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.

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