From the UN to Research/Teaching – unease of researching people

Almost five years has passed since I moved to the University of Tokyo. There is a sense of unease for me to research and teach about human rights, conflicts or international organizations. Let me try bringing it out through some stories of my life.

Some time around the end of June, in a class on international law, an eager student asked me:

‘In the former Yugoslavia’s conflict, Srebrenica got all the attention as genocide, and redress has moved forward. In the case that my relatives were involved in, a few people died and dozens got injured. Their suffering is suffering, but they have not received redress. Professor, can international law and the international community move only by the number of deaths?’

Well, genocide has a definition, and people’s sorrow and suffering are not directly counted in that definition. It is also true that many victims do not get redress. In the job I was in, we could listen to the victims and their families, we could support them, but we could not guarantee redress. For sure.

When Sri Lanka was still in conflict, I was in Killinochchi – the northern part, working in protection. When there was ceasefire, many researchers in conflict resolution/management, reconciliation or peace studies visited the country. My local colleague told me:

‘Conflict resolution and peace studies. They wish to research our lives. We are rats for them. But it is ok, they can come any time. We will be in this conflict even 5 years, 10 years later.’

In Timor-Leste after the conflict, I was in Liquica District, close to the capital city. Many VIPs, researchers and missionaries visited the district. Researchers came to research on the conflict, and on peace. Widows who lost their husbands in the massacre were visited again and again to repeat the same story. One of the woman leader told me:

‘Yesterday morning was an NGO, afternoon was one of the UN agencies, this morning is the police, then a counselor, after that a researcher. Last week I had another researcher, you know. It is difficult to find time to make handcrafts for income.’

When I was working for the UN, close to the community, people were not something that we research from afar, they were not something that we analyze, but they were people whom we lived with. It is not quite ‘helping them’, but it was about spending time with them, building trust, trying to understand them and imparting information that they wished the world to know.

But I felt there were limits, too. Living close to the people in Timor-Leste, imparting immediately useful and influential message to the UN headquarters or the world was difficult. Giving information that Timorese people wanted the world to know, in the words of Timorese, it felt like the message did not reach the world. Even if for the same purpose, I felt that I had to use the world decision-makers’ language, tools and manners. International law is that ‘language’, ‘tool’ and ‘manners’. For me, international law is a tool to protect people. I studied and researched on Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law, as a tool. But there are moments that I feel that these tools do not fit well with those widows in Sri Lanka or in Timor-Leste. Is this a phycological issue because I have faces on the target of research?

Sometimes I cannot digest academic articles about Sri Lanka, Nepal or Timor-Leste, where I stayed and worked. Reconciliation, for example. This community had a smoother reconciliation than that community. Yes, I know that that is a community-level analysis. But I cannot help thinking:

‘But that did not apply to that perpetrator and that victims’ family.’

If a research says that a particular country has a big potential of going back to another conflict, I think about people in that country and cannot help feeling sorry for analyzing people’s lives from far away like someone else’s business.

There is another thing as well. When discussing the work of the UN or international law in a class, sometimes discussion goes to the direction that the UN is completely useless, obsolete and has no use in the contemporary world. Well yes, there are a lot of issues in the UN and in international law. Working in multiple offices and agencies, I know it is true. But then I think about Timor-Leste. If there was no UN, Timor would have not had a chance to have the popular consultation, which eventually led the country to independence. Those whom I worked with in 1999, definitely Timorese but also, really, international staff, were not only doing a job but living it, living the historical moment. That human story. How can I bring that moment vividly to my students? Can I ever do that? Or should I even?

Is this something that everyone who moves from practice to research/education experiences and feels? Or am I failing to have an appropriate distance with the people and institution that I am researching? Maybe I do not want that distance.

This is the thought that is lingering around me for a while, and I start to wonder how others are experiencing the move from practice to the academia.

(Of course I enjoy my current job a lot: especially the independence and flexibility in research, and continuous interaction with fresher minds and seeing them grow. For that, see another writing.)