Paul van Tongeren

Executive Director of the European Centre for Conflict Prevention

Topics: conflict prevention, violence prevention, peacebuilding

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Can you tell me what the European Center is?

A: Yeah. The European Center was established five years ago. We established two things at one moment. One is a European platform, a network of the key organizations in Europe in the field of conflict prevention and peace building. That is now some 150 key organizations in Europe dealing with these issues, but it is a loose network. We convene once a year, because they thought it is useful to have some information exchange, to meet, and to look to common concerns. It is also always important that you have also a sort of secretariat with a staff and with a board, and are also implementing our own projects. We established at the same moment the European Center for Conflict Prevention, which is on one side the secretariat of the platform, but also developed the last years several projects.

The largest project until now, and I think also relevant to mention in relationship to the database, is the Searching for Peace Program, which we started in 1998. Our idea was that in the last decade thousands and thousands of people, organizations, institutions, and governments have to deal with all sorts of violent conflict everywhere. They often are asked to support it, to send people, to train people, to take political decisions to intervene or not, and often they have no clue about the background of the conflict or about, say, who is working for peace, and what are key organizations or persons who have a lot of knowledge about those conflicts. That was the reason we started the Searching for Peace Program. Until now we have published three books, one on Africa, one on Europe and Central Asia, and one on South Asia.

We are working on other volumes on Southeast and East Asia, and also on Latin America; the idea is to summarize a conflict. Take Rwanda or take Central Asia or take Sri Lanka, and to summarize in some ten pages the background and dynamics of the conflict, then to describe what are all the efforts and activities to bring peace to that conflict, who are the International actors, if it is UN, regional organizations, but also local actors, and what are international NGOs doing in this respect. Then we have in the end always, a sort of reference of two pages with websites, newsletters, and what are the key resource persons. There's a lot of knowledge about that conflict and what are local organizations, and that is, say, a project which is now growing and growing and so at this moment we have now I think soon 1,500 or 2,000 contacts with key NGOs in those conflict regions.

Q: Can you give me an example of the kind of event that gave rise to the necessity of the center? In other words, name an intervention where someone didn't have the information about the peacemakers on the ground, and then contrast that with an example post-creation of the European Center where they did have that kind of information.

A: No, I can't answer it in that way, but as example it is useful. One thing is that we are very glad that many African NGOs came to us, wrote to us, after publishing the book on Africa in 1999. They said, "we get many more visits of persons or of international NGOs or others who consult us, who ask advice, than before you published the book." We listed in the book 200 NGOs from Africa, and that was also on our website, which is often visited. So a lot of those groups have much broader international exposure, and they tell us that helps. That's one thing. The other thing isjust an anecdote. Now, because it's this way perhaps I wouldn't name the government. I visited the capital of one government and there the head of peace building told me he liked the book .

Yesterday I got a call from colonel, from the ministry of defense, and he said, "We have to go for a peace keeping operation to deaden that remote conflict, and we have to go soon. I don't know hell about that conflict." Then he mentioned the name of the head of the peacebuilding unit, and asked if I had any information. I had no clue. Then I came with the book and the ten pages of description, and who are all sort of the resource persons, and I directly gave it to him. That is just an example. I can tell many of those examples. Their link to this project is that we from the beginning were very positive, and are very positive about this project. We said it would be good if some of those issue-based chapters, although some of those topics are sometimes linked to concrete, real problems, like in Sri Lanka or on reconciliation in South Africa. They, can be linked to good cases in those regions. So they can have that link to real conflicts and who's working there for peace and have a lot of experience on that.

Q: Explain to me a little bit more about why that's useful. Why is it useful to know who is working for peace on the ground in a certain conflict, from an intervener's perspective?

