Joseph Elder: Quiet Peacemaking in a Civil War
by Thomas Princen
Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "Joseph Elder: Quiet Peacemaking in a Civil War" in When Talk Works, Deborah Kolb ed. San Francisco Jossey-Bass 1994, pp428-445.
An interview with Quaker mediator Joseph Elder on his current activities in the Sri Lankan civil war reveals some of the unique features of the Quaker approach to international mediation. The Quakers are a relatively small Protestant sect whose values include pacifism and a tradition of peacemaking. Due to their religious convictions and practical constraints, Quaker mediators maintain both a strict neutrality and a very low profile.
In 1984 the London Quaker office sent Joseph Elder and a colleague to Sri Lanka to discover whether there was possibility for fruitful Quaker assistance. In the face of increasing repression by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, the Hindu Tamil minority had become militant, and was calling for a separate Tamil state. Guerilla violence on both sides was escalating, and the parties' public positions were becoming increasingly polarized.
It was decided that the Quakers could be most useful in working to maintain some dialogue between the opposing factions. While the Sinhalese government publicly refused to communicate with Tamil "terrorists," privately government officials expressed interest in negotiation and admitted that a military solution was unlikely to succeed. The Quakers offered to serve as message carriers between the two sides. The Quaker offer came with two conditions. First, none of the disputing parties would publicize the involvement of the Quakers. Only the immediate parties to the conflict and dialogue would be aware of the Quaker's activities. Second, if either side feels that the Quaker assistance is no longer helpful, they should tell the Quakers, who would then withdraw. These two conditions, against the background of Quaker ideology and practical powerlessness, are key in making Quaker mediation effective and attractive to disputants.
Both conditions reinforce the disputant's control of their dispute. By rejecting any public recognition of their work, Quaker mediators reinforce the message that they have no personal agenda beyond ending violence and promoting reconciliation. Disputant control and Quaker neutrality is also reinforced by each side's ability to "veto" Quaker assistance.
The second condition reinforces the Quaker's powerlessness. Elder refers paradoxically to the "power of powerlessness." Quaker intervention is acceptable precisely because they do not have the power to leverage disputants or pursue their own agenda. However as message carriers, they are able to set standards and influence the tone of the dialogue.
The first privacy condition also makes dialogue low-risk venture for the parties. If peacemaking succeeds, the parties are free to take the whole credit. If dialogue breaks down, the public need never know, so these is no risk of public failure. It also allows for more open communication. For instance, "The parties can refrain from accusing the other of malevolent intent because they need not fear looking weak."[p. 455]