Beyond Intractability
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Andrea Bartoli (Portilla, Interviewer)

Director of the International Conflict Resolution Program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and Chair of the Columbia University Conflict Resolution Network

Topics: Sant'Egidio, mediation, religion and peace, religion and conflict

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003


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Q: If you would, just for an introduction, give me an overview of your work.

A: Sure. I am a member of the Community of Sant'Egidio and now I am the director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. I mentioned both affiliations because I started doing work in conflict resolution as a member of the Community of Sant'Egidio, and that was in Mozambique many years ago. After coming to the United States in 1992, I started working at Columbia University, where I founded the Center and now we do work in several areas. I teach, I do field work, and I do research in the area of conflict resolution.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the Community of Sant'Egidio?

A: The Community of Sant'Egidio is an international, Catholic organization that was founded in Rome in 1968. The community of Sant'Egidio was founded by Andrea Riccardi; who was a high school student at the time. He gathered some friends and started living the gospel. It is fundamentally a religious organization that simply tries to live the gospel through a life of prayer, service, and friendship. It is a very radical call, and has been growing since 1968 quite dramatically, so much that now we have a presence in more than sixty countries. In Africa it is quite astonishing to see how many thousands of young Africans are actually joining the community and sharing the same committed life of prayer, service, and friendship.

Q: Can you tell me how you first got involved in Mozambique?

A: Mozambique was not on the Sant'Egidio map. It was simply the country where a young priest who was studying in Rome was coming from. When in 1974, Sant'Egidio got its name from the church where we pray, he was one of the friends that came. When Portugal had a military coup that provoked a sudden de-colonialization process Mozambique got its independence in a matter of months. The Vatican changed its century old policy of having only white, Portuguese bishops in the colonies into a more post-Vatican with a policy of having native, black local bishops. This priest became bishop of Barah, and a few years later became Archbishop of Barah. The relation with Mozambique was built on friendship and was completely serendipitous. It depends on what your final reference is, grace or serendipity.

Fundamentally, Sant'Egidio didn't decide to get involved in Mozambique, rather faithfulness to a relationship brought us in touch with Mozambique through a friend who became bishop. What happened to him was similar to what happened to what happened to many Mozambiquans who were nationally and very strongly in favor of independence, and yet were perceived as problematic by the new regime because they were religiously motivated.

Catholics especially had a hard time in the new environment because they were perceived to be too close to the old colonial power. He had difficulties in running his communities, he was put in jail, and he was having troubles with the authorities. When he came to Rome for a visit to the pope that every bishop needs to do every five years, he visited the community of Sant'Egidio as well. He visited his old friends and shared his concerns with us. The response of the community was extraordinarily creative. The founder of the community thought it was important to welcome Bishop Gonzalez, this is the name of the person, Jaime Gonzalez, not only in the usual web of friendship and support, giving a little bit of money, a little bit of aide, but more politically. He organized a meeting of the Archbishop and with the at that time, Secretary General of the Italian Communist Party, and of the federal government to make sure that a more open tolerant religious federal policy was implemented in the post-independent Mozambique.

The process was a fascinating one because it was clearly a totally new idea for the Archbishop that you could have positive, effective policy change through the Secretary General of the Communist Party. His experience with the communist party had not been exactly friendly. Clearly it was not with the complexities of the communist world that, in Italian terms, was much more influenced by Gramsci and the meeting between the Secretary General of the Communist Party and the Archbishop went very well. He was very helpful, very open, and very collaborative. Indeed he opened the process that lead up to more than ten years of work aimed at improving the relationship between the Holy See and the Mozambique government, which was concluded by the visit of the President of Mozambique to the Vatican in 1986.

Q: Obviously the story of Mozambique is very long. The story of the war is very bloody, but is there a particular moment that you can recall either with the involvement of Sant'Egidio or something more personal that you recall as inspiring relative to the conflict in Mozambique?

A: Personally for us it was with the death of one young member of the community. It was a very significant moment in terms of getting motivated for further involvement in the conflict. We have been interested more in church-state relationships and the idea of having one young member killed by the violence strongly encouraged us to do more for peace.

