Séverine Autesserre, the Peacebuilder

Séverine Autesserre is a French-American researcher, professor, and chair of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University. She is renowned for her unique research on peace and war, detailed in her new book The Frontlines of Peace, recently published in French and English. We spoke with this pacifist who specializes in conflict zones, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© Evan Mann

France-Amérique: How did you go from being a student at the Sorbonne to a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States?

Séverine Autesserre: Serendipity! By chance, I took part in a Doctors Without Borders mission in the Congo and I fell in love with the country. I then participated in an exchange program between Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia in New York City. And now I am chair of the political science department at one of the few women’s colleges in the country. Barnard is a place of peace for female students and faculty alike, since gender discrimination in the United States is far from over.

What have you learned from your time in the Congo?

In France, we have elective affinities for certain parts of Africa. I felt particularly at home in this country and among its cultures. But the Congo is also the setting of the longest and deadliest conflict since World War II. At least ten million people have died since the 1960s. Paradoxically, there is little research on this country, except by local academics, who garner almost no attention in the West.

You’ve been described as an activiste de la paix in French. What does this mean?

It is an attempt to translate the expression “peacebuilder.” I try to work as a researcher while also making sure to come down from my ivory tower to stay connected to populations affected by wars – whether in Israel or Palestine, Ukraine, South Sudan, Burundi, Colombia, Cyprus, or Timor-Leste. I want to write to change things and bring us closer to peace.

Of all your experiences in the field, which has left the most lasting impression?

During one of my first trips to the Congo, in 2003, when I was working for Doctors Without Borders, I met a woman who was my age – I call her “Isabelle” in the book. A local militia had attacked her village. They had killed many men, raped many women, and looted everything. When they tried to kidnap Isabelle, her husband stepped in and said: “No, please, don’t take her, take me instead.” So he went to the forest with the militiamen, and Isabelle never saw him again. The rebels didn’t attack Isabelle’s village because of anything related to national or international tensions, such as the war between the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, which was the focus of peace efforts at the time. Instead, it was because they wanted to take the land that the villagers needed to grow food and survive. Isabelle’s story has stayed in my mind all these years because it embodies the awful consequences of local disputes that foreign peacebuilders so often ignore, and the absolute necessity to resolve conflicts from the bottom up as well as from the top down. This was when I first realized that we had to change the way we view and build peace.

© Hervé Pinel/France-Amérique

You are critical of international institutions, particularly those that revolve around the U.N. You criticize them for their cost, ignorance of local cultures, and lack of results.

That’s right. I ironically refer to these institutional players as part of a great enterprise that I call “Peace & Co.” I’m not condemning them all, but I do feel obligated to point out that not one of the major peace processes overseen by this multinational has succeeded. We can’t point to a single success story. Given this record, I would say that these institutions can do better. In particular, they should stop solely consulting the elites of warring countries, and instead listen more closely to the people. Initially, the conflicts dealt with from above by Peace & Co. were not national struggles, but local quarrels over access to land and economic resources. But rather than getting closer to the people on the ground, Peace & Co. tends to assume that highly-paid international specialists know more than local experts.

You seem to like metaphors. You condemn Peace & Co., but you are yourself a citizen of “Peaceland” – the name of your second book, published in 2014 – home to the world’s peace professionals.

Yes, but I am both an insider and an outsider. I work with diplomats and experts, but I spend most of my time with local assemblies and NGOs trying to resolve conflicts at a grassroots level. The contrast between these two worlds is striking.

Does this mean that non-governmental organizations are both more exemplary and more effective?

I would take a more nuanced approach. It all depends on the individuals working for peace, whether they are in major international institutions or in non-governmental organizations. I’m not pitting institutions against NGOs. I believe that, to build peace, we need to combine approaches: intervention from above by working with international experts, but also intervention from below by approaching local groups and charities. In the Congo, I have seen how all conflicts are first and foremost local, whereas international institutions treat war as a whole without taking into account the country’s nuances and cultures.

As it happens, the Congo held presidential, legislative, provincial, and municipal elections last December. Yet you deny that democracy can bring peace to countries in conflict.

Democracy is more than just elections. In countries in conflict, international institutions fetishize elections while ignoring the fact that before they take place, there is neither freedom of expression nor the freedom to campaign. Worse still, elections often exacerbate local conflicts.

In two major conflicts that are currently of great concern, in Ukraine and Gaza, do you feel that your small-scale, local approach to building on-the-ground solidarity is applicable?

Yes, which may surprise some people. The rare experiments focusing on peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis have taken place within local organizations, at the village level. And they’ve had good results. Similarly, the peacebuilders I met in Ukraine also believe that a bottom-up approach to peace is both possible and necessary. Not as a substitute for the top-down approach, but as an indispensable addition.

The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World by Séverine Autesserre, Oxford University Press, 2021.

Interview published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.