“Let Go of Power”: An Interview with Richard Jackson

By Gabriel Ertsgaard

Professor Richard Jackson, PhD, is the Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand, where he is also Professor of Peace Studies. Before joining the Centre, Jackson was Professor of International Politics at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. He is also the founding editor of the journal Critical Studies in Terrorism, and the author or editor of several books, including most recently The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies and Confessions of A Terrorist: A Novel. He is interviewed here by the PJSA’s Peace Chronicle interviews editor Gabriel Ertsgaard.


GE: You’re the Director of the National Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. What is the origin story of the center and how did you become involved with it?

RJ: There was a very wealthy Quaker named Dorothy Brown who wanted to help New Zealand students to study peace and conflict studies. Around 2005 she approached Professor Kevin Clements who was the director of a peace studies center at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. He suggested starting a center in New Zealand, rather than sending students to study in other parts of the world. Together, they found interested people in New Zealand—including some indigenous peace centers—founded a trust, raised money, and got matching funds from the government. The University of Otago eventually proved the best place to host a new autonomous center with Kevin Clements as the director.

Kevin Clements was one of my lecturers during undergrad, and he had followed my career. In 2011 he invited me to apply for the position of deputy director. At that time I was a professor of international politics at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom, and my wife and I were ready to come back to New Zealand. I realized that this was a really unique center, in part because of its connection to some indigenous peace groups, so I took the job and came back. About three years ago I took over as director from Kevin, who is now the director of the Toda Peace Institute in Tokyo.

GE: You mentioned how valuable it is to have indigenous peace groups involved in the center. What connections do you find between partnering with indigenous peace groups and decolonization efforts?

RJ: As part of the original Memorandum of Understanding with our trust, we have ties to three indigenous peace groups. One group is the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands. There’s another famous peace group called Parihaka in the north island. They’re a pan-tribal peace movement that resisted colonization, and they did it nonviolently. There’s some evidence that they may have influenced Gandhi. Then there’s another group called the Waitaha who went on a famous peace march, again, as part of an attempt to resist colonization. Those three peace groups are all signatories of the Memorandum of Understanding. That commits the center to bicultural partnership and to the study and practice of indigenous forms of peacemaking.

So that’s always been there, but to be honest, we have really struggled to put that into practice. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to make some deeper progress. There are a lot of obstacles to this, some of which are personal. I was never really trained in decolonization. When you get trained in a certain way as a scholar, there’s a process of decolonization that you have to go through yourself. There are also all kinds of institutional obstacles. The New Zealand education system, at least in the past, did not put a lot of emphasis on the bicultural history, or on a proper accounting of the harms colonization did to the indigenous people. We work in a very Eurocentric, Western-centric university system. We’re in a country where, despite the fact that we have a treaty, it hasn’t been properly implemented. There isn’t real partnership.

GE: You suggested that your center has made progress on these issues over the past few years. What does that progress look like?

RJ: There’s a number of small things we’ve done, which are not even scratching the surface of enough. But they gesture towards the fact that we are committed to going in the right direction. These include learning indigenous cultural protocols: such as formal greetings, adhering to traditions of welcome, practice around the sharing of food, and respecting the boundaries between different areas of life. We’ve also tried to educate ourselves a great deal more. We try to hold seminars that give voice to indigenous scholars and peace practitioners. More recently, we’ve started taking students to indigenous peace centers.

The indigenous people have had such a terribly abusive relationship with the white political and cultural structures here, that there’s a rightful sense of distrust and reticence. So it takes a long time to build trust and to prove that we have good intentions and seriously want to decolonize. When you’re trying to form a partnership with indigenous people, one of the main things you have to do is let go—let go of control, let go of power.

GE: In many parts of the world, the COVID-19 crisis maps onto colonial legacies. Do you know how communication has been with indigenous groups during New Zealand’s response to this crisis?

RJ: I have to say, there’s nowhere else in the world I’m happier to have been than here. It’s model leadership in some ways. Despite that, this is one area where we could and should criticize the New Zealand government, because its commitment to the treaty partnership has really fallen down. In this particular crisis, we have quickly reverted back to business as usual, where the government makes decisions on its own, unilaterally.

We are now beginning to hear the voices of indigenous communities saying, “We appreciate that you took us through this crisis relatively unscathed, but you didn’t really consult us. There are indigenous health professionals and groups who should have been part of your daily briefing and on your select committees. This is not an example of a true partnership.” In some cases, indigenous communities set up their own roadblocks because they knew that, historically, indigenous peoples have suffered a great deal from pandemics.

We also have a large Pacific Islands community, and they have been particularly vulnerable to pandemics in the past. The government has taken a lot of quite strict decisions without properly consulting, negotiating and perhaps developing more culturally appropriate and sensitive policies. We’ve seen families separated when family members are not able to return from the Pacific Islands. Overall, we can say the government has done a great job and the public health measures have been effective. But in a way, this crisis has revealed the continuing problem—that decolonization hasn’t really taken root.


Richard Jackson is the Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the editor of the journal Critical Studies in Terrorism and the author of numerous books and articles on terrorism, conflict resolution, and peace studies.