Peace Studies, Historic Gatherings and Indigenous Knowledge: PJSA and IPRA in 2016

Peace Studies, Historic Gatherings and Indigenous Knowledge: PJSA and IPRA in 2016

By Matt Meyer


In many ways, it would be simplest to summarize the 2016 Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) conference with a single word: KIIZHEWAADIZID. This word, in the First Nations language of Ojibwe common to the indigenous peoples of Central, Canada, translates roughly to “living a life of love, kindness, sharing, and respect, reflects not only the fundamental ideals of peace research and studies but also a vital dialectic necessary for survival in these 21st Century times. If we cannot figure out how to respect one another across borders and within our existing borders, and how to share the ever-limited and often-squandered natural resources which surround us, we will surely not be able to live as we have in the past. Our very planet, and so many conflict situations in every corner of the globe, shout that message out to us clearly enough. PJSA keynote speaker Wab Kinew, however, didn’t shout at all, but used humor and humility to describe the ways in which post-colonial dynamics still effect modern North American life.

 “Let them burn the sky,” Kinew asserted – retelling an ancestral story of faith and renewal: we have in our memory, in our spiritual and intellectual legacy, all that we need to build a just new world. In addition to being one of Canada’s foremost journalists, Kinew is a youth leader and award-winning hip hop artist, and serves as Vice President of Indigenous Affairs at the University of Winnipeg. He was but one of many First Nations presenters at the 2016 PJSA conference, as our Canadian associates deepen the work to build strong connections to the aboriginal peoples of our land. The land surrounding our hosting institution – the Mir Center for Peace at the University of Selkirk – was historically occupied by the Sinixt nation, who now sardonically refer to themselves as “extinct peoples” echoing recent official government designations. But the Sinixt, in good attendance at the conference, spoke of the their ongoing environmental, feminist, educational, and political work – and thankfully seem to be far from finished with leaving their mark on local and national Canadian society.

It’s been almost a decade since PJSA committed to building an organization which was not U.S.-centric in words and deeds, and 2016 saw several advances in these areas. Our now-consistently successful objective of holding at least every third annual conference in Canada has been strengthened by the creation of the Peace and Conflict Studies Association of Canada (PACS-Can), an affiliated group designed to further develop growing interest in the field. During our time together at Selkirk, that included partnering with the long-time community of war resisters and pacifists known as the Doukhobors, who hosted our closing ceremony which included a rousing presentation by Guatemalan Congressional leader Sandra Moran, an outspoken lesbian feminist who has championed international human rights; on an ongoing basis, that includes PJSA’s structural ties and commitment to the Ferguson-based Truth Telling Project, a leading part of the Movement for Black Lives. After eight years of great service, PJSA Executive Director Randall Amster also handed the ED baton to Michael Loadenthal, a sociologist and long-time activist based in Ohio and Washington DC. “As peace and justice studies in North America grows,” noted Loadenthal, “and the need for actual peace and justice work increases all around us, so too will PJSA branch out and flourish.”


Though there can be no dispute that it was a gathering of nothing less than historic proportions, the biennial conference of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA), held in Sierra Leone, West Africa in December 2016, was never supposed to take place. Naysayers, mainstream funding institutions, and even some long-standing IPRA supporters were certain it couldn’t be done. Some suggested that a small, developing nation with limited infrastructure would be unsuitable for a large-scale general peace convocation; others feared that the Ebola epidemic would spread for years in uncontrollable fashion. A few academics from the Global North even had the gall to assert that no site on the continent of Africa could properly host the kind of conference which IPRA has grown accustomed to. Yet hundreds of participants from every continent, with strong representation from throughout Asia and North America, from South American, Europe, and Australia, made IPRA 2016 a glorious testament to the inseparability of peace, justice, and development.

IPRA Secretary-General Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, the Leonean-born, U.K.-based peace journalist, maintained a steadfast vision of the University of Sierra Leone-hosted conference which disallowed all detractors. Almost single-handedly forging a collaboration between IPRA, the Dealing with Disasters conference series of the Disaster and Development Network, Sakarya and Northumbria Universities, and various United Nations-based, governmental, and non-governmental organizations, the gathering was amazingly pulled together with almost no major large fiscal contributions. Though Leonean Vice President Victor Bockarie Foh welcomed participants at start of our time together, and the Ministry of Tourism played a supportive logistical role – including setting up post-conference tours – there was essentially no official involvement in the conference. The World Bank (WB) offices in the capital of Freetown pitched in for a modest reception during an evening cultural presentation from the National Dance Troupe, but even the WB country representative admitted later in the week that his fellow officers in Washington DC and elsewhere warned him that a truly international conference in this locale couldn’t be done. Grassroots commitment, however, and the support of IPRA’s Executive Committee and governing bodies showed that hard work, solidarity, and an Africanist approach to building from the bottom up could accomplish all that was needed. With most participants willing to fund their own trips, or find local university, non-governmental, and/or foundation support, a strikingly multi-generational cross-section of people took part in five days of impressive deliberations.

The theme “Agenda for Peace and Development” was specified through sub-themes on conflict prevention, post-conflict transformation, and the nature of sustainable development in the context of disaster risk- and conflict management. In addition, a youth conference ran parallel to parts of the IPRA proceedings, focusing on alternative models for young people facing adversity in West Africa. Throughout all the formal and informal conversations, the connections between positive and negative peace – between surface violence and the oppression and poverty which serve as the root causes of violence – were discussed in heated detail. United Nations Under Secretary General Zainab Bangura, a native Leonean herself and the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, noted in moving descriptions the long road to true peace we still must work towards. Even in peace research and policy interventions, Seaga Shaw added, the “indirect forms of violence” so pervasive in all our communities are often made “invisible” and not dealt with on structural levels.

Strategizing about how best to deal with these connections continued well past the formal closing of the conference itself, as almost one-third of the participants took extra time to travel together for special visits to the Sierra Leone Peace Museum and Special Court, growing out of the country’s truth and reconciliation process. Long-time IPRA leader and current ex-officio liaison with the African Peace Research and Education Association Matt Mogekwu emphasized how African reconciliation processes have focused on restoration of justice rather than retribution against injustice. Mogekwu’s review of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the vital role they must play in the quest for global peace suggested that a new, indigenous framework could properly re-focus social leaders “not to rule the world but to be left alone” so that communities could fend for themselves without outside interference.

One sometimes looks for lasting achievements, for singular tangible goals, coming out of large global gatherings. Even successful conferences often disappoint in the long run, as people go back to their local work finding it difficult to maintain connections to our international counterparts. IPRA 2016, in creating a dynamic engagement with a country growing out of crisis towards new opportunities, suggested different possibilities once the festivities were over. The University of Sierra Leone’s Department of Peace and Conflict Studies was surely buoyed by the events it helped host, better-connected and concretely empowered to increase its scope and work. IPRA itself can pride itself on deepening its connections in Africa and the Global South, willing to take the “risk” of putting substantial resources where its previously-voiced politics have suggested it should be, emerging with a stronger General Council, with new yet experienced Secretaries-General who pledge to continue the work (Mexico’s Ursula Oswald-Spring and Japan’s Katsuya Kodama), and with revitalized regional associations. More than all that, however, the world-wide movements for peace and justice should strongly take note. Success in the 21st Century can no longer be confined to good intentions in our separated and segregated silos.

We must lead with a truly internationalist, indigenous-informed mind-set, analysis and practice. And that can only come about when the voice of the previously voiceless – when the entire world, South and North – speak in unity, with diversity and strength.