DMU honorand: Geert-Hinrich Ahrens

During our graduation ceremonies, we recognise with honorary degrees the achievements of those linked in some way with the university, those who have made an impact in their chosen fields, those who share our beliefs, values and commitment, who can therefore be role models for our students. Here is the citation given to Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, international diplomat and Senior Research Associate at the University of Bonn.

The very distinguished guest we honour now is ‘a peace-builder’. He is a dedicated diplomat and a scholar who has spent his long working life – in sometimes life-threatening situations – bringing learning and lived experience to conflict resolution.


Geert-Hinrich Ahrens is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Bonn, and has served as a Senior Research Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, among other leading international roles. The Center is a renowned international think tank dedicated to connecting research, study, discussion and collaboration, to bring about positive change in public life and affairs – very much a model for the work DMU strives to do.

Ambassador Ahrens was born in Berlin and grew up amid the wreckage of the city, in the dying days of the Second World War. Schooled in the law, he rose through the ranks of the German Foreign Service, with duties in both Yugoslavia and China, before becoming his country’s ambassador to Vietnam, then Columbia. His work later include election monitoring missions in Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Montenegro, Turkey and Ukraine – countries where democracy was being defended.

Between 1992 and 1996 he was Ambassador at Large to the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia where he led the Working Group on Ethnic Minorities. The bloody breakup of Yugoslavia was the result of a series of political upheavals and conflicts during the early 1990s – seismic shifts with shattering consequence. Their complex origins lie in the aftermath of the First and Second world wars, in modern politics and ancient prejudices. Republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia split apart; deep unresolved issues caused bitter inter-ethnic Yugoslav wars. The fighting chiefly affected Bosnia and Herzegovina, and neighbouring parts of Croatia, but threatened the international community.

Ambassador Ahrens was well placed to enter the fray: he had travelled widely in the Balkans since the 1950s; he speaks four of the regional languages, including fluent Serbo-Croatian. His Working Group was the principal UN and European diplomatic effort tasked to grapple with horrifying ethnic conflicts.

Reflecting later on its efforts in those complex and draining circumstances, Ambassador Ahrens has referred pointedly to ‘diplomacy on the edge’; it was the title of his definitive authored assessment of those tragic times. It is a dark, compelling account of territorial division, fragmentation and ‘ethnic cleansing’ – extermination, by another name. It tells of states and their peoples struggling to create, reorder and maintain their political institutions, their economies and societies, and of war crimes trials. It is right to remember – only a generation on – how quickly things can fall apart, on an international scale and in the civilised world, when we choose to act reflexively, and angrily, and without thought or compassion.

Negotiating consensus, then and there, amid such chaos and division, tested the cause of international diplomacy to its limits. But the alternative – to not talk; to retreat, and turn the blind eye, when the choice is hard – offers no way ahead.

Diplomacy on the Edge is one of the core pieces of reading for all students on DMU’s ‘Yugoslavia and Beyond’ course. We strive to make education and life at DMU inherently an international experience. Our community represents 145 nations, and through our own large-scale international missions – #DMUglobal and Square Mile India, in particular – we connect many thousands of our students with the world, and its people, to encourage them to make a positive difference by working together.

Our work with the United Nations allows students a voice, and agency, in shaping the fairer, safer future they want and deserve. Already that commitment has explored the refugee crises of the 21st century, so often tied to warfare. Our special responsibility for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16 requires us to take a lead on peace, justice and strong institutions. In 2019, #DMUglobal plans to take students to Bosnia.

We are honoured that Ambassador Ahrens has worked with us already, speaking at a conference organised by the DMU Jean Monnet Centre for European Governance, and to students on the ‘Yugoslavia and Beyond’ course. The best student writing on that course receives a prize given in his name.

Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, for your outstanding career as both a diplomat and as a scholar; for committing your professional life to peace-building and consensus; and for your dedication to democracy, equality and equal representation – values we aspire to and advocate in every aspect of DMU life, work and research – we are proud to honour you today.

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