Peace research craves an open mind

In October 2023 Isak Svensson was appointed as Dag Hammarskjöld Professor Chair at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University where he studies international mediation in civil wars, religious dimensions of armed conflict, and the dynamics of nonviolent civil resistance. In an interview with Simone Hagfeldt he shares his motivation for taking on this position.

‘I’ve been engaged in peace issues for my whole life, my background is in working with these types of issues on a voluntary basis for about 15 years’ and transitioning from action to research was ‘something that I really wanted to do, said Isak Svensson.

‘Peace research shares an interest with the peace movement and for those working in the policy sphere, working for a more peaceful society’.

He acknowledges that it can be seen as the same and also very different things. Isak Svensson expanded on this and explains that the peace research community ‘tries to search for the truth, and study peace as a phenomenon’.

In his role as Dag Hammarskjöld Professor Isak Svensson is ‘trying to understand the conditions under which armed conflict and organised violence occur, develops and how it can be resolved’.

When he joined the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies as a student in 1998, he was ‘totally fascinated by this idea that we can use research methods to try to advance our understanding of peace and conflict issues’.

‘It is ultimately our goal and our contribution to build more evidence and knowledge that can help the world in the transition to a more peaceful world,’ he said.

‘Dag Hammarskjöld tried to build a stronger multilateral organisation in the midst of global power rivalries, and this is what we need today.’

‘Peace research is now more needed than ever. In these times when we are going through so much turbulence in the world in terms of armed conflict, wars following the Russian aggression against Ukraine. But also, high tensions between countries more generally, and still ongoing intense civil wars at the same time as our capacity to handle these types of conflict is seemingly going down when it’s needed the most.’

He continued, ‘at this moment I think that peace research is very much needed. There is a lot of arguments floating around. There’s a lot of voices in the debate, not all of them are scientifically grounded. And we need to continue to do our work to try to build up more knowledge about how wars are prevented, how wars can be terminated more peacefully’.

Exploring the question that if he had a magic wand, what would he use it for Isak Svensson answered that he would really like to ‘integrate peace research more with policy making’.

He explained, ‘I mean to some extent if you had a magic wand you would like to bring peace, of course that is an ultimate goal, but in the more intermediate sense, our way towards that ultimate goal would be to create close integration between research and practice which is still surprisingly divided. Policy makers are not always anchoring their work in research, and sometimes research becomes a bit isolated from the challenges of policy making’.

‘The better scenario we need is to create a much closer relationship between research and practice. Expanding that collaboration with the  Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation could be really instrumental’.

Isak Svensson considers the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation with its ‘very strong ties and networks, legacy and history of working with the policy making sphere’ as a very interesting partner to the Department of Peace and Conflict Research with its ‘cutting-edge research experiences’.

He said, ‘I think Dag Hammarskjöld is a really important figure in Swedish political history and in global history more broadly, actually. We need to cherish his legacy. He was a very important Secretary-General for the United Nations, and he used opportunities that existed in his time to try to advance and innovate really new methods for more peaceful resolutions of conflicts and prevention. He is tragically very relevant today, maybe much more relevant than he has been for a long time. Dag Hammarskjöld tried to build a stronger multilateral organisation in the midst of global power rivalries, and this is what we need today.’

‘What he also did was to champion the agenda of the Global South and the emerging countries in the post-colonial era. Supporting these countries and seeing the potential in these countries and safeguarding their integrity. And I think that’s something that is really important today.’

‘I think one of his legacies that is also important is that he worked very actively in preventing conflicts from escalating when they have started and the crisis has erupted,’ he continued.

Isak Svensson drew parallels between the way Dag Hammarskjöld worked in the years before his tragic death and the current international peace landscape. 

‘The crisis he was working with in the Congo situation in his last years was very much about trying to hinder the Congo situation being drawn into the global dynamic of the Cold War.’

‘I think that type of attempt to try to manage and resolve conflicts before they get drawn into a global great power competition is still very relevant. We see that same type of challenges today – local conflicts that are at risk to be escalating and to be drawn into this global contestations – and preventive actions is very much needed’.

The conversation concluded by exploring Isak Svensson’s favourite peace word – He spontaneously quoted the original Swedish text from the first poem in Dag Hammarskjölds’ Markings: ‘Alltjämt frågande, skall jag vara framme’.

He explored this idea and explored even the translation, ‘It’s a bit odd, because in the English version it’s translated to ‘Still the question, ‘Shall I ever get there?’, this sounds very different from the Swedish version, which is more like ‘Still asking, I shall be there. It has to be continued’.

To be continuously asking, is to have an open mind. And that kind of inquiry, openness, requiring an open mind, is kind of what peace research is’ Isak Svensson said.

Photo: Chris Chau



Vidare drives jag,

in i ett okänt land.

Marken blev hårdare,

luften mer eggande kall.

Rörda av vinden

från mitt okända mål

skälva strägarna

i väntan.


Alltjämt frågande

skall jag vara framme,

där livet klingrar ut –

en klar enkel ton

i tystnaden.


Dag Hammarskjöld, Vägmärken (Stockholm, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1963).




I am being driven forward

Into an unknown land.

The pass grows steeper,

The air colder and sharper.

A wind from my unknown goal

Stirs the strings

Of expectation.


Still the question:

Shall I ever get there?

There where life resounds,

A clear pure note

In the silence.


Dag Hammarskjöld, ‘Markings’, translated from the Swedish by Leif Sjöberg and W. H. Auden (New York, Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1964).