Increasing the Peace?

19 November 2001

Community Dialogue and Academics in Conversation about peace building


A Report on a Community Dialogue – Stanford University Seminar


26 February – 3 March 2001


Community Dialogue are engaged in a three-year project with the Stanford Centre for Conflict and Negotiation (SCCN), Palo Alto, USA. The purpose of the project is to examine ways of making peace building more effective. To achieve this Community Dialogue, together with SCCN staff, asked:

  • What does Community Dialogue actually do in the area of peace building?
  • What do we think we are doing?
  • What are the outcomes?
  • How do Community Dialogue activities relate to those of practitioners in other conflict situations?
  • Does the language of reconciliation help or hinder our work?

The project is an interaction between practitioners and Stanford staff in which each side bring their own experience and skills.

As part of the project, fourteen people - all either members or staff of Community Dialogue - attended a six day seminar in Stanford University from 25 February - 5 Mar 2001. The seminar also included some invited practitioners and/or academics from other conflict situations: Dan Bar-On and Ifat Maoz, academics who work in Israel, and John Guiney, a Jesuit who works with refugees in Burundi.

This report summarises both the inputs which Community Dialogue members were given during the seminar and the discussion which followed. Note that these are summaries of what are sometimes complex issues. We do not deal with the background or all the assumptions which lie behind the theories. We therefore encourage people to be questioning in their use of these ideas.

1. Forgiveness in Politics: a Jewish Approach

Jack Weinstein works with high-school students on the consequences of the Jewish Holocaust. He told the story of a swastika being daubed on his synagogue in the US and his personal and organisational response. He was contacted by the lawyer of one of the perpetrators in the hope that he would help to mitigate their sentence. His first question was: ‘Who is making this request and why?’ Secondly, he asked: ‘Do I have the right to intervene?’

In the end he spoke to his rabbi, who in turn spoke to the minister of the Church to which the perpetrators belonged. The issue was also discussed in the synagogue, among whom was a Holocaust survivor who had been very upset by the incident. They decided not to intervene, to let justice run its course, but also not to seek an over-harsh sentence. However, despite this the perpetrators were given long prison sentences.

Jack also decided to use the incident as an opportunity with his own kids and the wider public to raise questions about sectarianism. The synagogue also asked for a pulpit exchange with the perpetrator’s church and this was done.

In his response Jack was influenced by Jewish ideas on forgiveness. These differ from Christian notions. Many Jews think Christian forgiveness can mean ‘cheap grace’ [i.e. that perpetrators never have to face punishment or the consequences of their wrong-doing.] Secondly, they stress the difference between sins against God and sins against other people. Thirdly, they ask if the victim has the right to forgive. Fourthly, they stress that no one can forgive on behalf of others [which also raises the question of representative forgiveness: who, if any one, can offer forgiveness on behalf of a group?].

Jack said justice would be served when every kid was exposed to the question of how they can respond to situations like this. ‘It may not be our task to change the world, but we cannot desist from it’ - a Jewish saying.

A key factor in this situation was that most people in the synagogue trusted the criminal justice system and were happy to let it handle it.

Jack then mentioned Simon Wiesthenthal’s book, The Sunflower. In this Wiesenthal, a Jew, tells the story of being a prisoner in the Second World War when he was pulled out of a chain gang and brought to a dying SS man who asked him for forgiveness for what he had done to the Jews. Wiesenthal left without making any response. He was uncomfortable about this. He talked it over with his fellow Jewish inmates. While they supported his response, some - including Wiesenthal himself - were not completely satisfied with it. This stimulated him to describe the incident in a book and to invite a variety of writers from around the world to say what he should have done. The book is a useful source for anyone who wants to explore the arguments for different responses to the issue of forgiving.

Finally, Jack offered the following definition of a ‘community of obligation’: that circle of people:

  • To whom obligations are owed;
  • to whom rules apply;
  • whose grievances must be addressed.

So a key question for him is: who is in my community of obligation?


Some members of Community Dialogue were interested in the issue of forgiveness in politics because assumptions - often false - are made about it in public discussion in Northern Ireland. Others believe that it is not important, that forgiveness is appropriate in interpersonal relations, not in politics, and that its emergence in political discussion was a result of people confusing ideas from their Christian background with the realities of politics.

We asked if the notion of a ‘community of obligation’ would be of use in Northern Ireland. If so, whom do we include within our ‘community of obligation’, and why?


Partly as a result of this input Community Dialogue have set up a small working group on the merits of using ideas of reconciliation in politics. We hope to publish a leaflet in which we will raise questions about this. [If you have an interest in this area we would welcome your participation in the discussions].

