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Last Updated: 03/18/2013
Achieving the mission: A conversation with UPEACE Vice Rector Amr Abdalla
Lawal Tsalha

Lawal Tsalha asks UPEACE Vice Rector and professor Amr Abdalla about his own life and work, and how it fits within the story of the University for Peace.

Dr Amr Abdalla in his office at UPEACESir, let us start with your brief biography.

My name is Amr Abdalla, I am from Egypt. I studied Law in Egypt, and started working as a Prosecuting Attorney from 1979, until 1986. And then I went to the United States. I went into the peace and conflict studies, received a master’s degree in sociology of and conflict studies and then a doctoral degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University in the Washington DC area. I worked in the George Mason University at different levels since 1989, and then left as a senior fellow from a programme called Peace Operation Policies Programme, where I was a professor and a senior fellow. From there I was introduced to the UPEACE in 2003, and since then I have been working at UPEACE at different capacities, I came as the visiting professor for one year, and then I joined full time as a dean for academic programmes, and Vice Rector for academic affairs, and then Vice Rector for the past 4 years.

Please could you briefly tell us the beginning of UPEACE?

UPEACE started as a treaty organization by the United Nations General Assembly. And it was on the request of the Costa Rican government led at that time by late President Rodrigo Carazo, around 1979. President Carazo went to the United Nations, demanding that the United Nations allow Costa Rica to establish a university for peace in response to the violence that was happening around his country at that period of time, in Central America.

And he succeeded in getting the UN General Assembly to approve the establishment of the University for Peace in Costa Rica, in 1980, with a lot of autonomy and independence from the UN in order to ensure academic independence and integrity. The university was established with a commitment from the Costa Rican government to support the university but not to ask the UN for any kind of support, financially. The government of Costa Rica had provided support and the community as well, and one of the families generously provided the land we have here. And the university started with some activities from 1980; sometimes there was enough funding and support for the establishment of the master’s degree programmes or even a PhD programme, but there were also bad times financially and administratively, the university has to close down some of its activities and programmes, until the year 2000 when things were really bad and there was hardly anything being conducted here.

And that was when the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Anan came. He decided to start what he called the re-vitalization plan. The re-vitalization plan of the year 2000 started UPEACE on a whole new track, being more international in its focus rather than particularly focused on the Latin side, using English as the language of instruction rather than Spanish. And the leaders of the university during that transition started to look at establishing master’s degree programmes at different topics related to peace; the first programme started in 2001-2002 was in the area of natural resources and sustainable development in collaboration with the American University in Washington DC. There were only three students that came to that programme, but that was the beginning that we needed. From that point on, the university started to add one or two new master’s degrees every year, and in the last 7-8 years we added ten different master’s degree programmes in the areas related to peace conflict studies; such as Peace Education, Gender, Media, Human Right, and so on, plus one online master’s degree programme. And we have many students, numbering around 200 on campus every year, plus many students that are taking our courses online or in different countries where we have regional offices and sub-centres, offering UPEACE’s degrees. We have several joint and dual degrees with different universities in the world such as Hankuk University for foreign studies in Korea, University of Addis, University of Monoco, University of Innsbruck, and the list continues to grow.

Going by the UN treaty that established UPEACE, can we say that UPEACE has achieved its mission?

The UPEACE mission is actually never ending, because the mission of UPEACE is to reach out to humanity with the knowledge about peace and conflict resolution. And that knowledge, and that to reach to humanity, is something that you will continuously have to do. So I would say that we have been successful in making sure that our mission is being achieved at a certain scale, given our limited resources. We are successful in getting our name to be known worldwide. We are successful in getting more universities and organizations to collaborate with UPEACE. So, I will say that yes we are “achieving”, because I think you can never say that UPEACE’s mission will be “achieved”, as in the past tense – it will never be. It will always be in the present continuous tense of “achieving”. So I will say that yes, we are achieving our mission.

Your position as VR requires frequent travel outside of Costa Rica. Can you tell us what impact this has on UPEACE and its community?

I travel outside of Costa Rica for different reasons. Sometimes I travel wearing my hat as an administrator. In this case, sometimes, I am requested to meet with partners or to sign new agreements – such as, I am going to Japan to do something like this, or going to Korea to sign a new agreement – or sometimes I am invited to speak about UPEACE in conferences. So in this capacity, I am spreading the knowledge about UPEACE, spreading awareness about the existence of UPEACE, and opening new doors. That would be the impact, when I wear the administrator cap, [of these travels] on UPEACE. And sometimes I wear the hat of being a teacher or a trainer, and I am asked to go and do courses or teach, and I think I do a good job in that regard, and usually this kind of teaching or training is for pay, and this money comes back to UPEACE, so there is monetary benefit to UPEACE, plus the knowledge that we are expected to share with humanity is being achieved by going and doing such courses and trainings. And then also, sometimes I go to conduct research, whether for publication or for field work in areas related to peace and conflict, and that too fulfills UPEACE’s mission, and I also often engage UPEACE students and staff in the work I do in research, and that becomes a way of giving an opportunity to our students especially to get training and to get real, live field experience doing research – and getting paid for it. So it becomes very beneficial to some of our students as well.

