“With The Help of Social Media Memories Can Be Erased“ – Considerations on the Relativity of Truth

Preface: I read the interview with Maria Ressa (see below) and began to express my thoughts about social media manipulation during a few days in Bucharest. It turned out not to be an easy-going process, I was struggling with something that I now identify as the question “Can I find an objective truth?” In a way this felt to me like an extension of my thinking which I began with Part 1 – 3 grappling with aspects of “perception”.

The following travel to Toronto, including some severe jetlag, didn’t help me feeling comfortable with the results of my thought processes, so I let the issue lingering in my drafts folder. Now, with some rest and witnessing a beautiful spring morning in Ontario, I’ll try it again.

What is truth?

Maria Ressa has been awarded the Nobel Price for Peace in 2021, together with Dmitry Muratov, for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. Her journalist work is including 20 years as a correspondent and investigative reporter. The title of this blog entry includes a quote from her.

12.02.2022, the German online portal of the news broadcast “Tagesthemen” carried an interview with Maria Ressa on occasion of the Philippine Presidential elections. The elections were won by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos jr., son of the late Dictator Ferdinand Marcos sr., who ruled the country between 1965 and 1986, until he was finally ousted. Together with his family and his cronies, he stands for decades of authoritarian reign, massive corruption, and reckless brutality. The family fled their country with an estimated 10bn USD. A good summary on occasion of the 2022 elections can be found in this BBC piece.

For context: The outgoing President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte leaves a reign of shame for history, too. Most remembered will be the wave of extra-judicial killings with which he allowed the Police to mutate into a murderous gang, killing scores of people, pretending that a strong-armed fight against drug kings would necessitate this and that there would not be a need for due judicial process. I remember U.S. President Nr. 45 speaking admirably of Duterte. Which in itself does not make Duterte a likeable person, Nr 45 also fell in love with North-Korea’s dictator, and, well, his docile relationship with Vladimir Putin will never be forgotten either. Pied pipers.

The core message of Maria Ressa in this German article is that memories of decades of history can be erased, if social media is masterfully used. Not only that memory can be changed, that alternate versions of the same historical events can be created, no, Ressa says that corporate memories can be erased by social media manipulation. Disinformation campaigns on an industrial scale allow that, according to her. The BBC article quoted above would also indicate a manipulation aiming at changing the perception of history by “Bongbong” and associates for at least the last ten years.

Of course, an interview shortened for the digestion of the general public can not provide the same evidence as academic research would do. But for my thoughts it appears to be enough to rely both on the journalistic ethics behind two renowned public broadcasters and on the fact that a credible investigative journalist won the World’s most prestigious award.

The past years have established a large body of evidence that social media is used systematically for manipulation of public opinion on a gargantuan scale. Many will remember the impact of such activities in the run-up of U.S. presidential elections, 2016. The litany of actual examples would be too long to read. December 2020 I wrote about one example, explaining a NATO study on aspects of this topic.

The case of the Philippine Presidential elections is frightening. Bongbong Marcos has won in a landslide election, not by a margin. No need for Bongbong even to prepare for challenging an election as being manipulated, and to contest it. According to Ressa, Bongbong’s victory is based on a manipulation of the electorate on an industrial scale. On lies that create a narrative of Ferdinand Marcos sr. being a hero, the greatest leader of the Philippine Nation ever, and that his son, if he will win the elections, will give the money back to the poor. We will see whether he will do that. My experience would tell me that chances are slim if the whole election is already based on an epic manipulation of historical reality.

The overwhelming victory appears, strictly speaking by counting the votes, sound. Yet, the manipulation sits straight in front of our eyes: Democracy has been defeated with a never-ending stream of content on social media re-branding the image of the Marcos’ family. Phillipinos were told that the dictatorial regime was a golden age, free of crime. Which is pretty much the opposite of what is on historical record.

But, is there something like one common repository of historical records? That’s what I am struggling with here: Is there something like an objective truth?

In an Address to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin on January 27th, 1921 on Geometry and Experience, Albert Einstein elaborates on the relationship between the laws of mathematics and reality: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” (Project Gutenberg eBooks, “Sidelights on Relativity”, EBook #7333).

In the case of historical truths I would transfrom this sentence into “As far as a historical record refers to reality, it is not certain; and as far as such a record is certain, it does not refer to reality.”

This leaves many people very confused. In my belonging to a group of people, I do establish and participate in a historical context about what happened which is based on a common framework through which the members of this group identify. If the framework is very different between two or several different groups of people, their interpretation of what happened in the past can have little or no common grounds. And always when two or several different explanations clash in a discourse, we try to identify an objective yardstick against which we construct our argument why we believe we hold the truth. And we fail on agreeing on the same yardstick, the same objective measuring rod. The results can include so many divergent views, like two different groups entirely disagreeing on whether historical events were constituting a genocide, or not. The result being that the shared reality of such different groups differs in so fundamental ways that coexistence is the best option, always with the threat of violent discourse looming.


There is nothing new in the above. The new aspect, insofar as my writing goes, relates to the claim that systematic social media manipulation can entirely change the public record of history. Again, the past is filled with examples how systematic disinformation campaigns can establish new perceived realities within a group. Being a German national, I like to refer to disinformation campaigns undertaken by the ilk surrounding Hitler. Goebbels for sure is an example of masterful application of deceit and the use of manipulation in order to control the German populace.

But is there something new stemming from the ubiquity of social media of these days? If the general method of manipulation through disinformation is a tool which has been used for millenia in order to control populations for the benefit of a ruling elite, what is the new dimension which comes from social media?

Maria Ressa, in that “Tagesthemen” interview, also refers to the manipulation machine used by Russia in relation to the situation on the Krim, and in the Ukraine: She claims that the first step is about oppression, and the second step is about extinguishing memory. Based upon the experiences she has made in her home country, the Phillipines, she anticipates the same method being utilised in the context of Russias intent to aggressively usurp the Ukraine. She claims that social media have the effect to divide and to radicalise. Thus, she challenges the argument that social media is a tool vital for guaranteeing the freedom of speech. Instead of being used to allow free speech, according to her the algorithms used by Twitter, FaceBook, Tic Toc, and so many more, they make sure that priority will be given to content which is distributed broadly, preferably even virally. Of course, this is the ad-driven business-model behind social media enterprises. According to Ressa, therefore the distribution of facts will always loose against the distribution of lies, hate, and resentment. Drowning the news related to factual reporting, Ressa then states that the result is an entire loss of a shared reality.

The yardstick of a common historical record has unalterably changed, the division has been established, power can be exerted by controlling the perceived reality. Ressa makes the case for a global threat for values including democracy, but she also hints at, perhaps in my view, the biggest threat of our contemporary times: That we will disagree about the climate crisis as a consequence of global warming.

Which is, probably, on top of the list of global challenges which require a joint reality framework holding true for all people and nations on this globe.


As so often, I have no simple answer. Because there simply is no simple answer at all. We tend to simplify, and to go to extremes. Which always amplifies the problem once a complex system is brought out of its previous delicate state of balance, whilst we do not know how to create a new balance, instead of the entire system collapsing.

So, who is right? Maria Ressa with claiming that social media has the potential to destroy realities, and the underlying framework allowing for democracy, or Elon Musk, who has repeatedly tweeted that taking Nr 45 off Twitter has been one of the biggest mistakes, and that this is all about guaranteeing the freedom of speech?

I am still navigating through the depths of this question, and personal consequences. Should I maintain my Twitter account (which is a microscopic grain of sand in the Twitterverse) once Musk owns Twitter? What I know is that I would be extremely careful about listening to a person who happens to be the richest person in the world, who is able to just buy a social media firm in a snap, take it off from the stock market in order to make the changes of his liking, and then to put it back on the stock market. Why should I trust somebody who has one single intention: Using things for a business model based on profitmaking? Why should I believe that a statement about freedom of opinion is unbiased, if the motivation behind is purely enterprise-driven, and the methodology being used is taking every single accountability mechanism offline?

