In her work MARTHA ROSLER repeatedly addresses wars and protest movements. In conversation with peace and conflict researcher Thania Paffenholz we find out the steps peace processes tend to go through and the challenges facing today’s peace efforts.

Ms. Paffenholz, you’ve been doing research into sustainable peace processes for many years how and advise institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union. You are also the director of Inclusive Peace, a thinktank that researches into and supports peace processes worldwide. How would you define peace?
Thania Paffenholz: First of all, there are always different dimensions to peace and also different goals, depending on the stage a country or process is in. That said, I think we should be honest and say that there will never be such a thing as perfect peace. Peace is utopian. It is a state that can never be fully achieved; rather it is a matter of getting as close to peace as you can.

In her oeuvre of the last few decades, artist MARTHA ROSLER has concerned herself with a wide variety of wars and conflicts starting with the Vietnam War via the war in Bosnia through to the war in El Salvador. What features are common to official peace processes? Can you give us an idea of the steps that peace negotiations generally go through?

Thania Paffenholz: This kind of peace process always follows the same procedure: The actors who have weapons are brought together to negotiate a cease-fire. What then became very popular later was a so-called “comprehensive peace agreement.” That had a larger scope than a cease-fire and focused on the issue of how to truly bring lasting peace to a country. And then there is an implementation process, which involves specifying precisely what has to be done. Essentially, almost all the peace processes in the 1990s and 2000s followed that same path. Today we know, however, that reality does not work this way: Where is the peace in Afghanistan? Or in Bosnia? At no time was a cease-fire achieved in Afghanistan using this model and sadly we know only too well where the country now stands under the Taliban. In Bosnia weapons may have fallen silent since the peace treaty but the country remains extremely polarized along ethnic lines.

In most of the countries in which there were peace processes like this there is still a lot of violence. For example, in Latin America we experts speak of a ‘transformation of violence,’ because the military violence during the war has morphed into criminal or domestic violence. Latin America has the highest murder rate in the world, while Mexico has the highest rate of femicides or murders of women.

Martha Rosler, "Untitled 1", from the series "May Day, Mexico, D. F., 1981", 1981, Courtesy: The Artist, Galerie Nagel Draxler Berlin / Köln / München

Rosler became involved in the protest and peace movements at an early stage. On May 1, 1981, for her “May Day” series in Mexico City she photographed a government-influenced peace demonstration by labor unions demanding gender equality and fair wages. A few days later she participated in a civil demonstration, which took place in Washington, D.C., in front of the Pentagon protesting among other things the undeclared wars the United States was waging in Central America. What strategies did civil peace movements increasingly use in the second half of the 20th century?
Thania Paffenholz: There are different types of peace and democracy movements. Martha Rosler primarily documents political movements with many people going out onto the streets. Even today such protest movements attract attention and are given media coverage. For example, in the early 1990s during the Arab Spring, when people initially took to the streets to demonstrate against the price of wheat being too high. Then suddenly the mood flipped and the marches turned into protests against the authoritarian government. We have seen a renaissance of such movements in the last five years, you need only think of Belarus or Myanmar, where the protests were initially led by monks and then received massive support from civil society. In Sudan, too, Umar al-Bashir, Africa’s longest-standing dictator was very impressively ousted by a civil peace movement that mobilized through demonstrations and very spirited civil courage.

One work by Martha Rosler is called “It lingers” and describes war as a perpetual state. Would you say that efforts for peace have been in vain?

Thania Paffenholz: There have been setbacks and that will always be the case. In Sudan, the protest movement was successful for a while, but two years later there was another military coup and the democratic government was overthrown. The same thing happened in Myanmar, and also in Egypt. However, what I would say is that civil protest movements have an incredible amount of power and it’s amazing what they can achieve. What is often difficult is the following question: How can the revolutionary moment be transformed into a lasting democracy? In the case of authoritarian regimes, it is always a matter of how strong the military is. I wrote about this several years ago and called it “perpetual peacebuilding”. What this means is that you shouldn’t regard these seeming setbacks as mistakes. From a historical perspective it is normal for there to be movement forward but also backwards. This can best be described as a “renegotiation of the social and political contract”. Time and again there are renegotiations within the social and political contracts and there will always be new successes and setbacks. When we consider how many governments in Europe have recently also shifted to the right then this is normal to some extent, but it is also very sad and difficult to bear when you are in the middle of it. Especially, when you see countries like Afghanistan, where the setbacks have been massive and women have absolutely no rights whatsoever – despite the West having invested in the country for 20 years.

