Q&A: In pursuit of peace with Lucie Edwards

Tasneem Jamal

Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 4 Winter 2015

It would be an understatement to say that Lucie Edwards has worked in some difficult environments. During her 33 years of service with the Department of Foreign Affairs, she served in the Canadian embassies in Tel Aviv (1977-1980) and in South Africa, under apartheid (1986-89). From 1993-1995, she was the Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya (with concurrent accreditation to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Somalia). In 1995, she received the Public Service Award of Excellence for her humanitarian work during the Rwandan genocide. Lucie continued to work tirelessly on issues of peace and development until her retirement from the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2009.

Upon her retirement, Lucie was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of Excellence from the Department of Foreign Affairs. However, rather than taking much deserved time to relax, Lucie chose to pursue a doctoral degree at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, specializing in global science policy. In addition to working on her dissertation and teaching courses at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, Lucie is a board member for several civil society initiatives and the National Chair of Partners in Health Canada. She was also the Ashley Fellow (2011-12) at Trent University and serves on that university’s board of governors. We met at one of Lucie’s favourite Waterloo coffee shops, Café 22.

Branka Marijan: I want to first talk about your latest projects—your dissertation research as well as involvement with Partners in Health. To me these projects signal a shift in focus after some 34 years of diplomacy and many years of involvement in transitional or conflict-affected societies.

Lucie Edwards: I don’t think it’s a shift in focus as much as it is taking a different approach to solving these problems. My hero, Nelson Mandela, used to say that any conflict was a bonfire threatening to go out of control. There is the kindling, the material issues of poverty and development; the kerosene, the cultural, ethnic, and class tensions; and the matches, which are held in the hands of politicians. If you are going to deal with the conflict, you have to deal with all three. These days I try to work on development, to reduce the size of the kindling pile. I enjoyed my career a lot, but I am happy that younger diplomats are dealing with the politicians!

BM: How did you become interested in science diplomacy?

LE: I have always been interested in agriculture, going back to my early student days. I have watched as this sector has been transformed, first by the productivity gains of the Green Revolution, and secondly by our understanding of the environmental issues associated with large-scale plantation agriculture. Some of our greatest advances in development have been in public health: the eradication of smallpox and rinderpest, and the great progress we have made in the fight against polio. But as we saw with the crisis in West Africa over Ebola, all these advances are dependent on national security and an effective public health system.

Tragically, polio is recurring in war-torn Syria. That demonstrates the link between public health and security.

I have got to know, and admire, a lot of scientists working on “science for the poor.” But I have also observed that there is too often a dialogue of the deaf between scientists, who generate the technological breakthroughs, and policymakers, the folks with my kind of training, who have the power to deliver these innovations in the communities where they are needed. I think I can play a useful role in helping these two communities talk together and work together, more effectively. I also think that scientists are the “canaries” in the coal mine, giving us early warning when things are going wrong in a community, in fields like public health and conservation. They need a safe space and resources to do that important work.

BM: How critical is this need for policymakers to have a relationship with scientists and with people who have expertise in different technological fields?

LE: I think it’s hugely critical. Let’s take a concrete example that is close to Project Ploughshares’s work on arms control. One of the key protest movements that was created at the dawn of the nuclear era was the Pugwash Movement. It was set up by senior scientists, many of whom had been involved in the invention of the atom bomb, who were seriously concerned about nuclear proliferation and the environmental impact of nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

At first, the Pugwash scientists wrote letters, and marched, and organized petitions, but soon they realized that they had the essential skills that policymakers badly needed to measure the effects of nuclear testing on people and the environment, and to design a range of nuclear safeguards to control the proliferation of these weapons. Soon scientists became indispensible members of any delegation negotiating nuclear disarmament. The former head of the Pugwash movement is now President Obama’s chief scientific advisor. And the Pugwash Movement has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

We have seen these scientific skills deployed in the negotiation of the Iran nuclear agreement, which turned on all sorts of very technical questions about monitoring compliance. It was the physicists, including the Secretary of Energy of the United States and his Iranian counterpart, both of whom are scientists and nuclear engineers, who were able to do this. Previously, we would have just yelled at each other or stomped out of the room. Now we actually have a mechanism and techniques for how to solve this problem. It takes us from the purely political question “Do I trust you or not?” to a more realistic approach: “trust but verify.” We now have ways that we can do that.

