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Peace Breakthroughs Give Hope to the World - 2003-01-27

In Cyprus, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Sudan peace seems closer at hand than at any time in recent history. After more than two decades of conflict in each of these countries – why is peace being given a chance now? What criteria must be met before serious peace talks can take place? What role should the international community play in mediating such talks?

Time and evenhandedness are the two most important factors in resolving civil conflicts, say a group of academics and crisis management experts.

In Cyprus, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Sudan these two dynamics have combined to bring about tenuous peace. While it is far too early to say whether or not a lasting peace will be achieved in any of these countries, analysts say in each case the opposing sides are closer than ever to reaching some sort of resolution.

In Sudan, a tentative cease-fire has been in place since October to stop the bloodshed from a two-decade long civil war between the predominantly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south.

David Shinn is adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. He says one and a half million Sudanese have died in the fighting, or more commonly as a result of the war-related famine.

“People are beginning to realize that this is almost an endless situation,” he says. “And I think both sides concluded actually some time ago that it cannot be won militarily. And you reach a point where you have a mutually hurting stalemate, and it may be that they’ve reached that point. Now having said that, there’s no guarantee that this is going to end it. There is an awful lot of hard work to do yet to bring it to a conclusion.”

Mr. Shinn says there are some lessons to be learned from Sudan. First and foremost is that all sides to a dispute must be ready to accept a third-party mediator.

“Third parties, whatever role they’re playing in trying to resolve a dispute, is that they absolutely must avoid the impression that they’re favoring one side or the other. If they ever do that, then they’ve just killed all ability to play a meaningful role in the dispute,” Mr. Shinn says. “It’s imperative that third parties or mediators never let up on the pressure that they bring against all the parties to the dispute. Because once you let up on the pressure, there will be a real tendency for progress to either slow down or even come to an end. The pressure has got to be meaningful and constant, and it must be brought against both sides continuously.”

In northern Indonesia, the province of Aceh is another area enjoying the first signs of peace. On December 9th, 2002, the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement rebels signed a cease-fire agreement ending a 26 year long separatist movement that has claimed up to 30 thousand lives.

For the past two years the Swiss-based Henry Dunant Center or H-D-C has taken the lead role in bringing both sides of the conflict to the negotiating table. They have worked out a cease-fire that provides for free and fair elections in 2004 and the progressive demilitarization of Aceh. The pact also puts international monitors on the ground to make sure both sides stick to the terms of the agreement.

Sidney Jones, Indonesia Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, says Aceh is closer to a solution now because of direct international involvement and pressure on both sides from the international community to reach an agreement. The citizens of Aceh also played a fundamental role.

“After so many failed efforts, the Achenese people themselves have decided that they’ve had it with conflict. That now is the time to put pressure on both sides for peace,” she says. “And the whole atmosphere has changed. It’s as though after the ninth of December agreement the Achenese just decided that things had changed so dramatically – even though they really hadn’t – that they started living their lives as though the conflict had ended, and it’s made an incredible difference in the atmospherics.”

Ms. Jones says the H-D-C’s role as a facilitator was essential. So too was support from other countries like the United States.

She says, “One of the big breakthroughs came about last year when the H-D-C got the Indonesian government’s agreement to bring in wise men or outside people with a lot of influence and clout, who could help bring both sides to some understanding and force them to compromise. One of the wise men was General Anthony Zinni, who played a role in Middle East negotiations for the United States. The fact that he was a military man made him more acceptable to the Indonesian army, but he also very quickly got an understanding of what was at stake and was able to bang heads when necessary to reach an agreement.”

In Sri Lanka a 20-year separatist war between ethnic Tamil rebels and Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government has claimed more than 65 thousand lives. Journalist and author William McGowan praises the role the Norwegians have played as an honest broker. But he says it took the global war on terrorism to jumpstart peace talks.

“The international war against terrorism has kind of made terrorist groups like the Tamil Tigers somewhat anathema, and I think they saw that they needed to make a good faith effort or they were going to lose any understanding or support at all in the international community. And that the Sri Lankan government was going to be able to get anti-terrorist aid, anti-insurgency aid under the guise of the war against terrorism,” he says.

Mr. McGowan, who lived in Sri Lanka in the late 1980’s, says all Sri Lankans are simply tired of the violence.

He says it’s “exhaustion, sheer exhaustion. This is a conflict that has killed upwards of 70 thousand people. This country’s not a very big country, I think there are 18 million people in Sri Lanka. And there’s just a great deal of impatience and fatigue with the war. I mean, this is an entire generation that has been raised in the shadow of this really violent conflict.”

It’s this generational change that is often the impetus for restarting long-stalled peace talks. Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, says this is the case in Cyprus, where settlement talks on how to reunite the divided island have picked up the pace in recent months.

Young Turkish Cypriots don’t want to be left out of the European Union’s decision to include a united Cyprus as one of the 10 nations slated for membership. However, if the Greek and Turkish Cypriots are unable to reach some type of reunification deal, then the E.U. has said it will just take the Greek side of the island.

Mr. Bandow says, “What you’re seeing now is kind of rising up of a lot of younger people saying, “We want in. We want to be part of the E.U. We’re tired of economic isolation.” They’ve had demonstrations with 30, 40 thousand people, and you’re talking about a population in the north of about 200 thousand. So that’s a huge number.”

Mr. Bandow warns that economic benefits may not be enough to win over the old-guard Turkish Cypriots, who remember the violence and repression the Greek Cypriots carried out against them.

“The people closest to a conflict often have the hardest time dealing with it,” he says. “Somebody like (President) Denktash remembers what happened to people of his generation in terms of secretarian fighting. Younger Turkish Cypriots don’t. They have a different vision. They’re able to look more at what they think the prospects are, say for joining the E.U., than looking backwards at how things were.”

These four nations – and the third parties involved in talks – have shown the world how conflict resolution can work. What is clear, say observers, is that when all else is failing, a neutral outside mediator can play an important role. They hope more balanced mediation can put an end to the strife afflicting so much of the globe.