Bernardo Arévalo de León

Previously a senior diplomat, Bernardo joined Interpeace back in 1996. He was asked to participate in the launch of the experimental consensus building project in his home country, Guatemala. This request came after the signature of the Peace Accords and involved the inclusion of stakeholders within the society and the state.

Impressed by the organization’s approach, Bernardo proposed to apply the peacebuilding methodology to a policy dialogue on security sector reform between civil society, the military and the state. Bernardo later became the Director of the Regional Office for Latin America, moving to Geneva in 2005 to become the Director of the Joint Programme Unit for United Nations/Interpeace Initiatives (JPU) – a unique partnership Interpeace has with the UN.

We spoke with Bernardo about his early involvement and his ongoing passion for peacebuilding.

What makes your job as a peacebuilder so important to you?

Participating in peace efforts, empowering, or enabling local groups that work for peace in their society - that is what I really enjoy. When the people I work with have a good day, it’s my good day. We are all moved by the same motive – trying to really understand why countries have experienced violent conflict and how we can help them overcome it – while always understanding that there are no ‘quick fixes.’

I speak as a Guatemalan coming from a torn society that has only recently emerged from political conflict and is still trying to resolve issues of violence. Peacebuilders are people who want to introduce a transformation in their own society. When I see there is potential for me to reach out to enable groups of people aiming for such transformation in their countries, it is really motivating. I enjoy the mentoring, I like working with people, I love helping them in their efforts for peace.

What impressed you when you were first approached in Guatemala?

I believed that Interpeace had a unique approach to peacebuilding. I thought that back then and it still holds true today.

Interpeace is a pioneering institution in terms of developing an understanding of the challenges of peacebuilding and the methods by which the international community can help local societies deal with these issues. They don’t impose from the outside, they believe that every society has capacities for peace that can be strengthened. I felt they really practiced the principle of ‘local ownership.’ As a local Guatemalan working on the consolidation of peace, I always felt supported and empowered.

The idea behind the Interpeace approach is that only a local team can become a catalytic agent that engages different actors and brings all the different stakeholders into a process of dialogue. All the different actors work until they achieve recommendations and begin to implement them. That process of engagement brings all actors together to be stakeholders of the project; they start to take ownership over the project.

How do you recognize when local ownership has been achieved?

At the beginning of the process a project is owned partly by Interpeace and partly by the local team. As the process advances, Interpeace is gradually phased out and local ownership is expanded to other stakeholders in society. An indicator of when this is working is when the local team is willing to make almost all the critical decisions themselves.

Interpeace is there to help and advise, but the local teams are the ones in control. The next stage of local ownership is when decisions are not even taken by the team, but instead by other engaged local stakeholders. It is a gradual process and takes time.

Tell us more about this unusual unit that sits between the UN and Interpeace – the JPU – that you head up?

The JPU was created as a result of an agreement between Interpeace and the United Nations. We are a UN unit that works to support UN operations in the field with the Interpeace peacebuilding approach. We work with different agencies within the UN and our intention is to provide support to ongoing peacebuilding efforts. Today we support the UN in Cyprus, Israel and Liberia and have just completed a training course in Lebanon.

You mentioned local peacebuilders are local catalytic agents – can you tell us more?

Large scale social and political transformations, the kind needed to change the way a society functions, do not happen quickly; social and political transformations are long-term endeavors that require a sustained and strategic effort. Therefore, for us, the critical goal is to identify local capacities – individuals, institutions, social groups – that can be strengthened to play a catalytic role in peacebuilding, initiating transformations that lead to larger transformations that in turn lead to even greater transformations. Our effort is not ‘to do’, but to strengthen those who can ‘do’ it.