Pandemic Peacebuilding: A Conversation with Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J.

By: Drew Christiansen

June 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic presents many challenges to global peace, exacerbating inequalities in the United States and inflaming conflict worldwide. At a time when reconciliation efforts are especially needed, peacebuilding and multilateral diplomacy are complicated by social distancing measures and international travel restrictions. The future of the post-coronavirus world order remains uncertain, especially as countries turn inward in response to the pandemic.

This week the Berkley Forum sat down with Senior Fellow Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., to discuss peacebuilding, international security, and nuclear disarmament in the age of COVID-19. Christiansen also reflected on his work with the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (CPN) and considered how the Catholic Church is responding to the pandemic through efforts including the Vatican COVID-19 Commission. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Berkley Forum: What are some of the key challenges in peacebuilding as global society responds to the pandemic? 

Drew Christiansen: The pandemic is providing a very difficult geopolitical environment in which to continue peacebuilding activities.

That is partly because of the restrictions on international travel. Various observers and participants in peace processes who are not local cannot participate. Local people very often need the support of outside groups, particularly from the UN system or from interested governments. 

Secondly, it is now difficult to provide peacekeeping forces in places where they were deployed before the pandemic. They may have been withdrawn, and it is difficult to replace them where they have been withdrawn because of restrictions on movement. I also think the economic contraction has made it difficult to provide the kind of aid that can help stabilize the most tragic situations, like the civil war in Yemen. 

The absence of outside involvement has also meant that a lot of the peace processes have come to a halt or are only sputtering along. In several zones of conflict, for example, various contending groups have not agreed to continue the universal ceasefire that the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for at the beginning of the pandemic, or having agreed, they have failed to adhere to the ceasefire after the first month. So, you see a breakdown of existing peace processes.

The pandemic is also an occasion when the Catholic Church’s resources can be used to good effect because they are frequently local. The Church has people on the ground, credibility in local communities, and humanitarian capacity. But the Church does have limits. It lacks the tools that are sometimes necessary, like experienced police personnel to monitor and enforce ceasefires, to sustain the transition to peace. That is not its role. So, the Church needs outside resources to support peace processes already in place. It also can use financial support to sustain its humanitarian efforts in areas of conflict. 

BF: What is the Catholic Church doing on the ground in terms of peacebuilding during the pandemic? 

DC: The Church has been an actor in many these situations for a long time, for example in the Colombia peace process. Often, the Church is one of the only major institutions that reaches every corner in a country. For example, it plays a major role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it can bring people into the conversation because of its outreach. It also is active in the Philippines, bringing Muslims and Christians together in Mindanao for dialogue.

Local initiatives are supported and amplified by outside involvement. That is what CPN tries to do, to amplify the efforts of the local church. I cannot overemphasize the importance of initiatives by local churches to build and sustain conditions for peace in potential and existing zones of conflict. Solidarity with the worldwide Church is also important. The international Church can provide the institutional support needed to carry out local peacebuilding work, from training and personnel to financial resources. The Church’s moral voice also amplifies the voice of victim populations, like refugees, with other governments and international institutions.

Pope Francis is also very serious about the Church’s role in peacemaking and peacebuilding. I think he wants to encourage everyone—Catholics, people of other religions, and men and women of goodwill—to continue that work despite the difficulties of this time, the pandemic and geopolitical tensions that make it both more difficult and more necessary to bring about reconciliation among neighbors.

I think the breakdown in law and order is also a real concern. One of the reasons the Church is involved in peacebuilding is because people on the ground suffer from lawlessness: terrorist groups, narco-traffickers, repressive governments. For example, the spread of narco-terrorism and so on has led to the suffering of local people in numerous places around the world, particularly in Central America. The Church is interested in relieving that suffering. But to relieve suffering, you need to have a stable peace. 

BF: Could you tell us more about the impact of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission? How is it influencing your work and thinking?

DC: Pope Francis asked a number of groups across the Roman Curia to put together a commission on responding to COVID-19. The work of the team with which I am most familiar comes from the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. It consists of four task forces: economics, ecology, health, and security. The overall idea is to explore the problems of the pandemic, to see what interim measures can be taken, but also what long-term steps we envision in a post-coronavirus world living in solidarity. 

