Citizens Peace Movement of Iraq

Kosmos Interview with Kai Brand-Jacobsen

KOSMOS: Let’s begin, Kai, with an overview. We want to give our Kosmos readers a sense of you, your work, and the field of peacebuilding. What is peacebuilding?

KAI BRAND-JACOBSEN: Peacebuilding is one of the most important areas of human endeavor and engagement in the world today. At it simplest, it is about finding concrete, practical, and effective ways of dealing with conflicts. That covers conflicts on a personal level, within our families, our communities, our countries, and internationally. Peacebuilding is essentially about developing the skills, the knowledge, and the understanding to know why conflicts are happening. What are their causes? What are their drivers? And then to develop practical measures and approaches that can enable those experiencing conflicts to deal with them effectively and to meet the core interests and needs of all involved. Peacebuilding can include everything from dealing with early warning and analysis, to identifying and engaging conflicts constructively before they become violent, to peacebuilding mediation and peace processes in the midst of war and armed violence, to the incredibly deep and challenging work of reconciliation and healing after violence and war.

KOSMOS: People often ask if peacebuilding really works. What are the key ingredients that are necessary to have a peaceful outcome?

Conscience. artwork by Hope Ricciardi.
Conscience by Hope Ricciardi.

KBJ: Yes, peacebuilding works. It enables us to deal with the real underlying causes and to find solutions, whereas dominant and traditional approaches are often rooted in a militarized or a violent response. They not only fail to effectively address conflicts, but in many cases, they make it worse. What’s interesting is that many of the most senior and experienced military officers in the world recognize this. General Tousignant, UN Forces in Rwanda, said, “The military cannot bring peace. It never has; it never will; it’s not what it’s designed for. The skill sets and capabilities that the military have developed enable identification and elimination of threat.” If we kill those that we are in conflict with, they will also have brothers, cousins, and relatives. So even if we are able to militarily defeat an actor or a group at a single moment, the act of killing and military destruction doesn’t actually address any of the reasons for why that conflict is there in the first place.

The peace process has at least three elements:

  • to address the issues that have given rise to the conflict
  • to develop a mutually acceptable outcome that meets the legitimate needs and interests of all of the parties involved
  • to address and deal with what happened during the conflict or during the war

KOSMOS: Thank you. Let’s turn to a very specific area on the planet where you have actually been working as a peacebuilder most recently: Iraq. Given the complex history and the present dire situation in Iraq and in the surrounding region, you have stated that people are basically realizing that if they want peace, they have to do it themselves. And that has given rise to the Citizens Peace Movement of Iraq.

KBJ: Moments before our call, I was looking at a picture from an event that took place in Iraq today. It was of a young man in his early 20s in a room very close to one of the IDP camps, the camps for people who have been displaced from their homes away from the fighting. These camps hold on average thousands to many tens of thousands of people living in tents—people who were doctors, engineers, pharmacists, journalists, people of every background one can imagine, who had been living in their villages, towns, and communities until one day they were told “An armed movement is coming. They will kill. You have to flee.” And now they’re living in tents.

This young man is from the Yazidi community, which many people around the world will have heard of after the violence and the advances by ISIL last summer. The Yazidis were trapped on a mountain in Northern Iraq, facing starvation. There were airlifts of food brought into them. Many Yazidi women were kidnapped by the ISIL militia, and one whom I met had been raped by more than 30 men before she lost count. The Yazidi have experienced some of the most extreme brutality of the violence and the fighting in Iraq. And this young man, whose sister was captured and raped by ISIL fighters, volunteered to assist a Yazidi organization documenting what had been done, documenting crimes against humanity—mass rape and sexual violence and killing. Part of that work involved going to villages and towns that had been affected and taking pictures of bodies—of young babies and children, of elderly people, people of all ages and backgrounds, people who had been massacred, often having been raped and experiencing sexual violence before being killed. Then their bodies were left in the heat in the Iraqi summer, where it goes up to 30, 40, and sometimes 50 degrees. This young man was taking pictures of corpse after corpse, often of people he knew.

On the first day of one of our recent workshops in Northern Iraq in the Kurdistan area, this young man was in the room. He told me later that that very morning three of his friends had driven to the front to join a militia to fight against ISIL and he was supposed to have gone with them. He was filled with a sense of anger, a sense of fury, a sense of hatred for what they had done and what had been done to his people. But one of his friends spoke to him and managed to convince him to come to a peacebuilding workshop. He came into the room and was vibrating with tension and anger. By the third day of the program, he was hugging a Sunni Arab from Mosul, a member of a community that is often perceived as supporting ISIL. This young Sunni Arab from Mosul was a man driven from his home because he would have been killed by ISIL had he stayed.