2. The ‘Forgiveness’ Project

Fred Luskin and Byron Bland gave an input on the Forgiveness project. This is a seminar in Stanford organised as part of the HOPE project which is run in Northern Ireland by Norma McConville. It involves bringing a group of approximately 20 victims/survivors to Stanford for a seminar led by Fred Luskin. Among the points made in the input were:

  • When we suffer the trauma of losing a loved one through political violence we may feel helpless and our physical health may suffer. This can be shown by medical examination. The HOPE Project aims to help people learn how to come to terms with what happened to them in a way that helps them feel better about themselves.
  • The purpose of the Hope Project is not to embrace or excuse perpetrators, or to deny what they did, but to help victims/survivors to have a more positive experience of life.
  • An example of this would be changing the statement:
  • ‘The worst thing that ever happened to me was the murder of my son’ to ‘The worst thing that ever happened to me was the murder of my son and now I am working with others to make life better for everyone’.
  • Revenge: when you try to hurt back you never hurt the people who hurt you. You normally end up hurting the people who love you.
  • Memory: what do you want to remember about the person you lost? What the victim sometimes takes from their loved one’s death is hatred. When they realise this they can sometimes change and claim back their loved one from the killers.
  • The victims/survivors build social relationships with each other through the project.
  • Victims/survivors may also have to claim their loved ones back from their own community who want to claim the victim for their political ends.


  • Community Dialogue members commented on the central role of Norma McConville, before, during and after the visit to Stanford.
  • They also felt that a central element in the project was getting people away from their normal
  • surroundings to a place as beautiful as Stanford together with the friendship and support of the Stanford hosts.
  • Several commented that they found nothing particularly new in the project; it sounded like the sort of thing which goes on in many Trauma Workshops in Northern Ireland.
  • Some Community Dialogue members also found the term ‘Forgiveness’ inappropriate and confusing because it means different things to different people.

3. Dialogue between Children of Holocaust Victims and Children of Nazis

For twenty years, Dan Bar-On, an Israeli clinical psychologist, has been working on a project aimed at understanding some of the dynamics relating to the life experiences of the children of Holocaust victims and the children of Nazis. After about fifteen years individuals from each group agreed to take part in a joint dialogue. They met for several residentials. A video was make of one of these with the agreement of the participants. Community Dialogue have been given a copy of the video and have used it as a basis for discussion on several occasions.

Dan re-emphasised the point made by Jack Weinstein, that forgiveness and reconciliation are problematic terms for Jews. Christians borrow them from religious contexts and sometimes then apply them uncritically to political situations.

‘Reconciliation’ presumes there was a previous relationship which is often not the case. So ‘conciliation’ would be a more appropriate term. But reconciliation is also a difficult task without a positive memory of harmony.

In South Africa the context was Christian which may be one reason why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was able to function, whereas the Middle Eastern conflict is between Jews and Muslims.

Dan prefers to use the terms ‘working through’ and ‘dialogue’ rather than ‘reconciliation’.

In his work he focuses on encouraging group members to ‘work through’ issues by telling their own and their families’ stories.

After World War ll the immediate response of many Jews to the Holocaust was silence. Part of the reason for this was that the survivors wanted to ‘normalise’ their lives. So they did not want to talk about it. It was impossible for them to connect their experiences during the Holocaust with their experiences of life after it, because there was too big a gap between life as they knew it in the concentration camps and life after they were freed. Many married quickly to show they could live normal lives.

Other people did not want to hear about their experiences because they were too horrible. The new State of Israel was fighting for its survival. Many Israelis saw the survivors of the Holocaust as a weak group who, like sheep, had allowed themselves to be massacred, and they were therefore ashamed of them.

For the children of the survivors there was a double wall of silence: the wall their parents built by not talking about their experiences; secondly, the wall the children built themselves. If one side took down their own wall they ran into the other wall.

There were practically no grandparents at the end of the war: they had all been murdered.

Dan suggested that silence was not the worst way for the older generation to deal with the situation because it always left the possibility that the silence would be broken. The worst response would have been obsessive talking because this is not real talking and it also reduced the possibility of real talking ever happening.

Eventually, in the 1960s, the third generation began to break through the walls. As part of their school assignments they were asked to interview their grandparents about their experiences. The parents naturally looked at what they had written and this in time led to dialogue between children, parents and grandparents.

This was helped by the change in the Israeli attitude to the Holocaust. After the Yom Kippur war (1967) they began to see the Holocaust sympathetically. The fall of Communism also meant that Jews were able to visit their former homelands and this also helped conversations to start.

Dan became interested in the psychological impact of the Holocaust not only on the families of the victims but also on those of the Nazi perpetrators. He contacted a group of adult children of Nazi perpetrators in the mid-1980s. None had heard directly from their parents about the atrocities they had committed, but many had left evidence of what they had done. One of his conclusions was that we know little about how the perpetrators dealt with what they had done once the value system of the society which had supported their actions during the War changed with the collapse of the Nazis.

In studies on groups of children of both descendants of perpetrators and victims the only significant difference he found was that the children of perpetrators had a lower marriage rate. Some of these said they did not want to pass on the ‘bad seed’ of their fathers.

Eventually a small group of the children of perpetrators started their own self-help group. After four years Dan asked them if they would be open to meeting with a group of Holocaust survivors and they agreed.

At the end of Dan’s in-put we watched the video film of the residentials involving both groups.


During discussion of the video the question was raised why Dan and the participants had decided to make a film about the exchange, and if this had impacted on the group interchange. The answer to the second question was that it had. There was some competition among participants over who was highlighted in the film. But there was a high level of trust in the producer. Each participant was interviewed and gave his or her consent. It has not yet been shown publicly in Germany because two members have vetoed it.