Also not new. But for me, the new thing is that one person has the potential to make a decision that has global implications on a level unheard of in history, whilst any mechanisms of public accountability appear to be on national level, and to some extent on a level of international organisations, but where the credibility of these international organisations is under massive systematic attack.

I will tell you if I stay on Twitter.

Perception – Seeing Does Not Equal Knowing – Part 3

Three – How Groups establish Common Frameworks of Perception

Too close for comfort? No, I’ll let you have a little peek view into my neighbourhood, when I’m in Belgrade:

At my favourite neighbourhood cafe, with a view towards my local grocery store, picture taken by the author, 05.05.2022

I am trying to get the finishing touches on Part 3 done from a campsite close to Bucharest in Romania. My vanlife has given me the opportunity to meet so many people from different walks of life. I just offered a coffee to a young German man who is traveling in a small van, with his partner, her daughter, and a dog. Have you ever listened to somebody who feels alienated, ostracized, craving for acknowledgement, and trying to make sense of his or her personal life story? The intensity with which they argue, the words they choose for making their cases? His story about a little group of travelers trying to keep life together, seeking a place to live in Romania, dropping out of regular life also as a consequence of the pandemic and personal circumstances, it offered a practical example for how perceptions develop, and how they lead to reinforcement processes. This person, whilst clearly not there yet, is on his path sympathising with “Reichsbuerger” identity, living at the fringes, and I don’t know whether much more has to happen to him before there is a path towards delusionial viewpoints, and radicalisation. All the time I was listening to him, I was thinking how I can interact with his attempt of making sense of the world, instead of myself just apologising, stopping communication, and staying in my worldview. Because this is what happens: A negative self-fulfilling prophecy about all the things which make this world un-just to oneself is leading to less communication outside of the group one feels to belong to. The more extreme the divide in fundamental assumptions, the more likely is that any communication with somebody who does not share a similar narrative of the world will not happen. We feel uncomfortable facing such extreme differences, at least. We may feel being upset, angry. We may react with hypocrisy, cynicism, open verbal confrontation. Or we may just walk away, and then it is about that the perceptions of two people engaging in a conversation were so fundamentally different that they did not fit into the reference framework they each feel comfortable in.

We see this all over more recently. Radicalisation of views is related to narratives that diverge extremely. Either a fringe view is colliding with mainstream views. Or several radically different mainstream views exist: The great divide between Democrats and Republicans which grows ever deeper, or the smaller fringes that we try to address in order to not see them growing into mainstream divergence, it’s all the same. All people on all sides believing in their version of perception, judging, or even condemning those who hold different views.

Wherever my international work and life has taken me, I always made it a habit to live in a local neighbourhood. Not those fancy Expat-areas, rather I feel most comfortable when I am a guest, and a neighbour, in a typical local hood. Sipping a coffee with very local people hosting me as a guest in their country, I learned so much, in Pristina, in Gracanica, in Brussels, Sarajevo, Brooklyn, Naples/Maine, Berlin, Belgrade, or so many other places. Since I started part-time Vanlife, on my campsites in Germany, or roaming the countries in the Western Balkans and around, or anywhere where I stop near the road for the night, I enjoy the same experience.

Not only that my cat friend Tigger is making new acquaintances all over Europe, it happens to me too. So, in that picture above you also see my local grocery store in Belgrade. There is a man inside, very friendly, selling fruits and vegetables, often talking about his love for German soccer clubs. More recently, he looked at me with a scared face and spoke, in broken English and German, about the war in the Ukraine.

When I recently cleaned my van, a very old and fragile neighbour, certainly in his late eighties, stopped by. Turned out to be a very nice and open minded person with a lot of curiosity. After a few comments about my mobile home he asked me about my opinion about what’s going on in the Ukraine. He asked me whether this would have been caused by NATO.

When I walked Tigger on 01 May, neighbours invited me to their open barbecue. Guess what came up? Fear about the war in the Ukraine. “Don’t go there”, one of them told me. “Well”, I replied, “You never know.”

When I’m in Germany, conversations will immediately turn to the developments in the Ukraine, too. As one might imagine, there the question will not be about NATO’s role starting it, but about NATO’s response to actions for which the Russian President will be damned. At least within those circles I relate to. But on campsites I will also meet other people. Like 2020, when a conspiracy theorist took me by surprise. Or as it just happened this morning.

When I’m in Romania, I will hear the local context, which, again, is entirely different from Serbia, and Germany. When I am in Bosnia&Herzegovina, I will get three different versions of the context in which the Ukraine war is being perceived. If I would listen in Albania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, or Poland, everywhere I would get a local and different perception on the same war, and the fears which are related to it. The common denominator is profound fear. The context will be explained differently, with nuances, or starkly. And all people truly live and believe their perceptions, no ordinary person on the streets will tell a fake story truly for manipulative reasons. Those people who do this on intent, they are very different, I feel their malice, and some, if not more than a few, are leaders.

The huge diversity of opinions based on culture and history and belonging, that’s Europe. Literally. It always is so hard to understand for people outside Europe, like those who say “Does the European Union have a telephone number”, those who may call for a strong unified European Union voice. In a true democracy view, the diversity of opinions on this continent is, of course, very hard to capture and to transform into more than the least common denominator. The alternative is autocratic attitude, and we have some of those, too. But believe me, no autocratic Europe would be more homogenous, compared to the Europe holding on to democracy. Rather, autocratic attitude is a recipe for intolerance, violence, and war. Just look back into Europe’s history of the last millennium, and especially the last century, and you will see that coercion into one identity only works temporarily. After Tito’s death we witnessed it again, more recently. The answer can only be tolerance for others and enthusiasm for diversity.

But, back to perception:

Those who I sometimes label “pied pipers”, they can be seen on a global level, and they seem to gain influence. They are those who scare me, because they operate on the opposite to tolerance and diversity. They are responsible for unfathomable suffering of many. And they could not do this without the considerable number of others who willingly buy in into distributing distorted versions of reality, or fake constructs of reality, for many different reasons, all of these reasons being motivated by selfishness.

From there, manipulation of reality permeates into the minds of who I would call, with all respect and compassion, “ordinary people” who try to explain themselves in relation to what life is throwing at them. Everywhere there are these wonderful local neighbours who struggle to make sense of what they see, fear, and are being told.

I am not wishy-washy, I have a very pronounced opinion, including on the war in Ukraine and the larger threats, and my core is torn into pieces because I believe that we need to do what, for example, Germany is participating in. All the way long, cold-blooded, decisive, but with great compassion and with healthy fear about escalation getting out of control. Doing whatever we can to avoid that the cauldron is exploding, but being very clear and very tough in saying “No way that we are going to allow this blatant attack on all values we have fought for since the end of the last World War.” But it is about how these values are being established, and what that then means to the competition of value frameworks.

I can not write this without a heartfelt word to my Ukrainian friends: I am sorry for your suffering beyond words, and you have all rights to be upset with the world, since you need, and deserve, the most decisive and best help possible. I just hope that we keep the balance in finding ways to ease, and to end, your suffering, without creating even more suffering. But your perception of what is going on, it needs to be, and is, at the core of everything we consider. We need to bow in front of you.

I am very privileged by having the opportunity to experience so many different neighbourhoods, cultures, nations, beliefs, countries. That is why I put this at the core of Part 3 of this writing. Because I am allowed to see this diversity in perceptions. People who live an entirely local life, they probably are more challenged by the need to be aware of, and tolerant to, other worldviews. I see very friendly people with great hospitality all over. Whether in Europe, or any of those conflict-ridden countries in Africa I have been spending time in, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Haiti, to name but a few. I don’t meet them in that proverbial mediterranean beach resort I was mentioning in Part 2. Not in holiday-mood, not with booze. But just very real, in day-to-day life.

