At the recent ‘International Peace Summit’ held at Regent’s University London in partnership with the Tutu Foundation UK, Nontombi Tutu, daughter of the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke of a South African proverb that states ‘In times of flood, wise people build bridges and fools build walls.’ She was not referring directly to Donald Trump but he would benefit from thinking carefully about her words.
We live in times which are witnessing a flood of growing problems, turmoil and injustices that threaten to overwhelm us. Here in Europe, thanks largely to the past stability of the European Community, with the exception of the Balkan crisis, we have been fortunate in peacefully working together over the last 60 years. However, this position is becoming increasingly fragile.
In other parts of the world – Syria, the Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Far East, North and Sub Saharan Africa, society is continuing to become more fractured, and other regions are starting to show increasing signs of disruption. We must consider how we can work together more peacefully, particularly given the grave danger emerging around the edges of the European Continent.
The International Peace Summit, which focused on resolving conflicts through mediation, proved to be a unique forum for debate and insight into some of the most pressing issues facing global society today. This ranged from how psychology can be employed to resolve conflicts, through to how breakthroughs in community relations are helping shunt outdated terrorist philosophies into insignificance for younger generations.
The core lesson from all the speakers was that we should concentrate on the prevention of conflict, violence and terrorism, and not simply seek to resolve matters after they have become a problem.
Sir Hugh Orde, former President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: “One of the most interesting programmes I ever saw was in Belgium where a local councilor didn't want more armed police, he wanted more community police. Front line police with a long-term community focus are needed. Sadly we are becoming more reliant on charities for this.”
Peter Sheridan OBE, Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland, former Commander for Londonderry and then Deputy Chief Constable with the Police Services NI, agreed that early intervention was crucial. He added: “Less than 1% of Government spending is on early intervention. I couldn't have got £10,000 to spend on that, but it was no problem for me to get £1.5 million for a murder investigation.
Serving London Metropolitan Police Officer, Sakira Suzia, a recipient of the Commissioners’ Bravery Award for her role during the 2011 London riots, added: “A great problem is to fall prey to stereotypes and treat people inappropriately. It wasn’t just the young looting during the riots. I saw suited-and-booted professionals too. People are opportunists and they thought they could get away with it.”
Of all the event’s discussions on subjects covering the psychology of conflict and mediation between Israel and Palestine and Serbia and Kosovo, it was perhaps Nontombi Tutu’s speech that hit the high note for its message on the need for greater humanity in our lives.
She spoke gracefully on the challenges of growing up black and female in apartheid South Africa, and about her present life in the United States where she says it is easy to see what ‘building walls’ looks like in a time of crisis. The predominant thinking there, she noted, is that the reason for a problem is always somebody else. The attitude has become “if we can just get rid of the culprit, then all of our problems will be solved.”
Nontombi continued: “When we see Palestinian women saying they are proud of their son being a suicide bomber, we answer ‘how can they, they are not like us!?’ My question is ‘what has happened to a mother for that to be her response?’”
If there is a crisis then everybody suffers. There must be a way to find a common cause so that we can all come out of the other side intact. When we say our enemies are so far removed from who we are, there is no room for conversation. We should not turn people into monsters in our minds, although we often seem more comfortable taking this approach.
We have to start finding out how to build bridges in the face of conflict. How do we find common ground with those who we consider to be the ‘enemy?’ It begins with an acceptance of our shared humanity. If ‘they’ are afraid of violence and being separated from those they love, if they laugh and cry - then there is some basic humanity that we can share. This is the first step in the process of building bridges.