Some other points made in the discussion were:

  • In dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder we need to distinguish trauma - what was done to us - from moral trauma - what we did to others;
  • Time alone will not lead to healing;
  • Enemies are seen as both super-human and sub-human at the same time;
  • ‘Working through’ has often to be done on a single identity basis first: we often move too fast.
  • Behind each perpetrator stood at least 9 bystanders.
  • Many Jews displaced their anger against the Nazis on to the Palestinians.
  • Israel is both powerful and vulnerable at the same time. This is the paradox of strength and vulnerability.
  • When Palestinians joined the children of survivors and children of perpetrators’ group the Jewish group often related better to the Germans:

a) because they are culturally closer, and

b) because some Palestinians saw the Israelis as perpetrators.


One immediate outcome of this session has been that Katie Rutledge has used Dan Bar-On’s video as a basis for discussion in the Community Dialogue programme in Omagh. The group there were greatly impressed with it and were frustrated by the lack of time available for discussion. They have asked that a residential be set up specifically to discuss it further. One value of the video was that people were able to look at a conflict situation in which they were not involved and then raise questions about that conflict. Some of these questions may also have allowed people to raise new issues about Northern Ireland but to do so indirectly and therefore in a way which was less threatening.

Community Dialogue intends to continue using this video. We also want to begin some research, together with our Stanford colleagues, on the benefits or pitfalls for peace-building work in Northern Ireland of looking at issues such as the Holocaust.

4. Reconciliation within Israel

Ifat Moaz has researched the effectiveness of 47 dialogue processes between Jews and Palestinians within the State of Israel. She asked: ‘What are the elements of an effective dialogue/encounter and how can it be evaluated?’ The background to her research was a general belief that bringing people together will help them to understand each other and this will reduce prejudice [i.e. the ‘contact’ hypothesis]. The emphasis on dialogue followed an Israeli Ministry of Education research project in the 1980s which showed that Jewish-Israeli youths were highly prejudiced against Arabs. The purpose was to reduce this prejudice and increase the commitment of the youth to democracy. The dialogue processes were mostly funded by Jewish sources either in Israel or the US.

Allport (1954) argued that prejudice can be reduced in an encounter if:

  • The two groups have equal status at least within the dialogue;
  • There is personal and sustained contact between participants;
  • There is cooperative interdependence: i.e. they work together on some project;
  • The wider community is positively disposed to the dialogue.
  • Social norms favour equality and operate within a favourable context.

For Ifat, the first of these conditions - the emphasis on symmetry of status - is the most important. She quoted one definition of the aim of dialogue: ‘The goal of the communication is to avoid “monologue”, or the pressure of a single authoritative voice, and to strive for dialogue which is the interplay of different perspectives’.

She had two research goals:

  • To analyse the encounters;
  • To evaluate the project by analysing the process.

A. Political Context

Two of the key factors in the political context within which dialogue processes take place in Israel are:

  • that Jews and Arabs are in conflict over major issues such as the identity of the State, and ownership of land, water and power, and
  • that Jews are the more powerful group and discriminate against Arabs. There is therefore no symmetry.

B. The Dialogue Processes

The dialogue groups which Ifat studied met either once a week or once a month for periods of between 3 months to one year. Ifat found that once-off dialogues are least effective. There were 5-15 participants from each side. There must be a Jewish and an Arab facilitator. The language used was Hebrew in most cases. This was because most Arabs knew or needed to learn Hebrew for economic reasons. But it meant that Arabs also operated at a disadvantage. One group used Arabic as well as Hebrew. The biggest number of dialogues were among young people in schools but there were also examples of both student and adult encounters.

There were three types of dialogue:

  • those working for assimilation (60%)
  • those which were confrontational (13%)
  • those which mixed both approaches (21%)

C. Evaluation

Ifat’s evaluation was based on the following factors:

a. Interaction, which she saw as central;

b. The extent of symmetry between the groups;

c. The mutual respect shown by the groups

B. Interaction

How much were people talking/listening/relating to each other?

This focussed on behavioural indicators such as the degree of inter-group conversations and


  • do people interact in meetings;
  • do people from both sides participate?
  • How do they relate to each other?

B. Symmetry

Is there equality between the groups in the amount of time they speak, or the extent to which they propose ideas, or decide what are the topics? Is there also equality between the facilitators? In practice many Arab facilitators were marginalized because they had to act as translators. Culturally Jewish participants and facilitators tend to be more active and this can feed stereotypes.

There is also a danger of cultural assumptions: Arabs may want one individual to speak on all their behalf. They may also be aiming to challenge the Israelis as a group rather than to build individual relationships with them. The Jews often spoke as individuals. So there may be a lack of symmetry because of differences in power, culture, or the aims of each group. Because of this it is important to establish if a speaker is putting forward their own opinion or that of their group. Language can also be a reason for the silence of Arabs some of whom may be attending the dialogue because they want to improve their Hebrew, or because they want to know better how to relate to Jews since they need to do this for economic reasons.

C. Respect

The third criterion was based on an assessment of the extent of mutual respect and acknowledgement, or the existence of apathy, avoidance or anger.

