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Taking a Stand against War:
A New Direction for Conciliation Resources

By Andy Carl

Conciliation Resources (CR) is an international NGO that supports people and processes to prevent and resolve conflicts, in the overall effort to build lasting peace in the world. In its 15 years of activity, our organization has witnessed and encouraged some significant peace agreements as well as having seen the end of wars in a victory for one side or the other. CR recently published a review of our latest peacebuilding work with the bold title of "Taking a Stand Against War".

These five words mark a significant change in our organisational voice and dirction. I was invited to reflect on how we came to take this position.

Many of you will be familiar with the important debates within the peace movement in Britain and Ireland which have revolved around two twin dilemmas. It is a clumsy oversimplification, but these might be described as a trend towards increasingly powerful peacebuilding NGOs with diminishing radicalism, and a peace movement with a diminishing influence yet one that holds onto vibrant and radical principles and ideals - most notably a commitment to nonviolence. Diana Francis's recent book, From Pacification to Peacebuilding (Pluto Press), is probably the most important piece of deep thinking about these and related challenges for our field.

Over the last 20 years we have seen the emergence, development and increasing professionalism of NGOs and institutions that might broadly be described as doing international peacebuilding work. Northern Ireland, of course, has its own such organizations. I think of INCORE and the Corrymeela community as two path-breaking organizations. Here, and particularly in England and especially in London, we have organizations like International Alert, Saferworld, and Peace Direct to name only three. CR is very much a part of this growing community. I think some confusion arises because these peacebuilding organizations do not have a commitment to nonviolence and each has engaged deeply with the British government at a time when the government has taken the country into several wars.

For CR, working with British government has been ethically disorienting. CR has enjoyed a close working relationship with civil servants, with plenty of support and plenty of challenge and over the years quite of bit of funding. Peacebuilding in the era of a declared worldwide "war on terror" was always going to be hard. We have found that a commitment to engage with any group at war, whether a government or non-state, whether with leaders or their supporters, always runs the risks of unwitting collaboration, and conveying legitimacy to behaviour or ideologies that one might find abhorrent, along with the real risk of doing more harm than good.

Nevertheless, when I recently heard that General Petraeus, the Alliance Commander in Afghanistan, read and considered materials CR had produced on armed groups, I felt a mixture of pride tinged with dread: pride that, thanks to the miracles of new media and the web, we are finding ways of "speaking truth to power"; dread that the they might be applying our insights to their counter-insurgency campaign with devastating consequences for civilian communities.

 

We must keep in mind that, in engaging with the other, we are changed forever.

Our partnerships with local peacebuilders in their diverse conflict contexts is a constant source of inspiration, expertise and ideas. Our part of the partnership is to provide resources, such as advice, solidarity, funds, training and accompaniment, to people and their organizations working to constructively transform their own conflicts. In turn, from our partners across the globe, we learn, develop and draw deep insights.

We also engage with governments, most of whom by definition are parties to violent conflicts. We deal with members of their security forces and, not often enough, with their political leadership. However, more often than not, we link with the civil servants who are the civil state, but so rarely its face.

CR began as an organization to provide resources for conciliation - or as some have more creatively described it, as providing conciliation without resources! Our transitory presence in deeply divided societies was welcomed by some within them and tolerated by others. We did what we could to put down a number of rooted relationships with different and diverse groups. I suppose that what characterised our early years was that we avoided "taking a stand" or even coming to a clear conclusion about contentious, often national issues while respecting aspirations, recognising needs and trying to understand history and complexity.

In Accord, our publication documenting peace processes and political settlements, we sought to explain the complexity of peacemaking, and though led by a strong spirit of enquiry to understand how people have transformed their conflicts, we were nevertheless reluctant to draw conclusions. Over time, we gained confidence and more certainty, and for the last few years, we have used our publication to try to identify the pertinent issues and lessons for policy makers and peace builders alike, alongside coming to conclusions. We are finding our voice.

Both proponents of a military "solution" to conflicts and those who propose a nonviolent resolution are too often guilty of wishful thinking, or what some Americans describe as following a "hope chain". This means that, instead of having a sound strategy based on a locally-informed analysis, evidence and experience, they instead hope that if the parties to the war will do so and so, it will end and the threat of further violence will go away. I do not knock hope, without which we wouldn't be working in this field, but argue that it isn't nearly enough to make a difference.

It is clear to me that conflict resolution and peacebuilding are broad and diverse processes requiring strong initiatives. Mediated or signed agreements, while critical milestones, should not to be mistaken for the whole peacemaking process. CR has always worked on alternatives to conflict while at the same time listening to communities which might view conflict as necessary to gain security as a right. The most immediate question is always how people can make themselves less vulnerable to the threat of further violence.

I think that our determination to "take a stand against war" is an important step in using our voice to state what for some might be blindingly obvious and for others an affront to profound personal sacrifice.

In central and eastern Africa, where almost every day new communities are caught up in the conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the national and international security forces opposing them, time and again we have witnessed how parents, whose children have been abducted to fight and die away from home, call out for protection and try to organize their own where possible. When they hear the same painful story from other parents and community leaders who have suffered at the hands of the LRA and local defence forces; when they learn of the war's long and vicious history, many come to the conclusion that another military assault, after 23 years of failure, poses too great a risk of mass deaths of civilians of all ages, and will not bring durable peace. While the nonviolent alternative is not without its painful compromises, it is often the one they choose to pursue, perhaps because it is down this path that they can have some agency in transforming their own conflict

Even in places where we do not doubt that a military victory by one side has at least brought a cessation of violence, we have to ask: at what human cost? Few regret the defeat of the RUF in Sierra Leone or of UNITA in Angola, but would anyone say the human costs were worth it or even that a resolution was found to the multiple issues which gave rise to the conflict in the first place? People with whom we have worked point to Sri Lanka and Colombia today, where battlefield "victories" have yet to bring basic security, justice and better governance or opportunities for the self development of the people. Unfortunately, we have learned with cumulative experience that advocating and working for nonviolent conflict resolution is not without its unsavoury compromises. For many people, peace talks and the international calls for them have lost all credibility. Anyone who has lived in a nation at war will know that any process involving jostling for power, such as peace negotiations, too often invite an escalation of violence.

It is with these experiences in mind, knowing full well that "soft power" is not a soft option, that we in CR take a stand against war and join in the global movements to find alternatives to war.

Andy Carl
Executive Director
Conciliation Resources
London, October 2010

Copyright INNATE 2016