Peacebuilding in Europe: No Social Justice, No Peace

Image credit: Terri Beswick

I’ve spent a good portion of my professional career working with and for stakeholders within the peacebuilding sector. My interest in conflict prevention and peacebuilding work has always been rooted in its acknowledgement and starting assumptions of complexity and nuance. Conflict analysis methods don’t settle for easy answers and simple explanations. Peacebuilding engagements are as eclectic and broad as the conflict factors they seek to address. There is a healthy rejection of templates and the sector, as a whole, has been consistent in defending this principle against donor pressure to define ‘best practice’ over context-driven responses.

Peace and conflict analysis is usually the only type of political analysis where you’ll find factors ranging from: shifting gender dynamics, inaccess to water, historical education policies, sexist inheritance practices, commodity prices, geopolitics, incongruous colonial borders, impacts of climate change on agrarian communities and media bias all coming together to build a picture of how conflict has emerged, what feeds and sustains it, and what needs to be transformed in order to build peace.

This ability to hold complexity and to look beyond a reductionist analysis of conflict and peacemaking is what makes the sector such a breath of fresh air. At the same time, there is a curious dividing line that exists between peace activism and peacebuilding organisations, particularly in Europe but also in other so-called ‘developed’ countries.

‘Peace’ in popular imagination is associated with social movements, grassroots campaigning, and moments of high-profile political negotiation. In contrast, the peacebuilding sector has specialised in developing significant technical and policy expertise around the practical issues that arise in places affected by conflict and trying to build peace. This type of work exists far outside of public awareness, and even within policy institutions, we know it’s often less well-known than development or humanitarian action.

The line between peace activism and peacebuilding organisations is stark in places like Europe and the US, while in the rest of the world, working toward peace on your own doorstep naturally calls for a mix of political manoeuvring and technical expertise. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the division between the political and the apparently ‘technical’ for European organisations working ‘abroad’ is probably the result of a resistance to thinking about democratic Europe or the US as places where violent conflict and conflict risks can exist. There is decolonial work to be done here, because this divide causes the peacebuilding sector to miss out on opportunities to connect more with natural counterparts at home. There’s a lot that the sector can learn from, and contribute to, in its own national contexts if only we can erase the psychological line between how we think about societies ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’.

In the past week, we have seen a groundswell of action in Europe because people have lived (rather than studied) conflict dynamics that include economic marginalisation, political disenfranchisement, injustice, violence from state actors, and daily discrimination. Because people have lived (rather than studied) the contemporary effects of root causes, such as colonial political economies, racism, and a 20th century history of systematic housing and employment discrimination, state violence, and discriminatory migration control. And because people have lived (rather than studied) the – sometimes violent- effects of 21st century political targeting rooted in Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. It’s no accident that ‘No justice, No peace’ still resonates with so much power.

Image credit: Terri Beswick

For years, peacebuilding specialists have struggled to gain space for the kind of nuanced, holistic and context-driven work they believe in. Politicians and policymakers rarely trumpet conflict responses that aren’t linked to weapons and uniforms. But right now, there are unprecedented numbers of people in the streets calling for an end to coercive security and militarised policing… a conflict factor frequently highlighted by the peacebuilding sector. There are unprecedented numbers of people in the streets calling for equality and an end to systemic discrimination across different areas of policy…a conflict factor frequently highlighted by the peacebuilding sector. There are unprecedented numbers of people in the streets calling for action to appropriately acknowledge, memorialise and offer redress for historical injustices…a significant factor for reconciliation and ‘dealing with the past’ frequently highlighted by the peacebuilding sector.

And it’s not just in the streets. The major issues that are key to building peace and addressing conflict have never been more high profile in the minds of the European and US publics and politicians. There are videos, articles, podcasts, statements all calling for – and proposing – actions on issues that have long been at the heart of peacebuilding work ‘abroad’. On economic justice. On inclusion. On oversight. Expert counterparts are right here on the doorstep. Anti-racism and social justice work that has been documenting and campaigning against those same problematic dynamics that shape the daily lives of black people in Europe. Equally invisible work that generates even more visceral rejection than peacebuilding.

This is a moment of opportunity to show solidarity, to exchange, to learn, to be self-critical and to strategise for change. So the question is…how do we start to bridge the gap?

As a person of African descent born in Europe, I’m used to existing in multiple worlds. To some extent, you experience the cultures from inside, but when you don’t fully belong, you exist between. At the same time, that ‘outsider’ perspective is what makes you a natural participant-observer. Moreover, standing with my feet partially in the ‘foreign policy’ and peacebuilding world and the anti-racism and social justice world, the parallels are frustratingly evident. And yet, being a person of African descent born in Europe also means that I’m even less likely to have the power and position to act on it.

But you may do. There is huge potential for the different spaces to cooperate strategically as well as technically, each making use of different sources of access, legitimacy, visibility and resources towards a common end. At the same time, the reality is that most peacebuilding organisations are staffed predominantly with white Europeans. This makes it crucial to ensure there would be appropriate self-reflection, careful attention to power and privilege, and strong mechanisms for accountability to prevent co-option. But there is a tremendous opportunity…if peacebuilding organisations are willing.

Peacebuilding work that dismantles racist colonial-era hierarchies (in all their forms) at home and abroad is one of the most effective and hopeful steps we can take towards re-imagining our societies with all the conditions we need to sustain peace. What is gained? Instant multiplication of practical action and solidarity in support of just, inclusive, equitable and peaceful societies. And all that we lose? An already-outdated culture of ‘colour-blindness’ and ‘neutrality’ that sustains those hierarchies.

We just happen to be living through a moment where there is a chance to contribute to a movement that is ushering in a new political conversation about what it takes to achieve peace, for everyone.

Others are building it, will you come?


Terri Beswick runs a purpose-driven consultancy, Peace Policy Research. She is a strategist, analyst, and facilitator working to embed peace, justice and social inclusion in every aspect of policymaking and practice by getting explicit about the ‘why’, and more intentional and political about the ‘how’.

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WATCH: Personal and powerful interview with Belgian MP Kalvin Soiresses Njall, co-founder of one of Belgium’s leading decolonisation organistions [English subtitles].

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