News & Politics

Waging War on War

A fledgling organization tries to ignite a movement in favor of peace -- taking its cues from an unlikely source.
Jeffrey Mapendere knows peace is hard. A senior associate at the Carter Center in Atlanta and a former liberation fighter in his native Zimbabwe, Mapendere walks with a cane and confesses to a fear of heights that didn't stop him from parachuting into hostile territory as part of his freedom-fighting duties. War demands much of its soldiers, he says, but peace requires more.

"Any idiot can make war," Mapendere told an audience in California last weekend. "A single person can cause chaos. But making peace, that's where you need moral giants, real generals -- and there are very few."

Last weekend, some of the few met on the campus of the Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS) for the inaugural conference of Global Majority, a fledgling organization dedicated to promoting dialogue as an alternative to war. Students and practitioners of the art of negotiation engaged in policy discussions, hands-on mediation workshops and in conference hammering out a declaration of their intention. Those deliberations produced the Monterey Call, the heart of which is the goal "to prioritize the use of non-violent means of conflict resolution as a moral imperative of the 21st century."

It's hard to imagine a more quixotic venture. War is a $1 trillion global industry. Global Majority, on the other hand, has almost no budget and all of 65 members, most of them MIIS students. To attend the conference, panelists flew in from Atlanta, Botswana, Gambia, Tel Aviv and Washington on their own dime, or on the largesse of their home organizations. A boon to the group's funding came in a Friday night benefit concert by the silver-maned anarchist-humorist-folk singer Utah Phillips that raised $1,100. Local media ignored the conference, with the exception of the local alternative weekly and Univision. Even the presence of Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Luis Moreno, could not rouse the mainstream television crews from their weather-and-traffic-induced stupor.

But no venture is more worthwhile, either. In two and a half days of panels and workshops, the audience got an earful: about the 3 million Colombians who have been driven from their homes by the 40-year civil war that the guerrillas, government and paramilitaries just won't put to rest; about the 3,000 refugees at Dukwi Refugee Camp in northern Botswana who, having escaped wars elsewhere, now face the area's 37.7 percent HIV prevalence rate even as their daughters face the necessity of selling sex to local men in exchange for food; about the estimated 10 African civilians who die from war-related causes for every African soldier who meets his death on the battlefield.

It goes without saying that the obstacles are formidable, starting with the fact that the peace movement remains stranded on the banks of the mainstream.

"Who actually has a voice?" asked Joyce Neu, executive director of the Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice in San Diego. "The people who have a voice are the people who have options -- the option of waging war but choosing peace. At conferences like this we're preaching to the choir."

The war on terrorism emerged as a prime culprit. Two years ago on a visit to Washington, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni invoked the U.S.-led war on terrorism as an explanation for his army's harsh crackdown on rebels in northern Uganda. Similarly, Moscow has played the terrorist card against the Chechens, as has Nepal's King Gyanendra against the Maoist rebels and the notorious Uzbek government against Islamic groups. The United States has regularly turned a blind eye to abuses, tacitly endorsing violent suppression over negotiation.

In perhaps the ugliest example of where this kind of cynicism can lead, last month the chief of Sudan's intelligence agency -- a high-ranking member of the same government that is persecuting its own people in Darfur -- was invited to Washington because Sudan has uncovered valuable information about al Qaeda.

"Colin Powell said what is happening in Darfur is genocide," Mapendere said. "What is U.S. policy telling Sudan, though? It's 'If you give us information on terrorism, you are home and dry.'"

If terrorism and the ham-fisted global response to it is one of the chief barriers to promoting dialogue between angry parties, it may paradoxically teach the solution. We know how a small group of people can confront hegemony. They disappear into the structure, form a network, influence other people, and eventually weaken the monolith from the inside. They make ample use of symbolism, and they don't give up. It works for wreaking havoc -- why not good?

Defense analysis professor John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School spelled it out. Arquilla, who touched off a fierce debate in public policy circles last summer when he suggested the U.S. negotiate with al Qaeda, turned on its head the conventional wisdom that networks are the province of terrorists.

"We can put together a strategy by Sept. 11, 2006 whereby the people of the world can stand up -- and they're a network, too; civil society is a network," Arquilla said. "And the first great war between networks and nations can be waged by a network of civil society."

And that is, in fact, Global Majority's strategy: to bypass the seats of power and start a movement in decentralized fashion, forming a worldwide network of experts and activists who can nurture peacemaking in their individual spheres of influence, linking up with other organizations and individuals.

One of the next items on the group's agenda, along with securing enough funding for a staff member and completing work on a logo, is to come up with a symbolic act to commemorate an international day of nonviolent conflict resolution. George Mason University doctoral student Tatsushi Arai proposed one last weekend.

"September 11, 2006 is the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," he said. "Let us remember it is also the anniversary of the Johannesburg declaration of nonviolence by Mahatma Ghandi. What would happen if practitioners, students and teachers could start to have dialogue and talk to policymakers about the need for peaceful resolution of conflict?"

It might not be televised. But that's the way it goes in a peacebuilding network. You move forward, toiling in obscurity, one radical idea at a time.
Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Northern California.