A: It is, I think, sort of common knowledge that a lot, local people who work on conflict, or international people who have worked already ten or twenty years in a specific region are often frustrated that international NGOs or government representatives fly in, come with their perceptions that they have to help. They have this perception that they have to mediate, that they have to do this or that without consulting, without discussing this with sometimes people who are doing this work in that region already for ten years. So there are a lot of mistakes that are why this didn't work over the last many years. These mistakes are sometimes not exchanged. I think also one should look to the literature of the last years about the mapping of conflicts and conflict analysts that really do this work well and prepare you well. It is also important to then go to the people, the local people, but also sometimes international NGOs with a presence already of ten years. That is I think one of the reasons that we made those publications and that they are well received.

Q: What lessons have you learned from making those publications and those connections?

A: Now one lesson is, to be honest, is that often, especially when you have less experience with those conflicts far away, that it is very difficult. We started with a book on Africa, and it was relatively easy because in Europe there is a lot of experience with Africa. There were a lot of people have worked there for a long time. When we were dealing with conflicts, say, in Nepal or in Kashmir or in other places it was far more difficult. It was very difficult sometimes to find good local partners to cooperate with, because that is also a sort of tension. We don't like to do this work just from a center in the Netherlands looking to the whole world, and describing that. We like to do this in cooperation with partners in those regions. Now, it has happened several times that it was very difficult to find good partners. We sometimes had draft chapters, which got a lot of comments, because when we commission somebody to write we always ask permission.

We organized with some other key resource persons on that conflict so that will get a draft to comment on, and then the author has to combine those comments with his/or her own work. Sometimes there was so much criticism that we had to look for new authors because sometimes they said, that is a well known view, but those people in the region where the conflict is, they perceive it differently. You have nice, people, with great academic standing, but their perception is not that of the people who started the conflict. It is not easy, but I think it is very valuable to have the process. We have now published some 70 or 80 of those descriptions of conflicts. I think in the end, in nearly all cases, they were fairly good and balanced descriptions.

Q: So the description of the conflict that you choose to write about is ultimately somewhat limited by the access that you have to the people who are involved in it?

A: Yeah, but what we prefer is that sometimes we manage to, for example, get two people to describe it. We may have one person who is more knowledgeable about this conflict from that region, with local input. Sometimes we also may have an outsider who has a long-standing link with that conflict, visiting it regularly, knowing a lot, but having a more distant, and a more broad perspective. When two people make their descriptions we think that has an added value.

Q: Let's talk about the networking.

A: That follows what I was saying previously, that we started as a European network. The key organizations in this field are in Europe. They found it useful to use tasks such as information sharing, developing some joint programs, other joint activities, and lobbying at ???. They found it useful to come together and to meet, and sometimes also to develop a project or to make a lobby document for the European Union and so on. Then we worked on that Searching for Peace program. We came in contact with hundreds of NGOs in different regions, and then more and more we organized meetings to discuss how can we improve networking in other regions. We organized a large conference on lessons learned more than a year ago, and we had several sessions on networking. It was of great interest for people from Africa and Asia about how we could stimulate networking? We are so weak, and dispersed in those regions. We often don't know who's working in this field in another country or a neighboring country, so it would be helpful if we were more linked to what is happening internationally. That is often also what groups in the South say, we have no idea what's happening there in the North. We know we have a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, but we don't know what other groups are doing. We more and more started to organize meetings in the summer to discuss lessons learned on networking, and how to improve that.

Perhaps if I continue on to the ??? project that I mentioned, then it will show consequences of networking. Two years ago, Kofi Annan made a report for the general assembly of the United Nations on conflict prevention. One paragraph in that report is about civil society and the growing recognition that civil society is very important. It continued to say if there is sustainable peace civil society should be more involved. In all of the civil wars, the civil actors are the victims, or play a part in the conflict, but it doesn't help only that two parties come to the table and have discussions; a broader civil society has to be involved. Inspired by that paragraph of that report Kofi Annan, I recommend and international NGO to organize an international conference on the role of civil society in conflict prevention. We responded with saying that we are documenting a lot of the work of those NGOs in our Searching for Peace program. Secondly, we have organized many larger international conferences. We believe that the role of civil society is very important, so we are always eager to organize those conferences. Since then we are in contact with the UN and the proposed idea now is to have that conference with the UN in 2004 and in 2005 roughly eight to ten regional conferences will be organized. In West Africa a civil society conference may be held on what civil society can contribute to peace building. Women's organizations, religious groups, the elderly, the youth, and the media will be represented to discuss these issues. Those conferences will come with recommendations, and then all those draft recommendations and draft action plans will be brought together to the UN.