D. Conclusions

The projects which scored high were focussed on dialogue, as distinct from joint activities or arts, they were aimed at adults, often had professionals as participants, and had existed for some time.

Of those with high scores, 70% stayed in existence after the renewed outbreak of Palestinian-Israeli violence in 2000. Of those with low grades only 40% continued. Many of the projects which ended had had previous problems, they were new, or they dealt with children and were stopped by parents for safety reasons.

The higher survival rate among some may have been helped by a higher personal choice factor [e.g. adults may have greater freedom in choosing to be involved than children].


The following are some of the points which arose in discussion with Ifat:

  • Some Arabs say the purpose of these encounters is to turn them into a ‘good minority’.
  • Why should people involve themselves in encounters unless it changes the social or political power relationship?
  • The goal of liberal Israeli Jews is to get Arabs to be peaceful and to cooperate in a State which is more secular but is still based on Jewish identity.
  • In Israel Jews and Arabs may have a strong desire to meet, but for different reasons: Arabs to show Jews how ‘bad’ they are, Jews to show Arabs how ‘nice’ they are.
  • Single identity work usually preceded mixed encounters.
  • There has been a dialogue ‘industry’ since the 1980s.
  • Is the goal of encounters in Northern Ireland to get the working classes to become ‘good citizens’?
  • If people are involved only at the political level, and not at the story telling level, there will be no sustained progress.


Two tentative decisions emerged from this session. The first was to look more closely at Ifat’s research and see if it would be useful to Community Dialogue in assessing the many residentials we currently run.

The second was to consider including Israel as a possible area with which Community Dialogue might do some joint international work.

5. Barriers to Dispute Resolution

Lee Ross is a social psychologist in Stanford. He outlined first the concept of naïve realism, then a series of barriers to dispute resolution, and finally some ways of addressing them.

A. The Concept of Naïve Realism

There are three dangerous illusions shared by many people. They can be summed up in the following statements:

  1. ‘I see people and things as they really are, without bias’;
  2. ‘Other fair minded people would agree with me if they had the same information and experience as me’;
  3. ‘When others do not share my views there are three possible interpretations:

a. They have not been told the truth;

b. They are lazy or stupid;

c. They are biased by their own self-interest’.

The conclusion is that if only we could get people around the table they would agree. In this way we end up with an unjustified optimism about our capacity to persuade others. We are likely to see others as biased against us when they disagree with us. We can also end up with a false pessimism about the possibility of people agreeing about the common good. Because of this dynamic an even handed analysis can be viewed negatively by both sides.

B. Some Barriers to Dispute Resolution

1. Dissonance based on the past:

At a certain point in negotiations parties may be faced with the prospect of accepting a position which they rejected in the past. At that point arguments will be put like: ‘We can’t be unfaithful to the dead’; or ‘We have to be faithful to our cause which is sacred’. So they have two problems: one is to come to an agreement. The second is to say why they are doing this now when they rejected it in the past.

2. Insistence on equality rather than accepting improvements:

We insist on getting what we see as fair and just. Sometimes the fact that a group are offered considerable improvements on the status quo does not matter. Achieving equality is always much more difficult than simply improving the current situation. In practice if people accept improvements which fall short of equality they will normally do so only because of a lack of power. If this is the case, then in the future when and if they get more power they may well return to the demand for equality.

3. Biased interpretation of the past:

Because of disagreements about the past there is no agreement about what constitutes equality in the present, e.g., who should be punished in Rwanda?

4. The concept of ‘Reactive Devaluation’:

Parties to a conflict will devalue a proposal if it is put by the other side. Or: one side is more likely to dismiss a proposal by the other side as trivial, even though it meant a huge sacrifice for the other side to make it. For example: Jewish students at Stanford were shown the actual proposals made by the Israelis at peace talks. They thought they were very good. They were then shown the Palestinian proposals, but were told that these were new Israeli proposals. They gave these an even higher approval rating than they gave to the real Israeli proposals. Once a proposal is rejected there are mutual recriminations and a downward cycle begins. This happens as follows: a proposal is often rejected because the side receiving it are suspicious that it has been offered for some hidden and malicious reason or because they fear it will be used to their disadvantage in some way which is not yet clear. As far as the side making the offer is concerned the rejection of the proposal shows that the other side are not interested in a deal. Because of the possibility of this downward cycle occurring it is important that the side making an offer need to make clear to their opponents why they are making an offer at all, why they are making this particular offer, and why they doing it at this particular time.Reactive devaluation is particularly likely if the parties are moving towards major agreements.

Groups may also fear dialogue because they are afraid a growth in mutual understanding will weaken their cohesion as a group.

C. What Helps to Overcome Barriers?

1. Insight, forewarning and education;

2. Building positive, trusting relationships and managing emotions;

3. Frame the context of the negotiations: keep trying to describe what it is we are trying to


4. Getting people to make the strongest possible arguments to explain their opponents’ positions:

  • Through shuttle diplomacy;
  • Through negotiation and acknowledgement of changes made;
  • Through each side showing how a proposal they are making is in their own interests;
  • Through convincing both sides that a resolution is inevitable. This is the most important element of all.