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari makes for absolutely fascinating reading. As do his other books. I directly quote from Wikipedia when saying that Harari is dividing “Sapiens” into four main chapters:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of agriculture).
  3. The unification of humankind (c. 34 CE, the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
  4. The Scientific Revolution (c. 1543 CE, the emergence of objective science).

Much of my rambling is influenced by Harari’s explanation about communication between groups, tribes, communities, and especially when large meta-groups comprised of smaller communities come into play. His book is a fascinating journey connecting the evolutionary development including the brain of Homo Sapiens and its ability to form concepts that have no representation in the real world, and to communicate these concepts through language. The book seriously enlarged my appreciation for how we are able to form societal cohesion on a scale above relatively small groups of individuals.

At the beginning, in Part 1, I focused on how a representation of the environment is being put together from sensoric input. That’s the neurophysiological view. But already there perception is the result of an interpretation based on previous experiences through memory, and hugely influenced through emotions that accompany the sensoric input, or have influenced previous situations.

In Part 2 I have referred to neurophysiologist David Eagleman and his statement that brains need other brains for communication. Once communication comes into play, the result of perception becomes different because individual members of a group of living beings who communicate establish a joint, a common, perception. Communication allows for team-work. Orcas hunting as a group, they communicate what their individual group members see, perceive, and do. The same is true for wolf packs, or many other examples of collaboration. One way or the other, collaboration requires communication, and an ability to communicate what I see. Walk with me under a tree with ravens or crows on it, telling all other animals about the presence of my cat friend, and you will agree.

Reading Harari was a revelation for me in my understanding aspects of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, 70 millenia back in time. I can only be selective in explaining here, but he maps out in detail what we know in relation to the cognitive difference which set us, Homo Sapiens, apart from ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. It is related to brain development, allowing for much more complex perception, and understanding, and more complex language. But the single most defining difference appears to be our ability to imagine things which have not one single reference in the physical world around us, which we see. We can come up with virtual realities since 70.000 years, and not just since Mark Zuckerberg hopped on the metaverse-ideology.

Amongst all living beings on this planet, our communication has evolved into language and other forms of formal representation of concepts (such as mathematics) allowing for highest levels of sophistication in representing the world, describing the world, communicating what we see in the world, doing this in oral and written form, and to establish concepts that have no representation in the physical world. Harari’s example of legal personae within the field of law is brilliantly told. And the same is true for religion, concepts of governance such as democracy, ideas like human rights, the rule of law, so much more. They are extremely relevant and some of them belong to my core values, but the important thing is to understand that we, Sapiens, are able to establish concepts which have no physical representation in the world. Harari is so convincing in explaining that this is the single defining difference which allowed mankind to form means of communication and cohesion that allow to operate on levels far beyond small groups, bands, or tribes. It is this evolutionary step which enabled mankind to form cohesion, and control, on societal level, it allowed for modern States, it allows for identities, like those of faith, which keep billions of people in one framework. Religions serve as means for societal cohesion, including through control. That’s why they also can, despite their mystical core, develop into instruments of brutal suppression, creating suffering. Whether it is about terror from Sunni extremism against Shia, or whether it is about overturning abortion rights by the U.S Supreme Court, in all this there is the ugly face of control, for reasons of enforcing one framework of belief and impressing it on others. With structural force, or physical violence, the motivation is the same.

Thus, these non-physical manifestations of concepts compete, and often don’t go well with each other, they sit behind the clashes of groups, nations, religions.

But when I sit in neighbourhoods and I listen to people, respecting their different frameworks of identity, I see wonderful individuals, all of them with inner beauty.

So what’s my final point?

The diversity of frameworks which ultimately, and inevitably, form the basis for how I perceive the world, it is a fact of our reality. There is no ultimate solution, and sure as hell happiness of people is not a direct function of democracy. Individual life can be fulfilled and happy in East and West, South and North. And whenever I reach a point in my reflections where I try to identify at least a few common denominators that allow all of us to thrive, and not to kill this world, not many core values are needed. Human rights belong to it.

But here is what I feel relevant in the current context: The invasion of the Ukraine has been identified as a fundamental violation of the Charta of the United Nations. This needs to be acknowledged. Then, only, we can also have a discussion about whether others have done the same before. That introspection won’t be easy, because a decade ago we believed that we had found a principle called the “Responsibility to Protect”, overriding under certain conditions the sovereignty of States. It literally hurts to see the Russian President establishing a fake reality of oppression of peoples in the Ukraine to justify and cover up his unprecedented aggression.

If we loose the achievement of the Charta of the United Nations, we are in really big trouble.

Perception – Seeing Does Not Equal Knowing – Part 2

Two – Reminding of the Role of Emotions, and Memories, within the Process of Perceiving

Let’s have a second look on the first picture which I was using in Part 1:

An abandoned and decaying building – Belgrade, Košutnjak Area, picture taken by the author, May 2022

If you and I would describe this picture, we would quickly agree on objects and elements, we would probably conclude about the beauty of spring, we would likely exchange views on the charm of decaying buildings, or the wonderful colors of blossoming bushes and trees. But I would also want to describe the emotions attached to this picture, in order to have you appreciating how I perceive the scene:

I am walking the paths in Košutnjak almost every day when I am in Belgrade, especially during spring, summer, and fall. And so I did for the first time in April 2020, and for many days to follow during that spring and summer. My emotional memories which always come back even today are those from the first traumatic phase of the Covid-19-pandemic. I found myself, like all other people in Belgrade, in a strict lockdown. Roads and public space were empty. Almost no car was moving. No restaurant and cafeteria was allowed to open. A curfew forced me to be back in my apartment 5pm at the latest, otherwise I would have risked a fine. From Friday evening to Monday morning not even any walk in nature was allowed. Grocery stores were open under limited conditions, shopping malls and everything else closed. No discussion about vaccinations during these days, people were hospitalised in Emergency Departments, so many were dying. Strict border controls re-occurred in the European Union, flight connections were shut down, for months I had no idea how to get from Belgrade anywhere else. Don’t need to write more, you get it, and once I am telling you about my emotions related to this only refuge from feeling imprisoned, you will respond with your emotions and memories and where you were at that time. But it does not mean that, looking at this picture, you and I will share the same perception, once we discuss aspects beyond the physical representation of objects in this picture. Depending on how vulnerable I am when we talk about this picture, my re-processing the Covid-19-trauma may also trigger thought-loops and emotional patterns which always come up when I am re-living my multiple trauma. If we try hard enough, communication will establish some sorts of synchronisation in how we perceive things. But that is for the communication part which will follow a little later.

Let me use another example, by showing you the following picture:

Overlooking parts of Sarajevo from the road leading towards Trebević, picture taken by the author, June 2021

I have so many pictures from this area, especially because I lived and worked in Sarajevo for four years.

My perceptions: They are related to so many times when I was climbing the roads and forest paths up to beautiful spots surrounding East Sarajevo with my mountain bike. Many memories relate to how we as a family took our children up there for walks and hikes, explaining to toddlers why they needed to hold Mom’s and Dad’s hands in certain areas still harboring unexploded ordnance from the war.

Mom’s perceptions: Amongst many other issues also the memory of her time in post-war Sarajevo, between 1996 and 1999.

Our nanny’ perceptions: One day in 2009 or 2010 I suggested a walk with the kids and I was asking our Nanny to come with us. We were close to our nannies, so I immediately felt her unease. Being in her early twenties at that time, and being a Bosniak in a country home to a Bosniak nation, a Croat nation, a Serb nation, and minorities, she had first hand knowledge of the time when Sarajewo was shelled and snipered from positions of the Serb Army, including exactly the spot where this picture is taken. She felt physically unwell, but she wanted to undergo this experience, so we went for this walk with our children. When she looked at Sarajevo from this spot, her perception was entirely different from mine, though she was seeing the same scenery.

