Facing the Limits of Reconciliation

Author(s): 
Department: 

Western Friend interview with Andrew Tomlinson

Andrew Tomlinson has been Director of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in New York since 2008. He grew up in the U.K. and became a Quaker when he moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. His academic background is in archaeology and anthropology, and he worked for many years as a banker, including several years with a socially responsible investment business. He is currently a member of Chatham-Summit Monthly Meeting in New Jersey. Andrew spoke by phone with Western Friend on December 19, 2014. Following are edited excerpts from a transcript of that interview, with an extended version online at westernfriend.org/media/facing-limits-reconciliation.

More information about QUNO is online at quno.org.

Western Friend: I’d like to begin by hearing how QUNO was founded.

Andrew Tomlinson: In 1945, the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco. The Quakers and other civil society groups were there, ensuring that there would be a right of access for non-governmental organizations. Then in 1947, Quakers received the Nobel Peace Prize, for their humanitarian work during and after two world wars, and at the end of that year the Quaker UN Office was founded, just as diplomats and civil servants from around the world were coming together there. So there really is a feeling of Friends being there right at the birth of the UN, and a sense of Friends being called to a Quaker witness at the highest level of global policy making.

WF: So from the materials you sent me, I understand that one of QUNO’s main priorities right now is encouraging the UN to include “Freedom from Violence” in its next set of global development goals – for the period 2015-2030.

AT: Yes. Fifteen years ago, the world put together the Millennium Development Goals, which were relatively traditional development objectives, focused on things like maternal health, education, and so on. The target date to achieve the goals was 2015. So the international community is now in an extensive process to work out what the next set of goals will be. And the process has been much broader and aspirational. Just to give you a sense of the ambition of this thing, Goal One – and there are seventeen proposed goals – Goal One is to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. It’s mind-boggling.

We see “freedom from violence” as a development goal as a result of the work that we have done for decades, trying to assist societies in finding their way out of repeated cycles of civil war, sometimes genocide, and violent conflict. What has become very clear to us is that the countries that have not been able to progress towards the Millennium Development Goals are the countries that have been particularly impacted by violence. Where societies have been broadly peaceful, they have been able to make progress on addressing the needs of their populations. But in countries that have not been able to emerge from conflict, that progress hasn’t happened. Violent conflict is fundamentally anti-development.

The traditional way of doing development work is to target one particular type of intervention, a water project or a set of health clinics, for example, and bring in external resources to implement it, without necessarily considering developing local capacity to help the project become self-sustaining. That hasn’t worked particularly well in societies that are fragile, with weak governments, weak institutions, and weak civil society. In those situations, trying to do traditional development work is like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. That is, to do effective development, we need to help societies build their capacity to make decisions and address conflict non-violently.

WF: So how do you envision this goal of “freedom from violence” making a difference on the ground? How will you point in 2030 and say, “We’ve succeeded here”?

The United Nations building in New York City; photo by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Government, public domain (2007).AT: So the first level is the peace goal itself. The full current wording of the goal (and this can still change) is:  “To promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, to provide access to justice for all, and to build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Then, underneath that goal, we have a list of targets, and that is where the measurement comes in.

One of the targets is to significantly reduce all violence-related deaths and death rates. That’s something you can measure. Or another example: end abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence and torture against children – to some degree quantifiable, depending on the quality of the record keeping.

Now there is actually quite a lot of work being done by a number of people to try to measure issues of peace and governance. There is an organization called the Institute for Economics and Peace, which produces something called the World Peace Index. Another example is the work of Mo Ibrahim, an African businessman who has a foundation that produces an index of African governments, which ranks them by categories like safety and the rule of law, participation and human rights, economic opportunity, human development. There’s even a Mo Ibrahim Prize for the African leaders who’ve produced the greatest improvements.

So quite a lot of work has been done, but the reality is: it’s only the tangible things that you can easily count. Your can count how many bags of rice you deliver, but it’s much harder to measure things like inclusive governance.

WF: You spoke earlier about work that QUNO had done for years in helping societies find their way out of cycles of violence. Would you talk more about that work?

AT: If you compare a country that has been devastated by natural disaster and one that’s been devastated by civil war, they look similar. In both cases, if you go through those towns and villages, you’ll see destruction of infrastructure, destruction of people’s lives, you’ll see a lot of graves, you’ll see a society that’s been torn apart. Yet, the case in which the society has undergone violent conflict, a civil war or otherwise, that’s different because people have done this to each other. Which means that to set things right, you have to address the relationships between people, their communities, and their governments.

So reconciliation and dialogue are central to peace building. But this is a difficult space and the tools available are limited. Yes, there are truth and reconciliation commissions (although they have a mixed record) and there are ways of engaging local traditional methods of justice and truth telling. And we’re seeing some work around things like national dialogs. But the world really hasn’t worked this out yet. It’s very fragmented in the U.N. system. I think this is an area where Quakers have a lot to offer.

WF: Can you say a little bit more about national dialogues?

AT: Well, the first steps of a traditional peace agreement, coming out of a conflict, are largely about bringing together the main combatants, the guys with guns, and trying to stop active violence. But those are not the people who you need to be involving in order to build sustainable peace in the country. For that, you need to have a much broader consultation, to get some kind of a dispensation for the country that is going to actually have some chance of surviving over time. It’s more than getting people’s buy-in; you actually need their input. You need an agreement that reflects the priorities and needs of as broad a range of the population as possible, beyond the elites and the capital.

WF: Have you seen this done?

