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Change dynamics of peacebuilding

Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

TODAY is the International Day of Peace so Happy Peace Day!

On Sunday evening I attended the opening of the Pacific Peace Conference 2016. The conference, which ends today, is organised by the Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, Pacific Conference of Churches, Eastern Mennonite University and the University of the South Pacific's School of Governance, Development and International Affairs. The organisers chose a poignant theme for the conference — "Strengthening the role of Peace in Nation Building."

The conference was opened by the Rev François Pihaatae, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches.

Mr Pihaatae framed his remarks by sharing 13 sacred texts from 13 faith communities which contain the "Golden Rule" of treating others as you wish to be treated.

Speaking about change dynamics, Mr Pihaatae reflected on the irony of modernity: "as our technological powers grow the frequency of violent conflicts and wars, not only increases, but also happens indiscriminately; that violent conflicts and acts of terror are increasingly invincible, with no apparent reason and targets anybody or anything."

He argued that when moral standards are ignored, the shared values held by a community lose their meaning. As a result we become, "less sure of our moral convictions, less certain of our beliefs and, as a consequence, threatens our sense of continuity of our shared values."

"Fiji is a good example, where constitutions were thrown out, reviewed and reinstated, yet hotly contested to this day. As a result, Fiji's shared values are hanging by a thin thread."

Mr Pihaatae said the rapid pace of change leads to a deep sense of vulnerability and uncertainty.

"Imagine being caught on a piece of land between two streams of rising flood waters on either side. Most of us would know how it feels — the sense of terror and anxiety — to be in such a situation. The very human response, in such situations, is to revert to what is familiar, what is certain and to known boundaries. Hence, you will find that religious and/or cultural certainties are often invoked, violently in some instances, as in the case of Fiji in 1987 and 2000. These were compelling and clear-cut, and not in doubt."

There is a need for a broader and more inclusive understanding of peace-building in terms of those who take the risks of pursuing peace and those who work for peace during conflicts situations.

"In the pursuit of peace, even heroes are often afraid to risk. Those who take risks for peace are all too often assassinated — the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther — or simply forgotten in peace negotiation and peacebuilding processes such as the likes of the women of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, and the Melanesian Brothers of the Solomon Islands and many women's groups here in Fiji."

A further change dynamic in peacebuilding, pointed out by Mr Pihaatae is the paradox of identity and relationship. This is can lead to crisis as, "the familiar and known boundaries of friend and foe must now be redrawn."

He said current approaches to post-conflict situations are inadequate as the focus is seemingly, "mostly about the reconstruction of state mechanisms and addressing vague nation building issues.

"Most peace agreements soon fell apart after being signed because the change dynamic was not understood or simply ignored.

"This is where reconciliation, and in particular the essential element of truth-telling, is so crucial. It is nice to ask for forgiveness and to reconcile but to action the implications is quite another matter. This is because in doing so we have to redraw our identity boundaries. For most of us this is one of the hardest things to do."

In the context of global frameworks for peace, security and justice, Mr Pihaatae suggested that there was a need for consideration of cultural and religious subtexts. He explained that if these global policies and frameworks were to be reframed in "thick moralities — rich in rituals, symbols and sacred texts," their implementation would "capture the moral imagination of Pacific people as well as honour the memory of those whose lives and dignity were cruelly abused and/or taken away in violent conflicts and wars around the world and in the Pacific. In honouring this duty to the past and the present, we honour the future."

Reflecting on his own country, Maohi Nui,(also known as French Polynesia), Mr Pihaatae shared to examples of how change dynamics were addressed in peacebuilding work.

Storytelling provided a foundation of reaffirming shared values. While the process may be painful it affirms identity and shared values and leads to an understanding of the real possibilities of a shared future. Storytelling also helps those involved in conflict explore together what their shared values imply to deeply held beliefs and attitudes, present relationships and understanding of the other.

This process "helped our people in some small way to see that redrawing identity boundaries, although painful, opens up exciting possibilities. Rituals and symbols were also important aspects of the process. This is because symbols and rituals express the stories in a way that grips the hearts and imagination of people."

He emphasised the crucial need for safe spaces and experienced and skilled facilitators for these stories to be told: "Providing a clear process, a safe space and skilled and experienced facilitators is a responsibility required from those involved in peacebuilding work in the hope that people will respond with their stories of the truth. For this reason, reconciliation cannot be rushed but can only be encouraged with such focused activities, clear processes and skilful facilitators."

Mr Pihataae concluded by reminding societal institutions of their responsibility for peacebuilding.

A key force in this work is religion which has had stronger connotation with being a source of discord than conflict resolution.

"Yet it is here that that hope must lay if we are to create a human solidarity strong enough to bear the strains that lie ahead.

"The great faiths must now become an active force for peace and for the justice and compassion on which peace ultimately depends."

This, he said, will require great courage, and perhaps something more than courage: "a candid admission that, more than at any time in the past, we need to search — each faith in its own way — for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of those who are not of one's faith. When religion is invoked as a justification for conflict, religious voices must be raised in protest.

"Religious voices must withhold the robe of sanctity when religion is sought as a cloak for violence and bloodshed. If religion is enlisted in the cause of war, there must be an equal and contrasting voice in the name of peace. Deep listening to each other is a prerequisite and we must learn to listen to one another."

The challenge to be peace-makers and peace-builders is so important the Christian scripture places with it the title of sons and daughters of God. (Matthew 5:9) In his 2016 Peace Message, iconic musician and UN Messenger of Peace, Stevie Wonder challenges us "to commit, to join the quest for peace. Go forward in the struggle for peace with passion and compassion… For the roadmap of peace must be travelled with grace and the commitment to respect every single human being. For we all live as one, united under God."

The 2016 Pacific Peace Conference continues today at the Grand Pacific Hotel and will end this evening with a Peace Address / Public Lecture by Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Chief Justice of Nauru.

Shalom aleikhem, As-Salaam-Alaikum, Shaanti tumhaare saath ho, Peace be with you.

"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity"

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.

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