J:What time frame was that?

A: That was 1986. More generally I would say that there is no doubt that the change of regional and international political landscape, like the fall of the Berlin wall, the fall of the Soviets, and the change in South Africa were all moments that significantly influenced the situation in Mozambique. I would say certainly that the invitation of President Chissano to the religious leaders to seek connection with the guerilla movement was definitely a turning point that was very significant. After that point it was still a crime to have connection or dialogue or contact with the Renamo movement. It was very clear to the government that there was no chance to build a sustainable political system unless some form of agreement with the Renamo was sought after, and an agreement that would bring that into a long term political arrangement. Communication occurred through this bishop that I mentioned before. And the leadership of Mozambique government was essential in making the process effective. It took more than four years to establish the whole framework process, possibilities, and finally the agreement on October 4, 1992.

Q: Is the role that the church played in the conflict in Mozambique duplicable, or should it be duplicable in other conflicts throughout the world?

A: I definitely think it is duplicable already. If you look at the situation in Africa it is fascinating to see how often Roman Catholic bishops are actually asked to play a role similar to the one that Bishop Gonzalez has played. On one hand, in a very specific African context, you have at least twenty cases of bishops playing the role of peace maker with different abilities and with different outcomes. The recent agreement in Liberia would not have been possible if it were not for the role of the bishop. You are familiar with Mexico and Bishop Ruiz. I think it is significant what kind of contribution in that context it was. It is not by chance that when they gave the Nobel Prize to Ramos-Horta, they did want to give to Bishop Belo as well because his role in East Timor was clearly significant.

I think that it is actually an underdeveloped field of study of how much the religious groups, and in particular Roman Catholic bishops who play a role. I think Roman Catholic bishops are in a special category because they have a much more pronounced ease in walking the path of politics. This is true partially because they are clearly prominent representatives of a community, secondly because they are internationally well connected, and thirdly because most of the time they are well trained. These are people who clearly have certain kinds of education. What is interesting is that the church can't be identified with the bishops only. The fact that peace in Mozambique was actually facilitated through an association that is made of lay people gives you some food for thought because it is certainly part of the church, and it is certainly part enjoined, access to information, to understanding, to context that otherwise was impossible.

Q: I am sorry. The lay people facilitated part of the church?

A: The community of Sant'Egidio is part of the church, and is recognized by the Holy See. In that sense there is no doubt that movements like Sant'Egidio, the Mennonites, the Quakers, and other movements that have very clear religious affiliations are motivated to intervene in areas where solution seems to be very hard to find and very difficult to imagine. There is something there to be said about the relevance of long term investments that maybe sustained by religious motivation.

Q: What are some of the other advantages that one who is openly, religiously partisan has in becoming involved in a conflict, and conversely, what are some of the disadvantages?

A: One of the disadvantages is that if the religion is a source of intolerance then it can become a factor in fueling the conflict more than resolving it. If you are an intransigent Jew and you think that your Prime Minister is selling out your state then you may think about killing him in religious terms. If you are an intolerant Hindu and you think that Gandhi is bringing everybody to ruin, you may want to kill him, and so on and so forth. Religiously motivated peace makers killed by co-religioners is not an unthinkable thing, it is actually quite the norm, unfortunately. Religion can play both ways and I think it depends a lot on the individual and on the communities that they belong to, and the orientation that they belong to and assert. One of the advantages that I find consistently in religious actors is this sense of creative investment in peace. It is this idea that political processes are not ephemeral, but certainly not ultimate. In a way there is something beyond our structure, there is something beyond the reality that is seen in experience in the moment of conflict. Religious people do have that capacity, very often, to look beyond, to imagine things beyond the moment, and the reality that is in front of them.

Q: Can religious leaders play a role in peace making in multi-religious societies where religion could be perceived, or misperceived as a source of conflict? Is there a special way that they would have to tread in those situations?

