To highlight ‘World NGO Day’, the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe organised a webinar titled ‘Challenges Facing NGOs in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations’. The webinar bought together a range of civil-society speakers in conflict zones to share experiences and strengthen their voice in war and conflict zones. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule opened the event highlighting the importance of civil society being able to legitimately engage in nonviolent protest as a way for societies to advance the rights of all people and avoid violent conflict.
IFSW Europe has been a longstanding active member of the INGO Council of Europe current represented by Ruth Allen from the British Association of Social Workers. IFSW European President Ana Radulescu said, “This is a very important forum to ensure that information from civil society can be heard in the broader Council of Europe and shared across the global civil society organisations. IFSW acknowledges Ruth Allen, IFSW Europe representative, and her predecessor, social worker Antonina Dashkina and also the current President of the INGO Council, social worker Anna Rurka. All have worked tirelessly to make sure that the voices of communities are represented.”
President of the INGO Council, Anna Rurka stated: “On the occasion of World NGO Day, we wish to pay tribute to the work of civil society that is focused on Human Rights, Reconciliation and the Rule of Law, in conflict and post-conflict settings. Unresolved conflicts continue to affect certain parts of the European continent, putting at risk the safety, unity and democratic governance of societies and threatening the populations concerned, including NGOs. The Council of Europe has to contend with such situations. In these territories NGOs contribute significantly by documenting all kinds of human rights violations, bringing them to light, caring for victims and assisting them in seeking justice.”
IFSW Secretary-General, Rory Truell was invited to present in the forum an overview on ‘The role of social workers in conflict situations’. His speech notes are below providing reflections on the international principles of social work in conflict situations and examples from Europe, Africa and Latin America.
Speech notes for the Council of Europe Webinar, 26th Feb 2021, by Rory Truell, Secretary-General, IFSW (7 minutes).
The social work role in conflict situations
Greetings from the International Federation of Social Workers.
Social work is a ground-up, community-based profession that has many ancient roots in different societies. It came together, however, as a global profession in the support of refugees and displaced persons following the 1st World War and since then has been sharing information and understandings from the experience and the realities that we work with.
Every day social workers work in conflict situations. Even in countries not in war, social workers act as peacebuilders, for example with violence within a family or a community. The principles learnt in these setting also apply equally well with supporting people in civil war, intercountry conflicts and post-genocide.
These principles, born from global experience, are:
- ‘Recognizing the humanity of all people’,
- ‘Supporting people and communities to recognize that for peace and security to be achieved, the other side must not be demonized but understood in a broader context that they are a part of the answer’,
- to ‘Support peoples to create new visions for their lives that are better than life before the conflict’ – a vision of security for themselves and future generations.
- And that ‘People themselves are instruments of change and that jointly they can affect political processes that don’t work for them’.
Social workers are essentially civil society peacebuilders, pre-conflict, during conflict and post-conflict.
In pre-conflict societies, we can see evidence of the social work role every day. Supporting the development of services to maintain wellbeing in communities, supporting family and community structures, and other organic cultural systems, where people look after one another. Bringing divided parties and communities together to find joint understanding and reconciliation. These ground-up approaches are essential to every society not just in reducing crime and violence but also in breaking down the eye-for-an-eye cycles of violence that can otherwise dominate communities.
During conflicts, social workers take brave and often un-recognized roles as an independent person or group within conflicted societies. They do not follow one political authority or another and remain independent articulating the need for peace for both or all sides. Sometimes this causes the political authorities to react negatively toward social work which often results in social workers working below the radar. But their work is vitally important.
Here are some examples:
In Northern Ireland, social workers were bringing divided communities together from the 1970s in safe spaces away from the parliamentary groups and army. The stories of this work have only been uncovered, well after the 1998 peace agreement, as community members have spoken on how this work maintained their faith for a new reality without war and enabled them to reach out to others to secure peace.
In El Salvador during their horrific civil war, which was marked by both sides abducting children to be used as child soldiers, social workers brought the divided traumatized families and communities together to recognize each other’s common trauma and to develop a new vision. In that instance, the communities from both sides ended up marching on the streets together demanding their political authorities end the conflict.
In Palestine, social workers have courageously articulated a civil society voice that recognizes Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim rights equally and opposes violence as it they only perpetuate more violence and distances chances of reconciling with the people to whom they need to make peace.
Back in Europe, right now, social workers in Ukraine are facilitating communities, that have lost all their normal state services, to establish community-run schools, medical centres, and community support projects to give people a role in building their futures and hope for new lives. In Cyprus social workers have initiated a united Cypriot platform that brings people from the north and south sides together, to build support services for families and communities that have been divided by political processes.
In post-conflict societies, social workers address reconciliation and create contexts of healing trauma. A powerful example from Rwanda following the genocide was the social work proposal of the reintroduction of an ancient tribal peacebuilding system, where a chief would issue a cow to each of the parties in conflict, and forever-on the once-divided families swap the first-born calves. The Rwandan government commenced with this approach which resulted, through the distribution of cows to families in giving everyone equal status, fertilizer for their fields, milk for their nutrition and the joint responsibility to work together through swapping calves.
Each of these examples, and many more, involves social workers supporting civil society to be actors in peacebuilding in pre-conflict, during conflict and post-conflict situations. The three broad elements to this work are: 1, Supporting and facilitating people and their communities to realize their role as actors in change and development. 2, Supporting people to disengage in the cycles of retaliative violence and alternatively act on building new visions for shared and thriving futures. And 3, Recognizing that trauma must be addressed at the community and society level throughout all stages of conflict.
Civil society and social workers along with independent community facilitators are often neglected in broader peace strategies as the focus is more on mediation between the political authorities. But, it is the will of the people who live in prolonged conflict that is the most important. Supporting them to break down the ‘us and them’, assisting them in the transformation to a new society, a better society and an inclusive society for all.
We want to thank the Council of Europe for bringing this panel together and recognizing the need to focus on supporting civil societies role in peace-keeping and peacebuilding. Like others in this forum, IFSW is urging all peace negotiation strategies to incorporate social workers and other civil society leaders into the planning and building of peace strategies and to legitimize their essential roles.