It goes without saying that any of my Croatian and my Serbian friends in Bosnia&Herzegovina had similar traumatic memories, and they all tell me personal stories which would both include their fear and feelings of powerlessness, but their narrative would partly be astonishingly different in how they would explain why all this happened which they now remember.

At this point of my writing I want to use these examples in order to demonstrate that the cognitive perception of, for example, visual input, always goes beyond the interpretation of physical features. Rather, and especially when we look at something which we have seen already before, perception includes creating, and touching, of memories. I do personally not know of any memory I have with no emotions connected to that memory. I may not be aware of it. Yet, when we show pictures to friends, we will also explain the emotional context. Take out your most recent holiday pictures, or just look at the emotional touch with which we lace selfies on FaceBook or Instagram, you get the story. Emotions are inseparable from memories, and thus they also are inseparable from how we perceive things.

I do go a step further: I wrote about perception often being a process on auto-pilot, allowing the constant inner dialogue to chat away, plan away, worry away, mourn away. What I perceive, and what reaches my conscious awareness, it is embedded in a constant inner dialogue which I have, 24/7. In most cases, daily perception of, for example, visual input runs on auto-pilot and I walk half-blind to what is happening around me. Except when I practice meditation, for example through mindful breathing and mindful walking. It is amazing how much more visual or acoustic input I become aware of, it is almost a miracle to then feel physical sensations on my skin, or becoming aware of the smell around me. As long as I do not pay mindful attention, the perception which is constructed from what I see, hear, taste, smell, feel, it is very limited. I can drive a car without even paying conscious attention to what I do.

And if I drive a car together with other people, the memory, and the narrative, of this joint ride will look entirely different for each passenger in the car. A joint narative can only be established to the extent all passengers would agree on some basics which they all remember. But far away from objective perception. I think there is no objective perception, at least not in the strictest of all senses.

Which is what I needed to say before coming to the role of communication. Which is the big chunk. For now, just keep in mind that I deliberately choose the examples above in order to create a gentle conduit into how different the perception of entire constructs of our reality can be, just depending on which history an individual has, and to which groups and communities and society this individual belongs. The differences in perception, and then subsequently how to navigate in the world, and how that individual identifies in her or his belonging to groups, communities, and societies, they can be huge, and they often stay entirely “under the hood”. If those individuals meet in a mediterranean beach resort, you won’t probably see too many differences, as long as there is some sort of joint communication, some sun, music, and some booze perhaps. But the trouble begins when people get to know each other on deeper levels, and when they just assume that their joint framework of reference for how they perceive things is similar enough, being surprised when it turns out it isn’t.

Meaning: Take another break. So will I.

Perception – Seeing Does Not Equal Knowing – Part 1

One – Getting Myths and Misconceptions Out of the Way – The Basics of Perception

I believe in science when I try to navigate in the world. Not only, I am also deeply spiritual. But I believe in the proven fact that science is a crucial tool when I am seeking facts, and truth, and guidance on how I should relate, in the world.

This writing came together as a result of my mind being all over the place. Like, I wanted to write down my own thoughts how I understand contemporary science on cosmological and on quantum scale. Hoping to improve my understanding like a student, summarising what I have learned, in taking notes and writing down what I understand. I have mentioned it earlier that one of my most long-standing interests also relates to cosmology and quantum mechanics. Which is not subject to writing in this blog directly.

I am also tinkering with an insanely powerful piece of software called “Unreal Engine 5” aka UE5, which is a 3-D graphical engine behind many modern computer games with which these impressive virtual worlds are being created that people get addicted to in gaming. It is my nerd nature and my interest in computer technology which is making me do this, and my attempting to accompany my youngest son, who spends countless hours per day in these virtual worlds and is also designing some of them. Then, again, my tinkering with UE5 brought me direct insight into how we perceive the world.

But when I embarked on this writing exercise I quickly saw that there is much more to my futile hobbyist effort understanding science. Beginning to write down my knowledge of vision, the history of optics, and today’s mindblowing science, I quickly saw that I also needed to put it into a larger context, generally thinking about how we perceive the world. From there, it was a small step only to see the linkages between perception, emotion, communication, and interaction, and the crucial role of memory, and the relevance of this topic for discussions in the field of work that this blog is relating to: Within a snap I was on a mental discourse heading towards thoughts relevant within the framework of this blog about Peace&Security, Justice&Reconciliation.

It goes as follows:

From my earliest memories on until today, 64 years later, when I am opening my eyes, I am seeing something like this…
Or this, when I move closer. Or myriads of other visual impressions, where ever I am.

Instruments of perception

What I see is not the real world. Not even a true image of it. Visual perception is the result of an interpretation: The interpretation of the projection of light rays on the retina of my eyes. I interpret signals that come in from the nerves connecting my eyes with my brain. It is not just a stream of pictures coming in like from a “camera obscura”, an upside down image of the light from the outer world being projected on the retina inside my eyes. Of course, physically speaking this is what happens in my eyes. But the process in my brain is much more complicated: My brain is creating a mental image of sorts, somehow in my conscience, from those signals which are being transmitted from my eyes to the brain, and it does so in a very complicated way. Incoming signals are being subject to categorization and interpretation involving various separate sub-systems at different locations of my brain, and somehow the results of these processes end up as a composite representation in my consciousness. There are so many conditions for how I interpret the signals from my eyes, they include even subconscious assessments about whether incoming signals would indicate a threat, which is even happening before the conscious parts of my brain have a chance to say: This is what the eyes see.

Or: Dive into the many baffling examples of optical illusions just as one piece of evidence for this statement: That which I see is an interpreted image of some kind of the optical input reaching my eyes, forwarded from there as electrical impulses to my brain. What I perceive as the “final result” is the construct of a number of highly complicated and not yet fully understood processes in my brain, responsible for various components of vision, and input from other senses, and then comprehension. Nothing I see will be transformed into perception without an inner judgement about what I see. The statement related to an optical input such as “These are trees “ in the picture above, it is an academic reduction within a logical and communicative framework. Daily reality works differently.

The point I want to make is that “seeing” is so much more than only establishing a mental picture from the input of my eyes, and “perception” is even larger than “seeing”. It is about various ways of interpretation of a “picture”, and much of that happens without me having any control over it. Seeing is way more than a linear transformation of an optical process. This is what we know today, because neuroscience has advanced so much.

The same goes for what I hear, what I smell, what I feel, what I taste. I put this all together into an explanation which helps me navigating in my everyday world: I can touch something that I see, and I can get a sensory input about temperature, surface structure, the smell of the object which I see and touch. I lick what looks like a white rock, is feeling like a crystal, and it’s tasting like salt, so my conclusion that this likely is a lump of salt allows me to interact with the world of which I am a part. If that lump of matter looks different, feels soft, smells foul, I’ll probably not lick it. There is this joke about Daddy and the whole family driving on the highway. Daddy bragging to the kids: “See that card box ahead of us on the road? Now Daddy shows you how it sounds if you smash it with the car.” Thing being: If Daddy would have known that the card box wasn’t empty, but that this washing machine which fell off the truck was still inside, the story would have ended with less damage.

Perception is the result of a conclusion about what sensoric input I get. I’ll come to the role of emotions and memory in this a little later, but if Daddy’s memory is fine after his release from the hospital, he will hopefully see the danger next time he attempts to ride over a large object on the road. Fear will help him on that learning curve. But I’m too far ahead, though I will say: Perception can also be inhibited through faulty memory, or traumatic emotions. If the kids have suffered from serious trauma on occasion of this event, the impact of these events on future perception of cardboxes, and Daddies, will get drastically more difficult. Hang on, I need to systematically develop my point first.

