Adam Curle, peace scholar: a centenary symposium

Bradford University's pioneering department devoted to peace education and research is honouring its founding professor. The world's conflicts make it a timely event.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 August 2016
airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in Kobani, Syria, 2014. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Airstrike by the US-led coalition in Kobani, Syria, 2014. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The most recent Labour leadership hustings briefly touched on the issue of 'talking to terrorists' and then returned to more domestic issues. But the issue of alternatives to war remains at a time when the horrors of what is happening in Syria, let alone the violence in Iraq and Turkey, have once more brought to the fore the search for more peaceful solutions. In this context the Adam Curle Symposium at Bradford University on 5 – 6 September is all too relevant, especially given Adam’s own commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict. This commitment was rooted in extensive personal experience, including mediation efforts in the Biafra war and the Indo-Pakistan confrontation in 1971.

Adam Curle was the founding professor of peace studies at Bradford University, coming from a chair in education for development at Harvard in 1973 to start what would become Britain’s first full university department devoted to peace education and research. The symposium marks the centenary of his birth, and brings together peace researchers and practitioners from around the world. The keynote speakers are John Paul Lederach, Cynthia Enloe and James Thompson, and leading thinkers and practitioners include Wolfgang Dietrich, Kevin Clements and Irene Santiago. 

The driving force behind the symposium is Jenny Pearce, who has set the scene powerfully:

“We are coming together at a moment of intense suffering from war. I have noted in my own teaching experience in Bradford, that each cohort of students is deeply influenced by the global wars and violences that dominate their youth. In 1973 when Adam Curle was appointed chair, the world was in the midst of the cold war; it was in the wake of the Nigeria civil war, where Adam had been a mediator, and the Vietnam war. It was also the year of the Chilean military coup. When I joined peace studies in 1991, the world was reeling from the 1980s wars in central America – El Salvador, Guatemala, and the United States-backed Contra war in Nicaragua. These were the formative memories of the first cohort I taught. 

“And in the 1990s, while it was the end of the cold war, the Balkans brought new images of war, of the mass rape of women, along with the Rwanda genocide and the so-called ‘new wars’ such as Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sudan. The new millennium has given my current intake of students their main reference point of 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’. Afghanistan and Iraq dominated the headlines, South Sudan erupted again after a peace process, and the situation has continued to be tense in the Ukraine. Protracted war in Colombia and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict have remained permanent ‘backcloths’. And today, an entire generation will be marked and scarred by Syria and the images screened directly from the Aleppo frontline as this symposium gets underway – of babies killed, maimed and traumatised by barrel-bombs and chlorine gas.

“That these atrocities take place while we gather for this symposium, gives our encounter an extraordinary urgency and poignancy. Even more so, because some of the international humanitarian agreements, which many felt had been won forever, have unravelled. The use of chemical weapons for instance, and starving civilians into surrender, and the failure to protect those fleeing warzones. Thousands of refugees have drowned trying to reach the coast of Europe; those who survived find themselves living infra-human lives in camps and reception-centres not fit for purpose. At least the longest civil war in the western hemisphere, Colombia, looks set to reach a negotiated end, and we have dedicated some symposium time to the Colombia peace process.

“Yet while Adam Curle had a lot to say about war, his contribution was much, much broader and in a sense more profound. He asked us to look into ourselves and our relationships with others. Hence, this symposium is not ‘about war’ as such, although our launch event reminds us of that context, linking the symposium in the university to the city of Bradford (via collaboration with the National Media Museum) and involving the Syrian refugees who have sought haven here.

“Rather, the symposium brings into focus Adam’s wider understandings of the conditions for peace, exploring how our relationships after war do or do not change; how art and peace intersect; how peace is ‘made’ or ‘built’; how nonviolence can challenge inequalities, racism and oppression; and whether and how education can contribute to peace. Adam was particularly mindful of the impact on his thinking of women, and our final panel will open up a discussion on whether a feminist theory of knowledge can offer new insights into the theory and practice of peace.”

Thanks to generous support from the Quaker Peace Studies Trust, the cost of the two-day event on 5-6 September is just £10 a head, with some events also on 4 September, especially for peace-studies alumni. There are a few places left. openDemocracy readers are very welcome.

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