Today, the picture I saw was of this young man giving a training program to refugees from his community on peacebuilding to recruit them to join the Citizens Peace Movement of Iraq. The work that we have been involved in recently in Iraq, like much of our work around the world as a peacebuilding organization, was carried out upon invitation and request. We work anywhere in the world only when we have been asked to be there by the people and the communities themselves—and often by the parties that are in conflict. Our goal and our task are to assist and support them in developing their own engagement and processes to be able to prevent or end violence and build sustainable peace from within. The invitation itself came from three young men who had been brought to meet me by one of our Italian partner organizations. One was a man of Kurdish background, one was Yazidi, and one was Christian—three of the different ethnic minorities or national minorities in Iraq. When they spoke to me, they spoke of the violence that they had just recently lived and experienced. At that point, it was only several weeks before the fighting with ISIL had broken out in Iraq, just over a year ago now. And they spoke of the conditions of those who had been forced to flee their homes, living in displacement camps or abandoned buildings. Many were trying to leave the country as soon as they could. In these camps you were seeing an increase in alcoholism, sometimes in drug use. Very many people felt hopeless.

What these three young men were asking was, “How can we develop an initiative, a movement within our own country, so that we don’t live through another 20 to 30 years of war, violence, and killing?”

The situation across much of the Middle East and North Africa is that the policies and the actions being pursued by each of the parties in conflict are actually escalating, intensifying, and worsening the conflict. There is no government or state within the Middle East that is making any significant effort to address the conflicts. Almost all governments in the region are involved in supporting an arms race struggling within several of their neighboring countries, often as proxy wars in rivalries against one another. There is no country internationally that offers a responsible and appropriate approach to dealing with the conflicts. Again, the policies being pursued by governments such as those in the United States, Britain, France, and many other countries, are dramatically worsening and intensifying the killing and the violence on the ground. We are contributing to the very thing we claim to be working to overcome. In that context, when there are no governments near or far that are working to help, when the United Nations is not able to engage at the scale of the challenge faced, who then remains? And the answer, quite simply, is the people themselves.

KOSMOS: I’d like to share another quote from a report that you issued where you said, “In the same way ISIL uses social media to mobilize and recruit support, we are now working to support and empower citizens, activists, and bloggers across the region doing the same.” Our question is this: how does that play as a peacebuilder? It seems it would be a critical component to what you are talking about.

KBJ: I think it would be. And I think in truth, very sadly, we have not managed to develop that. Many of us have a concept about global citizens and about sympathy and concern for what is happening to others in other parts of the world. And certainly, social media, as well as traditional media, often makes us aware of situations happening far away. But there is a very large gap between being aware that something is happening and understanding and seeing what we can do about it. Now if I’m living in the United States, or Norway, Japan, Romania, or any other country in the world today—or countries in the region like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and elsewhere—and I go online, I can find very intelligent, very brilliant narratives, explanations, delivered through blogs, videos, testimonials, publications of all sorts, of what is happening and why it is happening from ISIL that makes sense of it for me. That presents a clear depiction of what is taking place and helps me to see clearly what I can do about it. And that is recruiting people to join ISIL or Da’ish, as it’s called in the region.

Anti-Iraq-War Peace rally in Washington D.C. 2003
Anti-Iraq-War Peace rally in Washington D.C. 2003

There is even an exceptional handbook, which is quite easy to find, hyperlinked so that you can click on any of the content that you’re interested in, and it takes you to the exact section you need—quotes, pictures, maps—brilliantly put together to let you know as a citizen, as a human being in the United States or any other country, what you need is to come join ISIL. It tells how, for about $150 or $160 I think it was, you can buy all the supplies you need, the travel routes you can take to avoid surveillance and intelligence. And it has been used by, depending upon the intelligent services figures you look at, 20,000 to 30,000 people from 80 countries to join ISIL—the largest number of international forces that have gone in any war in recent history to fight. And they have gone to fight for ISIL in the region.

