The Role of Universities in Peacebuilding

In this article, Enver Djuliman, Head of Department for Education in Human Rights in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, explores the role of Universities in the peace building processes in the Western Balkan countries. Based on the experiences from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee`s project Lets Build Bridges, not Walls – Roles of Universities in Peace Building in Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Djuliman introduces the present situation regarding Higher Education in these countries and describe efforts to inspire the universities to re-define their role in peace building. Finally, a future outlook will be presented.

During the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, many universities justified politics, ideologies or decisions that led to an escalation of the conflict (for instance – studies that justify the breakup of the former state, often justifying violence and glorifying those committing violence).

How does the situation look like today, almost 20 years after the outbreak of the war?


Present situation

Based on a range of sources, studies, and experiences, including my own, the following picture emerges:

  • Higher education institutions have to a great extent maintained the negative past practices, including the communist approach to the organization of education, fear, corruption, lack of liquidity of the institutions, forgery of professorial diplomas (academic titles are granted based on ideology and not academic achievements) as well as limited academic freedoms
  • There is hardly any cooperation between higher education institutions across the ethnic borders. Unless requested by the donors – but even in that case the cooperation is very slow. Presently the cooperation tends to be established only with the institutions from the “suitable” states.
  • Higher education institutions are “cleansed” of representatives of other nations. This practice may be considered academic racism

Furthermore, higher education is generally:

Politicized – Political influence on all those who shape the educational process. (Organizations, foundations, student clubs etc). This also results from the practice of hiring active politicians as lecturers at universities and vice versa.

Ideologized – Education has become the most powerful weapon in the hands of national ideologies.

Ethnicized -Serves the purposes of constructing the national identity/national being, as well as group and nation self-victimising (which may ultimately lead to militarization).

Ethno – nationalist approach to education – Serves only the interests of its own ethnic group. It restores national sentiments and pride, while the curriculum is ethnicised in order to construct national history, language, tradition and religion. Construction of national identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the most apparent in the phenomenon of ethnically segregated primary, secondary and university education. Ethno-political parties have created the so called community of national subjects, ensuring privileged status of their respective ethno-political narrative.

Undeniably, there is no willingness to transform the social convictions that lead to the conflicts (to transform our convictions about ourselves and the others, the need to redefine our goals, into the convictions that will lead to peace), as there is no willingness to adopt a new system of values based on human rights and acceptance of the others and diversity. Such education does not contribute to development of transitional or transformational society.

An aggravating circumstance is certainly the fact that the CEFTA agreement rendered the education a market commodity. Sadly, as the educational institutions capitulated to politics and capital, the knowledge and skills necessary for the education of active citizens and social advocacy have been removed from academic circles.

Cooperation between educational institutions and civil society is almost absolutely absent. Despite the fact that civil society has valuable practical experience and skills, the higher education institutions tend to refuse to cooperate with them on the grounds of lacking academic background.

The results of a survey conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) about peace work indicate the consequences of the situation outlined above:

“In BiH, only 13 % of young people claim they had a chance to learn about peace and human rights at the universities. Only 30% of young people believe what their teachers and professors say about war past and conflicts in BiH. 31% of young people think they should engage actively in peace activities while 54% believe they cannot make any particular changes. 34% of young people support ongoing peace initiatives of NGOs but they think their work should be adapted to their expectations and visions. 64% of young people think that current and future organizers of peace activities should consult and involve young people in their programs and projects. 36% of young people believe that education on peace and peace activism must be introduced in education system.


How to redefine the universities’ role in the peacebuilding?

On 20. March 2014 the Norwegian Helsinki Committee organized a Regional Conference in Sarajevo to discuss how universities may take on a more important role in peacebuilding as well as the topic of interplay between universities, civil society and local communities in the context of local development.

Around 90 university professors, students, representatives of authorities and representatives of civil society from Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina attended the conference. The conference was moderated by Mr. Bjorn Engesland, the Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Assistant Prof. Amela Lukač-Zoranić, Rector for Academic Affairs of the International University of Novi Pazar and academic project coordinator and myself from Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

At the end of the conference, the participants adopted the Sarajevo Declaration on the Role of Higher Education and Civil Society in Education for Peace.


