How should religion be addressed in attempts to prevent atrocities?

george-wilkes headshot

This guest post is by Dr George Wilkes, founding Director of the Religion and Ethics in the Making of War and Peace Project, and Research Fellow at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh.

In June 2014, the Global Justice Academy supported the launch of a new programme bringing scholars and civilian protection practitioners together to identify the state of the art of atrocity prevention, and the state of the academic literature addressing the impact of religion on civilian protection work.

‘Preventing Atrocity: Reasons to Engage with the Religion and Ethics of the Other’ brought specialists from across the College of Humanities and Social Science together with experts from the ICRC, DfID, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, the European Centre for the Prevention of Mass Atrocities, Human Rights Watch, Islamic Relief, the Bosnian Islamic Community and Finn Church Aid.

Sessions were dedicated to issues arising in atrocity prevention work conducted by actors working through a variety of diplomatic, humanitarian, human rights, military and development paradigms, in Sri Lanka, in Syria, in Nigeria, in Rwanda. In their work, the humanitarian practitioners gathered address religion in very practical contexts, ‘on the ground’ and in seeking support and cooperation. The tension between universal and religious imperatives, so familiar in political discourse and public commentary, is far less central to the practical issues faced by these practitioners than might be expected. From their practice these specialists see that ‘religion’ is not a single force uniting actors across contexts.

It is, however, a recurrent trope involved in situations where international actors seek local purchase for humanitarian operations. In each context, religion is the subject of a complex of intellectual, political and social encounters which can be expected to change over a conflict cycle: religion mobilising conflict parties in its early phases, and entrenching divisions as conflict progresses. For the international community, this is commonly the more intractable where parties perceive their interests conflicting with international intervention.

That these actors seek to bring support for civilians through external intervention significantly colours their experience of the relationship between secular and religious actors. Humanitarian initiatives encounter crippling trust issues associated with religion and with notions of secularity, with political pressures which draw on religious-secular tensions, and associated with the huge inequalities and distances which define relationships between would-be humanitarians and their intended partners and beneficiaries. This trust gap has increasingly placed pressure on humanitarian and human rights bodies to engage with religious discourse, practices and interlocutors. It can be done well, it can be done badly. Practitioners present argued that the reflective practices necessary to match this situation are at the borders of current policy in even the best resourced and most ardent operations, and the new University of Edinburgh sponsored academic-practitioner engagement is deliberately designed to address this situation.

While literature on civilian protection has developed through repeated controversies, the academic literature relating to religion and humanitarian protection work has at present advanced little in the last twenty years. Its starting point continues to provide justification for much of the popular and academic attention to the subject: that religion is an important feature both in the generation of conflict and commission of atrocity and in initiatives to address that conflict, whether it be through prevention, peacebuilding or humanitarian strategies. Religion can be used for ill and for good; because it can be used for ill it must be used for good… The religious, either: as parties to conflict, resist pragmatic solutions or accommodations, or, as partners, have more trust, wider local networks, additional resources and better strategic capacities.

The June workshop involved participants engaged with the religious-secular interface using a less abstract and less dualistic framework, looking for tools that lay practical bridges between potential partners, divided by a range of experiences, commitments, interests and perceptions: providers of trusted early warnings in Central Africa; ‘two-way windows’ providing means to connect local communities in Sri Lanka, or Israel and Palestine, or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Where international actors in this equation come with ready definitions of their relationship to religion, effective local actors may defy the boxes and hierarchies used in international programming intended to factor in ‘religion’. ‘Religious’ is not itself the operative category that explains effective humanitarian support where religion is salient in a conflict, but context makes it so.