possible solution for that kind of issues. But if we look at historical differences, language differences, religious differences it gives a lot of flexibility. I think besides direct democracy and trust, federalism, decentralization and subsidiarity linked to this type of political structure is another important element which could be copied if there's an interest in it.

- In order to insure against wars, what kind of preventive measures can international organizations and peace institutions take based on universal rights?

- Well, international law is really important. It is conceived in a way that it should prevent states from waging war at each other, except in the right of self-defense which means that if there is no aggressor there will not be war. We know this hasn't been fully implemented yet, but I think we do have the basis for this in international law. Now, who is in charge of implementing international law? There we mainly have the only really global organization, the United Nations. The United Nations, however, is not always acting because, within the United Nations, we do have the Security Council which is the main executive body. In this Security Council, we do have five states with veto power: the UK, France, China, Russia and the United States of America. So, they can prevent this organization from acting. This is what we are observing now both in the Israel-Palestine war and in the war in Ukraine. On one side, one has to admit that it is the price we're paying for having the really large powers also participating in this organization. I'm not talking about the UK and France. I'm talking about China, the US and Russia. And on the other side, one has to say probably this can be seen as overcome. Because if more and more wars should be happening with the UN just watching hoping them to come to an end this is obviously not a very positive scenario. So, reforming the United Nations in a way that would make it if not impossible at least more difficult for these large states to just stop this organization from acting would be, in my view, a very crucial important step to be undertaken.

- Neutrality is also very important for justice, and Swisspeace is in fact, a neutral country's peace research institute. It is therefore important for individuals and the organizations committed to peace to know about opportunities for cooperation with Swisspeace. Are there any programs for cooperation at the individual or institutional level, and if so, what do they entail?

- We are working a lot with networks with all kinds of cooperation programs in all possible thematics and types of activities. We do have regular cooperation for practical projects. We apply for tenders, we develop our own project ideas in cooperation with partners in everywhere. Everywhere, in a sense that, with partners in fragile regions, conflict context on one side. But also with partners outside of this context cooperating with us in order to work towards an improvement of the situation in such a context. If someone looks at one of our annual reports which are also available online, you will see all the list of partners for each year which is considerable. Now beyond this practice level we do research. About the quarter of our activities is basic research on topics which are of relevance for our practical work. Almost in all these research projects, we submit proposals together with partners either because it's mandatory to get funding or because we think it's beneficial to the type of questions we want to tackle. One of our preferred ways to work is also to work together with organizations in respective conflict contexts. Because we do follow a so-called light footprint approach. So, we have no offices across the world. Our only office is in Switzerland, in Basel and all our employees have contracts with us in Basel. But they travel a lot and they spend some time, several months per year in a given context and there we always have local partners. Often we try to really keep up partnerships for many years. So, there is a trust-based relationship. It's also possible to enter into contact with us through these partners. Then, there are also all kinds of individual fellowships which exist at the Swiss and the European level. Right now it's a little bit more difficult at the European level because of difficult Swiss relations with the European Union. But I'm sure this will improve very soon. But also at the Swiss level, there are quite some programs. Often students - master, PhD students, postdocs - can apply individually but they need the support of an institution in Switzerland who is ready to host them, to work with them. So, as an associated institute of the University of Basel, we are eligible for all of these programs. We can't accept everybody but we always look carefully at the applications and are ready to support whenever this is possible for us, also following our strategic objectives and priorities.

- Finally, I would like to ask you Kitabistan’s traditional question. What book would you recommend to our viewers and readers to read?

- This is the most difficult question (laughs). I have just been reading over the holidays a book called “Vienna” by Eva Menasse. She is an Austrian author living in Berlin. “Vienna” is about her family story. It goes back to the end of the First World War and last untill today. And it shows how big, diverse, chaotic, conflictual, such a big family in the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire untill today was. It shows, also, how it is possible for people to deal with a lot of contradictions, differences, most of the time in a constructive way as long as they are not taken too seriously. So, I am not fully sure this book has been translated into English but possibly it has. Otherwise, maybe some of the people who see this also understand German and read it in German.

- Thank you very much for your answers and this insightful interview.

- You are welcome.

Malak Hajiyeva