A peace activist and peace educator

Ingeborg Breines is consultant and former vice president of the International Peace Bureau

Marit Fosse
Geneva, Switzerland

In Norway, Ms Breines does not need any introduction, for she has long been an active member of civil society. Let us briefly mention that she is a consultant and former co-president of the International Peace Bureau, former director of UNESCO and director of the Norwegian Commission for UNESCO. We were curious to learn more about her different activities as she is a famous peace activist in Norway and a faithful reader of Diva. So, now let us leave the floor to Ingeborg Breines.

Q1: You are a peace educator. Could you please tell us more about what such a job involves?

To teach peace and non-violent conflict resolution can, and should, be done much more, in the regular school system as well as outside – through organizations, training courses and ways of living. I am not a professional peace educator, but spend most of my time as a retired international civil servant promoting, on a voluntary basis, the vision of a culture of peace, as developed by UNESCO and in cooperation with different peace organizations and peace activists.

Peace education is at the core of UNESCO’s mandate. A humanistic approach to education is echoed in the report, Education for the 21 Century. Learning the Treasure Within, which outlines four main educational goals: learning to be, learning to learn, learning to do and learning to live together. Learning to live peacefully together is considered as basic as literacy. Unfortunately most school systems today encourage competition and prepare for hierarchical structures, instead of training in cooperation and mutual understanding. Besides disarmament and demilitarization, one of the biggest challenges today is perhaps to help everybody, not least boys and men, to learn to tackle disagreements and conflicts in non-violent ways.

The United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development (2016 – 2030), with its 17 universally accepted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by all the countries of the world, sees peace, human rights and development as a comprehensive whole. SDG 16 on building peaceful societies, justice and functioning institutions is of particular importance in this context. SDG 4.7 is likewise important, not least in order to try to counter the ongoing, growing and sometimes aggressive militarization of the mind, in schools, in universities and through mass media. It reads: “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non‐violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

UNESCO has developed important normative instruments on peace education, and Member States must, for example, report every fourth year on their implementation of the 1974 Recommendation Concerning Education for International Understanding, Cooperation and Peace and Education Relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom. This reporting mechanism is gaining importance also in connection with the implementation of SDG 4, Target 7.

Education is vital in the quest for a culture of peace. With close to 800 million illiterates in the world and a post-pandemic growing number of out-of-school children, we are far from providing the right to relevant, quality education for all. There is also an enormous gap in the resources we use for the prestigious military academies and what we use for peace education, helping students learn the tools of non-violent conflict resolution. Teachers are the linchpins of any educational system. The status and working conditions of teachers are important for the education of future generations. Integrating peace education in teacher training is a must.

The UNESCO Associated Schools Project (ASP) forms a wonderful network around the world of cooperating schools, working on peace, human rights, the environment and the United Nations. The ASP should be further strengthened to counterbalance the very dangerous present polarization between “us” and “the others”.

Q2: You have a long and outstanding career in UNESCO, where you were the Director of Women and a Culture of Peace Program. What exactly did you do in these jobs?

I feel most fortunate to have worked in and for UNESCO in different capacities. As Secretary General of the Norwegian National Commission for UNESCO, I found my most fruitful was to be in a position to bring back to Norway the latest thinking and achievements within UNESCO’s fields of competence and to bring to UNESCO the best we had in education, science, culture and communication, including good people. Being deputy to the Norwegian member of the Executive Board, Ingrid Eide, was a tremendous four- year-long learning experience in dialogue and negotiations with eminent people from different continents and cultures. In 1993, at the end of this period, I was hired as Special Advisor to the Director General on women and gender issues. The most challenging part of this task was the responsibility to coordinate UNESCO’s preparation of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in Beijing in 1995. The Beijing Platform for Action remains the most comprehensive document on gender issues guiding the work of both the United Nations, countries and institutions. Once the report and the UNESCO follow-up strategy to the Women’s Conference was finalized, I was given the opportunity to build up a program on Women and a Culture of Peace, thereby also being a part of the broad program Towards a Culture of Peace.

The culture of peace vision emphasizes peace not only as the absence of armed conflict or war, however important that is, but focuses on the content and the conditions of peace. It also requires a positive, dynamic participatory process where dialogue is encouraged and conflicts are solved in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation.

The priorities of the Women and a Culture of Peace program were to:

– support women’s initiatives for peace;

– empower women for democratic participation in political processes and to increase women’s capacity and impact in economic and security issues;

– contribute to gender-sensitive socialization and training for non-violence and egalitarian partnerships with a special focus on young men and boys.