This process is very well received in regions in many countries because they think it will strengthen the profile of civil society. It will strengthen the profile of this field by gaining some more weight and prestige when there is a conference at the United Nations. I think there are several gains and advantages to start this whole process and to work to that conference. Another important point is that the interaction with international organizations, governments, and the interaction with the United Nations also are seen as more important issues. It is not easy. We need to know how to cooperate with governments, how to cooperate with United Nations or the African Union. There is a growing concern that we have to look for mechanisms to improve our relationships, to cooperate, and to work as one. How can we better attune our activities and perhaps cooperate so that is also a main scene of this conference, and in the preparatory process to develop those mechanisms.

Q: It sounds a lot like the European Center is not so much an organization that intervenes in conflict directly so much as it is a service or a resource for other interveners.

A: That's right. We are not an operational organization. We are more of a service, facilitating convening organization for the broader field. I think perhaps 90 percent of the organizations in this field are doing academic activities, though some are also operational. That is now not our priority. Our focus is because we found that it is a niche in the field that is needed. Others are not doing that, so we think that's important to fulfill this service and facilitating role. I can add that when I visited, I think seven or eight years ago, the US for the first time, I had the purpose to visit a lot of conflict resolution organizations. I started in Boston and then in New York and then in Washington and ending in Atlanta with the Carter Center. I was really amazed at how much knowledge, experience, and well-equipped organizations were existing in this field. That was hardly the case at that moment in continental Europe.

In the UK, you had several larger organizations in this field at that time, but in continental Europe it was just starting. I saw as one of the tasks of this to be a sort of bridge between a lot of the experience, the contacts, and the knowledge here in the States and in Europe. We organized many conferences where twenty or so key people from the US spoke in Europe. I think that the networking function is really relevant. I hope that in the future we can do similar things, but then not Europe-America, but more North-South because still there is a big gap. I think that exchange really should be more stimulated. That costs more money, because sometimes with the states it was also in their interest to come so they came. When you have this more international North and South, then that needs a lot of travel money. I think the investment is worth it to have really good people having exchanges, learning from each other, becoming stimulated, and seeing that you are part of a global field is also very stimulating for us to help continue our difficult job.

Q: You started to touch on my next question, which is what have you found to be most inspiring about your work?

A: Most inspiring? If you only look to the news and television or read the papers, and that is I think what most people do, then I think that you feel depressed about all the misery, all the disasters, all the conflicts, all the killings, and you don't see more solutions of how to overcome this. What I find very stimulating and I'm extremely thankful that I have been able to meet so many peace builders, people who make a difference. I regret so much that not more people have not had that chance to meet them, and I think we have to do more raising awareness in the field. How people work, how they have effective activities, how they organize should be more open to a broader public.

Q: If the community who's doing this kind of work doesn't make their own sort of media presentations, you think the media needs to get more involved in at least giving more recognition to these sorts of efforts?

A: Yeah, we had recently in Holland a problem about heroes. One broadcast organized even a sort of election for the hero of the year. There were Dutch heroes, but also they asked people who their other heroes were, such as Mandela, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. I wrote to that broadcast and said that I knew a lot of peace builders who were doing this work with not the name and the fame of Mandela, but there are a lot of inspiring people who should tell their stories, and you should make documentaries of that. I'm in contact with them. These are long processes. I have heard many adventure stories. Peace is not boring, but is really challenging. It takes a big effort. Now, I think that needs to be brought to a broader public, and that also more people become motivated to invest in peace.

