Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A diplomacy that disarms past conflicts

Individuals take steps that lead communities and nations down the pathto reconciliation.

She had a change of heart that changed the world.

Irene Laure was a French parliamentarian who arrived at a 1947 gathering in Caux, Switzerland, only to become distraught at the presence of Germans. Ms. Laure's family had suffered grievously at the hands of the Nazis, and her son had been tortured by the Gestapo. Shutting herself in her room for two days battling with her hatred, she eventually was able to speak to the international group of about 600.

About these ads

After telling her story, she said, "I have so hated Germany that I wanted to see her erased from the map of Europe. But I have seen here that my hatred is wrong. I am sorry, and I wish to ask the forgiveness of all the Germans present."

The effect on the Germans was said to be "electric," disarming their defensiveness. In the words of one, "We knew she had shown us the only way open to Germany, if we wanted to join in the reconstruction of Europe."

Laure and her husband then crisscrossed Germany, sharing her message with people in all walks of life. Konrad Adenauer, Germany's postwar leader, said in 1958 that Irene and Victor Laure had done more than any other two people to build unity between the age-old enemies, France and Germany. The Franco-German relationship eventually became the bedrock of the European Union.

Laure's story and those of people from several continents who have had similar experiences are told by Michael Henderson in his books, "All Her Paths Are Peace" and "The Forgiveness Factor," which reveal the behind-the-scenes work for more than 50 years of Moral Re-Armament (MRA), a global organization dedicated to change and reconciliation.

"The basic message of MRA," Mr. Henderson says in an interview, "is that if you want to bring about change, you start with yourself; you see what needs to be put right in your own life and your country's life rather than pointing the finger of blame. If you do that, then forgiveness can come in rather quickly."

Traditional diplomacy in those years, of course, played its well-known role in postwar reconstruction. Yet the type of work done by Laure is gaining growing recognition both for the key roles it has played in past events and its increasing pertinence to the nature of today's political conflicts. Even military forces, now engaged in new peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance roles, are putting a premium on such efforts.

Whether called reconciliation, conflict resolution, or "track-two" diplomacy, the behind-the-scenes efforts of religious and other third-party mediators are aimed not just at reaching agreements but at healing the wounds often at the root of conflict.

About these ads

The power of memories

Most people involved in this field say that memories play a more profound role in community and international relations than is generally recognized.

Memories "haunt our current politics, especially as we remain unconscious of their power," says Donald Shriver Jr., professor of Christian ethics and former president of Union Theological Seminary, in "An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics." "We must do something about the memories and the continuing legacies of the harms we have inflicted on each other.... A major 'something' that we have to enact is a social, political form of forgiveness."

The ethnic or sectarian nature of most of today's conflicts, entangled in bitter memories of past injustices, calls out for healing, not just dealmaking, says Joseph Montville, director of the preventive diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Conflicts rooted in "a sense of victimhood" demand a "process of changing relationships, healing wounds, and restoring trust," Dr. Montville says. "Time does not heal wounds. Only healing heals wounds."

A process involving forgiveness is not "wussy," adds the former United States diplomat of 23 years with extensive experience in the torturous politics of the Middle East. Montville is a founding member of the International Society of Political Psychology and has been studying the work of MRA and other groups in informal diplomacy. "Recognizing the inadequacies of formal track-one diplomacy," he's been wrestling with how to bring an end to cycles of ethnic violence. His developing theory of political conflict resolution has "its origin in spiritual experience" and involves "acknowledgement, contrition, and forgiveness."

Taking a 'walk through history'

Whether it be Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Tutsis, Jews, Palestinians, or African-Americans, those involved in ethnic conflict have "endured aggression and traumatic loss simply because of their membership in an identity group," Montville says. Life experiences tell them they can only trust members of their group, and they are vulnerable to new attack as long as the wrongs done to them have not been acknowledged.

If third parties who inspire trust provide a safe environment where conflicting parties can meet, he says, a healing process can begin. Opposing groups take a "walk through history" together that acknowledges past wrongs. Sincere expressions of remorse and apology can have a profound healing effect.

He suggests that British Prime Minister Tony Blair's apology to the Irish in relation to the potato famine of the last century is the first step in a transformation of the Anglo-Irish relationship.

"Forgiveness begins with a remembering and a moral judgment of wrong," says Dr. Shriver, and involves forbearance, empathy for the enemy's humanity, and the aim to renew a relationship.

