Updated February 2013 by Heidi Burgess
Citizen diplomacy refers to unofficial contacts between people of different nations, as opposed to official contacts between governmental representatives. It can include direct contacts in joint activities of various sorts, or it can involve situations mediated or facilitated by unofficial (non-government) third parties--NGOs, private peacemakers, scholars, or any other unofficial "bridge builder."
Private citizens who want to try to become involved in an international conflict in an effort to transform or mitigate the situation.
Citizen diplomacy takes many forms. It can involve interchanges of people through student or faculty exchange programs; church programs that try to bring people from conflicting groups or nation states together; or cultural, scientific, or sporting events that bring disputants together in cooperative (or competitive) sporting events--soccer is one that is widely used in what has come to be called "sports peacebuilding."
A subset of such activities is sometimes called "track two" diplomacy. This is unofficial discussion by non-governmental actors about topics usually discussed by officials in formal diplomatic negotiations. The participants may be parliamentarians, leaders, activists, journalists, scholars, or students.
Contributions of Unofficial Interventions
Evaluating citizen diplomacy is difficult because it affects intangible factors, such as attitudes and relationships. However, official conflict management is sometimes ineffective because the disputants are is too deeply divided, the leaders are unwilling to change course, or the dispute may be intertwined with larger conflicts. In these cases, it can help if informal representatives of each side meet with each other in an informal setting. These discussions can sometimes yield new understandings and produce creative approaches, which later can be adopted by a more official process.
For example, citizen diplomacy can help participants break down negative stereotypes they have of each other. Once participants begin to understand each other's motivations, they can empathize with each other and form a basis for trust.
Unofficial intermediaries can also open channels of communication between parties. Track II negotiations and citizen diplomacy more generally bring people together who would normally never meet. Furthermore, unofficial discussions make a new kind of communication possible. In unofficial mediation, participants exchange personal stories and analyze the conflict in a structured way. They are aware of offensive language and can then develop de-escalatory language that creates a safe environment. Unofficial processes can generate creative ideas that cannot be raised in official negotiations.
This safe environment helps participants establish deep relationships, which "re-humanizes" the enemy. While this newfound trust does not always extend beyond the informal exchange, if enough exchanges are held among enough people over a long enough period of time, social images, expectations, and interests change. Eventually, participants transform their perceptions of the larger conflict. They can define a common problem and possibly abandon previous non-negotiable positions. Even when "non-negotiable" gaps persist, participants are often more willing to compromise on other matters.
In severe conflicts, often moderates on both sides are voiceless. They can be exiled, intimidated, or threatened. Citizen-based processes open space for voices of moderation that have been silenced.
Finally, it is important to build a peace constituency at all levels of society. Unless citizens support peacemaking efforts undertaken by the elite, re-polarization of the conflict is likely.
Limitations of Unofficial Intermediation
Unofficial processes are vulnerable to the outside environment. Participants are responsive to politics, media and public opinion. Sometimes, participants are harassed and intimidated. These attacks demoralize participants, making it hard to maintain attitude changes. Furthermore, they must balance forging coalitions across conflict lines with preserving their status within their own side. Consequently, if not reinforced, attitude change often dissipates. Also, differences in power between the parties affect participant's views. Weaker parties sometimes view these processes as ignoring the imbalances. Finally, unofficial intermediaries require extensive resources and time, which are not always available.
In Ecuador and Peru, Harvard led a "facilitated joint brainstorming" process. Participants later became decision makers in the peace process and drew on their experience in these sessions to negotiate the agreements that ended more than 40 years of conflict over their shared border. Numerous Israeli and Palestinian citizen diplomats have been meeting for years. Many secret meetings preceded the Oslo negotiations, and apparently helped make those negotiations possible. They did not adequately change the attitudes of the general citizenry on either side of the conflict, however, causing the Oslo agreement to fall apart in 2000 and the Second Intifada to begin. While relations between Israel and the Palestinians are still tense, some track II and citizen diplomacy still goes on, in the hopes that someday the relationships built and ideas generated will lead to successful Track I (official) negotiations and a peace agreement that actually holds. Track II efforts have also been used in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, when the US was trying to help Iraq draw up a new constitution after the fall of Saddam, Sunni leaders were opposed to the notion of "federalism." A track II process helped them understand what such a system would look like in practice, and convinced them that it could be implemented in a way that would be fair to all sides. This then paved the way toward the successful writing and approval of the new constitution.
Citizen and Track Two diplomacy is widely practiced by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as churches, humanitarian aid and development organizations, peace building organizations, and private citizens who want to help the cause of peace when their (or other) governments are failing to do so. Such activities are found in most of the major international and ethnic conflicts around the world: in Cyprus, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Tibet, for example. Organizations as diverse as the International Red Cross, Search for Common Ground, International Alert, and the Quaker and Mennonite Churches are all involved in Track II efforts, as are many individuals acting independently.