The three former Peace Corps volunteers were armed with nothing but words and the trust that two warring countries had placed in them.
For two years, the three-man team fought — in the way that peacebuilders do — to keep a fragile peace along a disputed border in Africa. Charles “Chic” Dambach and his team kept words flowing, minds open, and guns silent as the formal negotiations by the U.S. State Department and the presidents of Ethiopia and Eritrea dragged on. The team’s visits and weekly phone calls with prime ministers, ambassadors, and religious leaders were possible because many of the officials had been taught by Peace Corps volunteers. The negotiations ultimately succeeded — but, as is so often the case in peacebuilding, not without heartbreaking setbacks. Many months into the process — and peacebuilding is a process before anything, Dambach and others say — Dambach and his team had finally gotten the Eritrean ambassador to the U.S. to agree to advise his president to withdraw troops from a disputed area in Ethiopia. The troops’ advance had undone months of work and had prompted Ethiopian officials to threaten a full-scale attack. Minutes after hanging up with the ambassador, Dambach got another call. “It was the ambassador saying, ‘I am so sorry — it is too late,’” he recalled.
Moments before the agreement had been reached, the Ethiopian military had attacked, unleashing violence that would lead to the deaths of thousands on each side over the next few weeks. “I cried,” Dambach recalled. “I had become deeply personally invested in this. … To this day I cannot speak about this in front of people without breaking down.” Ultimately the work of Dambach’s group — which included California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, with whom Dambach had once worked as a Peace Corps volunteer — helped bring about a lasting agreement on the disputed territory. Even Dambach, who has negotiated agreements in other countries and witnessed dozens of successes and failures in peacemaking, had to pinch himself at the treaty signing. “It was extraordinary to hear the prime minister of a country say to us personally, ‘The war is over — thank you for helping us end it.’” Such moments — tangible results in the pursuit of peace — often go unnoticed by the general public. But successful peacemaking — resolving conflicts without war or ending wars already begun — is occurring more and more these days, despite the onslaught of events that make it easy to think the world is drowning in blood: an intractable war in Iraq, genocide in Darfur, the U.S.’ saber-rattling toward Iran, a resurgence of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, and an apparent global terrorism effort that continues to plot, kidnap, and murder seemingly undeterred.
In fact, the rate of armed conflict among nations is the lowest right now that it’s been in decades, according to the International Peace Academy, a New York-based independent policy research group. Even taking into account the high-profile, deadly peacemaking failures like Rwanda, “We are in an unprecedented period of peace among states,” said Dr. John Stremlau, vice president for peace programs at The Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. If humanity has in fact inched closer to peace in recent years, it hasn’t been by accident. Since the end of the Cold War, a growing cadre of grassroots groups on several continents is credited with helping bring about that progress, with the aid of increased United Nations diplomacy efforts. “Right now you’re seeing a change in thought and attitude about the place for war in international policy,” said Dambach, executive director for the D.C.-based Alliance for Peacebuilding, a coalition of 80 charitable foundations working in this arena. “There is this growing recognition that war really is a pretty lousy way to resolve differences.” Two of the catalysts for this growing awareness and declining toleration for war are the internet and cable tv.
Those phenomena are increasing cultural awareness — and prosperity — around the globe. “Today people are better educated and are aware of poverty, death, disease, and destruction — they are demanding that something be done about it,” said Dr. Sarah McCue. McCue is president of Peace x Peace, a D.C.-based group committed to uniting peace-focused women — and building a peace movement — through the internet. She’s coming to North Texas in July — as are more than a thousand other women — to discuss global peace. Why would a thousand women converge on Texas to exchange ideas about world peace? No, it’s not because President George W. Bush is sponsoring a peace conference at his Crawford ranch. It’s because of the Third International Women’s Peace Conference to be held July 10 – 15 at the Adams Mark Hotel in downtown Dallas, with panel discussions and work sessions led by experts from around the world. McCue, for example, will lead a session on leveraging technology. Another will look at women’s role in peacemaking, and other sessions will examine the link between poverty and peace, the psychological effects of warfare, and the U.S. budget from a peacebuilding perspective.
