I can’t remember a time in which I have been able to tune into the national news and not listen to reports of armed conflict, bloodshed, or terrorist attacks. Quite often these goings-on seem far-removed across the globe, reported on with deadpan emotionless delivery; other times these conflicts overspill into home waters, as the 2015 terror attacks in Paris so startlingly reminded us.
The reality is that conflict surrounds us wherever we go; whether that is in our personal lives with friends or family members, or even on the regional news where some local dispute has tipped over into requiring official intervention.
As Rashmi Thapa, European Affairs and Partnerships Manager for Search For Common Ground, notes, “We believe that conflict is actually normal, especially if you think about it in terms of within your family; it can help situations. However, it is when the conflict reaches a tipping point and becomes violent that there is a problem.” Indeed, such threats are very real: according to the Armed Conflict Database, there are currently 42 active conflicts happening across the globe.
In Burundi, after many turbulent and horrifically violent years of fighting between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority, accusations of vote rigging and intimidation during national elections has spurred increasing insecurity once again.
In Central Africa, the rebel fighting group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, has spent over three decades massacring villages and raping women in a power war seeking to overthrow the Ugandan government in favour of a fundamentalist Christian regime.
Meanwhile, Xinjiang - an autonomous region in China - has embarked on an independence campaign in varying degrees of intensity since Chinese rule commenced in the eighteenth century.
I could continue with such accounts; from Afghanistan to Angola, Colombia to Congo-Brazzaville, Tajikistan to Turkey – throughout time, history and continent, cruel and bloody conflict has reared its head.
To oversimplify or rationalise such brutal wars could be dangerous and would no doubt expose a number of other counter-arguments. However, the cynic would perhaps say that one significant reason for why conflict continues is that, for many countries, it is a hugely profitable arena.
BAE Systems, the largest arms company in Britain, is the world’s third largest seller of weapons and, in 2014 alone, they made over $25.7 billion in sales. In fact, of the $401 billion worth of arms sold around the world that year, weapon sales from the UK made up 10.4 percent.
The countries that Western arms headed to were plagued with poor human rights records – Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Israel, and Syria; it was also confirmed by Britain’s Ministry of Defence in June 2015 that weapons sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia were being used in their campaign against Yemen; the almost daily air raids against Yemen, carried out by the Saudi–led coalition, led to thousands of civilian casualties.
In the first six months of 2015, the UK exported more than 1,000 bombs to Saudi Arabia and totted up £1.7 billion worth of UK export licenses. It helped sustain relentless attacks against Yemen. At times, Saudi Arabia claimed to have been dropping at least 1,000 bombs on the state during up to 125 air strikes per day.
Britain was the number one supplier of major weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2014 and it wasn’t just arms and ammunition being supplied. The Saudi royal air force were also flying British-made fighter jets, supported with British technical support – sales that many key Foreign Office lawyers and government diplomats have warned may lead to Britain being prosecuted for war crimes.
As Thapa tells me, calling on her previous experience from working closely with international disarmament campaigns, “The United Kingdom, United States – and some very big arms dealers, including Belgium, who use very sophisticated machine guns – always have the front story that they’re selling the arms and ammunition to the licensed countries and companies – and then, when the arms end up in rebel groups or with the Taliban, for instance, they claim it’s not under their jurisdiction as that’s not who they originally sold them to.”
As Thapa elucidates, “From what I can see, in the instance of Yemen and Saudia Arabia, the Saudis were a nice partner country [for Britain] and were very important in their political nuclear deal with Iran; the Saudis have a strong and influential presence in the Middle East. I think it’s a very political game that has a ripple effect and the impact and consequence of that on communities is devastating.”
The outcome of such violence against civilians is ultimately refugees, as 2015 brought to the forefront of media discussion like never before. According to the Armed Conflict Database’s latest figures, there are 12,181,000 refugees globally. This is up 2.8 million from 2013.
I ask Thapa what the ramifications of such a huge upheaval of civilians is during conflict, “There are two things,” she answers. “First off, how this recent situation has been handled is appalling – even if some of these countries are taking in a number of refugees – for example, Germany and Belgium – we haven’t really seen a lot of schemes put in place to help integrate them into the country in the long-term; and if that is not done today, then it is already too late I think.”
“Secondly, and I can talk about Belgium specifically because this is where I live and what I see on the news, but the transit centres have been put in very poor neighbourhoods in Brussels where there are already a lot of immigrants, and they are much poorer than the Brussels community and have been marginalised. It’s not just about accepting refugees but ultimately how the integration will be done that is the key issue.”
So how can we go about bringing peace into communities and areas of war-torn conflict and prevent further issues from arising? It is this that Thapa focuses on in her work for Search For Common Ground – and is the crucial aspect that is so often forgotten once the hype and media has died down and the armies have left their bloodied battles. “Search For Common Ground is the largest conflict and peace-building organisation in the world. We have got offices in over 35 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the USA,” she tells me.
Their aim is to use holistic approaches on a regional, national and global level to ensure that conflict doesn’t tip over from “normal” to violent armed conflict, and also to try and restore peace where conflict is ongoing.
Part of this is working with different “actors” – mainly members of the media, such as national and international journalists in print, radio and television – to help establish training programmes for dealing with these kinds of news features and to help the media develop conflict sensitivity reporting.
As Thapa explains, “When they’re reporting on cases that can potentially incite conflict, we help them to write stories that are more neutral – although the idea is always to train and build the capacity of the actors so that they are empowered enough to write their own stories and for journalists to write stories that are evidence-based.”
She continues, “We try and understand the different actors in the countries and find out which actors are drivers of conflict and which influencers look to prevent conflict. In cases where there is war or post-war, we look at how they can have a positive influence and how we can help support them.”
Search For Common Ground also have their own production house. “Recently we ran a 13-part TV soap opera series in 19 countries,” Thapa explains. “It was based on specific football championships…the team that was shown in the TV series came from different social groups, so it was about bringing together collaborative solutions and how people from different ethnic lives can come together for a common goal.”
Spreading the message of peace through the media really is key because, as Thapa notes, “At heights of war and conflict, what happens is that people use media, particularly political parties, to spread hate speeches and messages.”
Search For Common Ground also work with the local, regional and national youth communities. Thapa continues, “We believe young people are the most influential people and they are the future of the country, as well as of the world. We seek to identify the most influential youth within the communities, who don’t necessarily have to be presidents or leaders in a club that they work in, but who have the influence to mobilise a large group or their cohort. We try to work with them and train them to understand what it really means to be on the ground, approaching across dividing lines, and bringing people together to build their leadership towards positive change.”
Another lesser-known way of bringing communities together is through cleaning. As Thapa tells me, “One we have done recently was in Lebanon to help build social cohesion between the refugee centres and the local communities where they have been set up. We realised that both sides were keen to make the area very clean, so we brought these people together and helped create community structures while cleaning. It sounds like cleaning a community might not be very groundbreaking, but that is not the goal per se – it is actually the process of how these two groups of people who have been fighting have come together, and we help build these structures.”
Words: Grace Carter