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Alliance for Peacebuilding address

Following is the address made in 2008 to graduates of a similar organisation to Peacebuilders International, the Alliance for Peacebuilding in the USA. Although made to graduates of this program, this address serves as a good description of the involvement and purpose of peacebuilding endevours.

Building a Pathway to Peace

Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Graduation Ceremony Address, May 17, 2008

by Charles F. Dambach, President, Alliance for Peacebuilding

Thank you, Sara Cobb for all you do for this remarkable institution and for giving me this opportunity. Several of the people on your faculty and staff are very special to me. I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Susan Alan Nan who was vice chair of the Alliance for Peacebuilding board when I was hired. Kevin Avruch currently serves on our board, and he provides wise advice whenever I need it. I also want to recognize Michael Shank who is raising the public consciousness about peacebuilding with his essays that appear regularly in major media outlets. Dennis Sandole also deserves an award for his frequently published letters and op eds. Financial Times should pay him as he gets more ink than their staff journalists!

I am here today because I admire you, the graduating students. I hope your families are proud of you. They should be. You have chosen a vital path; you have studied hard, learned a lot, and passed your exams. I know many on your faculty, and they are among the very best. You have met their high standards, and you are well-equipped to launch your careers. You have taken that famous first step on your thousand mile journey. May the rest be enjoyable and fruitful.

Every older generation criticizes the next younger generation. It's a prerogative we earn by living so long. But I can't do that today. Yes, I worry about self-indulgence, eyes glued to computer screens, and muscle-bound thumbs from excessive exercise on the X-box controls. But that's not what I see. I've met hundreds of students and young professionals, and I am overwhelmed with your knowledge, your values, your skills, and your commitment. You inspire me, and I know the world is in good hands. I'm not the older generation criticizing the younger generation. I look to you as the generation that will correct the dreadful mistakes my generation has made and put squarely in your laps.

We have done a miserable job on the environment and the federal deficit. We've allowed our national leaders to entice us into ill-advised and poorly executed wars. We've created political chaos. I don't even want to mention the whole student loan issue! All I can say is, I'm sorry.

Yes, we've made a mess. But at the same time, we have started something quite remarkable. It's called peacebuilding-a concept that barely existed when I was born. Now, I'm thrilled to say that it is gaining traction and momentum. As graduates today, you have an unprecedented opportunity to take the driver's seat and make peacebuilding a central feature in everyone's policy book.

You get to start your careers in conflict resolution at a remarkable time in human history. We are on the leading edge of a growing movement to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of violent conflicts. Can you imagine the implications of this movement? Throughout history, ethnic groups, religious sects, tribes and nation states have wantonly resorted to violence - open warfare - to assert and impose their will.

When my children study world history, they study the story of war, and few people anywhere believe it will ever change. But that's what we are doing. We're changing it. It's too early to prove we can change the course of history, but that is our aspiration, and there is reason to believe that we are on the right path.

Until the advent of medical science, humanity accepted suffering and early death from disease. Few believed it would ever change. But research into the causes of illnesses, the development of effective treatments, and the training of professionals to apply them has transformed the quality of life and extended life expectancy.

Likewise, humanity has always accepted war between tribes, cultures and nations as inevitable - until now. Just as medical science emerged a century ago and changed our lives, the concept of peacebuilding and the conflict resolution profession has the potential to transform the way societies resolve intractable differences. In the absence of treatments, diseases took their inevitable toll. In the absence of systems, mechanisms and skilled practitioners to resolve conflicts, war will continue to take its toll.

That is changing. We are in the midst of a remarkable convergence of new, distinct, and synergistic phenomena that could transform the way nations and societies manage conflicts. We are designing and building a pathway to peace, and you are a central part of it. Let me give you some examples.

Look at the change in research. We used to glorify war and study the history of war largely to learn how to win the next one. Now, we are studying the history of war to learn how to prevent the next one. Furthermore, just as medical research studies wellness to understand and model healthy behavior, we are beginning to study peace - the stories of peaceful nations - so we can learn how everyone can live peacefully. We are developing systems and mechanisms within governments, through the United Nations and in civil society to provide national leaders and belligerents with alternatives to machetes, guns and bombs. And, we are training a whole generation of conflict resolution experts to teach the lessons we have learned and apply the skills needed to prevent and mitigate violence.