A: I would say that religious diversity is the norm everywhere. I don't think that we can think about Saudi Arabia as having this uniformity. Uniformity is only apparent, and I think that religious leaders won't necessarily respond to that particular context. If they want to be peace makers there is clearly the need to represent that reality careful enough. I think that Mozambique is a good case because Catholics were just 10% of the population; religious diversity was very high. The capacity to play a role politically was less linked to religion per se, and more to the sociology of religion. In fact Catholics are in a way connected internationally. There was a possibility of intervening from the outside, yet have an androgynous process that was truly Mozambiquans. I think that peace processes involving religious leaders will necessarily need to be highly owned by the people who are part of the new political reality emerging out of the conflict.

Q: The church is not a governmental organization, and by definition it is a non-governmental organization. Those connections that you mentioned are interesting because there are none of the usual concerns about the violation of sovereignty relative to where there are other states that come in and act as a peace broker.

A: Absolutely, and this is where I think that we need to recognize the creativity of the Mozambiquans themselves that in a way found a way to resolve the very contentious issues related to intervention. The community of Sant'Egidio was clearly international enough for the guerilla movement to offer guarantee and to give a sense of oversight and neutrality, and so on. On the other foot the government, the state actor, was not intrusive in a way that an international organization or a state actor would be otherwise. That point is absolutely important there.

Q: What about maintaining trust between two different sides? The government might see religion as an interferer within there own confines but they can't kick them out like a state. Liberation theologists in Latin America were often seen as meddlers, or maybe seen on the opposite side as establishment status quo guards as in the church say in Argentina during the junta. How does the church manage to play a role that is maybe not neutral, but impartial?

A: I think it is important to realize that the church is not made up of disembodied realities, it is always somebody that acts in the name of the church. In this case it is a bishop within the community of Sant'Egidio. It is relationally constructed so it is completely contextual, it is in one reality, and I think that the more that we respect these types of relationships the more we will see how this role can be played out. I don't think that can be theorized or thought before hand, then planed, and then executed. It emerges in certain conditions and what we know is that in conflicts in moments of crisis, and moments of discontinuity, what people tend to look for in those moments are actually points of references.

If political structures, if military structures, or if social structures are influx, are in transition, or are in crisis people tend to look for something that could give them a sense of stability that could look like a point of reference. In that sense, very frequently as I mentioned before, Roman Catholic bishops tend to play that kind of reference point because they are perceived to be known enough, local enough, and close enough to represent instances that are significant to the conflict. You can clearly see how that could actually play differently if the leader would use that significance of relevance, in terms of refernciality, to fuel the conflict or to fuel intolerance. A religious bigot would start using the language in the moment of transition and actually channel that in the direction of furthering the conflict.

Q: I suppose that is appealing to a certain extent because it does offer a vision of stability, like you are in and you are out. It is sort of the very opposite way that you were describing earlier with the bishops. Could you tell me a little more about your personal involvement in Mozambique?

A: I was in charge of the relationship with the UN for this mediation team that included the founder of the community Andrea Riccardi, the priest of the community, Matteo Zuppi, and the Italian Parliamentarian, and this bishop, Jaime Gonzalez. I was coming to New York to explain to the UN what we were doing in Rome. The UN doesn't have embassies so it is important to keep them in the loop. The final peace process was happening and there was a significant role in the UN and they were not ready to implement that agreement. It was a moment in which peace keeping operations were many. There was an explosion of peace keeping operations and a new different role for the UN. At the beginning of Boutros Boutros-Ghali's tenure as secretary general. In my reading I found that the lack of preparedness was going to be significant for the Mozambique people so we decided to open an office in NY, and I was asked to come to NY to monitor the UN implementation of the agreement. Because it really doesn't pay anyone, it is a simply volunteer position, I had to look for a job and that is how I ended up teaching at Columbia.

Q: That is a very interesting perspective there that the peace keeping forces weren't ready, so what happened?