A new phase started for me on the famous date 11 September 2001 when my tenure as UNESCO’s representative to Pakistan started. At the outset, the priority was Education for All. The war in Afghanistan made the area a political hot spot, and considerable time was spent also on helping the Afghan refugees in Pakistan within UNESCO’s fields of competence and working with the interim government in Afghanistan. My gender and culture of peace background turned out to be useful. My last posting with UNESCO was as director of the liaison office in Geneva, where the main task was to link up with the United Nations agencies with headquarters in Geneva in order to develop joint projects and keep doors open for diplomatic cooperation.

Q3: You also proposed the creation of an International Men’s Day, a little like International Women’s Day, 8 March. Do you think that we have forgotten men in our struggle for equal rights?

My role in the creation of an International Men’s Day is exaggerated. The fact is that I was contacted by some progressive men from the University of the West Indies based on the work we were doing on how men could contribute better to a transformation away from cultures of war and violence towards a culture of peace and non-violence. I just gave them moral support and perhaps some practical advice. 19 November was chosen as an International Men’s Day because it was the birthday of the father of the initiator. Although 19 November is celebrated in many countries, the United Nations has yet to establish such a day.

The broad discrimination of women remains the world’s biggest human rights violation. But rigid and stereotyped gender roles continue to prevent individuals, both women and men, from realizing their full potential and run counter to the principle of participatory democracy. Whilst women’s roles and status have been broadly debated over the last decades, men have been seen as the standard human being – the norm. And men’s roles and positions have been much less discussed and even less questioned.

One of the first international conferences on male roles and violence was organized by UNESCO in Oslo in 1997, and the UNESCO publication Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence. A Culture of Peace Perspective followed in 2000. Statistics gathered by the researchers showed that men (often young men) were responsible for almost 90% of all physical violence. Participants emphasized, however, that most men are not violent, nor do they have violent inclinations. It was argued that men, in general, through their upbringing, feel entitled to dominant positions in the family, in work and political life, and they react negatively when this entitlement is not fulfilled. Young men may feel marginalized and disempowered when, for example, owing to the globalization process, they do not, in the same way as before, inherit work from their fathers and dominant positions in the family and in society These reactions might lead to domestic violence, violence in schools or in the street, adherence to extremist gangs and sects, or wanting to join institutions which may use force, such as the police and the military. Some groups of men can become risk factors, both to themselves and to society at large.

Many men suffer from the straight jacket that hegemonic, outdated and toxic masculinity models impose on them with their insistence on expectations to be the breadwinner, “over-decisive”, forceful, non-emotional, aggressive etcGiven the existing gender imbalances, it is important that men, who to a large extent remain the power brokers, participate actively in developing equal partnerships and reducing the use of violence and force.

Q4: You have been involved in the International Peace Bureau. These days, there is a war going on right here in Europe, and we wonder why we do not see huge peace demonstrations, and a very active civil society. What has happened?

The International Peace Bureau is the oldest, functioning, international peace organization with member organizations and individual members in more than 70 countries. It was founded in 1891 to coordinate the work of the world’s national peace associations. The IPB has as its long-term goal a world without war. The IPB got the Nobel Peace Prize back in 1910, and 13 of its leaders have gotten the prize in their personal capacity. However, much work remains to be done! 

The IPB has constantly been questioning priorities based on might and force and has for several years called for regular annual reallocations from the military budgets of all states, concretized for example in appeals to countries to reduce their military spending by 10% per year over the 15 years of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development (2016-2030). Today, the world spends more than 2 trillion dollars a year on the military, which is more than 600 yearly, regular United Nations budgets. [See yearly reports of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute/SIPRI]. Eight days of world military expenditure would be enough to provide 12 years of free quality education to all the children of the world! It seems obvious that without a serious reduction in military spending, it will not be possible to implement either the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris agreement on climate. Disarm to Develop, remains an important IPB goal.

Neither the IPB nor other international peace organizations are inactive in the present situation with war also in Europe. The Covid-19 pandemic has, however, to a large extent kept people out of the streets. Discussions, manifestations and networking have been channelled through social media and webinars, as well as through messages and letters to the United Nations and to the warring parties with suggestions for diplomatic solutions to the conflict. The space left for freedom of expression has been seriously limited by the war in Ukraine, which has brought us back to the black and white thinking of George W. Bush when he proclaimed in relation to “the war against terror”: “You are either with us or with the terrorists.” It is not obvious either how to effectively fight fake news and propaganda. We need in any case to stop looking at “the others” as deranged and dangerous enemies. Provocative and humiliating rhetoric is hampering international dialogue. A militaristic narrative is becoming more and more common.