Martha Rosler, "Invasion" from the series "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, new series", 2008, Fotomontagen, Courtesy: The Artist, Galerie Nagel Draxler Berlin / Köln / München

What challenges do peace processes face today? I am thinking of the reassessment of war and peace that can be observed in Europe even within pacifist circles following the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Thania Paffenholz: The UN Director General recently released a report called “A New Agenda for Peace” in which he admits quite candidly that none of what has been done really works anymore and that the UN no longer has a real role to play in peace processes. That is precisely what we are now seeing in Ukraine: The peace efforts we have seen to date came from Turkey, South Africa, and Brazil. Moreover, five African leaders were in Kyiv and Moscow a month ago. In other words, we suddenly have completely new actors coming into play if only because they are the countries affected. They are no longer getting any natural gas, no wheat, no oil and as a result are forced to intervene and get involved. Completely new constellations arise when states from the global South begin to realize peace initiatives in Europe. In other words, everything is shifting in this regard, and the world of states and international organizations has not yet found an answer to the crisis. What is also important to understand is that the conflict has various dimensions: The one is Russia-Ukraine and at some point, what is needed there is a cease-fire. However, we don’t yet know how to achieve this. Perhaps there will never be a peace settlement, or we might end up with low-key conflict management and something similar to the situation between North and South Korea. The conflict has also shown that after the end of the East-West conflict the interface between East and West has shifted eastwards from Germany. Now Ukraine is the country where the two systems come up against each other. This means that Ukraine is the state that is affected but what we have also seen is that since the end of the East-West conflict NATO and Russia have not managed to sit down at a table and renegotiate with each other. Previously, classic disarmament negotiations were conducted, but at the end of the East-West conflict the West proclaimed its own victory. There is no denying that Russia has transgressed international standards, which is illegitimate under international law. Nevertheless, Russia will definitely be a factor going forward that cannot be ignored whether we like it or not. This is where new negotiations are needed.  

At Inclusive Peace we call this the “reality-based approach” and recommend that we no longer proceed from the utopia of peace but from reality and try to find specific solutions based on that. I find it very sad that a country like Germany, which has established itself as a peace power, says it would like to become the most important military power in Europe. The thing is that until now hardly any attention has been paid to how we might end this war. Instead, leading politicians are saying things like “we’ll support Ukraine until the final victory” and that is naturally completely out of touch with reality. So many lives could be saved if people would simply be more consistent in sticking to the political realities rather than some rules or other that have long since ceased to exist.

In your opinion, what global dynamics will have the largest impact on future peace processes?

Thania Paffenholz: There will be more local solutions in future. You see that, for example, where the war in Sudan is concerned. The neighboring countries discuss how they can contribute to peace. There will be many more regional powers that emerge and establish themselves, and countries from the global South will increasingly gain greater influence. Of course, China is also a very important factor in these developments. The one thing is that we will see many shifts.

The other thing is the growing importance of social media for peace and protest movements as ‘Fridays for Future,’ but also ‘Me too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ have demonstrated. With ‘Me too’ there was an online campaign which made an incredible amount of difference. A lot was accomplished with just one hashtag in some countries because the women’s movements in these countries used this hashtag to insist on amendments to bills before the legislative. Moving forward I think that online movements which use hashtags or operate via Instagram or TikTok will become much more influential and be combined with protest movements that address very specific things and will hopefully become more connected.

Martha Rosler, "The Gray Drape", from the series "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, new series", 2008, Fotomontagen, Courtesy: The Artist, Galerie Nagel Draxler Berlin / Köln / München

In 2016 you yourself teamed up with other acaddemics to publish the remarkable report “MAKING WOMEN COUNT – NOT JUST COUNTING WOMEN: ASSESSING WOMEN’S INCLUSION AND INFLUENCE ON PEACE NEGOTIATIONS” in which you examined the scope of influence women have on peace movements. Martha Rosler also combines a critique of war with a feminist perspective in her oeuvre, as seen, for example in pieces from her “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series.” What is the current status regarding the inclusion of female perspectives in state-led peace processes? Would inclusive peace negotiations be a (partial) premise under which we could permanently approach peace?
Thania Paffenholz: The peace processes show that inclusion has been the big issue in the last ten years. Our study has achieved a great deal and we also work a lot with women’s groups, but we are not concerned with “counting women,” in other words with the number of women who are involved. What we found out in our study is that it’s more about how much influence women have in the process. After all, just being there is not enough. And what we are also increasingly seeing is that it’s not only about the process, but also about the outcomes. Ultimately, in these peace and transition processes what we would like to see is more women in parliament, in the economy, in influential positions. It is not only a matter of whether there are enough women present at the negotiating table, but how society develops afterwards. Unlike the works of Martha Rosler, which were created in the context of the 1960s to the 1980s, today the focus is on a much more holistic view of inclusion, which in the professional world is associated with intersectionality. Where do the women come from, from what social and political classes do they come from, what generations do they represent and so on. At the same time, inclusion today is not only about women but also other gender constructs and groups, for example, young people. Where are young people included in decision-making? The topic has been given a much broader focus.


6 JULY – 24 SEPTEMBER 2023