A: It took seven months for them to go to Mozambique, while they were supposed to go there in fifteen days from the initial meeting. This is one of the structural problems that you have in internationally, because you don't have a standing force. You don't have a UN army. The process calls for states to pledge troops, then a peace keeping operation is organized, and finally troops are deployed, but it takes time; it can't be done in just a few days. It is clearly thanks to the Mozambiquan commitment to peace that the peace was kept more than a development ability to impose a peace. I think that is a good assessment of the Mozambique experience. It was definitely an experience of deep held beliefs, and deep desire for peace on the part of the people and on the part of the leadership. The leadership was very much able to read this desire of the people and deliver a political project that would respond to that. This is very different from what happened in the Middle East or some other context. Leaders and constituencies were very much in sync in terms of seeking peace, and what the political process made possible in two and a half years was actually for it to emerge as a credible, sustainable system.

Q: Was that because it was ripe in sort of Zartman's terms?

A: It is certainly something of that, but it was also ripe in Coleman's terms. That is to say, ripe relationally, it was not just about power. It was also in the ability to see each other as partners in a new enterprise that had to do with rethinking Mozambique. Mozambique was never unified and independent. It was either under colonial rule or in a war. This was the only moment that it could be conceived as independent,unified and at peace. It is to the credit of the Mozambiqan leaders that they accepted the necessity of including all Mozambiquan in this kind of project.

Q: People sometimes in reference to Oslo say that lots of things were wrong with the process, but one of many is that people at the top were never able to mobilize their constituency around the agreement in Oslo. How did that get avoided in Mozambique?

A: I think that there was a certainly very strong support for ending the hostilities. You need to conceptualize a country with a population of twelve million, of which four million and a half were internally displaced people, or refugees. The level of suffering was unimaginable. The violence of the conflict was really tragic and people were ready for peace. They were so ready that they didn't wait for the UN to organize the repatriation, they just went back to the villages. It was an extraordinary moment of people back to peace.

Q: I am sure there are many and we've covered a few so far, but can you think of lessons learned from the conflict and the intervention into Mozambique?

A: One is that you do want to have careful evaluation of the ownership issue. The process must be owned by the parties. The parties need to be involved, and the parties need to lead the process of not just policy. We like to define Sant'Egidio's intervention as a weak strength, strength coming from eliciting the participation of the parties by simply offering them the space to allow that communication to occur. The lessons are to seek less imposed solution and to seek a more organic, emergent solution that comes out of protracted interaction among actors that have learned to see each other less as enemy and more as partners. These transformative processes take time. In Mozambique it took two and a half years in terms of the negotiations themselves and then much more time for institution building; I would say it is still going on. It will probably take a few generations for it to actually take hold and to be completely effective.

Q: That seems like a fine line to ride between being a convener or a facilitator, but that is not leading to much toward a solution and maintaining ownership within the parties that are actually involved in the conflict.

A: It is a fine line, but in the reality of the interaction it is less complicated because I think that when you respectfully engage you always keep the possibility of suggesting and influencing the process. Parties will not mind being offered opportunities of being offered new thinking. What they will resent is having those alternatives, or those ideas imposed on them. I think that the more you can restrain yourself from exercising power out right the more you will find that actually more is requested out of you. This is what happened to the team. The team started as a facilitator team and then became mediator because the parties themselves felt that a more leading role was necessary for them to come together in a creative fashion.

Q: Was that ok as a team of facilitators? Did you accept that role? Do you have some vision of the future that says, "If they don't take more responsibility for what is happening now, we are going to pay for it later even if we do accept this role that they are pushing on us?"

A: I think it was a wise move at that point to accept that because it was very clear that the parties were indeed engaging in the process and wanted the facilitator to play a more proactive role because they felt in a way inadequate to articulate all the terms in the agreement. There were major constitutional changes, there major military issues, and there were lots of other problems dealing with competence that needed to be handled at the ground. I think that the mediators were clearly in a much better position to secure these kinds of resources that were made available to the parties and always making sure that the parties are allowed to be the final voice. In a way it was not having the mediator as an army or not having the mediator as a way to impose the solution; it was a fair process.

Q: I wonder if it is easier for a third party to be less active when the parties don't experience tremendous power inequities. Would you say that is accurate?

A: That is definitely a major issue. It was clear in that case. You quoted Zartman earlier, that was definitely the right moment in the sense that none of the two would be able to win militarily.