There is a strong polarization dividing who believe that more weapons to Ukraine are necessary from those of us who think that if weapons could create peace, we would have had world peace long ago and that we instead need to put all our energy and competence into searching for peaceful and durable solutions, even placing peace before right. Also, members of peace organizations may feel a dilemma between “patriotism” and pacifism, between being comfortably within mainstream thinking or risking to be labelled quite brutally as running the errands of the “enemy”. Both politicians and the media seem more interested in listening to the war-movement and war-logic than to the peace-movement. Non-violent solutions are hardly worthy of any media coverage. Most unfortunately, both politicians and the media call much more on NATO than on the United Nations. The funding of the peace movement is also at a record low.

The complexity of the conflict and war in Ukraine may also have contributed to a hesitance in involvement from parts of the peace-movement. But the large majority has been clear in demanding a cease-fire and peace negotiations. More and more people are also now taking to the streets for a long term, just and peaceful solution. It takes both courage and stamina to stand up for peace.

Q5: Why do you think women are more into peace movements than men?

The UNESCO Statement on Women’s contribution to a Culture of Peace, underlines the intimate link between gender equality, development and peace: “There can be no lasting peace without development, and no sustainable peace without full equality between women and men”.

Women have always been strong supporters of peace, perhaps because women both give life and are caretakers of life. Women’s initiatives for peace often stem from anger and frustration over political decisions they have not been in a position to influence. Women normally have less stake in the military-industrial complex and earn less from it. Their background and experience, not least their caring functions, may have given them different perspectives, alternative visions and methodological approaches. Women may thereby have distinct contributions to make to the traditionally male-dominated and male-defined political scene. Research shows that women tend to give political priority to education, health, social development and solidarity and that peace agreements last longer when women have been party to the process. Probably the world would be different – more just and peaceful – with better gender balance in governance at different levels. The Covid-19 pandemic has in several ways weakened the situation of girls and women. Fighting these injustices is vital also to world peace. Presently we need, more urgently perhaps than at any time, to develop a true feminist foreign policy and get out of the one-eyed patriarchal power-structures still dominating international politics.

Q6: Finally, what can be done, concretely, to promote peace, and how do you see the evolution of our society given what appear to be grim prospects?

Your question requires a longer answer than space allows, and it is, indeed, not easy to avoid being overwhelmed by the multiple, existential crises facing humanity, such as i) a fast-growing inequality with millions of people on the run from poverty, hunger and war, ii) looming and threatening climate and environmental catastrophes and iii) the threat of nuclear weapons, ever more potent and easier to use. Pessimism and apathy will take us nowhere, and we cannot allow the destruction of humanity and our beautiful planet. There is no alternative to involvement and to being solution-oriented.

One meaningful step, on an individual level, could be to engage with and support a peace organization, participate actively in meetings and webinars, read enlightening books and seek knowledge beyond political posturing, propaganda and mainstream information channels.

It is important both to try to have a holistic approach to the challenges confronting us and a long term perspective. Without a vision of what kind of society we would like to have in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, it is difficult to find the right strategies. It is also important to discuss what our own contribution to world peace should be.

It seems obvious that we cannot continue to misuse the world’s resources, both financial and intellectual, for military purposes Additionally, this excessive military spending cannot provide the security we want. The military actually makes us less safe, both economically and environmentally, by taking so much of the resources that are needed for other purposes and by the enormous greenhouse gas emissions, the radiation and pollution it creates. The military must not be allowed to continue to be an exception to international climate agreements and continue to make very heavy boot prints on the soil, the water, the air and even the atmosphere. Existing military forces should instead be converted and retrained to fight the global climate and environmental crisis, which warrants urgent remedial actions.

War is obsolete and should never be an option. It kills and maims, destroys infrastructure and livelihoods and sends millions on the run. With the blatant failures of militarized “security” in meeting any of the major challenges, and actually making them worse, the needs of people, not least for food and health security, for human security and common security, must be prioritized. The common security concept was outlined for example by the Palme Commission 40 years back and reiterated in the excellent report Common Security 2022: For our Shared Future by the IPB, the ITUC and the International Olof Palme Centre. It insists on the importance of realizing that nobody is safe unless everybody is safe, an experience also brought home in the context of the covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of the old patriarchal model of economic growth, militarism, competition and confrontation, with warfare over welfare, which risks ultimately leading to apocalypse, we acutely need to restart a disarmament process, including eliminating nuclear arms, and instead build trust and international solidarity. The United Nations/UNESCO culture of peace concept was groundbreaking and a blueprint for an alternative security policy and should be relaunched.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.

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