D. Some Other Points:

1. Why do people come to dialogue?

  • To hear what the other side are saying? or
  • To see how they react when they hear ‘the real truth’? or
  • To see if they are changing or not?

2. Creative ambiguity (e.g. the wording in the Northern Ireland Agreement on decommissioning) is useful if we are dealing with an issue which will seem less important once we have an agreement, but not otherwise. If it is still going to be a hot issue and we leave it to the end of the negotiations, we will leave the parties with nothing to trade when they come to face it.

E. The Task of Dialogue

In reality people usually agree on much more than they realise. So the task of dialogue is to reveal those areas of agreement.

Lee Ross found that if one side can be persuaded to spell out some aspect of the other side’s position with which they can find some sympathy then they will be more accurate about other aspects of their opponents’ position. If they do not do this and simply defend their own position, then they will be inaccurate to a much higher degree about positions held by their opponents. This is known as false polarization. In reality the two sides are not as far apart as each believes.

This does not come naturally. People do not admit their ambivalence to either their own or the other side.

This is a different exercise from role playing because in asking a group if they can find some sympathy in their opponent’s position you are asking them something about their actual position, not about some role they adopt.


Many of the Community Dialogue group found echoes of Lee Ross’s points in the Northern Ireland context. During the discussion some argued that the aim of dialogue was precisely to help increase mutual understanding. This does not necessarily lead to agreement. Sometimes it can lead to the opposite because people have a much better understanding of why they disagree. However, in our experience the more common outcome is that people find a surprising number of things in common.


It is likely that Community Dialogue will want to research in Northern Ireland some of the barriers to dispute resolution outlined by Lee Ross.

6. David Holloway: ‘Common Knowledge’

David Holloway is an Irishman who teaches history and political science at Stanford. He has written extensively about the Cold War.

The concept of common knowledge was used during the Cold War. It means that each side knows something about the other, but also that the other side knows they know this. So each side knew, at a certain point,

1. that a nuclear war was simply unwinnable

2. that the other side knew this, and

3. that the other side knew they knew it.

In effect this meant that neither could use nuclear weapons and each side knew the other could not use them. It took about 10 years for this common knowledge to emerge. Once it did, then other choices gradually followed. There was a danger in this: when each side knew the other could not use nuclear weapons they faced the temptation to push the boundaries, knowing they would not face the ultimate sanction.

Common knowledge may not be that common! Even when it is present it often does not lead to agreement about a common strategy. Studies show that despite all the spying that went on during the Cold War each side regularly misinterpreted the other’s real position.

In any conflict the choices made by each side are influenced by what they think the other side will do. If each side has common expectations it can help communication. So, a person might get a message to meet someone else in the city center. She might not be told when or where. But based on her knowledge of the other person she might assume that it was at 1.00 p.m. and in a particular café.

Common knowledge helps build consensus about the type of conflict each side is involved in. In games theory (a branch of social psychology), if participants are told the name of the game is ‘Wall Street’ they act aggressively. If they are told it is ‘Community Games’ they act more conciliatorily.

Common knowledge does not imply a peaceful relationship. It is something which can operate among enemies, but may in practice help to limit a conflict. It does not necessarily lead to peace, but to a better understanding of the other’s real position. It can lead to agreed conventions, e.g. agreement over protection rackets.


  • In Northern Ireland both the British army and the IRA knew a military victory over the other side was impossible and each probably knew the other knew this. But the violence continued for many years.
  • During the various phases of talks in Northern Ireland the parties developed some common knowledge about each other.
  • It can make things really dangerous when each side does not know what the other are up to: cf the example of the British Government not realising the IRA were prepared to go back to violence before Canary Wharf.
  • Common knowledge is much more difficult if there are more than two parties to a conflict. (cf the example of a message passed on from one individual to the next in a group: by the time it gets to the end of the line it may be unrecognisable: the example of different parties who signed the Northern Ireland agreement but had different understandings of it).
  • In the arms race there was a certain trust that the other side would respond in a predictable way. How could dialogue help this? What is needed to develop trust?
  • Should one of the key aims of Community Dialogue be to increase common knowledge? E.g. help Nationalists to understand from Unionists how much they feel they have lost, and help Unionists understand from Nationalists their feelings about the IRA ceasefire?
  • There are implications in this for Community Dialogue’s direction and strategic impact, and we see this as a very important point which we need to look at in some detail

6. Becoming “We”

Melanie Greenberg is a legal expert who has both studied different conflict situations and worked as a mediator in some of them.

She started by pointing to different types of relationships:

  • Mother and baby: the baby initially has no sense of a separate identity;
  • Water molecules: two separate chemicals are completely absorbed;
  • Individuals as part of family: connected, but they still retain their individuality
  • Groups living in geographical proximity but having no common mission.

In each of these examples there is a relationship, but the degree of identification between the groups differs.

Much of Melanie’s work has been in Second Track Diplomacy (with second level political leaders, or leaders in civic society who work on political issues). In this work there has often come a key moment when the groups begin to look outward. The process starts with sharing their stories and finding what they have in common. Then they ask how they can work together.

