The ninth annual peacebuilding conference was held yesterday and today at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. Now I’m on the train, going home to Toronto and mulling over the two days. I don’t take notes so this is a good time for a review, but my recollection of such events is always narcissistic -- colored by the concerns that I imposed on them. I think I listen as if watching through a narrow slit, observing only a portion (and not a representative portion) of what goes on.
About 150 people gather in the ministry’s Cadieux auditorium, sitting on comfy burgundy chairs, and wearing little earphones to hear the translations, though all the talks were in English except the portion that always Canadians deliver in French at the outset, just to be polite. Translations are not offered for practical reasons but rather as an admirable gesture of bilingualism. There are plenty of Francophones present but their English is always excellent. I recognized fewer of the participants than I used to. The old folks aren't coming as faithfully, but there are younger ones.
If it is reasonable to characterize the overall tone of the meeting with one adjective, I will call it “modest.” All the speakers seemed conscious that the past few years have been marked by more failure than success as far as mediation or peacebuilding operations are concerned. The recognition was often voiced that the speakers had made mistakes, and even that it is impossible to avoid future ones. For example, there is a right time and a wrong time to hold elections after a war, they said, but too often the elections have been premature or excessively costly, possibly even sending the message that “democracy is not for you people, since in the future you cannot afford the $8 per vote that this election cost.”
The most impressive speaker was Lakhdar Brahimi (see photo), a distinguished Algerian man who has served the United Nations in a variety of difficult roles, including as the Secretary-General’s special envoy far and wide. He headed a commission that sought ways of improving peacekeeping operations and produced the so-called Brahimi Report in 2000, recommending significant changes. Mainly, though, his career is notable for his service in Afghanistan. He refers to the Afghans as “we,” because in fact he was given citizenship in that country as a mark of respect for his work there. He had finished one stint in Afghanistan before the American invasion began, but he went back for an even more challenging posting after finishing his report on peacekeeping.
Dr. Brahimi answered a question about Responsibility to Protect by acknowledging that he holds a minority opinion about it. He does not think it really differs from the existing situation, for supposedly the Security Council must okay any intervention. In effect, then, the interventions will occur if and only if the dominant powers approve. But there is no objective criterion for determining when a military intervention is justifiable and when it is not. Brahimi said that he’d not object so much if the doctrine stated that people have a “right” to “be protected”, but instead it depicts military intervention as a “duty’ that the rest of the world is bound to impose, whether it is wanted by the victims or not. I see his point.
I asked questions a few times. In the second plenary there had been a lot of talk about Afghanistan. I noted that public opinion is turning against the continuing maintenance of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Even the peace community is divided on the question. I would have liked for Dr. Siddiq Weera to be on the panel. He's a McMaster University Afghan physician who has been working in his home country for the past few years. If Canadians are going to support the troops in Afghanistan, it will probably only be on the basis that Weera proposes – that their mandate be limited to protective, police functions rather than war-fighting, and that Canada more actively attempt peacebuilding and negotiations with the rebel factions.
My suggestion was not well received. Nigel Fisher of UNICEF offered the opinion that the regular military activities remain necessary. I ran into Peggy Mason in the women’s washroom afterward. She said I should have pointed out that Siddiq has actually been working inside the Afghan government, not as an NGO the whole time (though he is an NGO right now) and so he has a good basis for his opinion. She added that the Canadian officials are trying to suppress a debate on this subject, whereas they should recognize that it is a looming dispute that should be faced, head-on. I also spoke with Ernie Regehr about it. He liked what I suggested, as I had expected, for he had written a paper proposing much the same thing in the current Ploughshares MMonitor. If he, instead of I, had made that intervention it might have received some approval. Or perhaps not.
There was a session about mediation where I directed a question to Lois Wilson, the former United Church moderator and senator, who has served on high-level panel contacts to Sudan and to North Korea. Today’s panel dealt with the notion that Canada should develop a special expertise in mediation – possibly taking lessons from the Norwegians. Since this a new proposal is only now being floated, nobody quite knew what it would amount to, but they liked the idea of having Canada develop such capacities. In her speech, Lois referred to a situation that had happened in North Korea when the visiting Australians had excoriated the Koreans for several misdeeds – statements that Lois considered misguided. She herself tried to be conciliatory, never even mentioning contentious issues at all during that first visit.
I do not wholly endorse her commitment to the conciliatory stance, though I tried to be conciliatory when challenging her. Sometimes, I said, it is wrong to stand in the “middle.” Take Burma, for example. Even Norway goes further than just mediatimg; it actively funds and assists dissident groups inside dictatorships to carry on nonviolent resistance. Last year Ed Broadbent told me that the Canadian organization for which he served as first president, Rights and Democracy, had been set up explicitly to support nonviolent resistance movements in dictatorships. (Evidently support for this has diminished, though I don't know much about the inside details.) I said that there are times when it’s not appropriate to minimize or avoid conflict, but rather to wage it – nonviolently.
Lois said she hadn’t thought about that before. Actually, I was trying to obey the chair's order to be brief at the mike, so I didn’t have time to make my point completely clear. She and I talked about it further during the coffee break. I can only observe that the general perspective at these meetings is resolutely in favor of conflict reduction, of “playing nice.” Gene Sharp says he is not a peacenik because he doesn’t think all conflicts should be avoided. Nor do I. Some fights should be joined. The conferees at the Ministry today probably would not have supported Gandhi, who would had seemed too confrontational for their taste.
Yet, ironically, there are times when most of them would accept the resort to violence – at least when it can be justified in the name of the new, popular principle: Responsibility to Protect. Go figure.