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CJP prof Lisa Schirch points way to better relationships, roles, for military, government and civil society

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On the Wikipedia page for “Security Sector Reform,” you’ll read some nice-sounding stuff about helping police and military forces become more accountable to democratically elected governments and to hold human rights in higher regard.

You’ll also see a picture, right at the top, of American and British soldiers teaching their Sierra Leonean counterparts how to use a mortar. It’s a worth-a-thousand-words example of what’s wrong with the predominant approach to security reform around the world, according Lisa Schirch, research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding of Eastern Mennonite University.

“Often, military personnel are taught how to use weapons and how to target ‘enemies’ but they are not taught about civil society, how to protect civilians or basic social skills for interacting with people,” she said. “More and more experts are realizing that more training is needed to help security forces understand how they should be relating to civilians.”

Schirch argues that the institutions of civil society – religious groups, universities, media, community organizations, etc. – are the foundation of stable, peaceful communities. True security sector reform, then, should assist security forces to protect and empower civil society as it builds and sustains peace. The train-and-equip model that prevails now, however, often results in civilians “perceiving the military or police as predators, not as protectors,” she said.

Re-orienting soldiers, police officers, to civil society

Addressing that problem lies at the heart of Schirch’s latest undertaking – a three-year process to develop a curriculum for teaching soldiers and police officers the “soft” skills of relating to civil society. The project, called “Security Sector and Civil Society Engagement for Human Security,” is a partnership between The Alliance for Peacebuilding (where Schirch also serves as director of human security), the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.

As part of the ongoing curriculum development, Schirch and her colleagues are meeting with civil society groups and security forces around the world to gather input, collect case studies, and develop teaching strategies and materials. By 2015, the work will result in the publication of a training handbook and a series of online courses designed to improve the ways that security forces and civil society groups communicate and interact.

Schirch describes the effort as a culmination of the work she’s done over the past decade to help American foreign policy support – rather than counteract– peace, security and democracy in other countries. Among her inspirations for this was a 2005 visit to Iraq to lead a peacebuilding training, during which Iraqis asked her what she was doing to teach her own government and military how to build peace.

Keynote speaker at Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship

During her keynote address at the Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship Conference hosted at EMU Jan. 31 through Feb. 2, 2014, Schirch described how she subsequently began “knocking on doors” in Washington D.C. and at the Pentagon, with no clear idea of what she wanted to do other than to begin talking with military leaders about peacebuilding. (To beat swords into plowshares, she noted, you have to get in touch with the people holding the swords.) As a result, she now receives regular invitations from the military to appear on panels, teach courses, and speak at conferences about peacebuilding and security. This is a reflection, she said, of an enormous hunger in the military to learn more about these issues.

Also during her remarks at the recent conference, Schirch outlined a series of 50-year goals she has for the security curriculum project and ensuing work. Among these is her hope that the military will become an institution focused on peacekeeping, disaster response and protection of civilians, rather than destruction of enemies, and that all soldiers will be trained peacebuilders whose primary role is to protect civilians. She also hopes that nonlethal weapons will be used during violent crises to prevent further violence, and that perpetrators of that violence will be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court and other legal institutions.

Schirch points to a number of examples where better relationships between civil society groups and the military have already improved security and built peace around the world. In the Philippines, she said, classes at the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute – founded by graduates of EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) – have taught conflict management and peacebuilding to soldiers. These soldiers’ new skills and relationships to civil society groups, as resulted from the classes, have allowed the military to “de-escalate very tense situations with armed groups,” Schirch said.

New book: Conflict Assessment and Peacebuilding Planning

Civil society leaders, with the support of security forces, have also stopped post-election violence in both Ghana and Kenya by acting on previously established plans for addressing conflict, she said.

This summer, Schirch will be teaching a course at SPI based on her latest book, Conflict Assessment and Peacebuilding Planning. The book, listed atop the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory reading list for 2014, concludes that effective peacebuilding requires coordinated planning between the military, government and civil society groups. The curriculum project Schirch is now developing will include lessons on conflict assessment and methods described in the book.

“Instead of just demonizing the military, we need to engage them as human beings and provide training so they have tools other than guns to build peace,” Schirch said when speaking to the audience of young peacebuilders at the recent EMU conference. “We have a lot of work to do, so it’s good that we have a lot of good people working on this.”

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