The conference will feature three female Nobel Peace Laureates (there are only 12 female honorees in the 100-year history of the Nobel Peace Prize). Jody Williams launched the movement that led to an international ban on and reduced use of landmines. Rigoberta Menchu Tum successfully fought Guatemala’s murderous military dictatorship in the 1980s and helped end the large-scale repression of the Indian population that claimed much of her family. And Betty Williams, after witnessing two children die in the crossfire of her country’s violence, dove into peace efforts and ultimately inspired and led tens of thousands in demonstrations that were a factor in the current peace in Northern Ireland. The conference comes at a significant time, as a dramatically expanded network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in peacebuilding and economic development are harnessing the internet and tv to create more awareness and, they hope, more possibilities for peace. Worldwide there is also a growing recognition of female empowerment and female involvement — byproducts, perhaps, of greater global recognition of human rights — as tools for stopping war or averting it altogether. “I have a conviction that women have a unique role in creating a more peaceful world,” said Vivian Castleberry, who as founder of Peacemakers, Inc., has spearheaded the conference.
“We are again creating a place where women take responsibility for universal peace, because they always have taken responsibility for peace in their homes and within their families.” The Dallas event is the third peace conference in the last 20 years for Castleberry, a respected peace activist and accomplished journalist who broke ground for female reporters at The Dallas-Times Herald decades ago. One of the first female journalists in this area to cover serious news, Castleberry, 85, made a name for herself as a tough-minded but compassionate reporter. Writing the Times-Herald’s — and North Texas’ — first story on child abuse, she discovered neglected humanitarian issues long before the media and celebrities made such work trendy. From that deep-seated sense of social justice, Castleberry morphed into a peace advocate, creating Peacemakers in 1987 and organizing her first peace conference in 1988. More than 2,000 women from 56 countries attended the event. Another 700 attended her 1999 conference. “We wanted a conference at which women felt safe to express themselves, because most of the major decisions throughout the world have always been made by men,” she said.
The Dallas conference is, more than anything, a place to exchange ideas and learn what is working, said Castleberry, who likes to share “war stories” of activism as it was done in the years before e-mail. “Until we had e-mail access, we could be here thinking we’re doing the only thing” for peace, she said, when in reality other like-minded people were engaged in similar efforts in many places around the world. The conference comes at a crucial time indeed for those peace efforts around the world — especially in the changing and expanding role of NGOs in the peace process. In essence, people in various parts of the world are no longer satisfied to depend on governments to decide on war or peace — they are organizing more and more powerfully than ever before to affect that process. Nongovernmental organizations such as the Carter Center, including regional coalitions in Africa and elsewhere, toil on the sidelines — and sometimes in the midst — of armed violence, starvation, and poverty to alleviate suffering, promote prosperity, and prevent or stop war. And their efforts are paying off, according to the International Peace Academy’s report. “Twenty years ago there weren’t more than a couple dozen peace NGOs operating,” Dambach said. “Now we have … organizations worldwide — they’re everywhere.”
The work of such groups, in conjunction with the United Nations’ stepped-up diplomacy efforts, was one of the factors contributing to the decline in armed conflict since the end of the Cold War, according to the academy’s March 2007 report on global conflict. (The peace academy works with the U.N. but describes itself as independent.) From 1992 — one year after the Cold War ended — to 2005, the number of violent conflicts around the world declined by 40 percent, according to statistics gathered by the peace academy. The number of government coups or attempted coups has dropped dramatically since the 1960s. True, the drop has been mostly in country-vs.-country wars, and internal conflicts have continued unabated. But overall, the world is warring appreciably less than it was in the four decades following World War II. “We are in a transition where we are still maintaining international order, but the killing goes on within states,” said Stremlau. It’s a distinction that still leaves room for horrendous violence — including, for instance, the Iraq war, which despite its international import has become essentially a civil war being affected, from one direction, by the United States and its dwindling allies and from the other by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. The NGOs that are having such an effect on peacemaking now probably wouldn’t be growing as much as they are — and certainly not sharing as much information — without technological advances.