I still highly recommend David Eagleman’s book “The Brain” and it’s visualisation within the equally named series of videos on PBS, inter alia available on Apple TV. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, and his popular science teaching on what we know about the brain has blown my mind a few years ago. Perception has a purpose, perhaps only this purpose: To allow me to navigate in my environment. The purpose is not to reflect my environment in the most precise objective way possible, but to allow me navigating in it the most suitable way possible. Or, as David Eagleman puts it: Brains constantly need other brains to communicate, and they establish a shared interpretation of reality through this.

All living beings (virii probably being at the border between living and non-living entities) have a process which I name “perception” going on, and the perception of the environment is meant to establish a common interpretation of it, through forms of communication. Bacteria are able to avoid hostile environments, we can demonstrate this in experiments: They don’t only die on poisonous surfaces laced with antibiotics, and thrive on nutrients. There is a choice involved after some time, and from what I know, there may be some form of communication involved. Plants do communicate environmental threats, and the mystery of mycelium, of which we mostly only see the mushroom parts popping up in the forest, it includes a lot of communication within this underground network often stretching out hundreds of meters, or more, and likely also communication between a mycelium and, say, trees. Animals of all levels of development communicate results of an interpretation of their environment. And the higher the cognitive processes, the more also the ability to understand effects where seeing and touching may not lead to a congruent expected answer. What does, for example, my cat conclude if he sees his picture in the bathroom mirror? Head over to YouTube or Instagram, go see. The coherence of sensual input is contextual. If I see a face and can smell and touch it, it’s likely a being. If I see a face which I can’t smell and I bump into a surface when I want to touch it or I get my paws wet in the water, my human friend calls this a reflection.

Interim conclusion: I started with the sense of vision here, but in order to make the case that optical representation in the eye is not the same as its interpretation in my brain, the combination with other senses needs to be mentioned: In my everyday life, conclusions about what I perceive are rarely made on grounds of only vision, or only smell, or taste. Usually it’s a combination, and usually it is a sort of an automatic process running in the background. Like I mostly don’t have to pay attention to how I manage to walk, or how I drive a car, the same is true for most of my sensory input. Only when some event or perception requires a cognitive analysis, this analysis is -hopefully- triggered in my frontal lobe. If I’m sloppy, I’ll rely on autopilot. Which creates huge risks, not only on highways littered with washing machines, but on a social level also for communities and societies.

The senses with which I am equipped, they are an evolutionary result of what is useful for my species in order to successfully interact with my environment. My interpretation of how the world looks like, feels like, smells like, it is based on the capacity and calibration of my senses. By no means I can conclude that the world is as I “see” it’s representation in my brain, and by no means I can conclude that the way this process of representing the “outer world” is unique and the same for everyone, and every species: Some birds, or many, are able to gauge the magnetic field of the earth; many animals can hear sounds which we human beings can not hear, in the low and in the high spectrum; bees see the world on a spectrum including ultra-violet light; some fish, like sharks, sense the electromagnetic field of other animals in their neighborhood. Some animals can even send out such a field, for probing their environment, and to paralyse prey. Bats are using ultrasound like an acoustic radar.

I will focus on vision and how we, over millennia, tried to understand the process of optics, but not without concluding that our senses allow us to interpret our environment, as far as our senses reach, and the interpretation always allows us to interact. Run away. Fight. Eat this. Don’t eat that. The more complex the brain of a living species connected to a set of sensors, the more sophisticated are the interactions with the world. 

But for any living being it is true that our specific senses allow an interpretation of our environment, they allow a representation of our environment in our brains and they do not give us a full image, they only allow to see what is within the capacity range of the sensors, and what our brain makes from this sensory input. We do not see the world. We see an extremely limited interpretation of the world.

We do not even know in principle if two persons have the same representation of, say, a color, when they name a color. How do I know that the representation of the color “blue” is the same for my neighbor? Color-blind people find different ways to conclude something may have an attribute that others name “blue”. There are rare instances of cases where people connect a sound to a color. It’s called “chromestesia“.

For any living being without a higher cognitive process running in the frontal lobe of the brain, such academic or philosophical questions are less relevant. As long as they successfully interact with their environment, the question of how their eyes work, and how light behaves following the mathematics of optics is less relevant for them.

If there would not be not the role of communication within a perception of the world which is established between groups of beings.


Part Two of this writing will focus on how groups establish common frameworks of perception. For the moment I stop, this blog entry has become very long already. Let me, and you, take a break.

But I got the basics out of the way.


Justice Being Served

In my writing on the general theme of my blog – Peace & Security, Trauma & Reconciliation – I often attempt to create a conduit from the impact of personal trauma towards the effects which it has on the scale of communities, or societies. You can find some comprehensive thoughts on this in my articles on (1) the impact of trauma on individuals, (2) the trauma of children in conflict and war, and (3) the impact of trauma on communities and societies ravaged by conflict and war.

On occasion of a few other articles I have also mentioned that this is not only academic writing, but that my own processing of personal trauma is entangled with this process. It is a source of personal experience, a source of strong personal motivation, but also a source of profoundly subjective views. Objective viewpoints, entirely separating the observer from the observed, they are impossible, not only in quantum mechanics. From quantum physics we know that in literally no aspect of examining and explaining the world the observer can be separated from the observed. In human sciences we know this, of course, too. The knowledge about this fact is forcing me to always step back and critically examine my own attempts to come up with the best shot at how I try to make sense of this world.

One morning end of January 2022 I woke up after a good nights sleep. I managed to keep my busy thoughts silent during the first minutes, enjoying my morning routine of making the first coffee, feeding my cat, and beginning my day with a little mindfulness exercise. It worked pretty well, I began my day in calmness.

After which I went into my morning routine of reading the news, over my second coffee. This story showed up on my screen: “DR Congo court sentences 51 in trial over 2017 murder of UN experts“, from the French news agency France24. A few minutes later, my balanced approach towards the day, a Sunday morning, was over. I had to sit down and to understand why I was feeling complex emotions, and a strong nausea in my stomach. Over the years I have learned to better understand these signs of a traumatic reaction. In such a situation I try to sit still and to embrace this reaction in a gentle way, instead of mentally running away from it.

There are reasons why I reacted so strongly. I am connected to this story. I was involved in attempts from United Nations Headquarters’ in New York to deal with this horrific murder. I had privileged sight on videos taken by some of the perpetrators, documenting the last minutes and seconds before and when these U.N. experts were killed. I was involved in efforts investigating this situation, and such involvement happened on so many other awful occasions before in my line of work: My more than two decades of international work include a huge amount of personal trauma I have happily piled up. I do know that this leads to a mechanism called re-enactment. I am re-enacting my own previous trauma. My work on this since many years has given me tools with which I can mitigate the effects.

I remember those days in 2017 with all diplomatic efforts on highest levels conveying the message that we, the international community of humanitarians, peacekeepers, diplomats, expected justice being served. I remember my boss of that time, a United Nations Undersecretary General, reporting to us after he returned from a field visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He had left the message with Congolese politicians that “this will not go away easily”, that it requires a sustained effort to bring the perpetrators to justice.

I also remember that I assessed the chances for justice being served under extraordinary circumstances as being slim. I contributed to our efforts assisting investigative authorities, sending own forensic experts working in my Division, helping Congolese investigators and prosecutors. Over time, hopes of seeing this crime being solved and perpetrators being sentenced, it faded. Until I saw this story, end of January 2022, give or take five years after the brutal murder act.