You have talked about Korea and Japan in Asia, is there anything similar in Africa?

Yes! Africa has been a center for us, for our work, for ten years. We started that actually with a strategic mission to see what needed to be done in the area of peace and conflict resolution in Africa, that happened in the year 2002, I believe, and out of that needs assessment mission there was a determination that we needed to establish a presence in Africa, and we established the Africa programme. First it was run from our Geneva office, until we were able to sign an agreement with the Ethiopian government to establish an Africa office for UPEACE, and we have had our office in Addis since 2004/2005. And that office has about ten staff members, three or four faculty members and researchers – we actually publish one of our journals, APCJ, from that office in Africa. We do a lot of workshops and activities from that office.

We have received a lot of grants and funding to support getting a lot of students from Africa to study here [in Costa Rica], because of our presence in Africa. We have a lot of partnerships with Universities in South Africa, in Nigeria, in Uganda, in Kenya, and, as you know, we just received funding for over 2 million dollars to conduct conflict resolution work using sports and theatre approaches to transform the conflict in the Karamuja area between Uganda and Kenya, and we are just getting ready to start working on this three year project.

In North Africa, we have done a lot of work especially in Egypt – of course, that is not surprising given that I am from Egypt – we have conducted courses on conflict resolution in Arabic in Egypt for the past 5/6 years. We have more than 200 people who have attended our courses, some of them went on to form a civil society organization called “mediation for community development” and they are doing a lot of work on sectarian violence and training for conflict resolution using our materials and our pedagogy.

We are talking about Africa. One of the problems being faced by African students is the visa issue. Is there any effort by UPEACE ensuing that this problem is solved?

This is a very big problem indeed, and I feel very sad every time I talk about it because it really alerts me that we are still living in a world with a lot of injustice. We still live in a world that is insisting to put structural barriers to people based on race and color. I hate to put it this way, but it is the only way I can think about it. The complications that are put in the face of our African colleagues to come to study at UPEACE has been a problem, and as you know, it goes all the way from not being able to get a transit visa just to cross a country to get to another country, just to be in the airport, all the way to getting the visa to be here in Costa Rica, which has a law separating countries into four categories, with many African countries unfortunately in “category four” which requires a very, very complicated procedure to approve a visa for someone. Of course, Costa Rica, here I don’t want to be just picking on it, many countries are doing this, unfortunately, they are not the only one. But, as a result, we end up with very unfair regulations for Africans. Also, Costa Rica being a small country, they only have like one embassy in Africa, I think in South Africa, and that’s it. Maybe they have one consulate somewhere. Of course that’s not enough to cover an entire continent – and to put the burden on people that they have to travel from Nigeria or Ghana or whatever to travel to South Africa just to put the paperwork – the cost that is entailed in this, and the time. And maybe or maybe not they get the visa on time. It’s really sad and shameful. And I hope this whole situation will be changed and corrected, not only in Costa Rica but worldwide. As I mentioned, this is not a Costa Rican problem alone; it is a worldwide problem.

Do you have any message to UPEACE alumni, present students, and aspiring ones?

Yes, of course. I see all of them as part of a big family. And I see that very clearly when I travel to different countries. Whenever I travel, I look at our alumni website and my facebook, and I find the students from the region I’m going to and let them know that I’ll be there, and ask them to organize some kind of UPEACE reunion, and you would be amazed how many people show up to such events, how many people are so happy to see a familiar face from UPEACE. I get to have upeacers from different cohorts meeting in one country – many of them have never known each other because they are from different cohorts – and you should see how quickly they become friends, in one minute, because the UPEACE experience unites them and gives them very, very strong common ground. My message to all of them is: you all have become upeacers. You know what that means about your integrity, your hard work, your commitment, your confidence in what you have done here and what you can do for the world, and we expect so much from you – as much as you should continue to expect from UPEACE. We all have a lot to offer and I know that the training and the education and the experience you get at UPEACE prepares you for your mission, for the rest of your life. So go on as a upeacer to do your great work and count on all of us – alumni, faculty, staff – to always be part of what you are doing.

I am sure that as a Vice Rector you must have a legacy that you would like to leave behind. Can you share those thoughts?

The legacy that I would like to leave behind, is, hopefully, I hope that I have succeeded and will continue to succeed in establishing a role model for everyone around me in terms of being passionate about what I do, sincere about what I do, being committed to the students, committed to multiculturalism, and to be what I call a true upeacer, in every part of the meaning of this word. To be more specific about this, I hope that I have left a legacy, or will leave a legacy, that you can actually do excellent teaching in this place, and connect with students from all walks of life, and that you can at the same time, bring good funding by writing good proposals and come up with creative ideas that fit very well with the creativity, which is part of what UPEACE is about, and to ensure that UPEACE can be self-sustainable by the hard work of its own people. I hope that I will have attained all this by the time I leave UPEACE.

Thank you, Sir.

Thank you so much.

Lawal Tsalha is a Nigerian journalist and an Intern with the Peace and Conflict Monitor.