“Twenty years ago, the NGOs weren’t communicating, weren’t collaborating, and were operating in their own isolated bubbles,” said Peace x Peace’s McCue. Now they can collaborate and share ideas over the internet and via tv and easily spread knowledge of crises and causes to millions of people. These days, you can log onto the internet and send money to a Ugandan villager starting her own peace effort — or direct it to a group that’s working to end the deployment of child soldiers. For donors who recognize the connection between war and poverty, there are NGOs worldwide helping improve the economies of families, villages, and whole regions through programs like microcredit (enabling poor people to get loans for things as small as a sewing machine or a cow, without paying extortionate interest rates). In California, for example, the directors of a modest family foundation years ago grasped the importance of the war-and-poverty connections in Nepal and also the power of the internet.
Since then, the McConnell Foundation has funded programs in education, female empowerment, and sustainable living — programs that Stremlau said have visibly affected the prosperity of the country’s residents. The foundation uses the internet to reach potential donors by spreading the word about Nepal’s violence and the history of conflict between the government and the indigenous Maoist movement. “The accessibility [to news of what's going on in distant places] in the last few years has been revolutionary,” Stremlau said. “There is a greater recognition of what is going on around the world … and that we are all one humanity.” The increased awareness extends beyond Americans and others in the developed world who fund NGOs. A noticeable change has occurred in some leaders in their use of warfare to suit their political needs, said Stremlau. He cited the example of a regional quasi-governmental organization recently established in Africa — where, as Dambach noted, local peacebuilding groups have also sprung up in recent years. “There is a willingness of the African Union’s heads of state to play a greater role. If there is a military seizure of power, that is a concern of the regional powers,” said Stremlau, who has worked for more than 30 years in international relations and global peace.
In fact, due to that increasingly strong nexus of technology, awareness, and local and regional peacebuilding efforts, Stremlau envisions the day when the need for organizations like the Carter Center may diminish — because the work is being done by local and regional groups in contact with one another and the larger world via the internet. “We’re moving beyond a world where we’re worried about the security and sovereignty of states to worrying about the security of the people that live within those states,” he said. That recognition of the importance of people rather than political boundaries dates back at least to 1948, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt succeeded in getting the United Nations to pass its symbolic Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the recognition of human beings, not just sovereign nations, as having value. In the intervening decades, the concept of the need to safeguard human rights has increasingly become a focus of national and international policy and not just the business of do-gooders. Various other U.N. measures prohibiting torture, acknowledging civil rights, and recognizing the rights of children and of women have increased that awareness around the world.
In this country, Carter took another key step in declaring human rights to be an American priority. It’s not a giant leap to understand that international pressures on countries to treat their people humanely decreases the impetus for civil wars and regional conflicts. Despite horrific setbacks — from genocide in Rwanda to abuses in Abu Ghraib to the situation in Darfur — globally, human rights as a concept has been evolving particularly rapidly since the end of the Cold War. “Human rights is becoming the new conflict indicator,” Stremlau said. A key example is the now nearly universal recognition that the repression of women is unacceptable. The repression still goes on in many parts of the world, but the overwhelming disapproval of such practices has dramatically increased just in the last two decades. In policy circles in many countries, there is a growing awareness of the untapped power of women and girls in the struggle to stabilize countries and thereby forestall wars. Repeated studies have shown that educating girls raises economic productivity and reduces infant and maternal mortality as well as HIV infection rates. McCue’s Peace x Peace group focuses exclusively on women because, she said, women around the world are significantly less empowered than men.
Rick Halperin, a history professor at Southern Methodist University and chair of Amnesty International’s USA Board, said the connection between the pervasive violence aimed at women and the institutional violence of war is direct and powerful. He speaks and teaches internationally on the cycle of violence and advocates for repeal of the death penalty. “Most of the violence that occurs in this world is men against women,” Halperin said. “Therefore, if you’re going to look at violence, you have to have some understanding of women’s rights and of men’s relationship with women. Women have to stop being seen as targets.” If they are still the targets of violence, women are also increasingly important as peacemakers, Halperin said, though they may be less recognizable as household names than, say Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
From the conference’s three Nobel laureates to Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (who remains under house arrest) to women-led organizations such as Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, female peace workers and leaders have played and are playing vital roles, he said. Some activists argue that women indeed play a unique role in the struggle for peace. Tutu, reflecting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa, said during a panel discussion a few years ago that “When men came to testify, almost always they were testifying about what happened to themselves. And when women came, almost equally, they were telling stories about what happened to somebody else. … There was this kind of nurturing-ness, [a sense that] women have nurtured our freedom.” Since 2001, McCue’s group has been engaged in an effort to bring women together to break down the barriers between those on opposite sides of conflicts. The group has arranged for more than 900 Israeli and Palestinian women to meet — in person or online — to work on their peoples’ seemingly insoluble differences. The organization also has connected several thousand women from different parts of the world through a pen-pal-like online program called Women’s Global Initiative. One Lebanese woman who participated had grown up hating Israelis, McCue said.
