An army of peacemakers is at work in the world. They are a loose-knit, sometimes contentious, largely underground force. Their weapons are forgiveness and reconciliation. Their objective is healing.
The effect of their work is difficult to document. Bombs shatter. Bullets kill. Diplomats talk. Treaties are signed. These make the headlines.
But no one can say when the cool hand of peace begins to soothe a country’s pain. And so the peace army’s victories have drawn scant attention.
And then South Africa began making its peace. When Nelson Mandela declared that his people would tell their secrets and reconcile instead of trumpeting their long-delayed victory, the peacemakers scored big.
The verdict is not yet in on whether this experiment will succeed. But as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began hearing stories of unimaginable horror and inconceivable forgiveness, the world became aware of a startling new model for how to deal with one’s enemies.
Similar stories are unfolding all over the world as countries try to bind historical wounds through forgiveness rather than vengeance.
Sometimes that work is overseen by an organized group of international peacemakers; other times, it’s a hodgepodge of people acting independently. Although some international experts are skeptical of the peacemakers’ effectiveness, there’s increasing evidence that this grass-roots work is the ground on which diplomatic agreements must rest.
Politicians are apologizing. Victors are giving amnesty to the defeated. Former guerrillas are joining the peace circuit. As more and more longtime enemies behave sanely, theologians and ethicists are churning out analyses of what it might mean.
Behind it all are more than 50 years of steadily growing efforts by the peacemakers. Piece-by-piece convincing. Little conclaves in hard-to-pronounce places. Late-night confessions, jail cell epiphanies.
Religious people, diplomats and peaceniks who think they have a handle on how to make the world a more pacific place are laying the groundwork in locales as far-flung as Macedonia, Sierra Leone and Lebanon.
Behind-the-scenes reconcilers are smoothing the way for so many high-level negotiations that they have their own nickname, “back-channelers,” and a label for their work, “Track Two diplomacy.”
Last spring, a letter with eight signatures from prominent nonprofit groups went to the U.S. State Department asking that such side-door efforts be worked into an integrated diplomatic strategy.
While official diplomats work for conflict settlement, the reconcilers work for conflict resolution, said Cynthia Irvin, a Peace Scholar from the U.S. Institute of Peace and a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
To explain the difference, she gives an example: “The Gulf War settled the conflict between Kuwait and Iraq. Did it resolve it? No. Saddam Hussein would still like to take over Kuwait.”
Even the most ardent back-channelers wouldn’t call this work a cure-all.
New wars break out. Old animosities simmer. And private parties can do damage, said Richard Ruffin, executive director of an international peace group called Moral Re-Armament. “Not all efforts are helpful,” he said. “One doesn’t want to undercut the efforts of the State Department.”
No place to hide
A famous example of that happening was on the eve of the Persian Gulf War. Former President Jimmy Carter sent letters to members of the United Nations urging them not to support President George Bush’s action in Iraq.
“I was one of the few people who did not think it was necessary to go into the Gulf War,” Carter said in a recent interview. “I knew from personal involvement that the Iraqis were attempting, through the Saudi Arabians, to negotiate peacefully their problems with Kuwait. The defense minister of Saudi Arabia made that public announcement. He was immediately kind of shot down from Washington because the United States had already decided, in effect, to go to war against Iraq.”
Whether the peacemakers will win out over fear and hatred is always a long shot. When peace draws close, hostilities sometimes become even more furious as extremists work to keep the fight going. People who have suffered so much injustice worry about the kind of cheap reconciliation that comes without justice.
The back-channelers said their work hinges on small, focused activities. Their unofficial motto: “A thousand little efforts can reach a million people. If a million people eschew hate, when the warmongers begin to shout, they will be without listeners, and when the terrorists bomb, they will be without a place to hide.”
Sometimes the reconcilers’ work pays off in dramatic ways. Carter credits his work in 1994 with possibly preventing a U.S. war with North Korea and in Haiti.
“I think that, in general, many of the wars in which we have been involved could have been avoided if good-faith efforts had been made to understand the situation, to negotiate … perhaps even with the help of neutral parties,” he said.
In Bosnia, reconcilers are teaching community leaders and religious figures how to counsel people with post-traumatic stress syndrome resulting from the terror of war. In Macedonia, mediation specialists are helping angry factions learn how to construct a civil society that can accommodate everyone.
Religious people are key players in the peace effort.
Former Cold Warrior and submarine commander Douglas Johnston said, “I am absolutely convinced that no military or diplomatic solution is going to break the cycle of revenge.”
“Until you can introduce a spiritual component into this business of forgiveness and reconciliation, you’re going to have the same drumbeats of violence for violence for the next three centuries,” said Johnston, author of “Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft” and executive vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There’s a growing understanding that you can have all the peace agreements you want, but without the support of the general population, which includes grass-roots support, you basically have a house of cards,” said Tom McConnell, public affairs officer for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Some Track Two mediators attract worldwide attention as they work alongside official negotiators. Carter and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are American examples.
But many others work almost invisibly. Generally shunning media coverage, they slip into countries where conflict is brewing or boiling over. They burrow into guerrilla camps and hobnob in the palaces of dictators.
They make friends with leaders. They press for justice. In the post-Cold War era as civil wars proliferate around the globe, they are especially valuable. For instance, they carry messages between state leaders who don’t want to give rebels official recognition, but are ready to start communicating.
They stay for as long as it takes. Official documents rarely mention what they’ve done. And when hostilities end, it’s hard to know exactly how much impact their work had.
Evidence of the peacemakers’ influence can be seen in the number of peace commissions set up in the last several decades. These commissions allow victims to tell their stories in a public forum.
Over the last 20 years, 16 nations have sponsored such commissions. They include Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina and Chile.
The reconcilers’ work also shows up in unlikely converts.
Former Salvadoran guerrilla Joaquin Villalobos was once popularly known as the Ho Chi Minh of Central America and directed a final offensive on San Salvador in which 2,000 people were killed. At one point in the war, his female companion was captured by the army, tortured for several days and then cut into pieces. Asked during the war whether he would ever put down his arms, he replied, “Never. We will never, ever disarm.”
Now Villalobos travels the world with the secular nonprofit Foundation for a Civil Society and has been studying at Oxford.
He said the full-scale victory he once wanted in El Salvador would not have achieved what the nation’s final peace accord did: Former enemies have worked together to learn coexistence and tolerance.
“Without accepting the right of our adversaries to exist and to have some power within society, a long-term peace would be impossible,” he told an international gathering.
Experiments in this new reconciliation are far from over. But Dr. Johnston is convinced that this is the way of the future.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s really pretty simple,” he said. “You try to show people how it’s in their own best self-interest to seize that higher moral ground, because until you do, you are trapped. You’re in a strait-jacket. You’re caught up with hatred and revenge, and you are not able to live a fulfilling life.”