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Giving peace a chance

Photo of a young boy in a peace rally

A peaceful revolution took place at the University when the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) hosted the bi-annual International Peace Research Association conference at the beginning of July. Up to 500 delegates attended the four-day event, opened by the “father” of Australian Reconciliation, Patrick Dodson.

Among the program highlights was an address by the founding light of peace research, Norwegian professor Yohan Galtung, who established the Transcend network, which promotes peace through mediation, education and research. Other guests included Lawrence Wittner, author of Confronting the Bomb and Irene Khan, the out-going Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Hosting the conference was a coup (of the gentlest kind) for CPACS, which was established in the Faculty of Arts School of Social and Political Sciences and is perhaps best known for awarding the often contentious Sydney Peace Prize (past winners have included John Pilger, Arundhati Roy and Hanan Ashrawi).

“The conference is the peak body of the discipline, and really at the cutting edge of research in this field,” says CPACS director Jake Lynch. “It was an opportunity for CPACS to be a shop window to the world, with some very prestigious names in attendance.”

The conference theme, Communicating Peace, was a subject especially close to Lynch’s heart. The British former television news producer and reporter joined CPACS in 2007 and teaches a Peace Media course as part of CPACS’ Masters degree (640 students currently enrolled).

Other topics covered include inner peace (the psychology of peace, how we respond to conflict and how people are mobilised for or against violence, racism etc), peace ecology and even peace tourism. A lot of teaching is shared with other departments including History and South East Asian studies; honorary lecturers are brought in for specialist courses including former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski. Not surprisingly, the course is proving increasingly relevant and popular, with enrollments increasing dramatically since the Centre was established in 1998.

“It’s very suitable for people who want to work with NGOs or at the UN or in government departments such as Foreign Affairs,” says Lynch, who shared the conference platform with peace media experts from the Philippines and Sri Lanka to explore ways of deepening and broadening understanding of local conflicts.

He is dismayed at the narrow focus of most conflict reporting in the Australian media. “It is puny and consensus-seeking, compared with the more creative and robust opinions expressed in the UK media,” he says.

“Of course there are individuals who distinguish themselves from the pack – people like Paul McGeough and Hamish McDonald, and occasionally Four Corners and Dateline on SBS – but most of the reporting here is supine and debate is stifled,” says Lynch.

Many CPACS students are activists with personal experience of conflict. Sharing that experience in an academic context creates a valuable teaching resource. “We have a student from Pakistan who has faced down terrorists with AK47s, another who is an Afghan refugee who was held for a time at Curtin Detention Centre, not to mention Donna Mulhearn, who was a high profile human shield in Iraq,” says Lynch, adding that, “peace researchers can’t divorce themselves from peace activists. Many go and work in the field, lobbying and writing reports on issues and hot spots.”

There are currently 800 departments teaching Peace Studies around the world, but CPACS differs in its commitment to enabling students to develop ideas of conflict from the intra-personal to the global, and its emphasis on peace with justice through analysis of the underlying structural causes of conflict, and a commitment to structural change. CPACS also offers long distance learning courses and presents intensive short courses in London (where, surprisingly, no Peace Studies department currently exists).

So if the atmosphere at the University now seems to hum with a kind of energised serenity it may be because here at least, for a while, peace will have broken out.