S1:E4 Building Peace by Peace with Ben Cook

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Summary: War and Peace. Conflict and Resolution. Hostility and Harmony. Join us as Ben Cook discusses his experiences as a mediator and the principles he has learned about building peace in post-genocide Rwanda.

Bio: Ben Cook is an Associate Law Professor at BYU Law and director of the BYU Center forPeace andConflict Resolution. He is a Utah court-qualified mediator, and has developed and delivered workshops on dispute resolution in cities across the United States and in various countries. He is an Arbinger Institute certified facilitator, and co-author of the bookAdvanced Negotiation and Mediation: Concepts, Skills, and Exercises.Professor Cook earned a J.D. from Georgetown University, and master’s degrees in international development and comparative education, as well as a bachelor’s degree in English, magna cum laude, from BYU.


Sam: Welcome back to Human Edge, my name is Sam Clinger and today we are listening to Shad Morris and Ben Cook discuss Ben’s work as a peace and conflict resolution specialist and mediator in Africa. Ben is a law professor and a director for the BYU center for peace and conflict resolution.

Shad: Welcome to IHub. This is Shad Morris. I am here with Ben Cook. Ben Cook and I go way back. We have known each other since 7th grade and have taken slightly different career paths, but similar in many ways. So I am a professor of business in the business school. And Ben Cook is a professor of law at the law school at Brigham Young University. Before this time, Ben has been working in international development and particularly around peace building and conflict resolution and how to help individuals, organizations, governments, overcome some of these major barriers. We are going to talk with him today and learn a little bit about how we can, as students, as global citizens make a bigger impact and some of the stuff they’ve been doing. And so, Ben, before we begin I was wondering if you had any interesting stories you can tell us about yourself. Maybe that are unique and other people don’t know.

Ben: So I do work in East Africa primary, Uganda and Rwanda. And one time I was in Uganda and wanted to see the mount of gorillas. There was a small group of us and a guy from the Netherlands was in our group. We could take pictures but we weren’t supposed to use flash and this guy took a picture and his flash went off and the big silverback gorilla came charging at us and when a gorilla charges apparently you aren’t supposed to run. And we were told that but when a gorilla is running right for you, usually the only thing you can think to do is run. So everybody naturally took off running for our lives through the bushes. The guide was yelling for us not to run and thankfully the gorilla was content to see us just run away. One of the scariest experiences of my life was being chased by a silverback gorilla in the rainforest of Uganda.

Shad: So I can think of another experience you had. Ben was in Uganda. They were out in a reserve park and they were out walking and an elephant started chasing him and his wife. It chased them to a tree and they climbed up the tree when the elephant started pounding on the tree. And this was when he thought his life was going to end. But luckily the elephant got a little bored with the tree and decided to stop. Anything else you want to add?

Ben: Oh yes, I was in Zimbabwe. And I would just want to clarify that not all of my experiences in Africa were being chased by wild animals. Probably says more about our stupidity than anything in those scenarios. It is one of the things I love about Africa…just incredibly beautiful animals and beautiful people. It has been a privilege to work there.

Shad: So Ben is a law professor. He got his law degree at Georgetown University, which is known for its international law program. And has a lot of experience internationally. And one of the things that we are seeing in today’s world is a lot of conflict and division, apprehension across different cultures, between groups, between peoples in different countries. And in many ways a lot of fear. Right? This is a big issue. I think a lot of students today are very interested in building peace and how do we bring people together and solve conflicts that pop up in nations or are across nations. And Ben has devoted a lot of his life to figuring this out and trying to help in this way. Especially if you are a pre-law or a law student there is a lot that you can do. This is not just for students who are interested in international business but students who are interested in international anything. So Ben, if you could tell us a little bit about what you do. And then I’ll ask you about how you got there. Maybe some of the programs you’ve done about building peace in Africa.

Ben: So right now I teach classes in negotiation, conflict resolution, and peace building. And I direct a program where I take university students to Rwanda and Uganda and we learn from Rwanda and Uganda about efforts they’ve made to build peace in their counties. Especially in Rwanda we learn about the genocide post-genocide efforts build peace there. Over the last few years I have worked in Rwanda in the justice center. So I have done a lot of training in mediation. You know mediation you have a neutral 3rd party that is sitting down with two parties in conflict and helping them work that out. There is a real advantage to a court system to have a well-functioning mediation system because some conflicts are better off in courts. But there are a lot of conflicts that can be solved more quickly, easily, and for a lot less money through mediation. One of the real benefits of mediation is it has a real emotion or human benefit to it. So if you go to a court the judge just wants to know what are the facts, what is the law, and how do those two relate. But in mediation we can talk about the facts, the law, and we can also talk about why you are angry. You can work with parties and share that with each other and come to resolution. So I have done training, training judges and lawyers in Rwanda in how to do mediation. I’ve worked with University of Rwanda’s law school that has a mediation clinic, and I‘ve done some training to get that clinic up and running. Mediation in a law school can be really helpful because it’s training law students how to be mediators and they can provide usually free mediation services to people in their community. So it’s really easy access to a justice tool to people all around the world. And so it’s been exciting to come and be a part of that as Rwanda has developed that as well.

Shad: Now you also do this in the US and all over the world. So, why Africa? Why go to Africa and not focus on the US which is where you are from?

