One of my hopes for the New Year is that the Canadian government will broaden the conversation about peacebuilding beyond the role of the Canadian armed forces.
A long time ago, I heard Gwynne Dyer speak in Yellowknife. One thing he said has remained with me – that Canada as a country is more like the United Nations than any other country on earth. Our population is made up of people from all around the world. As a nation, this gives us a unique perspective on – and potential contribution to – building and nurturing peace around the world.
We need to take advantage of this capacity as we think about peace and security issues – because how one sees peace and security differs, based on our backgrounds and experiences. And we don’t often have the chance to share experiences as widely as we could and should.
Over the past month and a half, I have been curating stories about how Canadian communities and people are welcoming Syrian refugees. I have noticed how often those who have themselves been refugees and immigrants are at the forefront of the welcoming, as they see a way to give back some of what was given to them.
Often, in my work as an election observer, I have met Canadians who have served our country in a variety of ways, and heard some of their stories. Many of us have come back from international work with no way to share our experiences more widely – either with others who have similar experiences, or those whose work lies in soldiering.
A few years ago, I was invited to speak as part of a panel on human security. The other participants were from our military. I spoke about the value of civilian participation in peacebuilding and democracy, and I included some stories. One was about how, when I returned to Yellowknife from Bosnia in 1996, I did not walk on paths apart from the paved road and sidewalk for almost a year. It had become second nature for me to avoid anything but the paved road because of the danger of mines.
The next morning at coffee, a colonel spoke to me about my presentation. He said that when I told that story, he was instantly back in Bosnia. He, too, had shared that experience. We don’t often enough have the chance to share such experiences.
Why does it matter that we share our stories? In the early 1990s, in Somalia, there was extensive international participation in trying to end the fighting in that country. The Australians sent a contingent, who were posted in Baidoa, where there had been back and forth fighting as Said Barre tried to regain the capital, Mogadishu. There was famine, and fear, in Baidoa.
Before they deployed, the Australians spoke with an Australian NGO that had been working in Somalia. They learned about the culture, and about the importance of elders. So when they went to Baidoa, they behaved differently than troops posted elsewhere.
They reached out to the elders, and to the NGOs who were feeding the people. They asked for their advice, and they followed it. They disarmed the community block by block, leaving guns only to those who were guarding the NGO premises. They worked with the elders to rebuild law and order, refusing to accept the local warlords as having any authority in governance.
Not only did this strategy help to restore law and order in Baidoa (at a time when other armed forces, including the Americans, were accepting warlords as ‘government’), but it helped provide security for the lightly-armed Australians. The elders brought news of arms dumps, and other security issues, often walking long distances to tell the Australians about these risks.
Knowing the situation in advance, from a cultural perspective, helped the Australians understand the security situation differently than other armed forces did. It helped them craft a strategy that worked.
Expanding Canada’s dialogue about security, and peacebuilding, beyond just the armed forces offers Canada a chance to act differently – and very likely, more effectively – in places like Syria. I hope that the Canadian government will see this opportunity and will find a way to expand the dialogue on how to build peace (and fight war, if that is necessary) beyond the Canadian armed forces. For a country so like the United Nations in our population, we have a unique opportunity to convene a different kind of dialogue about security – and that is a gift we can bring to the world in 2016.