She gave the example of the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the former Soviet Union: they started talking about the war between them, defined themselves as moderates, then asked how they could help the other side sell the ideas they had in common to the other side’s constituency. They then devised joint projects on which they worked together. Once the group were able to share their stories they became a problem solving group, as distinct from a group trying to solve a conflict.

It is more difficult to achieve a sense of belonging if there is disagreement about territory. One of the helpful factors in S. Africa was that there was agreement about the territory of the country: all the participants saw themselves as S. Africans.

Sometimes groups can be pressurised to work together. An example is a conflict over water rights in a part of the former Soviet Union which was drying up. Five of the new States approached the World Bank for help. The Bank said they would not help until the five countries came up with common proposals on water usage. So they had to do it. Success in this initiative led to other initiatives.

This is an example of an issue being moved from being a conflict to being a problem to be solved.


Joint problem solving means we see that our competing interests are linked and so we have to solve the problems together, as distinct from making the assumption that we can solve them separately. It is only when this happens that a conflict can move from being a conflict to becoming a problem to be solved. Some examples mentioned were:

  • The Oslo talks on the Middle East started as second Track diplomacy: academics from both sides came together with a Norwegian think tank. Only very slowly did the process involve politicians. The mediators did not push any agenda but asked participants to come up with their own agenda. Later on the Israelis asked the Palestinians to put a clause into the Madrid Talks, which the Palestinians agreed to do and this helped build trust.
  • The Vatican intervened in the Argentine/Chile dispute over the Beagle Channel. The fact that both sides were Catholics made this easier.
  • The South African process was also helped by a widespread belief that the current system was collapsing.

7. Peace Agreements and their Implementation

Steve Stedman is a researcher in Stanford. Much of his work for the past three years has been focussed on civil wars, especially in Africa.

A key problem in political agreements is the implementation stage. implementation is made up of three linked processes which can be illustrated by the following statements:

  • Compliance: e.g. ‘fulfill your obligations under the agreement’.
  • Process: e.g. ‘compliance is not that important, what matters is keeping the process alive; keep things flexible; keep responding to changing circumstances’.
  • Relationships: e.g. ‘peace requires partnerships’

When agreements work you normally find a mixture of all three.

If the emphasis is on compliance alone, then there will be a tendency to ignore issues like loss of status or sudden change. If the focus is on process alone at the expense of the other elements on the basis that there is no alternative the wider population are likely to be alienated. Also without compliance there are no agreed certainties.

If we concentrate on both compliance and process but ignore relationships we are likely to end up with something like the situation of the Palestinian who said ‘I no longer see the Israelis as my enemy but as a constant threat’.

The main issues which have been common to many different peace agreements are:

  • Demobilising paramilitaries
  • Reform of policing and the judiciary
  • The justice system
  • Dealing with displaced people (refugees)
  • Reconciliation
  • Accountability for the past
  • Jobs, especially for former paramilitaries and economic development
  • Human rights
  • Disarmament

Are these issues all equally important? Do people feel they are all equally important - in the short or long-term? Or are these issues of symbolic value only? In which case maybe all we have to do is recognise the issue as a problem, not solve it? Or is the issue simply a weapon to use against opponents? Steve summarised these points by asking if a particular issue was:

  • Substantial
  • Symbolic, or
  • Used as a weapon by the groups?

Problems arise when some groups see an issue as absolutely vital and others see it as purely symbolic. Or when one group see others using an issue as a weapon against them. Therefore there is a need for some common agreement as to whether issues are really important or symbolic.

Of the 18 Civil Wars Steve studied what really mattered in most were:

  • Demobilization of paramilitaries (and getting them jobs)
  • Reform of the police
  • Dealing with the displaced

Human rights was rarely a major issue in the negotiations, except in El Salvador, where both sides agreed it was an issue. The more common approach was to focus on stopping the violence and leave human rights to be sorted out later. However human rights were often used as a weapon against the other side.

In regard to decommissioning Steve found that the parties involved in agreements generally concluded that arms can look after themselves. Efforts to take away paramilitaries’ guns without giving them jobs usually failed.

In most of the conflicts studied there was a need to create a measure of understanding between the combatants and also to create linkage between the issues that really matter to some groups and those that matter to others.

A Sense of Loss:

The previously dominant group usually experience a sense of loss in any agreement. In S. Africa in 1993 Whites had to face the fact they could no longer make decisions on their own but needed a partner; they experienced a loss of status; the media did not report the things they were interested in to the same extent, e.g. the particular sports that the media focussed on changed so that less attention was paid to cricket. Along with this sense of loss goes a loss of hope and of expectations. With an apartheid regime the whites did not have to face questions of how to preserve their language or identity. Now they do. They also have to protect their future.

There may be a double loss: a) through the conflict; b) through an agreement. Three things can help progress:

  • Dialogue without playing down differences;
  • Interaction between former enemies;
  • Information.