Apart from their technical skills, scientists bring a different approach to problem-solving compared to diplomats and politicians. Bring these two mindsets together and I think we have a chance to generate better quality decision-making. And I don’t think we just need to add scientists to the table. I think we also need poets and ethicists and theologians. We badly need to bring different kinds of skills and approaches to problem-solving to our policymaking. To the extent that we can base our negotiations on evidence-based decision-making, we are likely to generate more durable and more effective outcomes. And that, of course, is as true for determining the health of our water systems at the community level as it is in determining the health of our environment and our planet at the global level.

BM: You seem to be engaged with many organizations involved in a wide array of humanitarian issues. What are your thoughts on your own role?

LE: At this point, I generally focus on promoting the “wellness” of the organizations themselves. Are their internal processes efficient and effective? Can their public partnerships be strengthened? Are they doing effective strategic planning? One of my heroes, Peter Templeton, a development activist in South Africa, makes an important point. Most people working on community development love their jobs, especially when they are working directly with their clients. But not many people enjoy the hard graft of administration and fundraising. However, it is absolutely indispensable. So if you can do that kind of administrative work you liberate other people to do what they love and excel at. So I try to concentrate on helping organizations stay healthy.

BM: You have many years of experience in handling complex emergencies. Many people often feel paralyzed by the scale of the emergency. What are some ways ordinary citizens can contribute to peacebuilding initiatives?

LE: A lot of it may be breaking the problem into bite-size chunks so people can feel that they can own a part of it. Think about the challenge we all face in welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada. A group at Trent University recently committed to taking in a family of eight children, their parents, and an eighty-year-old grandmother. There is a laundry list of things that the sponsors need to take care of, from housing to enrolling the kids in school to finding language teachers. The simplest thing, really, was collecting the money for the family’s travel to Canada.

If you break it up into smaller tasks, people can usually find something small, but important, to do. It could be as straightforward as “I think I have some extra bedding or spare dishes, would that be helpful?” My Scottish granny would say, “Many a mickle makes a muckle”: many small actions result in a very large act. And it is that ability to break down the problem and find ways that people can contribute that is really crucial to success. I have huge admiration for the Mennonite Central Committee, here in Waterloo Region, who are brilliant at doing just that.

BM: In addition to the very practical ways of becoming involved, the next step for many people is to see policy responses and in some cases, policy change. However, few have the knowledge on how to open up a national dialogue on certain issues.

LE: I have been working on the issues associated with Syrian refugees for several years. It is hard to remember how even a few months ago the Syrian issue was off the radar. It was so frustrating trying to help the first few get sponsorships, and there was a sense of despair whether we could ever mobilize private sponsorships.
The people who were working around the Syrian issue reached out to the veterans who had led the support movement for the Vietnamese “boat people” effort many years before. They came together to help mobilize the general community through a new organization called Lifeline Syria. When the issue suddenly exploded in the media, Lifeline Syria had suggestions for very practical ways that Canadians could help.

If you have a cause, you need to prepare for that moment of intervention, when the political system becomes plastic and there are possibilities that did not exist before for significant changes in policy. That can happen during election campaigns or it can happen when suddenly the news breaks in a constructive way. Finally, you never, never, never give up.

BM: How do you keep that momentum on an issue when it is out of the spotlight or when it seems too big to address?

LE: Think about the case of climate change here in Canada over the past 10 years. As a former climate change negotiator, I was often tempted to throw up my hands in despair. Ottawa was doing as little as possible at home to deal with the problem and seemed to be doing their level best to block progress internationally. But while Ottawa was being unhelpful, the provinces really stepped up.

We have a record in terms of British Columbia’s carbon tax, Ontario’s move away from coal-fired gas stations, and the various sustainable cities initiatives that we can all be proud of. Alberta-based companies are active in securing support for alternative energy sources. Various groups found a way, faced with this obstacle in Ottawa, to go around it, over it, and underneath it to get to where we wanted to go. There are always other levers that could be pulled.

