In May 2014 Macedonia experienced street violence in its capital, Skopje. The violence continued for only two days and did not spread to other parts of the country. Like many European cities, Skopje is home to communities with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The violence, which left protesters and police injured and destroyed property, started after a young man died whilst challenging another man who had stolen his bicycle. The two men were of different ethnic backgrounds and the grievance was perceived in those terms.
These events took place within weeks of national elections, the results of which were rejected by the main opposition party. The Macedonian Prime Minister and the opposition leader finally met this week to see if they can begin to resolve the electoral dispute. Following today’s (27 June 2014) reports that European institutions are likely to provide mediation, we must also remember the important role European institutions can play in ensuring political structures and cultures exist that allow community conflicts to be resolved peacefully.
Macedonia is one of the 47 members of the Council of Europe, and therefore a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. On the basis of this treaty, the Council of Europe aims to protect and promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe contributes in a number of practical ways: for example, by visiting places of detention to help prevent torture, and by monitoring racism and the rights of national minorities. Each of these activities contributes to peace by supporting the principle that security is something that must be shared.
Security Shared by all Citizens
It is important for politicians and security officials to create a safe country for all citizens. Supported by EU police missions, Macedonia has made considerable progress in improving the composition of the police to reflect the ethnic diversity of the society. Ethnic Albanians make up 26% of the police service, which compares well with data compiled by QCEA on the composition of police services elsewhere in Europe. Continued work is needed to ensure that ethnic Albanians are represented throughout policing, particularly in specialist units.
I observed recently a number of street stops by uniformed and plain-clothes police in Macedonia and found residents to be treated fairly and courteously in most cases. However, international organisations complained about intimidation of journalists by police on the first night of the recent street violence. Reforming police culture can be a slow process, and there is still a great deal to do across Europe. Much can be learned from other institutions which have undergone change, often supported by ensuring the more equal inclusion of women.
Peace and Gender Inequality
Security can be enhanced by respecting the diversity of identities within the society, and by being open to critical voices. Across Europe cultural notions of masculinity can drive violence, highlighting gender equality as an important component of peace. The presence of women in politics can help to challenge these notions and create a different culture for political dialogue. The Council of Europe has recognised this and made achieving balanced representation of women and men in public decision-making an objective for its Gender Equality Strategy 2014-17.
The percentage of female parliamentarians in Macedonia rose from 7.5 percent in 1998 to 32.5 percent in 2008, following a successful lobbying campaign by women’s rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to secure a constitutional amendment requiring political parties’ candidate lists to comprise at least one-third women. During April’s elections in Macedonia, however, it was almost impossible to find examples of women taking leading roles in the election campaigns. By contrast, the centre of Skopje has recently been transformed by the building of statues and monuments celebrating powerful and violent men who are said to have shaped the country’s history. These statues reinforce a violent construction of masculinity and do not help to build a culture of peace.
Across Europe, those with the power to shape democratic systems should learn from states with strong representation of women in parliament, including: Andorra (50 percent), Sweden (45 percent) and Finland (43 percent). Equally, we must understand why less than 10 percent of the parliamentarians in Hungary and Ukraine are women. Inclusion and justice underpin peace, and the inclusion of women at all levels of politics is one element of this. Whilst crises increase the economic and social burdens on both women and men, the specific social obligations placed on women often cause greater hardship. A critical mass of female decision-makers is needed to reflect important ‘everyday’ issues of concern in society. These ‘everyday’ issues, such as resource scarcity, may themselves be the causes of conflict.
One element that has been missing in the Council of Europe’s approach is the widespread promotion of peace education, a systematic approach to dealing with intolerance and ethnically-motivated violence. Macedonia has a number of interesting projects, one of which is the partnership between Macedonian children’s rights organisation Madjeshi and German NGO, Kurve Wustrow (Centre for Training and Networking in Nonviolent Action). Their project aims to stimulate critical thinking and nonviolent transformation across the social fault lines of ethnicity and gender, and it operates at both primary and secondary schools in Skopje. Children in areas of mixed ethnicity in Skopje attend the same high schools, but subjects are taught in either Macedonian or Albanian, limiting the opportunity for integration. Peace education helps to address misunderstanding by teaching about stereotypes and providing an opportunity to practise listening to each other.
Building peace in Europe depends on action at local, national, and European levels. Peace is not about the balance of power or defence alliances. Peace is about every community and individual. It should therefore be no surprise that human rights institutions, such as the Council of Europe, have an important role. And on a human level, every person can contribute by taking time to listen and by loving their neighbour.
Image of Skopje Statue on blog Home Page by Dennis Jarvis, CC.