The Future of Peacebuilding: An Interview with Search for Common Ground CEO Shamil Idriss

The Future of Peacebuilding: An Interview with Search for Common Ground CEO Shamil Idriss

. 8 min read

Shamil Idriss is the Chief Executive Officer of Search for Common Ground, an international non-governmental organization that works to end violent conflict and build healthy, safe, and just societies. It is the largest such organization dedicated to peacebuilding, with offices in over 30 countries and a media audience of roughly 50 million. Prior to his current position with Search, Idriss worked with the UN Alliance of Civilizations, first as Deputy Director of the initiative—which attempts to prevent conflict and combat violent extremism by fostering intercultural dialogue, understanding, and cooperation—and later as Senior Advisor, facilitating dialogue between diverse religious and political actors from the Arab region, Europe, and the United States.

As the former Deputy Director of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), what was your role in the UN’s mission to promote peace and prevent violent conflict?

The Alliance of Civilizations was something that Secretary General Kofi Annan initiated. It was as close as you could get to the creativity and flexibility of a non-governmental organization within the UN system. The role of the Alliance of Civilizations was to improve cross-cultural relations, particularly between Western and Muslim majority societies. The Secretary General established a high level group of 20 people: it included Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu and the former president of Iran [Mohammad Khatami]. My role was to manage the staff that supported that group to study what was causing cross-cultural polarization and produce a report with concrete recommendations about what should be done.

Do you think that because the UNAOC more resembled an NGO within the UN, it circumvented the obstacles to efficacy that other UN agencies experienced?

It had both the positives and the negatives. You have this range of motion, but you also know that if you go too far afield from any of the major powers, they can say “hold on a second, let's bring this down for a vote.” Oftentimes the member states don’t want to see what might be considered renegade leadership, while others from the outside might say that this is exactly the kind of leadership that an international body needs—more pushing.

If you look at the first year or so after the report was produced, there were some really interesting things that we were able to initiate. You could get a couple of member states together across cultural and religious dividing lines, agreeing on something valuable and moving that forward together. As time went on, the UNAOC became more susceptible to pressures and politics. You started seeing blocs forming where the European Union countries would all meet together and the Organization of the Islamic Conference countries would meet together. Each bloc would tack to the most conservative of its member states, so over time initiatives became hamstrung by the political willingness of these blocs.

The UN has been criticized in the past for being hamstrung and having a limited range of options, especially when it comes to peacekeeping. It has had some very high profile failures, including in Rwanda, Somalia, and Yugoslavia. UN Peacekeeping claims that in these situations, “there was no peace to keep.” Do you think that the UN has a role in creating peace where there is violent conflict, or only in maintaining peace where it already exists?

So, first you have the distinction between negative peace, which is the absence of violence, and positive peace, which is the presence of the conditions that prevent violence in the first place. Even with the UN’s deficiencies and internal inconsistencies, when you look at the primary purpose for which the UN was established—to prevent another war between the great powers—you see tremendous success. From 1950 until the turn of the century, the numbers of people who have died as a result of violent conflict, and interstate war in particular, have dropped precipitously to the lowest levels in recorded history. There has to be some recognition of the role that state-to-state diplomacy and the UN system had to do with that. It needs to be recognized that the UN wasn't just keeping the peace with force; it was also facilitating cooperation, providing diplomatic auspices, and establishing norms of international engagement.

Over these first two decades of this century, we've seen two forms of violent conflict that the UN, and frankly the whole state-to-state diplomacy apparatus, struggles to deal with. That apparatus is based on state sovereignty. Two forms of violent conflict have really proliferated in the first two decades of the 21st century, and one is collapsing states, such as Rwanda or Syria, sometimes with outside intervention and sometimes with leaders turning on their own people. An entity that was set up to facilitate and embody interstate diplomacy doesn't know what to do when one of those states is teetering. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the inconsistencies with which it is applied come into play there.

The second form of violent conflict is caused by non-state actors. Whether you're talking about cartels that have gone way beyond urban phenomena or identity-based extremist groups like ISIS, they don't have a seat at the UN and they don't play by the rules of that state-to-state system. States struggle to deal with that. The UN reflects the limitations of the power of states to begin with, and states are struggling to deal with these two forms of conflict.

I'm not smart enough to know what the next evolution of the international order will look like, but I'm pretty sure it will have to involve a much more seamless integration of state-to-state diplomacy with citizen peacebuilding. You have to integrate those things because if you have groups of mostly men signing a peace agreement behind closed doors, that doesn't bring the population along with it and it doesn't sustain [peace]. The UN still has a big role to play, but it can no longer deliver sufficiently in a world where non-state actors can be every bit as destabilizing as state armies can be.

Do you think that the UN can adapt to embrace citizen peacebuilding? Or do you think that organizations like Search for Common Ground will have to step in and address the problems that the UN isn't currently equipped to address?