The remarkable emergence of private citizen engagement is the most exciting and promising dimension of the growing capacity to build peace. Women, in particular, are providing leadership. War and peace have always been the province of national leaders along with their armies and diplomats. Private citizens were merely passengers on the ships of state with little or no impact on the decisions and actions of those in power. Today, private citizens and citizen-based organizations play a role. A vital role.

The concept of citizen diplomacy emerged in the United States following World War II with tremendously important exchange programs like Sister Cities, AFS, the Experiment in International Living, and of course the marvelous Fulbright Scholars program. Rotary International and other civic organizations add a vital dimension to mix. My favorite, the Peace Corps, was created in the Cold War climate to build friendships and mutual understanding in remote parts of the world. All of this helps tear down walls and build bridges as a foundation for a more peaceful world.

But peacebuilding, as applied by conflict resolution experts, goes another step. We become directly engaged, at all levels, with groups and nation states that are at war or about to go to war. We seek to address the drivers or causes of conflicts and help opposing sides find a path to resolution without resorting to violence.

San Igidio, and its remarkable work in Mozambique, was among the first success stories, and our colleague Andrea Bartoli was part of it. New books are appearing every year with more and more examples of civil societies building peace where there would otherwise be war.

Track two diplomacy, or multi-track diplomacy is now recognized everywhere. Some of the people you have encountered here at ICAR created track two diplomacy and gave it credibility. Ambassador John McDonald, for example, left the Foreign Service and became a private-sector peacebuilder decades ago. His Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy is a model for all of us. Ambassador McDonald, Joe Montville, and Chris Mitchell are among the great pioneers upon whose shoulders we stand today. You have studied among the giants in this field.

During the years you graduating students were born, degrees and careers in conflict resolution barely existed. Yes, there were careers in diplomacy, but that is different. Official diplomats serve the interests of their countries, and that can mean support for and defense of war just as much as it can be work for peace. Peacebuilding places a priority on non-violence - finding ways to resolve differences without war.

When you were born, there were but a handful of citizen-based organizations trying to penetrate the realm of violence prevention and conflict resolution. Today, there are dozens of degree granting programs, and there are hundreds of NGOs as well as government agencies and the UN working every day to help reduce the frequency and severity of violent conflicts.

Just within the past few years, the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) was formed to link peacebuilding organizations in each of 15 regions. Their networks of conflict resolution professionals and organizations provide local leadership. In Kenya, for example, Florence Mpaayei of the Nairobi Peace Initiative helped tame the violence that erupted in the aftermath of a corrupt election. That tragic situation could easily have deteriorated into large scale civil war. But it didn't. It didn't because the UN stepped in, and it didn't because Florence and her team went to work. Government officials, UN officials, and civil society worked together to build peace.

In 2005, GPPAC sponsored a conference at the United Nations that attracted over 1,000 peacebuilders. Nothing like it had ever happened, and it stimulated the creation of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. The UN has also established a new "Peace Building Community of Practice" to facilitate interaction among all of its departments. This is new.

The US Agency for International Development has an Office of Transition Initiatives and a Conflict Management and Mitigation department. The State Department has a new bureau called the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. Even the Department of Defense has recognized peacebuilding with a liaison to our community based in the Joint Forces Command. West Point and the US Army War College now offer courses on peacebuilding. All of this is new.

An international panel of "eminent persons" is being formed to build the political will among nations to turn warnings of possible violence into action to prevent it. This, too, is new. Nothing like this has ever been tried. Think about it .... the potential impact of a team of former heads of state, foreign ministers, Nobel Laureates, scientists, artists, and philosophers all speaking with one voice of reason to press the world community to prevent wars wherever and whenever they seem most likely.

CARE, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Mercy Corps and many other relief and development agencies have incorporated conflict resolution into the services because their social and economic development initiatives depend on it. This is new.

Several NGOs and government agencies now monitor volatile states and provide vital information and policy recommendations to help avert disasters. In addition, the Global Peace Index ranks the countries of the world based on their peacefulness - highlighting the countries that have actually achieved a relatively high degree of peace. What a fabulous idea. Let's learn who has succeeded, honor them, and learn from them. The second edition of the Index will be released this Tuesday.

