Research for the sake of peace

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The world was shaken by 223 violent conflicts in 2015 – in 43 cases these were wars or warlike disputes. Not a single continent remained unscathed. People in the countries of Africa and the Middle East experienced the conflicts with the most serious consequences. According to figures from the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, 50,000 people lost their lives in Syria alone.

What is peace and conflict research all about?

peace research seeks solutions to international conflicts

For millions of people, the numbers for 2015 signify death, suffering, displacement and famine. But how do conflicts flare up within and between societies, and why do some spill over into violence? Why do people join forces and form armed militia groups? And how can conflicts be resolved peacefully? These are the questions which peace and conflict researchers seek to answer.

How is peace defined?

“Peace is the ability to resolve conflicts in a non-violent manner”, says Professor Ulrich Schneckener from Osnabrück University. He wishes to stress that it is of course not about finding ways to rid the world of conflict. “The key question in peace research is how conflicts can be settled non-violently”, explains the political scientist, who also heads the German Foundation for Peace Research in Osnabrück.

Many disciplines conduct research into war and peace

Peace and conflict research in Germany long focused on the East-West conflict and the threat posed in this context by nuclear weapons. Germany itself was situated right in the middle of this conflict. Until the end of the Cold War, issues such as disarmament and arms control were therefore at the top of the agenda. Nowadays, social and political scientists, lawyers, historians and psychologists study conflicts within society such as civil wars, as well as cross-border conflicts. “Arms control and the relevant international conventions are still an important area of research”, emphasises Schneckener, who himself conducts research into terrorism, a form of non-state-based violence.

Centres of conflict research

The leading centres of peace and conflict research in Germany are to be found in Frankfurt am Main, Duisburg and Hamburg. Among those researching and teaching at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at Hamburg University are natural scientists. They are exploring the threat posed by new weapon technologies such as drones and cyber warfare. Together with four other institutions, and under the auspices of Giessen University, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) is setting up a centre abroad for the first time: the German-Colombian Peace Institute (DKFI). In cooperation with several Colombian universities, the “Alliance of Universities for Peace”, they will monitor the peace process that began recently after 50 years of civil war – by conducting research and providing training. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is supporting the DKFI with funding from the German Federal Foreign Office.

Exemplary peace-building in the Pacific

While the peaceful agreement reached between the government and rebels in Colombia attracted a great deal of international attention, other conflicts are being resolved peacefully without the global public hardly noticing at all. This happened in 1998 on the island of Bougainville, which has a population of around 200,000 and belongs to the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea: after ten years of civil war that had flared up over a copper mine, the warring factions agreed on a peace deal and the island became largely autonomous. With funding from the German Foundation for Peace Research, researchers from the University of Duisburg-Essen are analysing this agreement process. Because of its relatively small number of actors, the case is ideally suited to analysing how a peaceful solution was achieved. It is possible that this will allow a successful formula to be worked out for resolving similar conflicts. This could then be usefully applied to peace processes in other regions.

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