Making history

Photo credit: ©HD/Alban Kakulya
Photo credit: ©HD/Alban Kakulya
Following his interests has led Bachelor of Arts alumnus Dr David Harland into a career at the heart of war, in order to negotiate peace.

In May 2018 the Basque terrorist group, ETA, which had killed more than 850 people over a 60-year campaign for independence from Spain, formally ceased to exist.

The announcement came via the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), where Executive Director and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington alumnus Dr David Harland read ETA’s statement declaring their disbandment to the world’s media.

For Dr Harland, this moment concluded a 15-year process of negotiating peace. It was also a rare occasion where he and his colleagues at HD could publicly announce the results of their private and discreet work.

HD seeks to resolve or prevent armed conflicts through confidential dialogue and mediation in more than 20 war-torn countries. Dr Harland has led the organisation since 2011, after a career working for the United Nations in hotspots around the world.

It’s a career that stems from an early interest in war and peace and a keen interest in the world and global affairs, which was further piqued by studying for a Bachelor of Arts in Wellington in the 80s.

“Studying Chinese was a treat. New Zealand was less engaged with the world 40 years ago, and with Asia, in particular, so the Chinese programme was amazing. I adored Teresa Wong, who was the one-woman-show of the Chinese department.”

“Wellington was a city beginning to engage with the world: ‘discovering’ the world of Asia, discovering New Zealand’s cultures, the nuclear warships issue; the Springbok tour.”

After completing his degree, David quickly headed offshore, travelling to Beijing to take up a New Zealand-China exchange scholarship, where he completed a year’s language training and then graduate studies, before moving onwards to Harvard University to complete a thesis on conflict in the South China Sea and then the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University for his PhD.

“I have been very lucky to chase the things I’m interested in and to be able to make a living from it. Victoria University of Wellington launched me into the world of China, which changed my life. And when I got to Harvard, I finally found a way to marry it to my interest in war and peace.”

His studies complete, Dr Harland joined the United Nation's Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). He spent five years in Bosnia following the outbreak of the Bosnian War, arriving in Sarajevo one year into the deadly siege of the capital city. He has also worked in Kosovo, Haiti and Timor-Leste, where he was acting head of government following the withdrawal of the Indonesian military.

“The UN is big and slow and full of painful compromises, but it can operate at scale, and is almost automatically at the centre of any peace processes. Timor-Leste, which New Zealand was closely involved with, was a good example—the UN mission lumbered, but it got there. HD is nimble, but it’s small, and that’s good for being invisible, but bad when you need a big push.”

At HD Dr Harland stays involved in mediation efforts on the ground when he can, particularly in the Middle East and in China, on occasion.

“The Middle East reminds me of the quicksand scene in Lawrence of Arabia—easy to get into, hard to get out of.”

But now with COVID-19 disrupting lives everywhere, he is especially focused on HD’s efforts to stop the spread of the virus in war zones. His team have been facilitating ceasefires, distributing sanitation supplies to cut-off communities and providing public health advice in areas where people often distrust official information from their governments.

“We have special access to places others find it hard to reach sometimes, and now we have a special responsibility to do what we can against the global pandemic in those areas. Particularly to reduce the risk of a second wave of infection as a result of the survival of pockets of the virus in war zones.”

It’s all rather a far cry from his student years in peaceful, quiet Wellington, where he says he could be found in the library, looking out the main windows, watching the old Bristol Freighters taking off into the rain.