/ 05 | “We cannot afford to ignore religion when it comes to peace and conflict”
Interview by Alexander Görlach
"We cannot afford to ignore religion when it comes to peace and conflict"
Human Rights can never be “won” because there are always people who will fight hard to reverse any gains made, says Andrew Gilmour. He is the head of the Berghof Foundation that offers conflict transformation around the globe. Learn, why he thinks many nations should prepare their population mentally for a rising migration.
Görlach: The Berghof Foundation works on conflict transformation, in places such as Yemen or Afghanistan. Harvard-Scholar Steven Pinker claims that we live in the most peaceful of all times where armed conflict almost became a rarity. From your experience in the field, to his position from the ivory tower: Is he right with his claim?
Gilmour: Whatever some interpretations of certain statistics may indicate, regarding world-wide levels of conflict, the realities on the ground are clear. Conflict is growing in intensity and in scope in many parts of the world where we are operating. Afghanistan and Ethiopia spring to mind, but there is also the Sahel, Syria, Libya and Yemen, while in other places such as Lebanon, there are deeply worrying signs even if there is no outright conflict at this time.
The human misery in all of these places – and many others – is so acute that it is essential not to be distracted by any suggestions that we could somehow be living in some “post-conflict” era.
Görlach: Human Rights have come under threat through a new wave of authoritarianism. China, India, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, to only name a few. How can human rights be ensured amidst such a menace?
Gilmour: Human rights can never be ensured. They have to be continually fought for, and they are never “won” because there are always people who will fight hard to reverse any gains made. And we are finding those on the front line of defending human rights are all too often targeted for their bravery and their principles in an increasing number of countries.
Simultaneously with the push-back on human rights at country and local level, we face the global challenge of nationalist-authoritarian-populism, where minorities are scape-goated and threatened, and those governments come together to try to ward off criticism in an unholy alliance of violators.
In such a situation, it is all the more important that voices such as Germany continue to sound the alarm, try to hold other countries to higher standards, and support the UN and human rights NGOs to do their job of promoting and protecting rights. My last job before coming to Berlin was as the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, and I can testify to how supportive Germany was both for my role and for many other human rights defenders.
„All efforts to end conflict – whether through mediation or other forms of peace-building – are undermined by fake news and hate speech (often linked) not least because those who are the most keen to propagate aggression and discrimination are also the most prone to using the most dishonest tactics (including fake news) to achieve their aims.”
Görlach: Has conflict mediation become more difficult at a time where people believe more in claims of “fake news” or advocate “alternative facts”? I would think that the first step in finding common ground is forming a consensus around the facts.
Gilmour: It is certainly the case that all politics – domestic and international – has been complicated by fake news and alternative facts. The United States is Exhibit A in this regard, which is unfortunate both for Americans and for the rest of us, given the influence the US has – for good or otherwise – on so much of the rest of the world.
All efforts to end conflict – whether through mediation or other forms of peace-building – are undermined by fake news and hate speech (often linked) not least because those who are the most keen to propagate aggression and discrimination are also the most prone to using the most dishonest tactics (including fake news) to achieve their aims. Russia Today and Fox News are both experts in this field.
Görlach: Constitutions in democratic countries protect the citizenry from discrimination, also age is one of the markers that constitutions forbid to discriminate against. In the pandemic we saw that different interests laid with different age groups. When we discuss climate change we see different generational takes on the issue as well. How do you view the relationship of generations nowadays?
Gilmour: That’s an interesting question. I’m a historian by training but I have never read of a period in history where the generational divide has ever come close to what we are already seeing, but will become vastly intensified in the coming years. The fact that our generation (let’s say anyone born before 1985) has so dramatically failed to live up to our responsibility to protect the planet and future generations, while at the same time going backwards in many areas of human rights, will understandably be seen as beyond scandalous.
