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From Nigeria to Iraq: USIP Mediation in Conflicts

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This past year offered fresh proof that the world we live in is ever dynamic. Fundamental change can come from something as extraordinary as a fruit vendor’s act of defiance in Tunisia to popular revolts by reform movements across the Middle East. At the same time, a decade of war and the weak U.S. economy dictates that there must be new ways to think about the role the U.S. will play in the world in the coming years.

We asked USIP leaders, from board members to senior staff and experts, to explain the effect that events around the world and here at home will have on the U.S., and the contributions the Institute can and does make during a time of tremendous challenge – and opportunity.

David Smock is currently the senior vice president for USIP’s Centers of Innovation. He was previously vice president for the Institute’s Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution. He has worked on African issues for more than 30 years and lived in Africa for 11. Earlier in his career, he served concurrently as director of the South African Education Program, a scholarship program that brings black South African students to U.S. universities, and vice president for program development and research for the Institute of International Education. He was also a former staff member of the Ford Foundation. His academic training includes an M.Div. from New York Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Cornell University.

USIP is active in conflict zones around the world. Are there examples of USIP helping to manage or resolve conflicts by directly intervening with some kind of mediation effort?

We have collected cases in which USIP resolved or helped to manage specific conflicts through what is called “facilitated dialogue”—when a neutral third person helps the antagonists start a real conversation. These cases take many forms, and we are going to lay them out in a book titled “Facilitated Dialogue: Peacebuilding in Six Conflict Zones” that I am editing with Daniel Serwer, former vice president of the Centers of Innovation at USIP. USIP Press will publish it in 2012.

Give us an example of a case from Iraq.

We worked in the so-called Triangle of Death in Iraq in 2007. This was in the area of Mahmoudiya, a rural district of 400,000 people located just 20 miles from the center of Baghdad. It was a center of bloody sectarian and inter-clan strife. In the early months of 2007, U.S. and Iraqi forces had managed to drive back al-Qaida, militias and armed gangs that had turned the area into a cauldron of violence. Local tribal and government leaders approached the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division combat team seeking support for a peace initiative.

We worked with Iraqi facilitators and other Iraqi partners to reach out to a wide network of local sheikhs to encourage them to join in a peace process. The focus was on a three-day conference that combined training and facilitated dialogue to encourage the setting of specific community goals, such as rehabilitating destroyed schools and hospitals, holding elections and getting the local economy back on its feet. The conference established working groups to focus on security, the economy, governance, rule of law and social well-being.

What were the aims?

One was to encourage the sheikhs to concentrate on solving current problems rather than on past grievances. Another was to foster a collaborative environment in which they could begin to rebuild trust. And a third was to enable the sheikhs to take collective responsibility for stabilizing and rebuilding their communities. At the end of the conference, all 32 senior tribal leaders agreed to and signed a peace accord. The key provisions of that accord were later implemented, and Mahmoudiya has remained relatively peaceful.

You mentioned that the process relied on skilled Iraqi facilitators. Is there another case where this same approach was adopted?

Yes, in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, which is the country’s main oil-producing region. It has seen intense interethnic fighting and attacks by armed militants against oil industry and government facilities. The Delta was the site of two USIP-funded conflict management projects, dating from 1999 to 2007 and executed by Academic Associates Peace Works (AAPW). The first project launched a two-year facilitated dialogue among the three ethnic groups locked in competition and conflict.

The second project brought together the various parties in 20 conflict-prone local governments to work for nonviolent elections in 2007. AAPW analyzed the sources of the conflict and then selected six mediators from the three ethnic communities in conflict with each other. After three days of heated discussion, the six came to agreement on a vision for the future. But violence broke out again and the government embarked on a flawed and failed peace effort.

What happened then?

The situation kept changing and required some creative solutions. The Nigerian mediators convened representatives of the youth from the three communities, since they were the principal perpetrators of the violence. Then a meeting of carefully selected elders was held. Both of these gatherings enabled people to listen deeply to those from the other ethnic communities. These meetings generated the Warri Peace Forum, named after the city where most of the violence occurred. Over time, Warri became a much more peaceful place. It was not a linear process, but there has been a lot of progress toward peaceful accommodation.

Religious differences are often cited as the source of intense conflict. Do any of your cases illustrate how religion can also be used to help make peace?

Let me mention two cases. One was called the Alexandria process and it prompted a sustained dialogue among Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Territories beginning in 2002. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is primarily over territory, but given the centrality of this territory to the three major monotheistic faiths, it is not surprising that the conflict has taken on a strongly religious dimension. The religious leaders involved in the Alexandria process concluded that the Oslo process failed because it was a secular plan imposed by secular leaders on a Holy Land. Almost all the top leaders from the three faith communities in Israel and Palestine gathered in Alexandria, Egypt, in January 2002 and signed the Alexandria Declaration, which called for a religious peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Afterwards, representatives of the three communities met regularly for several years in Jerusalem to promote interfaith peace and to support a political peace process. Unfortunately, the political peace process has not materialized so far. But overall, we think the Alexandria process did establish important interfaith relationships that endure. They could provide the basis for interfaith interventions at critical moments of tension between Israelis and Palestinians.

What else did it achieve?

It helped stimulate the creation of the Mosaica Center for Inter-Religious Cooperation by Rabbi Michael Melchior and Elie Wiesel in 2004, which has organized important interfaith initiatives. In addition, it led to the creation of a successor organization, the Council of the Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, which brings together the three faith communities on a regular basis and helps organize joint interfaith action. USIP was the principal source of financial support for the Alexandria process, and we have supported Mosaica in its interfaith work. What is the other case with a religious dimension?

That is in Colombia, where USIP has helped bring together religious women from both Catholic and Protestant communities to promote peace. Beginning in 2006, USIP staff discovered that women involved in peace efforts through their religious communities were organizing exciting initiatives and were eager to move more deeply into ecumenical work. Previously, most of the peacemaking by the two faith communities had been managed by male leaders. Since 2008 USIP has helped organize a dialogue between Catholic and Protestant Christian women who are involved in peacebuilding. By fostering ecumenical relationships, we are helping to create a broader movement of faith-based peacebuilders and to strengthen the role of women in addressing Colombia’s conflicts.

Wasn’t the Balkans an arena for early USIP work in the field? Did USIP engage in facilitated dialogue there?

USIP organized a series of dialogues between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs between 1998 and 2002 to try to promote constructive engagement and ultimately peace between the two communities in Kosovo. They involved officials, politicians, intellectuals, civil society leaders and youth. One of the early meetings was held at Lansdowne in Virginia and produced the Lansdowne Declaration, which was referred to in Kosovo many years after the meeting. The discussion focused on the political process, economic reconstruction, revitalization and reform and strengthening civil society. We wanted to help the participants project just what kind of Kosovo they wanted to see in five years and how to get there.

And where did that lead?

Over some three years, USIP helped to steward 10 facilitated dialogues and training workshops that brought Serbs and Albanian Kosovars into discussions about interethnic coexistence and coalition building. That led to a series of documents that serve as standards for interethnic cooperation, dialogue, good governance and economic and social reform in Kosovo. The dialogues also opened up both interethnic and intra-ethnic communication among political leaders and representatives of civil society. They have made Kosovo a safer, more peaceful place and brightened its future prospects.