Rumiko Seya: The path of a professional peace builder

by Keisuke Yoshihara, Staff Writer

Rumiko Seya, 32, secretary general of the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention, travels to hot spots throughout the world, including Africa, to engage in reconstruction and peace-building. This professional peace builder was troubled by something that was once said to her by a man she disarmed in Afghanistan: "You are Japanese, so I'll give you my weapon. If you were an American, I would shoot you. They are bombing our country and destroying it." She couldn’t bring herself to tell him that the Japanese government was indirectly supporting the bombing of Afghanistan.

On August 29 Ms. Seya gave a speech at the Japan Newspaper Museum in Yokohama where an exhibition on “Hiroshima Koku” (“Peace Seeds”), a peace newspaper produced by Japanese teens in Hiroshima, is underway. Ms. Seya is gradually forging a path to peace while confronting an endless series of dilemmas.

Ms. Seya is busy traveling around the world. She returned to Japan from Somalia one week before her speech. After participating in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues in Niigata she went directly to the lecture hall in Yokohama.

Peace-building means preventing a recurrence of strife in societies in which conflicts have occurred and rebuilding the damaged society. Ms. Seya works to improve security, primarily by disarming and demobilizing soldiers and reintegrating them into society by giving them new jobs in a process referred to as “DDR.”

It’s often said that this job entails a tremendous amount of work, and there’s no end to it. But when you think about it, most jobs have no end to them.

I don’t think every conflict that involves the use of force is wrong. For example, in Kenya there are sometimes battles between tribes using bows and arrows. If they agree to have these battles, then that can be regarded as one aspect of their culture. But if they want to quit and feel they could resolve their conflicts in a more peaceful manner, something should be done.

Ms. Seya became interested in peace-building when she was a senior in high school. It all started with a photograph in the newspaper. It showed a refugee boy trying to rouse his sick mother during the civil war that broke out in Rwanda in 1994.

Until then the civil war seemed worlds away. It was just when I was beginning to consider what my life’s work should be and what path I wanted to take. I didn’t think I could change anything by myself, but when I saw that photo I thought perhaps I was in a position to do something.

At the time, very few universities in Japan offered courses on peace or conflict. I figured if there was a need but no one to help, then I could do something.

Ms. Seya is currently secretary general of the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention, a non-governmental organization. Because of her experience, she has also been named an adviser to the United Nations on policy-making and other matters.

When I worked for the U.N., I tried to get out in the field as much as possible. Even so I felt cut off from the field because the U.N. contracts a lot of its field work out to NGOs. Now I can get involved in grassroots efforts with our NGO and work on creating an overall framework in my job with the U.N.

What I try to do in areas of conflict is increase the number of choices people have in order to live. Let’s say a cease-fire agreement is reached or there is government intervention someplace where many people don’t even know if they’ll be alive the next day. If the fighting stops, at least the chance of dying in battle will be eliminated. If food is provided and schools are built, among other support, people will have more options in terms of ways to live.

There are various reasons why conflicts occur. For example, a coup d’état may occur because the government can’t satisfy its citizens or because the military gets out of control. Conflicts of interest between those in power and corporations can also be the cause.

When building peace, you first need to analyze what the root cause of the conflict is, what else has occurred and what is fueling the conflict. For example, in Sudan, where I went in February, the people in the north, who are of Arab descent, have cracked down on the Africans in the south and oppressed them. At one point it was learned there was oil in the south, and the conflict escalated as a result of a fight over rights to the oil. When conflicts are prolonged, new factors come into play.

It’s the same with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Because the conflict has been going on for many years, for young people seeing a friend killed or some other recent experience becomes the reason to fight rather than the root cause. So merely resolving the root cause won’t bring the conflict to an end.

And after the conflict there are many problems to be resolved. People’s homes are destroyed and their land is taken from them. Some people are traumatized. They need ways to get food and employment. In Somalia there are no jobs, so young people choose to become pirates, which is one of the few ways they can make money. The other day I asked a Somali woman what were the most desirable occupations for a prospective mate and she said U.N. workers and pirates. So, in one sense, being a pirate has a certain cachet. If no alternatives are created there will continue to be pirates.

If a peace agreement is signed, the soldiers’ weapons are collected. But there are endless difficulties, such as how to take weapons from people who say they need them for self-defense and finding jobs for people who have never worked.

In most cases reintegration begins with people returning to the villages they were originally from. But the victims see those who killed their families returning to the village and getting food and job training. Naturally, they feel that the world has become a place in which bad people are rewarded. The biggest problem in disarmament is how to strike a balance between the victims and the assailants.

“Peace-building” may sound good, but in the field there are always problems, and some things are achieved at the cost of people’s suffering.

Japan's role
Our mission is to increase assistance that can be provided even in Japan. The most important thing is to first get people interested and then to get them involved.

Until I worked in Afghanistan I wasn’t particularly interested in how Japan should become involved. I just thought I should take care of my immediate tasks. But in Afghanistan, American U.N. workers who were working very hard were bothered by their country’s image. In my case as well, I can’t get away from the fact that I’m Japanese, and I came to believe that it was irresponsible to carry out my activities without taking that into consideration. I want to look at issues such as what changes will occur as a result of the change in administration, what direction Japan should take and what role it should play in the world.

The good thing about Japan is that it is admired by people in war-torn areas for its incredible recovery after the war. It is also appreciated because it doesn’t try to push values such as democratization or women’s rights on other countries.

On the other hand, very few Japanese are active in the field I’m in. More people are getting involved in providing aid for victims, but almost no one is involved in areas like security. So I really want people to learn more about peace-building. If you have any suggestions how to go about that, please let me know.

Rumiko Seya
Born in Gunma Prefecture, she received a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution from the University of Bradford in England. Ms. Seya has engaged in reconstruction assistance and peace-building around the world including as an NGO employee in Rwanda, as a UN volunteer in Sierra Leone, as Special Assistant to the ambassador at the Japanese embassy in Afghanistan and as a U.N. employee in Côte d’Ivoire. She assumed her current post in April 2007. From April through July 2008, she wrote a series for the “Peace Classroom” feature in Peace Seeds, published by the Chugoku Shimbun.

(Originally published Sept. 7, 2009)

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