Ben: When I met my wife she had been doing work in South Africa and I was interested in international development but I didn’t have a part of the world I had any experience in. So she got me interested in Africa. And initially, before I went to law school, I was doing work in graduate school in international development and education. My thesis research was focused in Uganda in the education sector there. So I had spent a number of years in and out of countries around there- primarily focused on education and development. And ended up deciding I wanted to go to law school. I felt like law would be better fit for me. I wanted to be involved in some way in helping to promote development in different countries in Africa. After law school I was looking at ways at how I might get involved. I was working at Harvard Law School, running international programs, and ended up training as a mediator there. And then in the course of doing that I was working as a mediator I met a man on a jury from Nigeria who was getting a doctorate from Harvard. We both had some interest in mediation and we had this idea that there are a lot of law schools in the US that have mediation clinics but in Africa they just have general services clinics providing legal aid services but it wasn’t very common to have a mediation specific clinic. That was one way we thought we could provide some assistance because of the experience we had at Harvard with mediation. We could do some training and work with law schools in different countries. We started in Nigeria and then had the opportunity to start doing some work in Uganda. So yeah, I think mediation is a tool to resolve conflict being useful for every part of the world. I just had a prior interest in Africa and my colleague had some connections in Nigeria so that’s sort of how we got started.

Shad: Fantastic. So you’ve worked with judges, you’ve worked with lawyers, you’ve worked with law students and helped develop programs in law schools here in the US but also in Africa. What are some of the things you teach about how to build peace. I mean, how do we do this?

Ben: So mediation requires a high level of effective communication. And there is a range of skills that you need to be able to communicate clearly with people who are in conflict. For example, as a mediator, you have to be able to listen really effectively. Part of what you are doing when you are training people on mediation is teaching them what that looks like; how do you listen? What do you do when people are really angry or frustrated? You have to have a certain degree of emotional intelligence as a mediator because you are reading people in these parties. A lot of non-verbal communication. It’s not what people say! It makes it difficult doing this cross-culturally because stuff that might work in the United States, culturally, might not be very fitting in a place like Rwanda. For example, in the US in mediation it is really common to just ask all of the parties present to go by first names. But that’s not something common that you would do in Rwanda. There is a higher degree of formality and people actually get uncomfortable. And in the US we do that because we want people to be more comfortable. But if you insist on first names in Rwanda it will make them feel uncomfortable. It’s the little cultural differences like that, that you need to be really careful of. I’ve found it really helpful to make sure I cultivate strong working relationships with local partners there before we just plow forward with a model that might have worked here but needs to be adapted. You have to be careful in the way you are presenting it and taking into account a lot of the cultural differences.

Shad: This is interesting. I think a lot of the people would be interested to know there was some major conflict in Rwanda not too long ago. How is that country doing now in terms of how they are able to resolve conflict? What are some of the things they are doing that are helping them get beyond this genocide that took place.

Ben: Yeah, I mean Rwanda today is a really beautiful place. It’s hard to believe that the genocide happened in 1994! It was one of the most horrific things you can imagine. And when you go to Rwanda today I think people are really struck by how orderly, and calm, and safe, and the economic development. People there are really friendly and welcoming and they had massive challenges in the immediate aftermath of the genocide to process, you know as far as justice goes because there were so many people involved. And so how do you administer justice when you don’t have functioning courts and lots of lawyers and judges have been killed? They ended up creating a system which was an informal community ‘court’ of sorts. They would appoint a panel of judges that were people from the community and then had elements of truth and reconciliation. So people would come up and present information they have and give people a chance to confess or defend themselves. It was kind of a rough measure, and some people would criticize it and claim that it was lacking in protections or basic protections that you might find in a more formal court system. But it was a massive challenge and I think people look at is as maybe the best possible thing that could hav been created under the circumstances. And they were able to process thousands and thousands of people. And that was happening for years and years after the genocide. It allowed people to start moving forward. And I think they are very careful these days about tribal identity. You know the main conflict was between the Hutus and the Tutsis and Rwanda is trying to create a national identity of Rwandans. So you go there and it is sort of inappropriate or taboo to focus on tribe as a type of identity. And there are lots of amazing local efforts people are making. We work with a man who started a school, Peace International. He lives in a small community and he brings together kids who are both Hutu and Tutsi, in addition to regular educational curriculum, he has an emphasis on peace and teaching kids to live together. That’s one thing I’ve been really impressed about. People’s capacity to forgive, especially in spite of the really horrific things that have happened hoping to rebuild their society. One other interesting thing they do the last Saturday of every month is called Umuganda. All businesses are expected to close for a certain amount of time. And all the people in the community get together and do some type of community building projects, so it could be picking up trash, building drainage systems, building schools, and other ideas to bring people together with a common purpose. Also, making their local communities a nice place to live. And then they do a number of remembrance activities to keep the memory of what happened alive and make sure they never forget in hopes of never repeating mistakes of the past.

Shad: Okay, real quick to sum up! Can you share one, two, or three key takeaways of how to build peace.

Ben: Peace happens at a number of levels. And one of the most important things we can do is find a way to be at peace with ourselves. When war breaks out there is a lack of interpersonal peace at a large scale. In the classes I teach I always start out with how you solve conflict at an interpersonal level between you and me and then eventually get to talking about how you resolve conflict on a larger scale. And there are some differences between those things. But really fundamentally it is really important to start with that foundation. And the key there is to see other people as people. And when we stop seeing people as people and they become objects to us that is the beginning of conflict. And the absence of peace. And once your fundamental mindset, the way you see other people, is one where people matter just like I matter. That can drive behavior. So the ways that I think to speak to you and act toward you end up becoming much more peaceful than if I see you as less than a person, right? And then you build from there!

Shad: Thank you very much! This was Ben Cook we were interviewing. Law professor studying and doing work in peace building and conflict resolution. Thanks!

Ben: Thanks!

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