02 May 2022, I am working on a set of texts which I will partially or entirely publish here, depending on whether the statements in these texts have a connection to my general theme of this blog (see above). In this context, I am working on explaining why, in my experience, there is literally no memory of any situation I have been in which does not have links to the emotions I felt at the time of the event. One hypothesis I am following in this context is that these emotions can de-link from the events which caused them. As “emotional memories” with no connection to an event causing them, they “linger around”, come up when triggered, influencing my emotional and cognitive setup. This, I suspect, is especially true in situations when I am exposed to what we call “trauma”.

Which would explain the feeling of grave nausea when I read the article about Congolese authorities sentencing 51 individuals connected to that murder which I, like many other events in my professional career, can not forget.

My next blog article will include thoughts on the inseparability of emotions and perceptions, communication, and memory. It will be pretty methodical, I hope I can make that one an interesting read.

In this view, this draft article which I found unfinished when opening my WordPress editor, it is a teaser on more general observations to come.

But I’m ending here by stating that justice can be served, and like here, it may contribute to my healing. As a matter of fact, it does. I must continue to believe in this, and whilst I have no sight on how professional the investigation and application of the legal process by Congolese authorities has been, or whether there was negligence, faultiness, or willful instrumentalisation of legal due process, I must believe that justice is possible as a concept, and as a part of reality, and that hopefully the real perpetrators have been sentenced.

There are new atrocities happening in 2022. As happened all those years in between, whether in Myanmar, Afghanistan, now the Ukraine, in so many places in the Middle East and Africa, and elsewhere. I must continue to believe in the possibility of individual and collective justice, otherwise there are only new wounds, but no healing, and no scars.

Waking Up in a New World?

Some have suggested that we woke up in a new world February 24, 2022, when Russia began its invasion into Ukraine. Not the first time that I heard that, and by far not limited to September 11, 2001.

Some have suggested that we will forever remember where we were when the news about the Russian war machine attacking the Ukraine broke. Not the first time I heard sentences like these either, and beyond September 11, 2001 there are quite a few terrible events which will ever stay connected to memories where I was at that specific moment in time.

Of course, there is symbolism in sentences like these. There are strong emotions connected to them. But did we really wake up in something entirely new, entirely surprising, after Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation oversaw the reckless and brutal invasion of a sovereign State? After yet another rambling speech filled with alleged historical grief, fake justifications, malicious lies, and mind-blowing threats against all those who would stand in his way, including reminding us all of military nuclear capabilities at his command?

Fear, anger, rage and resentment, the feeling of being powerless need to be processed. When such feelings are affecting decision-making, results can be catastrophic. But which frameworks guide us? Science? Religion? Value-based secular concepts including human rights, the rule of law, democratic values? Pragmatism and the power of economics, and capitalism? The pure selfishness of autocracies, xenophobia, chauvinism, fascism? The conflicts surfacing over the past years are happening within a context of chaotic competition and fierce fight between these frameworks, some of which are conceptual, some of which are pure expressions of the wish to rule and to dominate. From that vantage point, the war against the Ukraine has not marked a waking-up in a new world. It is a new element in a line of events which we can see unfolding over the past many years.

In reality, the war in the Ukraine marks another severe attack against existing value systems which we got used to, and often took for granted, since the end of World War II. We seem to live in a cauldron with boiling ingredients. Little we know what will dissolve, and what will emerge, or whether the whole thing explodes.

Today, April 18, some of us celebrate Easter Monday. Others will celebrate Easter a little later. Other’s won’t at all, observing different symbolic events within the systems of belief and faith which they are connected to. I have read articles where authors argued why globalisation is coming to an end, and I have read articles reasoning the opposite. Which common perspective can we give to our children, holding true for all of us, notwithstanding our faith, or being agnostics, notwithstanding our cultural and historical affiliations?

Over the course of the past weeks much happened. The war against the Ukraine turned into a horror story of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and bottomless individual suffering. The world is in shock, witnessing human suffering and atrocities which European soil has not seen in decades.

By the way, Europe hasnt’ seen this, other parts of the world have seen a lot of it. Just saying, with my light-blue United Nations’ beret on.

Newsfeeds are still filled with the pandemic, but since a little while I notice that those plastic shields disappeared from counters in my grocery store, that bus lines carry people increasingly not wearing a mask, subtly making those who still do a minority.

Between February 28 and today, I traveled to Bucharest in Romania from Belgrade in Serbia, flew to Toronto in Canada, returned to Bucharest and Belgrade, traveled to Bavaria in Germany and from there to Sarajewo in Bosnia&Herzegovina. After a few days in Belgrade again, I am now celebrating the spring weather during an extended weekend in my campervan in East Croatia. With the ubiquitous Internet, I can do my work from everywhere. With my bank card I can pay for my groceries anywhere without the need of physical local currency. My digital equipment allows me to be in constant contact with those in my life who I love. A highly sophisticated set of two state-of-the-art batteries allows me to be entirely autonomous, “off-grid”. My solar panels on the roof refill the batteries after a few hours of daylight. Meanwhile, all along this journey, a set of highly calibrated vaccine shots kept Covid-19 at bay, being the result of incredible bio-science. In due course of almost two weeks, daily rapid-tests, offered for free in Bavaria, allowed me to visit my father in the hospital without endangering him, or others. Just an effort of fifteen minutes, a printed result, no significant effort at all. High-tech breathing masks did their magic, too.

Literally every aspect of my life benefits from cutting edge science, including quantum physics driving my batteries, solar panels, computer equipment, smartphones. The practical application of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity allows me to use a global system of satellites and to punch the coordinates of the grocery store in Vukovar, Croatia, into Google Maps and to start my trip from Belgrade without even one single worry. The extent to which this almost incomprehensible science drives literally every aspect of our lifes today, it is mindblowing.

The same science is being used in precision-bombs, missile-defence systems, in conventional and nuclear components of warfare. It is being used within an information warfare for misinformation and spreading lies. In extremis, people who believe the world is flat and populated by a bunch of necrophiles and child molestors keeping us in captivity, people who attack science as a means of subjugation, they use smartphones for spreading this ugly mess.

Natural science like physics, chemistry, mathematics appears to be limited to being a tool being capable to help us in finding answers how we shape the present and the future of our world from an ethical, or moral imperative.

I don’t want to ramble about religion, out of a deep respect in that people believe in their faiths. But if religion is being used for praying for my soldiers, keeping them out of harms way and victorious, if prayers are being used to ask for the enemy being destroyed, isn’t that just an extension of Janis Joplin’s song “Dear God, please buy me a Mercedes Benz”? Crimes against humanity have been/are being committed under the flag of all great and minor religions that ever existed in this world. What does this mean for the billions of human beings who seek moral and ethical guidance in their daily lifes? Religion, claiming to have universal and eternal answers for fundamentals of why we are, and why we are here, is unable to provide those answers, like science is unable to. But religion always was a powerful tool for societal control. Where does this leave me in this cauldron?

When I began writing this blog entry, I was driven by questions which I had after I finished reading the book “Six Impossible Things – The Mystery Of The Quantum World” by John Gribbin (eBook, you can look it up under https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=1521733116 ). Since roughly a hundred years now, we are using highly precise mathematics of quantum physics without which none of the technological or pharmaceutical or other medical achievements would be possible. But the book is one of those which take me on a rollercoaster of entirely incomprehensible phenomena of nature on its smallest scale. John Gribbin attempts to describe the six major attempts to come to terms with why nature is producing these results. But until now, we only know how to calculate the math, but we have no idea why everything is, as it is.

That’s when I began to think about what a book like this one means to somebody who has never had an interest in understanding the quantum and the cosmological scale of the world. I am torturing my fascinated brain with this since I have been a young boy. But, meaning no disrespect, most people I am meeting would simply shut down after attempting to read one page of this book. Yet, they will use smartphones for spreading their beliefs why the world is as it is, including being highly critical to science itself. There are great pieces of Science Fiction attempting to describe this contradiction, most recently I watched examples of this in “The Foundation” series on Apple+.