The Alliance for Peacebuilding is a new participant in this rapidly growing community. We were incorporated just five years ago, and most of our members are less than two decades old. We facilitate collaborative action among dedicated and talented organizations and professionals, and we are developing (in cooperation with Swisspeace) a Global Crisis Prevention Mechanism. We are also becoming a united voice in support of conflict resolution policies and programs in the halls of Congress and in the national media.

All of this is new.

  • Dozens of graduate programs in conflict resolution,
  • Hundreds of private peacebuilding organizations,
  • A UN focus on peacebuilding,
  • An international panel of eminent persons speaking with one voice of reason,
  • New agencies within the US government and other governments worldwide,
  • Conflict resolution capacities within the relief and development community,
  • Monitoring volatile states and creating responses to prevent violence before war breaks out,
  • Studying peaceful nations as role models, and
  • An alliance of peacebuilders to improve effectiveness through collaboration and outreach.

If only two or three of these initiatives emerged at once it would be significant, but probably inadequate. The fact that it is all happening simultaneously means that something big is underway. It will still take time; sufficient resources have yet to be committed to the task, and there is no guarantee peace will prevail.

But, this is the best opportunity the world has ever seen for a change of course. This is your opportunity.

You have the potential to embrace these new opportunities and transform the course of history - and not a day too soon. Alienated and disenfranchised groups, called terrorists, are creating fear and inflicting enormous suffering. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction makes the potential damage from any conflict too fearsome to contemplate.

Furthermore, growing pressure from expanding and migrating populations, as well as dramatic changes in climates and shrinking access to water, could trigger a new wave of violence on a global scale. We must find ways to resolve these conflicts at the negotiating table. If not, the battlefields will expand, and death and destruction will become catastrophic. No one will be immune. Peacebuilding is arriving on the world stage in the nick of time. You are arriving in the nick of time.

I am convinced that the use of violent force is not a reasonable, rational or acceptable way to resolve differences. Conflicts can be resolved through reason, negotiation and mediation. It takes time, patience and persistence, but it is almost always preferable to violence.

The only assured outcome of violence is death and destruction. There is absolutely no assurance that fairness, rightness or justice will prevail in any conflict that is settled on the battlefield. All warfare determines is who can inflict more pain and suffering on the other, and which side is willing to endure more loss of life and property in order to claim victory. That's a lousy way to settle anything.

My wife Kay and I are raising two boys, one eighteen and the other 16. They argue like any healthy siblings. Our 18 year old is much bigger, and he can beat up his little brother any time he wants. Do we let him do it, and have his way? Of course not. But, that's what we've allowed among nations, isn't it? If one can destroy the other, they can prevail and reap the spoils. What nonsense.

Furthermore, in a world of asymmetrical warfare and offset strategies, size and power don't guarantee a winner. The battle between Israel and Hezbollah last summer was an example. Israel expected a quick and decisive conquest, but it didn't happen. The US experiences in Vietnam and Iraq clearly demonstrate the failure of overwhelming force to assure victory. Every side feels bold and confident at the outset of war, but the reality is quite different. More often than not, no one wins.

Please don't get me wrong. I don't embrace absolute pacifism. There are situations where military force is necessary to prevent even greater violence and loss of life. Hitler had to be stopped, and it took military force to do it. Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin should have been indicted and hauled before an international tribunal for their crimes against humanity - even if it took an armed force and an invasion to do it. I believe the international community finally did the right thing to topple Slobodan Milosevic and put him on trial. The genocide in Rwanda could have been stopped, but the international community failed to commit the forces available to end the killing. The failure to use force when it was needed resulted in preventable and unspeakable violence.

Unfortunately, universal world peace is still a distant dream, and megalomaniacs still seize power. We still need people in uniforms and carrying guns to prevent extremists, brutal dictators, and aggressors from inflicting more damage. But that will become less and less necessary if we are willing to invest in and develop our peacebuilding capacity.

Most wars, however, are led by rational people who feel compelled to resort to force to redress their grievances or achieve their goals because they see no other way. Most ethnic groups, tribes and cultures, even those with deep-seeded and centuries old hostilities would rather co-exist than fight. Sometimes, however, they feel trapped or trampled upon, and in desperation they resort to violence to escape or restore their dignity. Our job is to provide another way and help them find it and embrace it.

