Since 2017, nine Iraqi Universities have been engaged in advancing capacities for Peace Education, through developing curricula for their own academic programs, capacity-building, and in the field of research. During this time, the country has been confronted with several crises, including the continued activity of ISIL, social inequality, nation-wide anti-government protests, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding to already difficult circumstances, rebuilding damaged relationships and transforming grievances face-to-face has become temporarily impossible in the fight against the pandemic. During the first months of the pandemic and with the new imperative of social distancing, online formats have had to suffice as an alternative for meaningful in-person exchange.
Whilst the immediate response activities must take precedence in order to ensure that Iraq’s national health system has better capacity to support the increasing number of people being treated for COVID-19 - including the establishment of 180 isolation rooms in 13 healthcare facilities across 12 governorates - questions of how the newly established discipline of Peace Studies in Iraq can continue to flourish, must be explored. Ahead of International Youth Day, we consider how the continued engagement of young Iraqis in the study of peace and Peace Education are critical to the continued sustainable development and future resilience of Iraq.
UNDP Iraq and Iraqi Al-Amal Association started the first phase of a Peace Education project in August 2016, aiming to enable Iraqi universities to have better influence on peace and conflict transformation. In July 2018, the project was joined by the University of Innsbruck, collaborating on the design of a post-graduate Diploma for Peace and Conflict Studies curriculum.
Throughout the four project phases:
- More than 120 faculty members have been trained in Peace and Conflict Studies.
- 45 students are engaged in the Diploma for Peace and Conflict Studies pilot programme at the Universities of Anbar, Baghdad and Mosul.
- 28 researchers have conducted 180 interviews within the framework of a social tension-mapping tool pilot, resulting in a report on peace and conflict monitoring in Iraq.
- 339 young Iraqi activists and students (18-32 years) were equipped with peace and conflict transformation skills. They designed and implemented 172 community-based activities for peace, involving more than 11,000 community members, IDPs and returnees.
In the context of Europe and North America, Peace Studies was founded as a direct academic response to the destruction resulting from two world wars and against an understanding that the mere prevention of war and violence is by far not enough to evoke constructive change. Later its development was further fueled by debates of anti-colonialism, as well as civil wars around the world, which often placed questions of social justice and historic truth into the center of the debate. So, what is the state-of-affairs for Peace Studies in Iraq? Can Peace Studies build a foundation for improved and meaningful dialogue amongst state actors and civil society, that recognizes young Iraqis as central agents of change?
While the interpretation and application of Peace and Conflict Studies across different contexts is characterized by significant differences, there is a common denominator: a focus on the potential of re-exploring relationships that have been scattered, perhaps even broken, against the experience of conflict and to understand their qualities and possibilities. As a result, over decades, academics and practitioners have developed innovative ways to analyze these complex realities and created useful tools for conflict transformation. Many of them share the insight that change does not come rapidly, but that it rather requires the continuous efforts of generations who gradually take up the task of bridging divides.
The new generation of young activists, for whom the capacities of peace and conflict transformation are essential to identify and respond to their community needs, utilize creative approaches such as art, music, and sport, combined with community outreach, to connect with people of different faiths, ages, cultures and habits. They also capitalize on the use of tools like social media for solidarity building and generating a culture of civic engagement. This relative independence and sense of ownership over the peace process, allows them to perform diverse activities and engage with supporters. But there is still room for enhancing these capacities and structures, to improve sustainability and contribute to the resilience of Iraqi communities.
So, while we begin to understand the role of young people (and their educators) as agents of change in the wider context of peace in Iraq, how too can we understand their role in the context of the COVID-19 crisis? While the frontline health workers and medical doctors are critical for the care and recovery of individuals being treated for COVID-19, we must not forget the progress already made in Iraq, in terms of its recovery from decades of violent conflict and war. In fact, in times of crisis when conflict can often escalate, we can see the small ways in which an understanding of peace and conflict transformation may be an important skill – such as within families who are being confronted with growing tensions as their routines are interrupted.
Since the pandemic first reached Iraq in March 2020, we have witnessed young Iraqis – and in particular those who have engaged in Peace and Conflict studies –demonstrate the power of understanding, of inter-ethnic and community solidarity and the lasting hope that is created when we are able to bridge a divide. Both young women and men have shown great enthusiasm and passion to respond to the needs of their communities and advocate for social solidarity to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. To date, we have seen several practical and innovative initiatives aimed at reaching out to vulnerable and marginalized groups. More than 3.3 million Iraqis have benefited from the Iraqi civil society response to the pandemic including UNDP’s support to local volunteer groups to disseminate 4,150 food baskets. Each time a food basket is delivered, the community is reminded that support for one another – especially in times of crisis – is critical for Iraq to prosper.
Iraqi volunteer groups are mainly youth led, conducting activities for humanitarian aid, coexistence, and community awareness raising. These groups are highly flexible and adaptable to the changing contexts and have the ability to take shortcuts to deliver required assistance, assistance that is not easy for governments, the UN or NGOs to provide as quickly.
It would be a mistake to look at Iraq merely through a COVID-19-crisis lens. The country has gone through multiple crises in recent years, some of them are continuous. While the pandemic requires many immediate responses, Peace and Conflict Studies’ key question of how relationships can be rebuilt in a post-war multiple-crisis context needs to be addressed with good attention and priority.
Aala Ali is the Senior Project Officer for Peace Education with UNDP Iraq and Coordinator of the UNDP-funded project "Education for Peace in the Iraqi Higher Education System". Since completing her MA in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University she has spent 15 years working in peace and conflict resolution and was considered one of Public Radio International's ‘Seven women peacemakers who should be on your radar’ in 2015.
Adham Hamed is a peace and conflict researcher at the University of Innsbruck, where he has developed and managed the university's Iraq projects in partnership with the Iraqi Alamal Association and UNDP Iraq.
Alba Losert is a peace and conflict researcher at the University of Innsbruck, where she has conducted research on peace and conflict monitoring in Iraq since 2019.
Muntather Hassan is a Project Manager for Iraqi Al-Amal Association. He is also an MA student at the university of Innsbruck’s Peace, Development, Security and International Conflict Transformation programme.