The Declaration recommends universities to:

  • Deal with the past legacy and their own role in the preparation of wars and the determining the course of war (where this was the case).
  • Accept to be a part of the process of rebuilding of relations and trust in the region.
  • Promote trans-border cooperation in education
  • Determine Education for Peace and Civic Mission as the mainstay of the academic profession and to undertake actions needed to integrate it into academic work. The Civic Mission at University Concept articulates the set of values and principles to direct core activities of a university as well as various advocacy activities of university teachers and students in a community, towards educating socially responsible and active citizens, civil society development and democracy, and even improving the quality of life in the community.
  • Base education on values as Human Rights, Multicultural understanding and Peacebuilding, and promote social equality and cohesion. It should be aimed at de-collectivization and re- humanization of “the others” and it should affirm the value of”the others”.
  • Education for peace and its civic mission should not be subordinated to a market oriented paradigm of higher education.
  • Provide education and knowledge that is de-politicised, de-ideologised, and de-ethnicised, and promote the culture of reflection and engagement of both teachers and students at their respective universities.
  • Work on introducing new thematic fields, thematic modules, and lectures and units (within the individual modules) that enhance the Culture of Peace, Human Rights and Intercultural Understanding, Transitional Justice and Reconciliation. The basic educational topics should not only serve to enhance the general knowledge of the participants, they should also foster their readiness to engage, individually or collectively, in the reconstruction of their societies while building mutual understanding and trust.


The declaration calls for reflection on a number of aspects:

The right to Justice – The attainment of justice, which is the foundation of human rights, forms the basis of the process which allows the society to deal with its “wrong” past. But what is justice and what kind of justice is “right”? The justice handed out in the courts? Retributive justice? Restorative justice? Healing justice? In conflict areas, the term “rights” often acquires different meanings, and tends to be connected to various goals; thus it may lead to different ideas of justice. How applicable is the idea of justice as promoted by human rights and other instruments of democracy in such contexts?

The right to freedom of expression – Instead of the traditional approach which is focused on the right of distribution of information and access to information, I would like to stress the importance of the right to truth about the past. What does it mean? What is the aim of seeking the truth, who is responsible to seek it, admit it, accept it or promote it? Is there a right to remembrance, as claimed by victims and what does it mean? Who will decide what will be the part of collective memory, and what interests it will serve?

The right to education – What does this right mean in the conflict areas? Some non-governmental organizations also use the terms righteous or just education. What does it mean? Who defines the righteous or just education? And how to organize history teaching in post-conflict and/or divided societies?

What do international human rights standards say about these issues? Could they serve as valid guidelines for solving long-lasting conflicts in the region? What is the link between human rights education and transitional justice?

Some recommendations clearly emerge:

  • Identify the knowledge, attitudes and skills of university teachers who are willing and motivated to implement education for peace and the civic mission of higher education institutions.
  • Eradicate all forms of discrimination in higher education and create conditions of equal opportunity in education, in compliance with international documents.
  • Practice humanistic approach to education where education of responsible citizens, aware of their rights and obligations within society in which they live, serves as a tool that creates “a whole, complete person”, and incorporates social and emotional growth of all the participants in the learning process.
  • Strengthen participatory teaching where learning relies upon communication and participation rather than one-way transmission of data.
  • Cooperate with Civil Society to build social capital based upon trust, cooperation, networking, voluntarism and the participation of students and their teachers in social processes.
  • Set and implement programs that enhance civic engagement and social responsibility.
  • Build institutional frameworks to support students, teachers, and non-governmental sector to encourage, recognize and value good examples of cooperation between civil society and higher education institutions.
  • Build partnership between higher education institutions and non-governmental sector, so as to through networking contribute to the development of individuals, groups, and communities, based on exchange of know-how and experiences.
  • Establish cooperation with secondary and primary schools so as to utilize competencies existing in this field and ensure their application at the grass root levels in education.


Our future plans

As a result of the project an informal network of universities in different countries has been created.This networks aims to establish a study programme in intercultural understanding and human rights, to increase student and teacher exchange, and to give civil society organizations the opportunity to contribute with their expertise.

But this cooperation is still fragile and needs to be formalized and strengthened. The Sarajevo Declaration will serve as the valuable working framework for the network and its activities.