meet Peter Emerson

by Campaign ~ April 15th, 2014. Filed under: meet the real peacebuilders.

Sylvère Nsengiyumva - Real PeacebuilderPeter Emerson, is the Director of the de Borda Institute, an international NGO established in Belfast in 1998. It is dedicated to the promotion of inclusive voting procedures, especially in those lands where they are most necessary, i.e., conflict zones. In his capacity as Director, he has lectured on consensus politics throughout Britain and Ireland, across Europe, in Africa and the USA. Peter has spent a considerable amount of time in conflict zones – mainly in Northern Ireland but also in the Balkans and the Caucasus.

Peter believes that the possibility of war in Crimea/Ukraine has been exacerbated by the two-option referendum held last March. Like so many other such ballots, it was adversarial, yes-or-no, for-or-against. Anyone who wants to vote for a compromise option cannot, there isn’t one. Similarly, in Croatia for example, when they had their referendum in 1991, any partner in or child of a mixed relationship was, in effect, disenfranchised.

The de Borda Institute have been campaigning against the use of the two-option ballot, especially in any contentious plebiscites, since before its foundation in 1997. Indeed, it was their work in this field since 1977 which led them to found the Institute.

In 1991, for example, six months before the outbreak of the Bosnian war, Peter invited a native of Sarajevo to a cross-community conference in Belfast. Thus trying to warn against holding a two-option referendum in that divided land. The EU’s Badinter Commission thought otherwise. The vote went ahead. It contributed to the outbreak of war.

In fact, to quote Oslobodjenje, Sarajevo’s legendary newspaper, “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum,” (7.2.1999). Yet still most of the media and academia do not discuss multi-option preference decision-making. Directly or indirectly, binary, adversarial (simple or weighted) majority votes, have been a major part of the problem in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Moldova and now Crimea, not to mention Cyprus, Kashmir, Sudan, and more.

Peter Emerson was born in Oxford in 1943, the child of an Irish (Protestant) father and an English (Catholic) mother. After finishing school, he served in HM submarines, in which he rose – or sank – to the rank of First Lieutenant. On seeing some of the poverty which (still) haunts this world he resigned to go and teach maths and physics in a school for the poor in Nairobi. In 1974, on completion of his three-year contract, he cycled 10,000 km. across the countries of Central Africa – via Zaire, Nigeria, Zambia and Tanzania – and hence his first book: Inflation? Try a Bicycle.

He then settled in Northern Ireland where initially he worked on various youth and community projects. He soon took an active role in politics, campaigning on environmental issues, promoting the politics of consensus, and participating in initiatives such as the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Thus, in 1986, he organised a public meeting bringing together 200 members of both Sinn Féin and the Unionist Party, as well as from all the other parties in between. The debate related to the constitution; the event was, as it were, an ‘experiment in consensus’, using a ‘win-win’ (Borda) voting methodology instead of the usual ‘win-or-lose’ majority vote; and it worked: a consensus was found.

In 1983, wishing to compare the causes of the Troubles with those of the conflict writ large, Peter started to study Russian and then spent some time traveling throughout the Soviet Union.

During his time in the Soviet capital, he wrote articles on consensus politics in Moscow News and Novy Mir, (Новый Мир), with an interview on the same theme in Pravda, (Правда); in addition, he lectured on this subject in both Moscow and Tbilisi. In 1990, he returned home, by bicycle, cycling from Moscow to Tirana, and he published further articles in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia.

The de Borda Institute aims to promote the use of inclusive voting procedures on all contentious questions of social choice.
This applies specifically to decision-making, be it for the electorate in regional/national polls, for their elected representatives in councils and parliaments, for members of a local community group, for members of a company board or for members of a co-operative.

The de Borda Institute

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