Students pitch peace to clashing countries

Posted on Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Eighteen well-dressed students surround a man in a suit and tie. Everyone is smiling.

Fourth-year conflict studies class with the First Secretary of the Embassy of Azerbaijan Arif Mammadov (centre).

By Brandon Gillet

A uOttawa professor is taking experiential learning to new heights by having students in his fourth-year course present peace proposals to local embassy officials.

In this course designed by Professor Christoph Zuercher, and reserved for students enrolled in the Conflict Studies and Human Rights program, students draft peace proposals aimed at resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, a long-standing dispute arising from territorial claims in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in the southern Caucasus. The area has been considered at war since the late 1980s, although it has been a source of tension since the 1917 dissolution of Imperial Russia.

A man in suit jacket and open neck shirt.

Professor Christoph Zuercher

Professor Zuercher explains his thinking behind the class project, which truly defies the conventional:

“It’s one thing to talk about conflict in a theoretical way, which is very valuable but often too broad in that it applies to many conflicts. I wanted to do the opposite, to look at one specific conflict, because I wanted the students to understand all the layers and look at every aspect of it. Then, we made a link to the real world by inviting two representatives, which not only added an understanding of how the politics works, but also showed us the emotions. This is a war, and when parties talk about it, there is a lot of emotion and we have to understand that.”

Split into three groups, the students spent the semester delving into the complexities of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. While reason and dialogue play a key role in conflict resolution, students also saw the extent to which personal and emotional factors, as well as internal and external politics, can influence the course of events.

The approaches to peace outlined in the student proposals focused on joint decision-making, confidence-building, reconciliation and an eventual independence referendum for the people of the region.

The Gazette asked representatives of the three teams for their perspectives on the experience.

Forest Poff-Smith appreciated the course’s experiential learning component, and relished the unique opportunity to work with real players in this context.

“The opportunity to work with representatives from Armenia and Azerbaijan was an exciting process. Being able to interact with high-level officials in a collaborative capacity was something of a reward for us after studying in the field of conflict studies and human rights. By digging into this conflict on a more intimate and intense level, we got to see the multiple dimensions that this kind of conflict has, and just how complex seeking peace can be in the real world.”

 “Phase 6, Preparing for a Referendum”

Kaira Bakkestad-Legare

Sarah Black said the course allowed students to really use what they had learned, and feedback from the representatives was valuable in many ways.

“This exercise was really about drawing on all that we have learned, individually and collectively, over the past four years in this program, and having confidence in what we have learned. It helped us better grasp and appreciate the real-world human forces that pull at the academically informed elements of any proposal. Secondly, it gave us a sense of what working in the field after graduation may be like, and what it means to astutely navigate such sensitive topics.”

Kaira Bakkestad-Legare observed that the involvement of real representatives meant that students had to come up with realistic proposals and could not overlook any aspect of the political situation.

“This exercise provided the unique opportunity to shift our coursework from a theoretical framework to a very practical application. In this course, we didn’t have to speculate how the two governments might react, since we were able to actually meet representatives from the embassies. Perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to discuss our proposals with them served as a significant reminder of the very real implications of conflict. This course demonstrated that as we study and explore measures to enhance peace and security, it is always important to keep in mind the impact of conflict on people’s everyday lives.”

Seventeen well-dressed students surround a man in a suit and tie. Everyone is smiling.

The class with the Armenian Ambassador to Canada Armen Yeganian. Photos: Sonia Vani

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