Q: and they felt it and their constituencies felt it.

A: Yes.

Q: Were there any surprises in that process?

A: Lots of them. The fragility of the process of this magnitude is always extraordinary. We definitely need to learn to stay with the process for a long time. Still in the making is in a way a true statement, I think that Mozambique is out, you have stable institutions, the Parliament, government, elections and so on, but definitely the idea that you can get out of one hundred years of colonialization, thirty years of an independence war, and sixteen years in civil war, in a moment just because you sign an agreement doesn't seem right to me.

Q: Other surprises?

A: I would say that others surprises were the resilience of the people and the way in which people accepted the necessity to invent peace even in the middle of war. How can they think peacefully even in the moment in which violence is around them. Lots of appriciation for the ability of Mozambique leadership to address things creatively. Asking an NGO with no prior record to mediate, it was by itself quite an achievement of the Mozambiquan leadership. Another surprise that is a paradox is that Mozambique was made possible by the lack of attention of the international community because there was not resources to go after; there were no diamonds or no oil. In a way the international community allowed the Mozambiquans to do what they wanted but if you compare that to the situations in Iraq with oil, the Congo, or Angola, it is very clear that is the highest interest of the international community not just as a fake, neutral party, because there is no neutrality. The Mozambiquan experience was the perfect form of isolation. The lack of interest was actually provoking a positive outcome.

Q: That is interesting because the conventional wisdom is to presume the opposite, as in something like Guatemala that gets no attention and as a result has tremendous brutalities and massacres that are allowed to happen without much attention. I wonder how that plays. Obviously it is one of many factors, but that is fascinating. Well, great. Should we talk about anything else relevant that you think people should know about?

A: Many things. I think that the more we continue to think about the role that Mozambique has been playing in the region-always very peacefully trying to solve conflict peacefully would be a plus. The more that we can recognize the success of stories then the more that we will empower people. Telling the stories will make it stronger. It is not insignificant that Mozambique is now the new president of the new African Union. I think we need to recognize that a state who so recently went through a bloody war has achieved so much peacefully.

Q: They are in a position to do that because they are an example, because they have a new capacity to peace making?

A: I think it is because they were true to the spirit of the agreement. They were seriously committed to it and they created a solution to make sure that it was not just a rhetorical argument, but actually an orientation that was made true through the policy of the government and the people.

Q: Were there dialogues at the community level in Mozambique?

A: Very much so. More after, than during, but definitely there is quite a network of participating institutions doing peace work at the grass roots level.

Q: and those dialogues were some how connected to institutions?

A: They were connected through churches and through civil society organizations. There is this beautiful moment that you ask for surprises when of the lead negotiators for Renamo read the name of his parents in the list of parishioners that were signing a petition for peace in Mozambique.

Q: Wow.

A: These were parents that he could not see for more than ten years because he was living in the bush so when these thousands of signatures were given to the delegates he went for his village and found his parish and found his parents. That was certainly a moment of great commotion, and it definitely had an impact. There are moments of that sort in which the country in a way came together in it's search for peace.

Q: I feel like we have talked about examples of the top level of John Paul Lederach's triangle and community dialogue. Is this a case where there are demonstratable efforts in the middle level of the pyramid that has access to the top and access to the bottom at the same time? Is that where the church fits in?

A: I would say certainly that partially it is the church, and partially it is also the business community. The business community played a very important role in facilitating. It was not much in terms of structure or controlled dialogue. You didn't have much of a middle range intervention and interactive problem solving kind of workshop where things were planned to be in the middle. Mozambique's middle class is not that huge or not quite developed where there are several reasons for that not to happen, but it is definitely the case where you have quite a significant consistency of different levels in John Paul's model.

Q: What role did the business community play?

A: They facilitated dialogue and contact between the two, similar to the church, much less prominent but similar to that.

Q: There were business sympathizers on both sides? There were partisans on both sides?

A: There were also multi-nationals that were interested in areas controlled by both. They facilitated contact so that in a way a political solution would emerge.

Q: Thank you so much.

A: I hope that the interview will be helpful.

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