But if I am sitting anywhere across the United States, or Norway, Japan, or any country in the region—Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere—and I want to know, What can I do for peacebuilding? What can I do to live in a society without fearing for violence because of my identity or religion or the group that I belong to? What can I do so that I or my child or those I love can grow up to follow their passions, their dreams to become a doctor, an engineer, a poet, or whatever they might wish to be? And that is as true for people in Iraq and Syria living through some of the most extreme brutality and violence one can imagine, not only from ISIL, but from the US government, from their own governments, from militias across the board. That is as true for them as it is true for many people living in the United States, who may see what’s happening, but their response falls into one of these categories:

    1. Many people simply feel powerless. They feel sympathy, they feel human empathy, but they don’t know what they can do. It’s too big for them.
    2. Others feel tired. It’s been going on for so long that they just don’t have any energy to give attention or to engage with it further.
    3. States For and Against Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Orange states participated in the invasion of Iraq; Yellow states supported an invasion; Blue states opposed an invasion; Grey states took no official position.
      States For and Against Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Orange states participated in the invasion of Iraq; Yellow states supported an invasion; Blue states opposed an invasion; Grey states took no official position.

      Others have been influenced by extreme misinformation and the idea that, “Well, this is just the way people are there” or “people will just kill each other and that’s what they do.” They do not understand the incredible richness, warmth, and hospitality of these cultures and societies; they do not understand the human being who is there in that story or in the report that we read or the video that we watch. There is no understanding that we, ourselves, if we come from the United States or many countries in the West, played a profound and fundamental role in the complete destabilization and destruction of these societies—and did not stop when to our great joy, we withdrew and felt that things were over.

      Protests against the invasion of Iraq were massive and worldwide. Above. London anti-war protest 2002.
      Protests against the invasion of Iraq were massive and worldwide. Above. London anti-war protest 2002.

      We withdrew after we had created a wasteland and fueled sectarianism, corruption, and violent abuse in a context where that was left to continue and fester and escalate. We provided no responsible engagement, no accountability for what we had done to a country in which over one million people died as a result of our war and invasion. We washed our hands, turned our television channels and news to other issues, and then were shocked by the barbarity that we saw. In extreme form, videos where people stood in black uniforms, condemned us and cut off the heads of people from our countries were some of the most shocking. But we did not see the moments in which people from their communities had had their heads cut off by militias that we had supported previously. We did not see the videos where their weddings and their family gatherings had been bombed by either our military forces or bombs that we had sold to authoritarian regimes. And it’s not only the United States and the West that have fueled dramatic violent sectarianism. This is not an issue of simple blame. Unfortunately, there are extremely brutal regimes in the region also, such as Assad’s regime in Syria and Maliki’s previous regime in Iraq.

    4. At the moment, very many in the region have seen their societies and countries collapse and are struggling to see how they can build a future beyond violence and war. The people in the Citizens Peace Movement of Iraq, as you mentioned in the quote you read earlier, are people who have simply come to recognize that if they don’t work to stop what’s happening in the country and to build a better future beyond, there’s nobody else who will do it. And so they must and they do.

KOSMOS: Kai, the work that you do is dedicated, committed to this very process that you’re talking about. Can you say to me, as a global citizen, what can I do?

KBJ: I’m trying to think of how not to begin with the same trite responses that are so fundamentally true and yet turn people off the moment they hear them, which include learn and understand more about it. What can be done? There are a number of very practical measures that people can take today and there are things that we know from history and past movements that have been essential to guaranteeing their success. On the ground, people are working practically across a wide range of issues and engagements. One is dealing with providing healing and trauma recovery for hundreds of thousands of people. And there’s extraordinary work being done by a range of organizations, including more recently by an organization called The International Association of Human Values Peacebuilding, which uses breathing techniques. They also work with veterans returning with the US military.

The International Association of Human Values Peacebuilding work in high intensity prisons, which have some of the highest murder and crime rates. They help people reduce stress, anxiety, and trauma. The value and beauty of these techniques are that people can practice themselves without having a Western psychiatrist or psychologist flying in to diagnose and treat them. They’re working now to do peace education at every level of their societies and communities to mobilize and inspire young people and also people of all generations, to understand how they’re all being affected by the conflicts and to build a movement of citizens uniting across all religions, ethnicities, and identity backgrounds to say, “We are human beings and we want a better future for our country.” They’re working to reach out to religious leaders, to journalists, to business leaders. For example, many people often believe that business benefits from war. In fact, very little business does. The businesses that benefit from war are the weapons industry, smuggling, prostitution, and illegal extraction. Overwhelmingly, legitimate business and the vast majority of industry in the country and in the region has been devastated by war. For example, from 2003 with the US invasion of Iraq until today, the region has lost over 12 trillion dollars in destroyed infrastructure and lost investment. That is an astronomical figure. If Iraq had not been at war from 1991 on, their GDP would be 30 times larger than what it is today. If you go back to their growth trajectory before the Iran/Iraq War, it would be 50 times larger than it is today. So we need to do the patient, practical hard evidence work of engaging with businesses to help them to see how they are being negatively affected and what they can do to change that. Now that is being done in the region.