But ultimately, I am sitting here on an Easter Monday morning, confronted with the eternal question how all this makes sense in a world which, despite of all technological achievements, and despite a track record of 3.500 years of humanity finding peaceful answers to life questions, we still kill each other, rape each other, hate each other, dominate each other, subjugate each other, control each other.

So, this blog piece is ending with an answer solely applicable to me: My own actions and decisions matter, and there is no way how I can think of making my decisions and actions contingent on those of others. The childish blamegame “But the others have begun”, that argument which I used when my parents scolded me for a fight with my brothers, I have seen it to a ridiculous extent including by former U.S. President Nr 45, by autocrats, and other pied pipers.

Think. Act responsible. Feel compassion. Start with yourself.

Happy Easter.

“We Have a Lot of Evidence” – Pressure Growing on Frontex Chief from Pushbacks Investigation – DER SPIEGEL reporting on an OLAF Investigation

The English version of the online edition of the German newspaper DER SPIEGEL today issued a comprehensive article on an investigation of the European Union’s anti-corruption agency OLAF, related to decisions and behavior of four senior managers of the EU’s Border agency FRONTEX. It appears that strong evidence -partly revealed in the article including through disturbing pictures- exists about inaction of FRONTEX, even alleged efforts to cover up illegal push-back activities of national border/coast guards of a Member State of the EU, violating international and EU law, forcing migrants and asylum seekers back into a non EU country, depriving them from their right to claim asylum and to subject themselves to due and legal scrutiny whether it can be granted, or not.

The article is a very good read, in terms of quality, and it is a very disturbing article, within a longer row of similar reporting in international media since long. But now, with the Head of OLAF presenting the findings to lawmakers in Brussels, the findings appear to be complete, and action on the findings need to be considered. This, of course, is a thorough technical process, whilst being profoundly political at the same time.

I do believe this matter needs to be taken forward not only with all due diligence, as thorough and unbiased as possible, and as fast as possible. Most importantly, I believe this process requires utmost transparency and dedication to holding individuals and agencies, whether national or international, publicly accountable.

Why? Not only because this should be good practice in democracies and nations adhering to the rule of law anyway. But also because otherwise we may add to a bad taste: The push-backs are alleged to have happened at the EU’s southern/southeastern border to the mediterranian sea. Persons attempting to reach the EU from there come from many countries and conflict zones, whether in Africa or in Asia, including Afghanistan.

At the same time of this reporting, the EU and her Member States undertake a terrific effort, to be praised and applauded in the highest terms possible, to welcome, host, cater for, and assist refugees from the Ukraine. Public opinion across the board is overwhelmingly supporting these refugees from the Ukraine, who have gone through nightmares, in the middle of Europe.

I have, looking into the many comments on social media, also noticed that sometimes there is an expression of fear that we all too easily forget those uncounted individuals who seek help in so many conflict zones a bit farther away, such as in Afghanistan, or in African countries.

I believe we have a chance here to rise to the opportunity and value the fundamental rights of refugees notwithstanding their origin, avoiding adding fuel to a claimed impression, whether true or not, that we care more about some than about others. Putting the alleged FRONTEX actions under public scrutiny, not sparing any effort to demonstrate this in all openness, will in my view be beneficial to make a public stand demonstrating how high we hold the universality of affected fundamental human rights of refugees, and persons who try to relocate or migrate for other reasons than fear from suppression, harm, and death.

Pushing them back, whether it is about cases like this one, or cases of alleged push-backs including brutalisation of migrants attempting to cross land borders into the EU, this is something we shall have zero-tolerance for.

On a request to establish a Peace Operation in the Ukraine

16 March 2022, the international news is reporting about a visit of the heads of the governments of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia to the Ukrainian government. Three weeks into a war of aggression against the Ukraine, prepared in a way meeting the immense security challenges, the highest officials of these governments traveled to Kyiv by train, meeting President Selenskyj of Ukraine. Amongst other, the delegation included Vice President Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland. Vice President Kaczynski went public following the meeting by demanding an armed “NATO Peace Operation”, acting with approval by the Ukrainian President, on Ukrainian territory. That request is generating a flurry of public comments, covering the full spectrum of why this would be very complicated, or unlikely, or way too early.

Time to have a select look on the state of peace operations, why current operations struggle, leading to some thoughts on basic preconditions for peace operations, ensuring the unfolding of civilian aid and assistance.

To start with a term the United Nations got used to: “Robust Peacekeeping” was coined some years ago within the United Nations. It was used even by highest officials to describe the environment in which Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) of the UN increasingly found themselves: Being tasked with peacekeeping where there is little or no peace to keep. There is a notion of exasperation and despair in this term which I so vividly remember from many speeches. In the doctrinal framework of the UN, “peacekeeping” sets in after a peace settlement has been achieved, or, after at least some ceasefire agreement has begun to take shape. PKO such as MINUSMA in Mali, or MINUSCA in the Central African Republic provide the painful experiences which forced peacekeepers to adapt to situations where their real raison d’etre was a lofty dream. Never before the UN lost so many lifes, and the UN tried to adapt by making PKO more robust. So, that’s how the term “Robust Peacekeeping” was born. Member States of the UN and the UN Secretariat even accepted a path of providing the PKO MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a specially equipped and trained military intervention brigade authorised to “neutralize” elements. A term used for describing offensive lethal operations, not limited to the objective of defending the PKO and its mandate. Much has been written about this extraordinary step going beyond the concept of armed military or police mission elements for self-defence and defense of the mandate in a UN PKO.

There always were some blurry lines between how the UN uses the term “peacekeeping”, NATO is using the term “peace support operation” (PSO), or, in a similar way, how the African Union (AU) describes their own engagement in Somalia through AMISOM. Yet, in broad strokes, there is a distinction between “peacekeeping”, “peace support”, and “peace enforcement”. The UN limits itself to “peacekeeping”, current missions of the European Union in the field of civilian and military crisis management follow that line, NATO has experience in “peace support” and certainly in “peace enforcement”, the AU in “peacekeeping” and “peace support”. All these missions broadly are “peace operations”.

Of course and by contrast, any use of the term “peacekeeping” by the Russian Federation in relation to the horrible invasion of, and war in, the Ukraine by Russia is not only misleading propaganda, but a blatant abuse of the term “peacekeeping”. Taken together with the use of the term “special military operation” it is trying to evade the accusation of a violation of the Charta of the UN: That Russia is waging war against another sovereign State, a Member State of the United Nations. In order to get a common position allowing 141 Member States to condemn, only 35 Member States to abstent, and just Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia and Syria to vote against, the Resolution had to speak of “military operations”. We often hear the phrase “being on the right side” today. On that right side, this military operation is a war. It is ongoing, and it is escalating, and there is no current publicly visible sign hinting towards a path of peace negotiations. Even talks about humanitarian corridors for evacuation of civilian populations utterly fail.

The fact that Russia appears, in addition to violating Art. 2 of the UN Charter, to commit war crimes against the civilian population in the Ukraine, stands separate. 16 March 2022, U.S. President Biden took the unprecendented step calling President Putin of Russia a “war criminal”. Taken the violation of the UN Charter and the alleged committment of acts constituting war crimes together, this is making the use of the term “peacekeeping” by the Russian Federation an insult to anyone who has worn a light blue UN beret, a dark blue EU beret, or the green beret of the African Union.