AT: Well, people are trying bits of it. The traditional way that the world has done this is to try to move as quickly as possible from a peace agreement to elections. But as we’ve seen, elections in themselves can be trigger points to violence. Elections really should emerge from a society’s consensus as to how to structure itself.

But one example, last year, was the national dialogue in Yemen. For a society that had been extraordinarily divided, the process was really quite inclusive. They really did set out to include civil society groups, women, youth, private sector, and so on. The consensus is sort of falling apart now, but for a while, it did provide some basis on which there was a broader discussion.

Another place where we have seen some degree of successional transition on the basis of national and political discussion has been Tunisia. The place where the so-called Arab Spring started four years ago was Tunisia. And now it’s the place where some of those initial hopes have actually emerged in terms of a far more inclusive national consensus and constitution.

I should make two additional points here. First, although national level processes are important, sustainable peace is built by regular people in their own communities. This is where initiatives such as the Quaker inspired HROC (‘Healing and Reconciling our Communities’)  workshops in the African Great Lakes region are so important – rebuilding the social fabric from the bottom up. Secondly, national processes, often hampered by what is politically feasible, are often incomplete. I was recently in South Africa at a UN expert workshop on reconciliation, where the prevailing local analysis was that although the fall of Apartheid had addressed issues of race, it had failed to address fundamental structures of economic and social inequalities that remain in place to this day.

WF: I’d be interested if you could also say a little bit more about traditional practices of reconciliation and places where you see examples of that.

AT: Almost every society has some experience of violent conflict followed by reconciliation. But the reality is that in most cases justice in the conventional sense is hard to find. If you look at the tribunals that have happened in various places around the world, the justice that does happen is at best symbolic. You get an international tribunal; it costs millions of dollars, it meets for ten to fifteen years; and then three perpetrators go to jail. Now, I don’t want to say that that’s a bad thing, because it has huge symbolic value. But formal justice mechanisms are largely insufficient.

So there has been a need to engage with more informal and local processes. Firstly, if there are any kinds of local justice mechanisms, then they may be brought into play. So for example, in post-genocidal Rwanda, the gacaca courts – which have come into their share of criticism – were local justice mechanisms, which were able to process a far larger number of cases than would have been possible through the official court mechanisms of the state. Secondly, there may be other traditional mechanisms that support truth telling and less formal conflict resolution, such as the fambul tok process in Sierra Leone, the institution of the Bashingtanhe in Burundi, and the palava hut approach in Liberia.

Many of these have been at the community level, where people have been able to have some kind of a protected space where they can just as individuals address what happened to them, but also potentially where the perpetrators can tell their stories, too.

This is where the Quaker experience with restorative justice is very relevant. Systems of justice around the world vary. The most prevalent types are punitive justice mechanisms – a crime is committed, a suspect is identified, there’s a judicial process, and punishment is meted out to the perpetrator. And the challenge with that approach is that it actually provides very little in terms of recognition for victims, or repairing the harm caused directly to those involved and to the community as a whole. The Quaker approach has always been different. A restorative approach is more holistic and inclusive, focusing on healing, on repairing harm, recognizing victim suffering looking for ways for the community or society to heal itself, to find ways for forgiveness and rehabilitation to occur. This particularly speaks to the reality of a society emerging from huge violence and where traditional justice mechanisms may be largely unavailable.

However, reconciliation is tricky. For us, reconciliation and dialogue need to usually appear in the same sentence, and here’s the reason. When Quakers think of reconciliation, they often think about it in human terms – putting people in the same room to share their own experiences as human beings, trying to come to a new place where people are able to forge new lives as a community together.

The thing is, in many situations, what is needed is more than just addressing pain and trying to move on to healing, and this is particularly the case where there is a significant power imbalance, structural inequity or injustice. Dialogue is always possible, and by getting people to acknowledge their common humanity it may be possible to create some improvement. But you can’t really get to reconciliation unless you address the underlying structural injustices, be they economic, social or political.

This was of course a key issue in South Africa, and it remains an issue today in places like Palestine. Now, this is clearly a very complex situation, yet one aspect that receives little attention is the power imbalance between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the implications that has for peace negotiations. The Israelis largely have all of the power. They control most of the resources; they control the tax revenue; they have overwhelming military might backed by the U.S. The Palestinians have a destroyed economy; they have no political power; they don’t control their own land and water resources; they have no basis upon which to bargain effectively. There may be a potential for dialogue, for the different actors to see one another as human beings, but the only way for peace negotiations to take place on a level playing field is to even up the power imbalance through the use of external mechanisms, like international human rights law, like the Geneva Conventions. And you need outside actors to emphasize the necessity for an approach that will give equal weight to the needs of all peoples in the region.

WF: So who provides the framework of help in cases of structural injustice, if the goal is to avoid having countires impose solutions on each other?

AT:  Part of the answer is about helping societies become more resilient, more adaptable, and stronger in their own internal mechanisms and processes for addressing problems as they arise. That’s part of it.

The other part is about developing an external system that supports societies in becoming more resilient and stable. And that has to do with trade agreements; it has to do with trying to address flows of arms; it has to do with addressing external political and security agendas. It also has to do with addressing transnational organized crime and trafficking. It’s about making the world in the big picture a fairer place, where fragile countries’ entire economies and political systems are not driven by the whims of a few more powerful countries. It’s about providing a context of international norms and standards that help societies themselves become stronger and more able to provide for the needs of their people. And above all, it’s about moving from a perspective based upon external interventions to one focused on a global partnership where the people of the world work together as equals to create a peaceful and inclusive world.  ~~~