The South African transition took momentum in hundreds of workshops like that, because trainers and participants swallowed hard and said yes to opportunities to engage people who seemed frightening.
Having survived many such workshops and seen the results, I witness with alarm a recent ruling of the US Supreme Court regarding the U.S. PATRIOT Act. This Act makes it illegal to give support of any kind to groups listed by the US government as terrorist groups, even if the support is designed to end violence. Potential penalty: 15 years in prison. Challenged by a variety of organizations whose combined years of experience in peacebuilding well exceed the age of the USA, the Act was nevertheless upheld by the US high court.
This is nothing short of a blow to human survival. Had it been the law in South Africa, there would be neither a World Cup nor democracy there this summer. Nelson Mandela would likely be either in prison or leading armed revolution against the South African government.
Mandela and his National African Congress were terrorists by any definition of the word when white academics began conversation with him back in the 1980s. I was a close colleague for several years in the 1990s with HW van der Merwe, Ampie Mueller, and others who travelled to Lusaka and London for extended conversations with leaders of the ANC. From these contacts by courageous people on both sides slowly developed a thaw that eventually led to the release of Mandela and a revolution that ended not on the battlefield but across a bargaining table.
In 2003-2005 I led several workshops in Sri Lanka with high-level government officials and Members of Parliament. The organizers were eager to do similar workshops for Tamil Tiger leadership and had funders interested in supporting this. But they were unable to do so because a key part of their funding came from the US government Congress. So they were restricted to conversation with the Sri Lankan government. How does my government expect to contribute to peace if it allows us to talk only with one side, I wondered?
Faces from workshops come to mind - in Northern Ireland, India, Burma, and elsewhere. A fraction of people who've shown up in workshops in such places over the years were people I knew to be affiliated with "terrorist" groups. And some, like white police officers in South Africa in the 90s, were people working with oppressive governments known to be outside international legal norms. What good is conflict resolution training if it's not reaching the people who organize violence? How can we possibly build a peaceful world if those committed to peaceful change are forbidden to interact with leaders of violent struggle?
To make peace requires risk. A bit of risk for those who go as trainers and mediators - though I've long seen that the riskiest part of my work by far is not the people I meet but the vehicles and roads I travel on to get there.
Peace requires yet another risk: societies have to take some chances with our fears and our resources. There is no guarantee that skills in conflict resolution won't somehow strengthen the organizations of men of violence. But are we that inconfident in the values underlying peaceful change?
It is hard to prove that conflict resolution brings peace - and we should be skeptical of anyone quick to claim such proof. But looking back over thirty years of personal interaction with a variety of characters in unforgettable settings, including some whom I knew to have blood on their hands, I cannot think of one instance when I felt that my efforts somehow strengthened the forces of violence, and I can think of numerous cases when the interaction seemed to bring key people a step closer to peace.
Societies rarely get to peace simply by eliminating or defeating people of violence. More often people get to peace when charismatic leaders are somehow persuaded to abandon war and call their own followers to join them on a cautious journey to peace. Assisting this cannot be achieved by cutting off all connection to men of violence.
It is widely accepted that the waging of war entails risk and calls for great courage. So too the waging of peace. Americans should show more spine and hopefulness than our Supreme Court and call upon Congress to remove this law whose major consequence is to pull us all more tightly towards an endless cycle of violence.
Copyright Ron Kraybill 2010.