Through the organization, the woman connected with several Israeli women whom she now counts as close friends. Other Palestinian and Israeli women have spent time working at rape or domestic violence crisis sites, helping women from the same ethnic group whose members their own ethnic group sets out to kill on a regular basis. “To have women who were raised to hate each other come together and say ‘I have never understood what her life was like but now I do and I have been changed by this on a deep, profound level’ is significant,” McCue said. In place after bloody place around the world, the struggle has been and continues to be making a connection between interpersonal peace efforts like that of McCue’s group and the international scene, where peacekeeping is more likely to involve tanks and troops than conversations between former enemies, or work on the poverty or education issues that are the deep-rooted seeds of war. And in fact, the official peacekeepers — the United Nations and the governments like that of the U.S. — haven’t earned a lot of credit of late in the minds of many of the other kind of peacebuilders. Despite a dramatic increase in U.N. missions to stave off or stop war between 1989 and 2002, many peace researchers and workers believe both the U.N.’s and the United States’ efforts have been marked more by failure than success in recent major efforts — the U.N. in part because of its small and poorly trained peacekeeping forces, and the United States because it has been willing to intervene, for the most part, only where its economic or political interests were directly involved.
Even though the United States continues to act so often as the world’s police force in those kinds of efforts, it hasn’t earned this country much credit around the globe. Nor has the increasing strength of the international peacebuilding effort or the growing recognition of human rights issues prevented disasters like the genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda or — even now — Darfur. What’s more, many believe that the politicians have failed to learn much from those repeated horrors of the last few decades. Robert Flaten, former U.S. ambassador to Rwanda and longtime diplomat, was involved in the negotiations that led to the peace accords in that country, which crumbled into genocide months after he retired from his post. The U.N.’s woefully small peacekeeping force was not adequate to the job, especially after Belgium pulled out its troops, and the U.S. — gun-shy because of strong public opposition following the deaths of U.S. soldiers during an earlier intervention in Somalia — declined to get involved militarily. What happened next was the systematic, ethnically driven hacking to death of more than 800,000 Rwandans in just over just three months in 1994. “We failed to live up to the ideals we preached,” said Flaten. “We as an international community played that [peacemaker] role up until it began to cost us something, and then we dropped out,” he said. “If we’re going to get involved in peacekeeping, we have to be willing to get involved to the point where it’s going to cost us something.”
Flaten said he questions whether the U.S. learned its lesson from Rwanda, based on current foreign policy. In 2002, U.S. State Department planners involved in diplomacy in Iraq were pulled out. And in Darfur, despite more than a year of talking about not tolerating violence, the U.S. government has failed to take any meaningful step to bring an end to the genocide. The Bush administration “has not supported peacemaking. … We have the same thing in Darfur [as in Rwanda] — we have lots of words,” he said. If wars between countries are more rare in the post-Cold War era, internecine conflicts have continued to occur at a high rate, most within the borders of less-developed countries that can least afford the damage. “Frequently the infrastructure is destroyed to a greater extent than in interstate wars. And you have to worry about how to put the pieces back together in the aftermath of the wars because there are no borders between the warring entities,” said Steven Poe, a political science professor and peace scholar at the University of North Texas in Denton.
Ethnicity and religious intolerance are more often the cause of conflict these days than the border disputes of the past. But wars, for the most part, are still about what they have always been about — resources, whether it’s food, water, farmland, or oil. The stark reality is that, if war breaks out in an oil-rich country, all the big players tune in — and maybe send in the tanks. If your region is poor in all those things — say, like Darfur — even if it is rich in things like genocide and starvation, the major powers, and their negotiators and peacekeepers, are otherwise occupied. Darfur, the region of the Sudan where government-backed troops are systematically wiping out rebels, is widely regarded as an example of war and unquestionable genocide raging unabated in an area that holds little political value to world powers. No significant natural resources and no economic clout equals no compelling reason to intervene. “We don’t have a Cold War anymore — now it’s rich vs. poor,” Halperin said.