Some of the comments made were:

  • ‘There is no implementation body overseeing the Agreement in Northern Ireland’
  • ‘Implementation is an orphan: people wanted to take credit for the Agreement, not work at the difficulties of implementing it’.
  • ‘Northern Ireland has a strong civic society which makes it very different from other places such as some African countries. There is a potential for dialogue, interaction and an exchange of information’.
  • ‘Amnesty in peace agreements is normally tied to accountability’.
  • ‘Relationship building is necessary at the grass roots, not merely around the talks table’.
  • ‘In Northern Ireland there have been back channel contacts through which Republicans acknowledged Unionist movement, having first checked if this would help the Unionists’.
  • ‘Look at the Mitchell principles: they mention disarmament, not demobilization’.
  • ‘Carrots and sticks have sometimes been used with refugees: offering the threat of no food if they do not go back to their own country, but money if they do’.


The sense of loss issue resonated very strongly with some Community Dialogue members and we had a long discussion on how to incorporate this in Community Dialogue’s work. SCCN in Stanford have done some research on how a sense of loss operates in different conflicts.

8. Trauma in Refugee Camps in Burundi

John Guiney is a Jesuit priest who works in three refugee camps in Burundi on the border with Rwanda. He sees his task as being present to people, so that he can recognise and acknowledge their suffering, and also act as a witness that it has happened .

People in Africa feel ignored by the rest of the world. The refugee camps are like prisons without walls because the walls are invisible. So are the jailers. No one knows who has the keys. Most people don’t know how they ended up there or how long they will be there. The refugees also feel isolated: who will be there for them if they ever get out?

Sometimes the refugees take refuge in forests. In the wet season they dig holes in the ground for shelter. At night they collect food from trees. Eventually a woman will try to leave to find food. The military may kill her and leave her baby on the ground crying. Some of the others come out to rescue the baby and then they get shot.

Shaming is a key strategy: that is why there is so much rape and dismemberment. The aim is not only to kill but to shame the whole community.

When kids arrive in the camps they are starving. They can be so traumatised that they will not see you. ‘The cry has been knocked out of them’ . The men’s arms are like rods with anger and fear. No one talks. There is a ‘dialogue of silence’. It takes 3-4 days before they can talk.

There is an advantage in being an outsider. But also a disadvantage: you never have the language. You have to use a translator. But care and concern has a language of its own. 80% are Roman Catholic, so there is a very limited religious divide. The people work together in teams in the camps. This helps them go beyond shame. The women find it easier than the men to share their feelings, especially about children.

John’s team hold large meetings: maybe 500 people meeting under a plastic sheet. When a mother shares about the death of her child the others weep. Then they talk of Heaven. They ask the kids who have seen their fathers murdered where they think the fathers are now. They use painting. One guy with two legs painted himself with one leg and a crutch. It’s tougher work with the men because they want vengeance. The task is to help people dialogue with their own trauma because the tactic of war is to silence people. Most people are illiterate. Women are not supposed to talk in the culture, so in the meetings organised by John’s teams they insist on a gender balance.

People with status are thrown together in the camps with those without status. They may differ in culture, language, child-rearing and toilet customs. Getting them to work together is difficult. When they do things for one another they are transformed.

John points out that Europeans have killed over 100 million in the past century so Africans are not unique.

Trauma isolates. When people lose their voice they lose the vehicle of their connectedness. The irony is that peace talks cause new divisions because people fear others may gain at their expense. One of the major issues is impunity: people get away with terrible crimes. This devalues life. Killing people becomes the same as killing animals. A further problem is the struggle for hope. Spiritual resources can be useful in this. In recent years the Jesuits started a Radio of Hope: it’s picked up by the BBC, the German World service and the Voice of America. The most popular programme is one in which people can send greetings, because it can let relatives know their family are alive. They also have programmes on basic health, hygiene, human rights. The station also helped combat propaganda from other radio stations.

If the refugees go back divided it will not work. If victims and perpetrators do not talk they will not be able to govern the country together when they go back. The three instruments in the programme to overcome these divisions are:

  • access to the radio station
  • advocacy (documenting Human Rights abuses and verifying stories)
  • work with political leaders to prepare them for peace talks.

The children of mixed marriages suffer most because no one will take them. Because of this a separate inter-ethnic camp has been set up for them.

In his advocacy work John has to check a story from at least 10 different stories because his team are always being used for propaganda. Each group only talks about the other sides’ violations.

What sort of judicial process is appropriate for Rwanda? The lawyers make millions at international tribunals, but only 15-20 people have been brought to trial. There are 30,000 people in prison in Rwanda. It would be better to put the money into building up a Rwandan legal system and also to use traditional tribal means of justice. At the same time it has been very important for Burundi and Rwanda that three Serbs were convicted for rape in the former Yugoslavia.

The task is to give the refugees the key to their own liberation, to help them realise the power they could have if they took it back from the politicians and the Churches.


Some of the questions raised in discussion were:

  • Is suffering in Burundi and Rwanda qualitatively different from that in Northern Ireland, partly because there is so much of it?
  • If so, what difference does that make?
  • Is all suffering the same to the person experiencing it?
  • Is John himself a threat to others? To this he said, Yes, but it is somewhat easier because as a priest he commands respect.

What about the trauma of the peace workers? To this John said it was important to have support among the team. Others may recognise trauma in a person before that person is able to see it.