The forces to destabilize societies have democratized. If you've watched the Facebook whistleblower testimony, you understand the clear evidence that a company’s platform can be used by non-state actors and state actors to destabilize entire countries and regions. Similarly, the forces to stabilize and build peace are also democratizing. All of this makes peacebuilding and peacekeeping more possible and more challenging. What we know is that you're going to need to mobilize a much more integrated approach between the public sector, private sector, and civil society to prevent violence and solve problems like the pandemic.

Will the UN be able to adapt? My biggest concern is that we don't have a great track record of generating breakthroughs without full breakdowns. We haven't had a full breakdown, but we're seeing rapidly accumulating crises. The Secretary General said that responding to COVID is a test of the international system, and it's a test we've clearly failed, specifically because we refused to cooperate. Can we do it? Yes. Will we generate the political will to do it, absent a complete breakdown? I'm very much hopeful and a big part of Search for Common Ground’s mission is to accelerate that evolution. But I'm concerned; I'm really concerned.

Can you elaborate on the mission of Search for Common Ground?

We are trying to demonstrate in some of the most consequential conflict contexts, the places where millions of lives are at stake, that you can prevent violence, you can foster cooperative action, you can create the conditions for more safe, healthy, and just societies—if you foster collaborative, cooperative action across societies’ dividing lines.

But while we're trying to do that, there's a piece of me that feels like we’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, because the broader system is teetering. So while we're trying to accumulate successes in these specific conflict contexts, we're also trying to advocate towards the major institutions and powers that have an outsized influence on international conflict: governments, multilateral institutions, and major corporations like Facebook. We’re trying to have an influence on how they impact conflict and peace in the world.

How do you think Search’s particular approach to conflict resolution and peacebuilding sets an example for those other organizations that have a greater influence but aren't using your strategies?

A couple things. First, we will be critiqued because we're willing to work with anyone. People will say you should be principled and refuse to work with the Taliban, or the military regime now in place in Myanmar, or any number of groups. Our perspective is not that there's never a place for adversarial advocacy, but that's not our role. The world is way over-invested in an adversarial approach to driving change. What we find with adversarial approaches to driving change—win-lose approaches—is that the victories that they bring about tend to be ephemeral. They last just long enough for the losing site to organize themselves and come back, or they erode trust within communities and destabilize societies over time.

A major contribution from our approach is that you have to meet people where they are. You have to recognize that nobody is reducible to their most objectionable position or action. You have to recognize that change is always possible. Our position is to uphold the dignity of every single person and stakeholder, which is not the same thing as validating their behaviors. We're impartial but not neutral.

We are always working to build trust across dividing lines, because it's only when you build that trust that you can generate options that go above the win-lose dynamic, options where you might actually be able to create a future that's better for all of us. That kind of approach needs to be much more mainstream.

You mentioned that working with Search can sometimes feel like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but what about working with Search has made you personally hopeful about international peace and what larger multilateral organizations can do?

People think we’re fighting a losing fight. Absolutely not. The highest ranking diplomat on African Affairs in the US credited our team in Burundi with helping to prevent genocide there after the genocide in Rwanda. Secretary Kerry publicly thanked our organization for providing critical breakthrough ideas to the Iran nuclear accord. The language that the Israeli and Jordanian former generals discussed at the secret meetings that we organized and facilitated ended up word for word in the official peace accord between the two countries. If you look at seemingly intractable conflicts—fifty years of conflict in Colombia, the Northern Ireland troubles, South African apartheid—wins do happen.

The other thing that gives me hope is that the vast majority of my colleagues are people who are living in much more severe conflict settings than I am, who are not only maintaining hope, but bringing it into their societies by mobilizing and doing things that folks from the outside think are impossible. My work has me surrounded with people whom I have endless admiration for and who push me to be a better person. That generates hope.

In your 2016 TEDx talk, you mention two convictions: first, that violence is not inevitable, and second, that regular citizens can make a difference in whether our world becomes more just and more peaceful. Do you still hold these convictions? What would your advice be for the students among those regular citizens?

I hold them with even more conviction based on what we're seeing. The increasing power that citizens have in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world and our ability to prevent violence are undeniable. The question is really whether we have to have a full breakdown in the old system before we have a breakthrough, because those breakdowns tend to be pretty cataclysmic in terms of people's lives and livelihoods.

In terms of advice, if you're going to reach across dividing lines, I encourage you to first get clear with yourself about what lines you're willing and not willing to cross. If you decide to be committed to an approach that respects a person even if you reject their point of view, that's an important conviction to get clear on. The second thing is to surround yourself with people who are going to support you in the approach you're taking. Oftentimes in peacebuilding, when you're the person who reaches out across political dividing lines, the biggest hit you’ll take is from your own tribe. It's from people saying, “how dare you meet with them. How dare you try to humanize that person.” So the first two suggestions I have for students are not external things, they’re actually internal: take care of yourself and figure out what your principles are. My first experience in peacebuilding was starting a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group on my college campus. And it was a flaming disaster. So it’s not all going to be successes. But the more you wade into this space, the more you enjoy it. And that’s really rewarding.