BM: If I asked you to do some forecasting, how extensive will the impact of climate change be on global security?

LE: The people who were least involved in causing the problem are the most likely to suffer. Those who are going to be particularly hard hit are in the remaining areas of significant global poverty—sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The people of the Small Island States like the Maldives could completely lose their homes and become climate refugees. In the Bible, there is a haunting message: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more in abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that little he hath.”

It is worth remembering that in the poorest countries climate change is just another issue added to a whole slew of serious problems. Climate change adds and amplifies the difficulties we are already facing in many societies. We will all be affected, regardless of where we live and however we encounter these effects. But the poorest will be the most badly hurt.

BM: So what are some ways we can contribute to addressing climate change?

LE: In Africa, for example, the farmers that I have spoken to on these issues have some important insights. They do not speak of the technical aspects of climate change and they don’t waste their breath complaining about other people. What they say is “we have stopped planting trees.”

And it is true that desertification and the use of wood for fuel is contributing to climate change. They are prepared to take responsibility for their own role and they see that there is something practical they could be doing in terms of replanting trees and protecting water sources. That is a contribution that they are willing to make.
And if people who have very little are prepared to step up and sacrifice, then how can we, who have so much, not step up and do the same? My engineering students, for example, ask, “So what can we do?” And I say that they should invent a better system of air-conditioning.

That’s not the response they expected. Isn’t air conditioning just a luxury? But climate control is essential for the use of computers and technical equipment of all kinds. It is particularly essential for industrial operations in tropical countries, which you need for jobs and prosperity in the South. And with the temperature rising, a really energy-efficient form of air conditioning is essential or life could become unbearable in the tropics.

BM: To take a bit of a different look at the environmental issues and global security, recently there has been some discussion regarding the remnants of war and their impacts on the environment. This is something that is often not discussed, that is, how the impacts of wars leave lasting marks on the lived environment.

LE: One of the most interesting cases that I dealt with was the construction of Canada’s Embassy in Berlin in Leipziger Platz, one of the central squares. The property had been in no man’s land between East and West Berlin and was still a bombed ruin. The challenges were quite different from any other building project we had undertaken.

First, we needed to clear the site of a whole lot of unexploded ordnance. That was the immediate challenge. The more subtle challenge was that this property had been the site of the most famous department store in Berlin, the Wertheim department store, which had belonged to a great German-Jewish family and had been confiscated by the Nazis. This property was infused with the Holocaust as well as the proud history of the Jewish community of Berlin. We had to build thoughtfully and with a sense of history.

We were very lucky to have help with this from Cornelia Oberlander, whose Jewish family had escaped from Germany in the thirties; she is now Canada’s most eminent landscape architect. She was able to advise how to make the building itself reflect its history. I learned from that experience that even in something as straightforward as building construction, you need to explore how you can build for peace. Berlin is not the only place that has unexploded ordnance, emotional as well as shrapnel, built into its foundations.

BM: How sensitive to this living history are we in Canada?

LE: I think we are sensitive to it because of two things. One of them is residential schools. We can see the effects here at home of children’s suffering over several generations. Secondly, so many soldiers have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Afghanistan and earlier peacekeeping missions. This has been the first generation prepared to talk about PTSD.

My father was one of many who had difficult experiences in Europe. In his case, he was involved in liberating the concentration camps at the end of the Second World War. He would not talk about this with his children until late in life. But we knew he had nightmares. With so many people affected, there was a tacit agreement in Canada not to speak about wartime experiences, either as soldiers or as refugees. It may have been the way that everyone kept their collective sanity, but there was a huge price paid in emotional suffering. There is still suffering, but we are willing to talk about it more.

I am always moved by the discussions in my class where students talk about their own experiences, as refugees or children of refugees. This is not something that is in the past, but something very real and current. We are all so lucky to be in Canada; we need to pay it forward by helping the next wave of newcomers to Canada, and by doing what we can to prevent Mandela’s bonfires from becoming giant conflagrations.

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