What apparently happened in Germany in the 1960s when the youth of that time tried to come to terms with what their parents had done and not done during what was then the recent past was quite dramatic. But I think it will turn out to be insignificant compared to what we are about to see.
„In a world where religion plays a fundamental role in the lives of the vast majority, we cannot afford to ignore religion when it comes to peace and conflict.”
Görlach: Peace and Security are the most fundamental principles for a harmonious live. In many countries migration is perceived as a threat that endangers that harmony. It is mostly young people that try to make their way to more prosperous countries in order to achieve a better live for themselves and their children. This migration will increase due to climate change. What can we do to already now mitigate and prepare for this new waves of migration?
Gilmour: The most important thing to do is to mentally prepare the populations and electorates in the countries to which migrants are likely to come. This will be extremely difficult and will require tremendous political courage – and the political savvy to face down the bigots, populists and charlatans who will try to capitalize on the misery of the migrant predicament and whip up hatreds against both the migrants and any political leaders who show sympathy for them.
A huge public education campaign is required. It is not the fault of the desperate immigrants that sea levels have risen, deserts expanded, homes made uninhabitable by infernal heat, and agriculture made impossible by droughts. The countries from which the climate migrants are starting to come have contributed almost nothing to global climate change. Those in the forefront of historic responsibility are those where the industrial revolution was pioneered (including the UK, which is my country of origin, Germany and the United States). If it is not the fault of the countries that are ironically and unfairly worst affected by climate change, then we should at least show understanding for those people forced to flee them.
Görlach: What role can religion play to overcome conflict? Or is religion in your experience more the driver of such conflicts?
Gilmour: In a world where religion plays a fundamental role in the lives of the vast majority, we cannot afford to ignore religion when it comes to peace and conflict. Religion has a vital role to play in overcoming conflict. Regrettably, some religious leaders also play a role in provoking conflict – and like to stress the differences between religions and sects, rather than the fact that the teachings of all religions stress the virtues of peace and harmony.
Often these two dynamics are connected and so we must approach the topic intelligently. For example, when political actors instrumentalize religious identities to divide societies, religious leaders from different faiths working together are often the best placed to counter such rhetoric. When armed groups use religion to justify violence, others can use the same religious sources to preach peace. Rather than asking whether religion is more a force for peace or more a source of conflict (given that it is both), we should ask ourselves, “how can we strengthen religion’s contribution to peace and mitigate its role in fueling conflict?”
Religious ideas, values and practices are immensely powerful resources that contribute to peacebuilding on a daily basis. Religious actors are often at the forefront of efforts to build bridges and heal communities, both at grassroots and at the level of political elites. In recognition of this reality, Berghof has recently launched two initiatives seeking to strengthening the role of religion in peacemaking. “Peace education meets religion” primarily addresses faith-based multipliers who intend to strengthen the peace potential of religions by inspiring and qualifying interested persons and groups through peace education while the network of faith-based mediators supports a group of religious insider-mediators in their peacemaking work. In many of the countries where we are active, religious actors are also often active participants in processes Berghof is supporting. Of course, Berghof’s work is only a small contribution to a much larger effort to strengthen the positive role of religion in transforming conflict and building peace, and co-operation with like-minded organizations, such as Ring for Peace is an essential element of our strategy.
Andrew Gilmour is Executive Director of the Berghof Foundation. Before, he served 30 years at the United Nations, most recently as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights from 2016 to 2019 and as Political Director in the Office of the Secretary-General in New York from 2012 to 2016. He previously held senior UN positions in numerous conflict zones including Iraq, South Sudan, the Middle East, the Balkans, Afghanistan and West Africa.
With masters degrees from Oxford University and the London School of Economics, Andrew was later an Adjunct Fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. In 2019 Andrew was awarded a Visiting Fellowship at All Souls College Oxford to research links between climate change, human rights and conflict. In 2020 he became a Senior Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His writing has appeared in numerous publications such as the New York Times, Financial Times and many others.
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