News reports often create the impression that one side is right, the other wrong and that conquest of good over evil is the only answer. Yet, the real world is rarely that clear cut. I have come to know rebel leaders who have been portrayed as evil incarnate. I have listened to them and learned that they, too, have a story to tell and a compelling case for their position. I may not agree with it or approve of their behavior, but I have found that when I am willing to listen, they are willing to listen to me. When I am willing to show them respect, they return it in kind. When I trust them, they trust me. These are the three keys words in building peace: listen, respect, and trust. Each builds on the other in that sequence.

I had a unique opportunity to apply this concept successfully just a few years ago. In the spring of 1999, John Garamendi and I formed a small team of former Peace Corps volunteers and staff to facilitate communication between the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea to help them end their border war. (John had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, and now he is Lieutenant Governor of California.) We met regularly with both ambassadors, both foreign ministers, and both heads of state over a two year period. We were willing to listen, and listen, and listen to both sides over and over again as they explained why they were right, and why the other side was wrong. As a result, they trusted us. We didn't come in with the answers. We came in with our ears, listening.

By hearing them out, we demonstrated respect for them, and they reciprocated with respect for us. Eventually, we were able to find a path to peace - together.

There were ups and downs and periods of frustration and exasperation, but they consistently came to our small unofficial group for guidance and to convey messages to the other side. In September, 2000, Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki informed us in a phone conversation that he would accept the final condition for settling the conflict. I jumped into a cab, and went straight to the Ethiopian embassy to convey the message.

A few weeks later, we were invited to meet with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Over breakfast, the Prime Minister said, "I am here to tell you the war is over, and I want to thank you for helping make it happen."

Obviously, we were thrilled beyond words with the news, and moved beyond description with his expression of appreciation. Shortly thereafter, we were contacted by President Isaias who invited us to the agreement signing ceremony in Algiers. It was the best trip of my life.

A few years later, we played a similar role with the leaders of the major rebel groups and President Joseph Kabila in the Congo. In that case, we helped them agree to form a coalition government leading to elections and an end to the most deadly conflict since World War II. We were successful because we built their trust by listening to them and respecting all of them.

Permanent peace is far from assured in either of these cases, and we continue to meet with key leaders to urge further progress, but at least the military war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is over, and the major fighting in the Congo has stopped. Only lower grade battles with renegade militias continue.

I share these stories to convey two very important messages. First, it is possible for individuals and citizen-based organizations to build peace. We can help belligerents, even when they are heads of state, find a path to peace. The US and other governments play geopolitical chess trying to manipulate the outcome to serve foreign policy interests. We, as private citizen peacebuilders, serve one and only one purpose, and that is peace.

We know how to listen, to learn why people and nations feel compelled to go to war. We can build a special trust relationship. On that basis, we can explore - with them - the paths that will lead to peace.

I believe these are the keys to conflict resolution success:

  • Always be on the side of peace
  • Listen, really listen to learn and understand
  • Demonstrate respect
  • Build trust
  • Be patient, and
  • Be persistent

That set of skills and qualities apply to virtually any conflict resolution environment, be it within a family, at work, in a community, or at the national and international level. Violence is not acceptable. Conquest is rarely possible or sustainable. Virtually every conflict has a mutually acceptable and peaceful resolution. Our task is to help opposing sides find it and embrace it.

At long last, we are studying war to prevent it rather than just to win it. We are developing systems and mechanisms to help prevent and mitigate violence, and young people like you are developing the skills to make it happen. The impossible task of reducing the frequency and severity of violent conflict is no longer impossible. It can be done, and you will do it.

Some of you will find jobs as conflict resolution professionals right away. Others will find related work, in which you can apply these skills. Others may have to create your own opportunities. The world does not yet offer peacebuilding jobs the way it does for mechanical engineering graduates. But you are creative people on the cutting edge of an exciting new field. You will make it happen.

Just as medical science is still perfecting the tools and skills to overcome disease, we are still developing our tools and skills. The good news is that it is happening, and if we persist, we can change the course of history.

Private citizens are leading the way, but the UN and many national governments are also part of the cause. Together, we are designing and building a pathway to peace. I wish it could be a superhighway, but a walking path will do for now. It's up to you to complete the task. It can happen in your lifetime. You will make it happen.

Congratulations and best wishes.