We invest now a lot in wars, but the investment in peace building is extremely low. I think we from the conflict resolution and peace building communities have to make it more clear to a broader audience, to the media, and to politicians that a lot of our activities work, that they have effect. It is very complex and we can't guarantee anything. When you give $100,000 to build a school in a remote area, you can see that in five years 20% more of the people are literate.. When you build a hospital for another $100,000 you can't say that thousands of people will not die or the average age will grow. I can't say when you give me $100,000 for a region with a conflict that there will be peace. It is more complicated, many factors.

Q: But at the same time, you sayÃ?Â?

A: You should say that many more investments in this should be done. There are a lot of different factors. Sometimes the conflict will escalate, and you can prove that sometimes when different instruments at the same moment were used, the situation became more moderate and calmed down. It is in a way cynical to think that it is easier to get money or to make war or when a disaster happens to have money to feed the people, to give the refugees that they have some tents and so on. To prevent the escalation, and to invest more in instruments for de-escalation is extremely difficult.

Q: You have a unique point of view, as a net worker, as someone who makes linkages between organizations and conflict interveners. What advice, from that point of view, would you give to people who are on the ground intervening in conflicts?

A: For interveners my first piece advice of is, what hopefully most will do, is to really do some homework in looking what are backgrounds are, what our key resource personsand other organizations have done in specific regions. Try and find some evaluations, and so on. Secondly, really try to contact local actors and get their views. Don't push too much. Take a lot of time, and that it is a long-term commitment.

Q: I find it interesting that the center is called the European Center for Conflict Prevention when a lot of other organizations talk about conflict resolution and conflict management. What was the philosophy behind the nomenclature?

A: Five or six years ago there was a discussion about how there was a lot of conflict management seen, but not a lot of conflicts solved. We also thought resolution could be an option, but that was getting ahead of ourselves. In '96 and '97, after Rwanda, the notion of can we prevent the escalation of violent conflicts was very important. The platform has the name European Platform for Conflict Prevention and Transformation. So now what I see as a possibility is within perhaps one or two years, also in the framework of this civil society project, perhaps we will skip the Europe character because it's much more now international. I think we also have to think about if it is still prevention, more resolution, or actual peace building. The whole notion of conflict prevention is difficult, because it's not easy to prove. It takes a lot to make it clear to someone that you can prevent conflict; perhaps it's a notion that you promote peace building, and that in a broader range of promoting there is the prevention or the de-escalation of conflict and so on. Perhaps it would be easier and have more positive reinforcement for a broader public.

Q: Last question, and that is, you mentioned that the "European" of the name might be dropped. I was going to ask you earlier if a European center is enough for the whole world to do these sorts of networking activities, or if it should be organized more by Continent. You already mentioned the limitations in Asia. Does there need to be an Asian or South Asian or North Asian center for conflict resolution?

A: Sure. Thanks for that question. In the framework of the project now with the UN we are linking up to many networks or key organizations in other regions. What we hope is that within some years that what is now existing in some regions we can stimulate in coming years is this process in other regions. Take West Africa, already for years we have cooperated with one of the best African network for peace building. They are doing similar work as us, but then in a very conflictuous region. They regularly attend our conferences or are guest speakers, and vice versa. In some regions you already have some smaller networks, but we hope to strengthen that. I hope that perhaps in two or three years we have ten or fifteen regional networks, which we would then link.

It shouldn't be done just from Eutria to half of the world. In the end, we should have strong regional networks. For instance, what happened in the States, it took quite a long time before a line for international conflict resolution was established, a lot of the key organizations in this field in the States realized that it was better to cooperate and to establish an alliance. That alliance was established I think two years ago, but it took some time before finding an executive director and to really have a stronger organization. That is also an example of how when you have networks, or in this case an alliance, it is much easier to be in contact with each other when some twenty networks are linked. That would really strengthen the field on a lot of points. So it would be really helpful.

Q: Okay, well thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. Is there anything else we need to cover?

A: NoÃ?Â?thanks.

Q: That was plenty of information. I really appreciate it.

A: Good.