Why talking peace is essential and why it is threatened

October 7 2011: Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Melanie Greenberg, President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Derek Brown Executive Director of the Peace Appeal discuss this year's Nobel Peace Prize and how, although a crucial tool for peacebuilders, peace negotiations are threatened by recent developments.

Guest post by Bill Richardson, Melanie Greenberg and Derek Brown.

This Friday the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three extraordinary women, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni opposition leader Tawakkul Karman. These three individuals were heralded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, one of the winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

Photo credit: Center for Global Development (CGD)

Their receipt of this year’s Nobel Prize should inspire many, not just in Africa and the Arab World, but globally.
Johnson-Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman have each pursued unique paths to promoting non-violent action as key to fundamental political, social and economic reform in their countries. Their receipt of this year’s Nobel Prize should inspire many, not just in Africa and the Arab World, but globally.

The three join an illustrious group of recent laureates whose work ranges from the protection of human rights, to nuclear non-proliferation, to climate change, and the social and economic development of the poorest among us. Their receipt of the prize also continues a trend by the Nobel Committee in the selection of laureates over the last decade which has highlighted a multidimensional definition of peace. Peace is not just an absence of conflict, but the presence of a just society that meets the needs of its people, requiring a multiplicity of approaches.

In a decade that has seen a profusion of violent national conflicts (the list forms a veritable alphabet, e.g. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, etc.), Johnson-Sirleaf’s, Gbowee’s and Karman’s emphasis on non-violent advocacy joins only three other Laureates in the past 11 years (i.e. Marti Ahtisaari, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan) whose primary work falls under what is most commonly recognized as essential to peacebuilding, working within national or regional conflicts to help transform those conflicts through dialogue and action.

The relative scarcity in recent years of laureates facilitating, mediating, or negotiating peace gives rise to the question, where are the peacemakers seeking to end wars, and are they being supported sufficiently to help change the course of our globe’s poor record of conflict resolution and transformation? Unfortunately in the United States, the country of 2009’s laureate President Barack Obama, legal prohibitions thwart their efforts.

Mediating between warring parties has never been an easy task. History shows that the odds are stacked against such efforts.
Mediating between warring parties has never been an easy task. History shows that the odds are stacked against such efforts. Academics who study the field of conflict resolution argue about whether more conflicts are ended by military victory or non-violent negotiation (the record is mixed), but the prevalence of prolonged violent conflict across our globe demonstrates that successful peace efforts are still too few in number.

The most often cited successes of peacebuilding in the last several decades (e.g. South Africa, Northern Ireland, Mozambique, East Timor, Southern Sudan, etc.) were achieved only after decades of violence, and required immense commitment on the part of visionary peacemakers, like Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. These peacemakers (many Nobel Laureates among them) were just the tip of the iceberg, underneath which lay the efforts of foreign governments and hundreds of civil society organizations, supporting a diverse array of peace initiatives. The most recent Human Security Report published by Simon Fraser University listed the collective results of these efforts as one of the reasons conflicts have declined in number since the end of the Cold War.

Talking to one’s enemies was the central, radical act in nearly all the peace efforts above. It is nowhere near sufficient to transform a conflict, but without it, peace processes do not exist. That is why it is ironic that the United States, the country of 2009’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, currently threatens peacemakers with 15 years in prison for talking with a long list of proscribed groups, all labeled “terrorist,” though several of which have won representation in democratic elections. The current regulations have been interpreted to prohibit the types of dialogue and promotion of non-violence that were central to peacebuilding efforts such as the Oslo Accords, the Good Friday Accords in Northern Ireland, and many other initiatives.

To be fair, the US hasn’t prosecuted anyone for talking peace with groups whose actions many justly abhor, but current law allows it to do so after a failed challenge to US anti-terrorism laws was adjudicated by the US Supreme Court last year. What the current regulatory environment has done is constrain the work of a cohort of distinguished peacebuilders in the US, effectively reducing US influence in many of the world’s most troubling conflicts and damaging our global reputation.

Why the US hasn’t acted to clean up a messy law, and instead encourage US peacebuilders in their efforts to transform conflict, is unclear. It may simply be a question of priorities amidst many pressing challenges confronting the US foreign policy establishment. It may also be part of the post-9/11 mentality, in which counter-terrorism trumps longer-term considerations of how war turns into peace.

In some respects, the evolution of the current US prohibition is a testimony to the power of words and to the power of peacemakers. Talking can be a dangerous act, but when used for good it is the most powerful of tools. The Nobel Committee’s award this year to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, should inspire us to ask how we all can support the peacemakers who wield words, with the resources and laws that allow those words to become just realities for countries beset by violent conflict.


This post was co-authored by Bill Richardson, Melanie Greenberg and Derek Brown.

Bill Richardson is a former US Ambassador to the United Nations, served two terms as governor of New Mexico and is the founder of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.

Melanie Greenberg is President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. In her work on international conflict resolution, Ms. Greenberg has helped design and facilitate public peace processes in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and the Caucasus.

Derek Brown is Executive Director of the Peace Appeal Foundation, which has supported dialogue and negotiations processes in Lebanon, Nepal and Sri Lanka. He recently returned from Lebanon, where the Peace Appeal works with Lebanon’s Common Space Initiative for Shared Knowledge and Consensus Building, which provides support to national dialogue initiatives in Lebanon, and the region.

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