Forms of informal diplomacy have often involved religious or spiritually motivated actors: Quakers in Nigeria, Mennonites in Central America, Catholics and MRA activists in Zimbabwe. Some of their stories are told in "Religion: the Missing Dimension of Statecraft" (Donald Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds.).

Ongoing efforts at reconciliation are bringing together people from many walks of life in the Arab-Israeli and Northern Ireland conflicts. MRA is working among Russians and between Russians and members of the Baltic states. "The Russians have done so much harm to themselves," says Bryan Hamlin of MRA in Cambridge, Mass. "Some 74 million people put to death under communism, not counting the war dead.... It's not proving easy" to help them find repentance and forgiveness.

Post-apartheid South Africa has pursued its own internal process of acknowledgment through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And now Bosnians are looking to do the same. In 1997, the United States Institute of Peace convened Bosnian Serb, Croat, and Muslim judges and heads of war-crimes commissions to consider options for dealing with war-crime accountability. A South African commissioner was brought in to tell their story, says Harriet Hentges, the institute's executive vice president.

The compelling presentation stunned the group, and one of the Serbs then proposed "creation of a single truth commission for Bosnia, because we are in danger of creating three truths, three different versions of history." The group agreed that without a single truth, their children could end up fighting over which truth was real.

The institute is working with Bosnians to design the commission, and Dr. Hentges says the record will include not only stories of abuses, but also of those who risked their lives to save members of other ethnic groups. "The willingness to give up revenge is absolutely at the core of this," Hentges says.

It is likely to be a long road, though, says Robert Seiple, the US State Department's new special representative for international religious freedom, whose responsibilities also involve reconciliation. Just returning from a Bosnia trip, he says the interreligious council set up to work on reconciliation hasn't met in several months. "People have to stop walking away from each other," he says.

In Bihac in the Krajina region, Islamic, Serbian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic leaders meeting together under the aegis of the World Conference of Religion and Peace recently signed a statement calling for forgiveness, reconciliation, and a commitment to religious freedom and the rule of law throughout Bosnia.

Shriver is particularly concerned about the import of forgiveness for US politics. Americans have not yet come to terms with "our national experience of 'otherness,' " or race relations, he says in his book.

In Richmond, Va., citizens inspired by the MRA philosophy have in recent years carried out a program of acknowledgment and dialogue that is having an impact on communities across the country. Struggling with rising crime and a deepening split between blacks and whites, several residents took steps to bridge the gap, heal their own prejudices, and undertake joint community projects.

Rev. Dr. Paige Chargois, an African-American Baptist minister, realized she held a "considerable level of hatred for the Confederate flag and anyone who flew it." She couldn't participate in an honest dialogue about race, she says, until she did something about it. So one day, she called on a woman who had been regional vice president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to ask her about her feelings for the flag. When she arrived, there it was on the credenza.

"In order to hear a word she said to me, I had to sit with my back to that flag," Rev. Chargois says. She at first struggled mightily not to react to things the woman said, but as she walked out the door after 2-1/2 hours, she realized she had no more hatred. "I finally understood," she says, "that the flag was a symbol of her pain, not a symbol of hatred for me."

"That moment of transformation taught me," she adds, "that transformation is possible for anyone, if we move toward what we fear, not away from it."

After forming a group called Hope in the Cities, Richmonders in June 1993 held a two-mile "unity walk" through their city's racial history and a conference on "Healing the Heart of America," attended not only by hundreds of local residents but representatives from 50 US cities and 20 countries.

"We realized there couldn't be any quality community life until we dealt honestly with the wounds of history," Chargois says. "And we wanted an honest dialogue, not just a discussion." They designed a six-week dialogue process - two hours each week - around a vision for community. Various groups of residents have each gone through the six-week process, from youths to all-male or all-female groups, to blacks and Jews, and so on.

Last May, Hope in the Cities was given almost a quarter-million-dollar grant from the Kellogg Foundation to help other cities replicate the Richmond experience. Forgiveness and reconciliation require a process, she says. People are often either too quick to forgive to make it genuine or too reluctant to do the work needed. Honest conversation, she adds, is the bridge to a level of understanding where repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation can occur.

"There is a new consciousness of these issues," Montville says. Major universities around the world are studying the MRA-style of community interaction and informal diplomacy, and they are creating conflict-resolution programs. Some diplomats are sensitive to the needs but aren't trained to deal with them.

"Many of our less than successful peace agreements," he says, "are so because there has been no underlying process of healing relationships. To me, this is a new technology for the 21st century."

*Part 1 of this series ran on Jan. 28; Part 2 on Feb. 4.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.