      • One of the most important things we can do from outside the region is to support the people in peacebuilding within the countries and the area itself. Let them know they’re not alone, let them know that there are people who care for them, who are inspired by them, who are encouraged by their courage because they are risking their lives every single day. And when they’re confronted—whether it’s the barrel bombs of the Assad regime in Syria or whether it is by militias and ISIL on the ground in Iraq—to know that there are other human beings who stand with them.
      • The second is to give practical measures and support. That can cover everything from IT technology, working with people there to help set up communication means and resources so that people in different parts of the countries and region can connect and link together.
      • We’re working to be completely owned, driven, and developed by people from the region themselves. We need individuals and organizations who will support the first ever Arabic language platform that collects all resources and materials available in Arabic, Kurdish, and other languages in the region, on peacebuilding, on nonviolence, on reconciliation and healing.
      • Also, we need to hold our own countries and governments accountable as human beings and as citizens. And for citizens in the United States and citizens around the world, they can do that in many ways. Our governments have an over reliance upon and an extremist addiction to the use of violent means—very similar to ISIL but with much deadlier consequences. An F-35 joint strike fighter might appear to be a technological marvel and a scientific wonder, but it leads to far more people being killed than ISIL ever could on the ground. It’s not only about reigning in our military extremism and assaults in these areas. We need to fundamentally improve our understanding and means by which we address and respond to conflicts within our own countries and internationally. The empirical evidence is explicit and exact. What we are doing is making the situation worse. We need to take responsibility for that and learn from it.
Citizens Peace Movement Workshop in Iraq. Artwork by Kai Brand-Jacobsen.
Citizens Peace Movement Workshop in Iraq. Artwork by Kai Brand-Jacobsen.
      • It is important to develop a broad-based movement within the United States and internationally. We’ve worked to abolish other pathologies, such as colonialism, slavery, and cannibalism, and we’ve worked to overcome issues such as rape and many other forms of abuse. We need to recognize that violence and the institutions developed to implement it can also be abolished.
      • Another issue that is critical in the US and in other Western countries is that weapons industries have become alarmed about a minor but slight reduction in the incredibly inflated military budgets. These reductions have led them to engage the US government and others to increase military purchases, which has led to the US government’s approach of selling what they call “excess military hardware to civilian police and local police authorities across the United States.” We have seen this transformation in US policing over the last two years.The other approach is to identify the area of instability and risk in the world where there are governments with lots of money that can be convinced to buy expensive hardware. And that area has been the Middle East. So what we have been seeing over the last few years is one of the most extreme and intensifying arms escalations and arms races in recent history. You have the military build-up in the South China Sea around China, Japan, and Korea, and the other massive area of military buildup is the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, and others purchasing hundreds of billions worth of weaponry—a profoundly dangerous scenario.
      • Citizens have a responsibility to be informed and to act upon this just as citizens in the United States acted in the 1980s to draw back adventurism and support for dictatorships and military regimes in Central America, as citizens in the United States and elsewhere around the world have acted time and time again when they see something clearly wrong and know that it will not be addressed unless they, themselves, stand up together to do something to address it.

KOSMOS: Thank you, Kai. So if I am hearing you, it’s a two-pronged approach that addresses the imminent need to name what is not working, what is dangerous, and to act accordingly, while at the same time, taking up a proactive peacebuilding approach. We’re seeing a truth-telling project in the United States, we’re seeing restorative justice emerging in Brazil and elsewhere around the world, we’re seeing a lot of proactive peacebuilding solutions-oriented processes amongst global citizens that are very grassroots. These processes are making their way up, actually into policies, including in the US and other countries where we now have some policies in place around restorative justice and community policing in the criminal justice system, which seem quite hopeful. So is that what we’re hearing you say?

KBJ: That is certainly a very important component of it. Two things are critical: one is simply becoming aware and recognizing that violence is intensifying and the second is responsible and appropriate governance and policy and decision-making. Many within the military are at the forefront of recognizing the dangers and the threats that the use of military and violent force and armed escalation brings about. We need to raise awareness.