9. Barrios Unidos

Barrios Unidos is a project based in Santa Cruz, led by Nane Alejandrez, a former heroin addict. It works with gangs on issues of violence both inside and outside the prison system. The work is based on the Cesar Chavez Peace Plan which was adopted by the Barrios in 1996.


Some of the points which came up were:

  • Reverence is a very important part of the Barrios Unidos spirituality and their spirituality is central to their work;
  • They are heavily influenced by Native American culture and values;
  • They use art a lot: it provides an ambiance of beauty as an alternative to violence;
  • They have regular sharing among their team;
  • There are one million people in prison in the US.
  • Some of the points Community Dialogue raised were:
  • Community Dialogue is on a journey: we have no idea of the outcome;
  • The suffering of the RUC has not been recognised. They have saved lives. Some individuals may have done wrong but the good they have done also needs to be recognised.
  • We discussed symbols a lot: the Barrios Unidas group see them as positive, we generally see them as negative. They wanted to know if we had a common symbol.

10. Columbia

We received a brief in-put on the situation in Columbia from Terry Lynn Karl, a professor in Stanford, and three Columbians.

There are four different wars going on in Columbia, over;

  • Land ownership (3% of the people own 70% of the land);
  • Drugs: Columbia is the main supplier of cocaine to the US. The drug barons have bought up large tracts of land, so the two issues are now intertwined;
  • Oil: Columbia produces as much as Kuwait did at the time of the Gulf war. Profits from the oil fields finance the other wars;
  • Corruption: many people live off the wars or off diverted debt relief.

There are also conflicts over identity but these are not seen as primary.

The Left has never been strong enough to have much influence on the State. There is a closed two-party system which excluded them. The Left’s power is in areas geographically far from the capital, Bogotá.

35 thousand have been killed in the conflict over a ten year period; 2 million internally displaced, 3 million external refugees. There are 10 murders a day. Total population: 40 million. Yet it is clear that military power alone cannot win any of the wars.


n In a context like Columbia how do you decide with whom you should negotiate: the guys with the biggest arms, or cheque books, or political vision? Similar questions arise in E. Africa.

n Most people in the Community Dialogue group saw the Columbian situation as very different from our own.

11. Internal Dynamic

The Stanford seminar made a significant impact on the development of relationships within Community Dialogue and on our ability to dialogue with each other on contentious issues. This improved our

understanding of each other, increased our trust and improved our ability to face conflict in an open and respectful way.

As Community Dialogue members we already knew and trusted each other to a certain extent. We have gone through many painful dialogues in the past. But after these we were always able to go our separate ways. We couldn’t do this at Stanford. There we had to live and work with each other for the whole

week - and sometimes a week can seem very long! There was no cooling off period.

The prolonged nature of the dialogue meant that we had more time to explore our own and each others’ feelings, experiences, perceptions and beliefs. Our beliefs, feelings, egos and needs often clashed and we had two ways of responding:

The first was avoidance. Within this there may have been a blend of fearing conflict and trying not to hurt others, as well as not knowing what to do or say. The second arose through one or other of the group members challenging our avoidance and this helped us face issues.

Both strategies probably had a positive role but we came away encouraged by our ability to take the more difficult path when occasion demands. We learned that we are able to put the process of dialogue into practice in our personal interactions as well as facilitating the dialogue of others. We subsequently agreed that we need to place more emphasis on our internal dynamic in unpacking the feelings, emotions,

perceptions and needs within our group.

We were also helped by moments when individuals within the group shared personal, sensitive and confidential experiences. While this may have led some people to feel vulnerable it had an important role in developing greater trust and understanding within the group as a whole.

We could not have done what we did in Stanford without getting away from our normal work situation and without the prolonged engagement with others that happens in a residential setting. Some of us were worried beforehand that the normal divisions which arise within any group during a prolonged trip abroad, together with the deep political and religious differences between us, would lead to a split in the group. In fact this did not happen. On the contrary we came back stronger as a group, still disagreeing deeply with each other, but with a much deeper respect for each other, a greater understanding of how and why others hold the positions they do, and a genuine sense of friendship.

We hope this document will be useful in stimulating questions about our context here. Do you see any connections between the ideas presented and the Northern Ireland context? How does our own

experience in Northern Ireland help us to critique these ideas? Do any of the ideas help you answer questions such as those we raise in our Community Dialogue residentials:

  • What really matters to you,
  • Why does it matter to you?
  • What can you live with?

We got a lot from the week both through the learning we received from our internal discussions and from the inputs about conflicts in other situations.

We are deeply grateful to Byron Bland and our hosts among the staff and students of Stanford University for their extraordinary hospitality during our stay. We would also like to thank the Hewlett Foundation whose generosity made the seminar possible.

Community Dialogue Participants in the Seminar

Alistair Little

PJ McClean

Noreen Christian

Ernie Carroll

Betty Carroll

Bernie Laverty

John Loughran

Chris O’Halloran

Andrew Park

Brian Lennon

David Holloway

Peadar McKenna

Katie Rutledge

Kay Nellis

Anne Carr

Paddy Hamilton

The title of the cover for this document was suggested by Kevin McGivern, a member of the Forthspring Youth Group.