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Conflict and Diplomacy

May 20, 2009


Jimmy Carter is one of the few former presidents whose stature actually rose once he left office. He has dedicated his post-presidential years to helping others and his sincerity has resulted in enormous moral influence as well as a Nobel Peace Prize. One of his most cherished accomplishments was the establishment of The Carter Center whose motto is: Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope. On the subject of “Waging Peace,” the Center’s web site states:

“Wars produce the worst violations of human rights worldwide and are the greatest impediment to human development. Most of the more than 50 major armed conflicts since the Cold War have been internal clashes over religion, national or ethnic identity, or access to natural resources or wealth. The Conflict Resolution Program works to resolve such conflicts and build sustainable peace. The Center has become a trusted broker for peace, serving as an alternative channel for dialogue and negotiation until official diplomacy can take place. As a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization with access to world leaders and expertise in mediation, negotiation, and peacebuilding, the Center helps warring parties when traditional dispute resolution methods fail, filling the space between official diplomacy and unofficial grassroots peace efforts.”

Since my company, Enterra Solutions®, is involved with development activities as a result of its Development-in-a-Box™ concept, I, of course, agree with the argument that conflict is one of the world’s greatest impediments to development. Resolving conflicts through dialogue, negotiation, and diplomacy is obviously the preferred method. Historically, however, negotiation has taken a back seat to military victory as the principal method of conflict resolution. As noted by Daniel Pipes, “Diplomacy rarely ends conflicts.” [“The Only ‘Solution’ [for Israel] is Military,” New York Post, 25 February 2002]. Pipes continues:

“Resolution occurs when one party realizes it can no longer pursue its aims and gives them up. This usually follows its unambiguous vanquishment, either a military collapse (as in World War II) or internal rot (as in the Cold War). ‘In every case I can think of,’ writes strategist Michael Ledeen, ‘peace has come about at the end of a war in which there was a winner and a loser. The winner imposed terms on the loser, and those terms were called “peace.” … Hardly a single major interstate conflict has concluded due to someone’s clever schema. The idea that a ‘peace process’ can take the place of the dirty work of war is a conceit. Again, to quote Ledeen, ‘Peace cannot be accomplished simply because some visiting envoy, with or without an advanced degree in negotiating from the Harvard Business School, sits everyone down around a table so they can all reason together.’ The oft-heard mantra that ‘there is no military solution,’ … in short, has things exactly wrong.”

Time and again the pattern noted by Pipes and Ledeen has played itself out. The most recent example just occurred in Sri Lanka [“Sri Lankan Rebels Admit Defeat, Vow to Drop Guns,” by Emily Wax, Washington Post, 18 May 2009]. Wax reports:

“Cornered into a tiny patch of jungle about the size of a football field, the Tamil Tiger rebels — who once operated a shadow state complete with a law school, a tax system, a navy and even traffic police — vowed … to lay down their weapons for good, in a stunning and unprecedented admission of defeat in Asia’s longest-running war.”

As Pipes noted, conflict generally ends “when one party realizes it can no longer pursue its aims and gives them up.” This is exactly what happened in Sri Lanka.

“‘This battle has reached its bitter end. It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them,’ Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers’ chief of international relations, said in a statement posted on the TamilNet Web site. ‘We remain with one last choice — to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns.'”

The final nail in Tamil Tigers’ coffin was the reported death of their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran [“Death of Rebel Leader Marks ‘End of an Era’ in Sri Lanka,” by Emily Wax, Washington Post, 19 May 2009]. According to Wax’s earlier report, Prabhakaran “allegedly orchestrated suicide bombings that killed a Sri Lankan president, six cabinet ministers and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. He trained an elite squad of suicide bombers, the Black Tigers, and was infamous for hosting elaborate feasts for his recruits before sending them to their death.” Wax describes the events surrounding Prabhakaran’s death:

“After a two-hour firefight, officials said, Prabhakaran was shot along with two commanders from his inner circle: Tiger intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai, the head of the ‘Sea Tiger’ naval wing, who used only one name. The three were killed as they were trying to flee the war zone in the country’s north in an armored van accompanied by a bus filled with armed rebels. The Sri Lankan government sent cellphone text messages to citizens across the country announcing that Prabhakaran and his deputies had been killed.”

A military resolution to conflict doesn’t mean that everything turns out glowingly. Iraq is a perfect example. As John Keegan notes, “Wars usually end in a mess.” [“History tells us that most conflicts end in chaos,” The Telegraph, 01 June 2004]. The world will watch to see how the Sri Lankan government treats its Tamil minority. It was single-minded in its quest for victory and the price paid by the Tamil minority was dear [“War’s End in Sri Lanka: Bloody Family Triumph,” by Somini Sengupta, New York Times, 19 May 2009].

“The United Nations says 7,000 civilians have been killed since January alone, and more than 265,000 ethnic Tamils who fled the war zone are now interned in overcrowded camps. Some civilians are missing, including three government-employed doctors who worked in the rebel-held area and regularly spoke out about the shelling of hospitals there. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said the government shelled civilian areas, even as the rebels held tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils as civilian shields. Now, some of Sri Lanka’s erstwhile allies, including those that had banned the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, are calling for an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes.”

The government’s victory in Sri Lanka will make the world once again assess the viability of diplomacy for ending conflicts. For one, I’m not ready to toss out diplomacy in favor of military action. Although the odds are long that diplomacy will work, each conflictual situation is different and the tools that will work in each situation change. Even one successfully negotiated end to conflict is worth the effort. On the other hand, political leaders cannot wear blinders and avoid seeing circumstances as they really are. Political leaders in Pakistan tried to negotiate peace in the Swat Valley and the Taliban interpreted their actions as weakness. Even if military victory is the principal means of ending conflict, the Carter Center notes that the end to fighting does not necessity decrease the need for diplomatic efforts:

“An end to fighting does not always mean a conflict has been completely resolved. The often protracted process that leads to a peace agreement represents the beginning of an even longer process of peace implementation and post-conflict reconciliation. All parties must be held accountable for implementing agreements in good faith. Beyond the implementation of a peace agreement, root causes of a conflict may linger and continue to fester to the point of reigniting the conflict. Bringing former combatants together to forge a shared future demands patient, persistent efforts. Steps may be taken to ease ethnic tensions, identify and build consensus around shared social goals, strengthen the rule of law, and bring justice to victims.”

This is the current situation in Iraq (especially between the Kurds and the Arabs). As I noted in my post entitled Nastiness in Nineveh, many people in the area believe that only confrontation will result in a solution. Such an outcome would be bad for both sides since it would set back development efforts and drain scarce resources which could be put to better use than fighting a civil war. Security is absolutely essential for development; but, security must be tempered with justice, fairness, and cooperation. The world has need for both military personnel and diplomats. Their efforts should be complementary and their goals the same — to secure a peaceful and prosperous future for people in conflict.

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