Peace workers said that helps explain why U.S. efforts are so often greeted with such cynicism around the world: People add up the evidence and assume that the U.S. government’s concern for democracy and humanity don’t count for much. Similarly, when American politicians call for countries to stop developing nuclear arms, Dambach said, people in other countries “think, ‘You in the West have all the weapons of mass destruction and [yet] when we begin to tiptoe up to them, you go ballistic.’” The same thing happens when Americans call for the rule of law to be observed, but the U.S. government refuses to join the International Criminal Court or sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. “We are just not raised in this country to grasp that we are all part of the human community,” Halperin said. A near-universal belief among those who study peace and war is that there is an urgent need to raise the standard of living worldwide — not only for humanitarian reasons, but also as a vaccination against war. The widely respected Community of Sant’Egidio, an Italian Catholic lay organization that has helped end or avert wars in Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere, put it this way: War is the “mother of every poverty.” Despite that, Halperin said Americans who are willing to help in times of fire or flood aren’t much interested in times of dire poverty. “We are willing to share resources in natural disasters because we think we’re good people,” he said. “But when it comes to alleviating poverty and misery in the world, we are not willing to participate.” Those are all issues, Dambach and others said, when the U.S. government tries to step in and negotiate for peace. Trust in that situation is hard to come by, and, as Dambach said, “Trust is by far the most important part of successful peace negotiating.” Nine years ago, the most deadly paramilitary attack in the long and savage religious conflict in Northern Ireland took place in the town of Omagh. A bomb killed 29 people and wounded 200.
Few who saw that carnage would have believed in the possibility of what happened in Ireland earlier this year. Just a few months ago, power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants was restored by Northern Ireland’s government. A few weeks later, the oldest pro-British paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, renounced the use of violence and said it was putting its arms “beyond reach” and ending military training. The demonstrations Betty Williams led helped bring about those advances. The dramatic change came about in large part not because of governments, but because people like Williams finally concluded that war was too terrible and that there had to be some other way. In other words, war is not inevitable. It’s not always the easiest conclusion to reach. Conflict resolution expert William Ury of Harvard says the starting point in peacemaking is giving up the logic that war will always be with us. And, as with the conflict in Northern Ireland, the road to that changed assumption usually starts with individuals rather than governments. It’s a particularly difficult change to bring about for Americans, Halperin said, because this country “is in love with violence. … It is culturally who we are, from the video games … to the death penalty … to foreign policy.” And yet a core of peace activism has persisted in this country for many decades, waning during times of peace, waxing stronger when an unpopular war like Iraq drags on. Dambach, who said he is not a pacifist, makes a distinction between what he does, which he calls peacebuilding, and what he calls peace activism — the opposition to a particular war, by people who have strong opinions about pacifism or that specific conflict.
Peacebuilding, by contrast, he said, involves the goal of ending or averting conflict, and peacebuilders take no side in the dispute. So much of the success of those efforts, Dambach said, comes back to trust and to personal connections — to the Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, for instance, who trusted Dambach’s team because the officials had been trained by Peace Corps volunteers. Or to people like Williams or Rigoberta Menchu Tum, who saw what was happening to individuals and worked to end violence and injustice. Or people like the Palestinian and Israeli women brought together by Peace x Peace who now understand each other’s lives and motivations better. It’s the same kind of connecting that Quakers have been doing for decades. Flaten, the former U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, credits a network of Quakers operating in Rwanda with helping to maintain peace there since the genocide ended. More than that, he says they’ve helped the Hutus and Tutsis reach forgiveness, helped them let go of their hatred and anger over one of the worst massacres in history. That very human connection — more profound than your typical television news program provides — is peacemaking’s future, said Stremlau. “It’s going to have to be people-to-people connections. … It’s going to take more than Band-Aid conferences,” he said. “Women have a greater instinct for this. We should encourage women to get engaged and to think that maybe conflict resolution, bit by bit, community by community linking up together, is perhaps at the frontier of where we are going.” For more information on the conference, go to www.womenspeaceconference.org.
Kendall Anderson is a former Dallas Morning News reporter and freelance writer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.