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Towards a Better Understanding of Peace

By Harvey Parafina

The student-led Human Rights & Conflict Initiative of the Graduate Institute, along with the Amnesty International Group 40 of Geneva, hosted a symposium on Rethinking Peace Through Indigenous Voices last Wednesday, March 20. Moderated by Mr. Peter Cattan, the current head of Group 40, the event was aimed at rethinking the understanding of peace through a perspective that is often overlooked and undervalued – that of indigenous peoples. Without generalizing or romanticizing, the symposium brought this perspective to the foreground, highlighting it as a critical element in understanding better ways of resolving conflict.

Dr. Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, Honorary Professor at the Graduate Institute and member of the Centre on Conflict, Development & Peacebuilding, opened her lecture by asking what it means to have ‘indigenous voices’ in the first place. She began by pointing out that ‘indigenous’ is first and foremost a legal-political entity that has emerged as a category within the United Nations system. Taking indigenous peoples, who often tend to be marginalized, more seriously in international relations, can also lead to a fuller and more inclusive understanding of peace.

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Dr. Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff’s opening lecture entitled, “Peace Otherwise.” (Photo credits to Erin J. Brewer)

One example of this can be seen with the Iroquois Confederacy in North America. Dr. Schulte-Tenckhoff described the Iroquois as a confederacy of nations with its own international system based on the Great Law of Peace, which is the constitution of the confederacy. Passed down through oral tradition, this constitution provides guidelines and systems ranging from how various nations relate to each other, to how leadership will be determined from one generation to another. What is clear is that the Great Law of Peace provides a unifying ideology that offers a different understanding: peace is something attainable, given that it is made through consensus with a possibility for atonement.

She also pointed out that in order to think about peace, there is likewise a need to think about war. Schulte-Tenckhoff distinguished between two different kinds of warfare: the European conception of warfare as the state’s tool of exclusion and the indigenous idea that warfare occurs not because it is needed, but because it can be seen as “an outlet of a collective frustration.” She pointed out that, under a different light, considering warfare from the perspective of indigenous peoples could offer a broader understanding of both power and peace.

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Students from the Graduate Institute, (from left to right) Ebunoluwa Osaretin Iyamu, Manuel Simon, Tanya Kini, and Michele Glazer (not in the photo), perform Dr. Mani’s poem entitled, “The Call to Reason.” (Photo credits to Erin J. Brewer).

Dr. Rama Mani, founder of the Theatre of Transformation Academy, resonated with Dr. Schulte-Tenckhoff’s points; stressing that we should see the universe as one neighborhood, learn how different indigenous communities deal with conflict, and observe when they choose to get involved in peace negotiations themselves. She highlighted this point through a performance piece with several of her poems, which also featured several students from the institute. By portraying various indigenous leaders across the globe and the issues that they face, she emphasized that understanding peace in a different light also means resolving the specific socio-economic injustices that have been done to them.

The symposium was a reminder that in order to understand peace through the perspective of the ‘indigenous’, as Dr. Schulte-Tenckhoff clearly stated, one must also understand that “indigeneity does not mean a harmony of viewpoints.” It means that there is a need for a more critical understanding of history not only of the indigenous peoples, but also of their place in the international system. In particular, we must remain aware of how they are categorized, and in turn, how we interpret that classification. To understand the various conceptions of peace entails the recognition of multiple identities and voices among indigenous people, as well as the struggles that they continue to face today.


Header image: Dr. Rama Mani is performing poems on socio-political injustices faced by indigenous peoples. (Photo credits to Erin J. Brewer)

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