One man, many conflicts – The University of Sydney

For 20 years Paul Dziatkowiec has worked in international diplomacy and peace mediation. Some of those years were spent at the high tables of formal diplomacy between governments, others saw him in shadowy hotels and tense backwaters talking with warlords, traffickers, spies, and human rights abusers. 

“Sometimes you find yourself with people who have ruined countless lives, even countries,” says Dziatkowiec, who is quietly spoken but a skilful storyteller. “To engage with them, you have to leave your prejudices back in your hotel room, keep an open mind, and sometimes hold your nose. Whether we like it or not, the worst of the worst often hold the key to peace.”

It isn’t easy walking into a room where two aggressive players in a conflict are there to see how far they can push their own interests. A deep knowledge of both sides of the argument is essential. Dziatkowiec and his associates would have spent the previous weeks not just researching the combatants, but talking to local people, diplomats, conflict victims and (trustworthy) journalists to get a sense of the deeper grievances.

While the forces at work in Ukraine are specific, a recurring truth in many other conflicts is that both sides ultimately want similar things: dignity, recognition and respect; jobs for their people; education for their children; and therefore, peace. Still, negotiations can go on for many, frustrating years. But suddenly comes a moment of possibility: a new political dynamic; a new president, a new head of the rebel group who seems a little more constructive. 

“Even two or three years before a peace agreement, you might have said, ‘That’s impossible. The situation won’t allow it, the wrong people are in charge.’ But look at Northern Ireland, Colombia, South Africa, many others. Sometimes change comes quickly.”

The road to success

It’s easy to see the influences that led Dziatkowiec to his life’s work.

In 1981, with the Communist Party in Poland about to impose crushing martial law to deal with the ‘Solidarity’ union movement, the then 3-year-old Dziatkowiec was taken by his parents as they fled the country, first spending three months in an Austrian refugee camp before settling in Australia with nothing.

“A lot of our family wanted to but didn’t manage to get out,” Dziatkowiec says. “I was lucky – I had so many great opportunities, because we ended up in Australia.”

Growing up in Canberra, Dziatkowiec went to Brisbane for a bachelor’s degree in international business before spending a year in Austria on an exchange program. At the time, the Balkans war was unfolding, and he found himself less interested in business and more in the mechanics of that conflict. So much so, he came back to Australia to study at the University of Sydney. 

Speaking from his now home in Switzerland, Dziatkowiec remembers those years as profoundly formative. “When they handed me that paper on my last day of uni, it capped several years of learning how nations and other international actors deal with one another, and under what rules – or lack thereof.”

When the time came to set a career path, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was the golden ticket.

It’s fair to say, Dziatkowiec had a rapid rise through the ranks of DFAT. After graduating from the University, he joined literally thousands of others in applying for an entry level position. He made the cut. Later, at just 30 years old, he found himself in a position of real and consequential responsibility.

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