For example, I was recently invited by the Crown Prince of Bahrain, a country that has itself experienced many difficulties in conflicts within recent years, to give a speech to business leaders from all across the region on the economic benefits of peace and to make visible the costs of war. We need to make clear the negative consequences that these wars are having, but also, the practical measures of what can be done.

I’ve had the opportunity to work and travel and engage with many people’s peacebuilding initiatives in nearly 80 countries around the world over the last 20 years. While we can always find individual stories of inspiration and examples of effort and success, the scale at which these are happening is nowhere near the scale necessary to meaningfully address the challenges facing our communities. We have taken steps towards the introduction of restorative justice in the United States—absolutely, yes. We’ve also seen, during the exact same period, the dramatic increase in privatization of the prison system and a profound increase in arrest rates and brutalization in prisons.

These negative trends profoundly exceed and are stronger than the positive trends. Even those who support or are active in peace initiatives often have no understanding of what peacebuilding actually is. I have trained more than 3,000 people from over 80 to 90 countries around the world. And I have worked in the most extreme and worst war zones in the world today. While there are some examples of amazingly experienced, capable, dedicated, and gifted people, 98% of those who have the position of program officer responsible for peacebuilding have no competence, training, background, or expertise at all.

We often believe that peacebuilding is about making beautiful statements, gathering together with people who share our opinions, attending conferences in different parts of the world. It is not! In fact, that directly contributes to and intensifies war because when you get all of those who don’t feel comfortable about violence and war together and they meet and they come to their hotels and in their events where they’re speaking with one another that they agree with, those same people very rarely have the ability to go back to their societies and engage with those who don’t agree with them to actually deal with the conflicts their communities are facing. While bringing a certain level of professed passion and commitment, those very same people very often do not follow that passion and commitment through enough to be willing to actually learn skills for how to do it.

We have somewhere between 400 to 500 graduate programs in the world today teaching about conflict resolution, mediation, or peacebuilding. That has gone up incredibly from the 20 to 30 that we had 30 years ago. But they do not teach you how to do peacebuilding. They don’t equip you with the skills, knowledge, capabilities, confidence, and responsibility to actually do peace work. If we are truly dedicated or believe that we need to find an alternative to violence and war, we need to understand that this is not easy. This will not be achieved just through love and passion and desire—which are so important, so fundamentally important, but they are not enough. We need to build at the level of our societies and our government and state structures the practical capabilities to address conflicts responsibly and effectively.

KOSMOS: So you have perhaps just named the greatest obstacle to proactive peacebuilding. Is it the education piece—to be able to take theory into practice as caring, passionate citizens?

KBJ: I’m never one for singularities—the greatest or the worst or the one cause. There are several. We’re still convinced of mythologies and fundamentalisms that glorify and worship violence. Another is the simple reality that we don’t see any clear education, learning, teaching examples of how to do peacebuilding. It’s not that they’re not there. I have one presentation where I just show one person after another from different areas that people have never heard of and I tell them the stories of what they have done in peacebuilding.

Any child can name ten wars throughout history; any politician can. But show me a politician that can name ten nonviolent movements. Show me a journalist or even a professor of peace studies that can name ten conflicts that were solved through peaceful means. They exist. They’re there, but we don’t know them. We have people who passionately say they want peace and then get into violent arguments with those who have different opinions. We have the NGO-ization of peacebuilding work— people getting grants from governments to work in other countries when they have not learned about those countries and do not know enough about peacebuilding. We end up with external actors getting lots of resources while very little goes to the country and the people themselves. We have more organizations, more people, continuously becoming involved and an incredibly few of those who truly understand and are learning about how we do early warning systems. How do we facilitate effective negotiation processes? What about the incredible challenges involved in working with healing at the level of individuals, and then healing and reconciliation at the level of entire societies.

KOSMOS: Thank you, Kai. Thank you for the work that you are doing across the board. In closing, what of importance has not been shared that you wish to say in this interview?

KBJ: That to whoever it is that is reading this right now—we need you. The people of the Iraq Citizens Peace Movement are asking you to let them know that they are not alone. They are asking you, as they stand up in the face of violence and war from all sides, to stand up with them. Because a better world is possible, but it will only come about if we build it.

KOSMOS: Thank you, Kai. finally, please share what you are offering for peacebuilders regarding training and learning.

KBJ: We have partnerships with different institutions in many countries where we provide trainings there and we work together with them. In doing so, we see what would be most appropriate. We’ve got about 20 different core programs, but then we also customize everything to the community. We offer everywhere from two to three-day briefers or executive leadership programs to academies that would be a bit longer. Those programs actually generate revenue and income for our partners.