Vice President Kaczynski’s suggestion to establish a NATO peace operation needs to be specified in terms of what this would mean, and it never is too early to think about what comes ahead. In whichever way the catastrophe strangling the Ukrainians will unfold further, we shall never give up efforts and hope that this can be stopped. From what I understand from the public comments of Vice President Kaczynski, a “peace operation” would require a peace agreement, or a ceasefire declaration, meaning it is not “peace enforcement”. More likely, it would be understood as something resembling “robust peacekeeping”. Then, Russia, and [the Ukraine] would have to agree how to move forward on the incredibly winded road restoring peace & security. Note the square brackets: The Russian President decided to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declarations of independence just hours before starting his military operations, or, in my view, war. Which led to widespread international condemnation, in return. How a Peace Agreement, or the rationale for a ceasefire declaration would play out will be incredibly difficult, and any international mediation will be a nightmare. But nothing is more important in order to define a difference between a peace operation having a chance of supporting return to peace, and a peace operation where there is no peace to keep. It is the single defining difference for the immense suffering of human beings in the Ukraine.

Many also push against the idea of a NATO peace operation, for the obvious reasons which brought Vladimir Putin to the point of attacking the Ukraine, and demanding its demilitarisation. On top of it, he wants to decapitate the Ukrainian government, claiming a “denazification”. But that is another horrible story, another lie. Here the question would be, in case of any chance for a peace agreement or ceasefire declaration whatsoever, who the implementing organisation or entity would be that could be tasked with a peace operation. From what I have read, Vice President Kaczynski is rather pragmatic: It can be NATO, it can be others. So it can be the UN, the EU, OSCE, NATO, or any combination of those. All of those have done peace operations, in the form of peacekeeping operations of the UN, crisis management operations of the EU, peace support operations of NATO, peace enforcement operations of NATO, or OSCE missions.

As mentioned, it never is too early to begin thinking about what comes after. Too often the results from planning are less than optimal otherwise. Mistakes haunting the international community for years have been made right in the beginning, during the conceptualisation and design phase, and reasons do not only include unalterable facts of the political environment for these planners, but also severe shortcuts because of time constraints. The earlier the thought process and the better the results, the less suffering for people after this war is stopped.

It is suggested that this operation is including at least armed elements, provided with a possible mandate of armed self-defense. Nothing more specific, so far. Also not about which civilian tasks would require armed protection. The request for armed means especially makes a case for a mandate by the UN Security Council (UNSC), since obviously a sole request from the Ukraine would not suffice in the given dispute, and also specifically in light of a historical dispute on interventions, where there was no such mandate by the UNSC. Assuming no veto by any of the five permanent members, the implementation by any suitable international organisation would be possible.

Without a UNSC Resolution, any operation would not survive the first day of our coining it a “peace operation”. It would be treated as a military aggression, escalating the existing conflict, perhaps in dramatic ways. However, it is important to be clear that nothing like that could hope to fly under the brand name of “peace operation”.


Final thoughts on mandate elements of a “peace operation”: Little to nothing has been thought about in the public which elements such an operation would have (military, police, civilian). Nothing is clear in relation to that armed capability, how robust, for which purpose, and whether it will entail military elements only, or also police elements, and whether they would be robustly equipped too, and for which purpose.

On earlier occasions, this blog contains many articles which point towards the vast experience available in the field of international policing and its cooperation with military elements, both in the UN and the EU (including the External Action Service itself, but also specific initiatives started by groupings of EU Member States, such as the European Gendarmerie Force EGF and the Center of Excellence for Stability Police CoESPU). There also is institutional knowledge about these topics within the NATO Center of Excellence for Stability Police.


A Call for the Protection of Civilians in the Ukraine

One week into the war ravaging in the Ukraine, we see unimaginable suffering of civilians in Europe again. We see pictures of people seeking shelter in subway-stations, we see bravery and courage of citizens putting themselves at grave risk by stepping into the way of military vehicles and soldiers, we see an overwhelming readiness for self-defense in light of imminent harm and potential death, we see mothers and children arriving at borders of the European Union, we see them being separated from their husbands, fathers, male friends and loved ones, as they have to stay behind in the Ukraine, for territorial defense. We see and hear gunfire, bomb explosions, rocket attacks, and we see both the deliberate and the collateral impact on civilian infrastructure, buildings, houses. Civilians including women and children are being killed, or injured in ever rising numbers. Children loose their mothers and fathers.

I want to make it clear from the outset on that I belong to those who strongly condemn a war against the Ukraine, violating the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and bringing all of us, collectively and globally, close to the brink of a catastrophic escalation, whether as a terrifying new Cold War, or even worse, as a war spiraling out of control like a wildfire.

But no matter what some of us may believe in relation to justification of this military action, or many others considering this being an illegitimate war violating all principles of the international security architecture which has kept many of us safe for generations, we have to take note of the terrible impact of this war on civilians.

As a member of a post-war generation in Germany I grew up both in peace and with the conscience of a historic burden through Germany’s role in atrocities of the Second World War, and the Holocaust. As a young person, I grew up in a divided Germany and during decades of a Cold War. As a German police officer I witnessed the end of the Cold War, I witnessed peaceful events including the German reunification and the often peaceful dissolution of the former Soviet Union, but also the violent wars on occasion of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. As a police peacekeeper of the United Nations, as a member of the European Union External Action Service, or being part of the German Federal Foreign Office, until today I am witnessing the memories of people in the Western Balkans, whether in Belgrade, Podgorica, Pristina, Sarajevo, Skopje, or Tirana. I am writing this from Belgrade, and everyone here is scared and has own memories of war and conflict and fear, as is the case for all other parts of the Western Balkans. To whoever I talk on the streets or in the grocery store at the corner, everyone is scared, on the grounds of own memories.

All of these memories are different. Explanations are different. Historical narratives are different. Some justify, others condemn. Acts of genocide are subject to dispute. And most recently, an allegation of genocide without any facts is being used as a cynical argument in a narrative cloaking the real intentions behind a war.

Yet, there should be one common denominator which we can all agree on: The civilian population of the Ukraine suffers terribly, and needs to be protected by all means.

However, at the end of the first week of the war in the Ukraine, all signs do tell us that there is a strong risk for ever more military violence targeting civilians, either as part of a strategy, or as a cold and even malicious calculation of collateral damage, and the psychological impact stemming from it. As I write this, these news are coming in, from cities throughout the Ukraine, whether Kyiv, or Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv, or others. We have news of systematic shelling of civilian neighborhoods.

As a former United Nations police peacekeeper I have had the privilege, honor and duty to contribute to the protection of civilians in situations of conflict and war. As a former United Nations Police Adviser, I was blessed with assisting in developing the role of United Nations Police in the field of Protection of Civilians, through doctrinal development, training, and overseeing the deployment of thousands and thousands of police peacekeepers, working alongside their military and civilian colleagues in peace operations, often at gravest personal risk. We say “We go places others don’t”. I have personal fond memories of doing this jointly with Ukrainian and Russian police officers, working in the interest of peace alongside colleagues from all over the world. As police peacekeepers we work together with international colleagues in other organisations, such as the European Union, the African Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and many others, in our tireless work protecting civilians at risk. Most importantly, we work in partnership with our countless colleagues in law enforcement in countries which we assist.

Thus, we form a network of innumerable individuals in a global community who have formed a unique partnership in what Police does, and shall do, worldwide: The Protection of Civilians in conflict and war is one expression of the fundamental principle of policing as we in the United Nations understand it: To Protect And To Serve.


I call for protection of the civilian population in the Ukraine.

I call for abstaining from any military action targeting civilians, by intent, malfeasance, or negligence, in the Ukraine.

I call for an end of this war, and for returning to the negotiation table, and returning to diplomacy, in the interest of the people in the Ukraine.

I call for my fellow friends and colleagues in the field of international police peacekeeping to raise our voices and to join me in a public expression of our outrage over the suffering inflicted to civilians, especially women and children, over and over again.


If you decide to join such a call in public, by using social media or any other public means accessible to you, and if you decide to let me know about this, please send references to the email-address

censeo@icloud.com

Of course, you are authorized to distribute the link to this blog entry widely, and without prior approval or notification.

Stefan Feller – Former United Nations Police Adviser – March 02, 2022