The hope is that the project will lead to concrete action, not just by the Holy See and Pope Francis but also by other elements of the Church: bishops’ conferences, lay groups like the Community of Sant'Egidio and the Focolare Movement, and Catholic universities like Georgetown and Notre Dame.

After the initial release of memos on its work, this past week saw the first major fruits of its efforts with a report on the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si, the pope’s encyclical on the environment, and reports on many of the projects it inspired. Later in the week, the dicastery released a major study unveiling a new model of development as we build the post-pandemic economy. 

The commission has forced me to attend in interdisciplinary and synthetic styles of inquiry—even more than I did before. It has also prompted a number of us faculty and our correspondents abroad to explore solidarity as a response to the multiple crises of the pandemic. We hope to articulate together the vision of a more solidaristic society that values human ties across borders and appreciates the networks in which we collaborate globally for the good of the human family and the planet. It is also a reminder in our social theorizing to always look to the excluded, the marginalized, the poor and afflicted, who are so dear to Pope Francis’ heart, and particularly to the dignity of the “necessary workers” of color, who have done so much to help us all survive the pandemic and minister to its victims.

Finally, with my colleagues in the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, I am looking forward to input on peacebuilding and on nuclear disarmament from the commission’s international team of experts.

BF: You have done a lot work on Catholic approaches to nuclear disarmament. What are the challenges and possibilities of nuclear disarmament during the pandemic? 

DC: Well, I think the first challenge is not letting the pandemic take our eye off the ball of nuclear disarmament. This is a very, very critical time for nuclear disarmament. All of the post-Cold War disarmament architecture is seriously frayed. 

I work on nuclear disarmament with a number of groups. One key involvement is a project on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament, co-sponsored by the Berkley Center, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame. Our upcoming work includes a commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings with the Archbishop of Nagasaki, scheduled online for August 3, 2020. We recently held a January 2020 conference at Georgetown and collaborated with the Holy See on a major Vatican conference on nuclear disarmament in 2017

Dr. Carole Sargent and I edited a volume of talks from the conference, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons. Georgetown University Press will release it later this summer. We are also completing a volume of moral, theological, and pastoral articles responding to Pope Francis’ condemnation of nuclear weapons, to assist Catholics and the wider public in receiving the pope’s teaching. The project also sponsors an annual summer seminar on nuclear disarmament in order to help generate more engagement among students on nuclear issues. Engaging younger generations is key, given the current state of nuclear security. 

The last remaining nuclear arms control agreement—New START, due to expire next February—needs to be preserved. New START keeps caps on the missiles and warheads on both sides; and it establishes mechanisms for monitoring, verification, and crisis communication. It can be easily extended for another five years by the simple signature of both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like many others,  I am trying to communicate to those in authority the importance of weighing in on behalf of the renewal of New START. The Russians are ready to sign. The great delay has been the U.S. desire that China join the process. 

Other groups are focusing a lot on interim measures that would provide a greater sense of security and stability including renewing military contacts, reestablishing threat communications devices, and routinizing military and expert communication.

I am looking to build support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons once it comes into force because I think the long-term hope for nuclear disarmament really is in that treaty. I do not think interim measures are going to work. I think the strategic environment has gotten much too complex to negotiate a new treaty. The framework is there in the prohibition treaty, and the treaty needs to be filled in with specifics that give it some real teeth.

Professional arms controllers dislike the prohibition treaty because it is not a disarmament treaty but rather a humanitarian law treaty, generated out of humanitarian concerns. The sections on disarmament and safeguards are very sketchy. Even under its own terms, the treaty cannot be effective because it does not delineate an organization with international authority to supervise disarmament for nation-states that join the treaty at a later time.

So, I am hoping that we can get some sympathetic, experienced arm controllers to talk with advocates of the ban treaty in order to begin preparing amendments that could strengthen the treaty, allowing it to become effective.

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