International Sustained Dialogue: Solving Long-Term Conflicts

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I'm Steve Ember.  And I'm Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.  Today we tell about a process that helps people involved in long-term conflicts.

The Middle East, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh.  These are some areas of the world where there are long-lasting conflicts.  A new organization is working with citizens in those areas on a process to develop new relationships to end the conflicts.

The process is called sustained dialogue.  Sustained dialogue is a continuing discussion.  It is the central work of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue in Washington, D.C. The Institute leads some dialogues.  It also works with other organizations that want to learn how to develop sustained dialogues in their countries.

The International Institute for Sustained Dialogue began in October, two thousand two. Harold Saunders is president.  He was assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. In the late nineteen seventies he helped to negotiate the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. He has been doing international work for the Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, for almost twenty years.

Sustained dialogue helps citizens who have violently disagreed and fought with each other to change their relationships.  The process is aimed at citizens, not government officials.  Mr. Saunders says sustained dialogue is for people who are so angry at each other that they are not ready to work together in any setting.  Dialogue is the beginning step for people who cannot negotiate because they are not ready to cooperate.

In many situations, groups are so hostile to each other that they cannot talk.  But, Mr. Saunders says, usually in those groups there are a few people who want peace so much they are willing to talk to the enemy.  Either they decide to reach out to each other or someone else creates a space for dialogue and invites the conflicting parties to come.

Sustained dialogue is different in two main ways from other methods of trying to end long-term conflicts.  First, it centers on the relationships that cause the hostilities.  Most other methods begin by trying to get people to deal with the issues.  Sustained dialogue proves that people involved in conflict can effectively deal with their problems if they first change their relationships.

Mr. Saunders says that sustained dialogue also accepts that it takes time to change relationships.  He says progress does not happen in just one meeting.  The sustained dialogue movement has developed a process that brings the same people together for many meetings, sometimes for years.

Harold Saunders says that those involved in sustained dialogue have learned that relationships develop in five different steps.  These five stages show the progress of interactions when individuals from different groups meet repeatedly over a long time.

Recognizing these steps helps moderators and people involved in the dialogues to know how to move on.  Mr. Saunders says, "These stages are what people naturally seem to do when they sit down with their opponents and try to deal with a problem that affects them both."

The first stage of the sustained dialogue process is usually the most difficult.  That is when people have to make a decision to meet and talk with the enemy.

The second stage is "the blame game."  During the first meetings, those involved express their anger and blame the other side for the conflict.  This stage ends when someone says, "What we really need to work on is…"  When that finally happens, Mr. Saunders says, those taking part in the dialogue begin to talk less at each other and more about the problem which affects them all.

The third stage in a sustained dialogue is when people begin to define the problem as they understand it.  Then they begin to explore what they can do about it.

The fourth stage is when those taking part in the dialogue say, "If we want to move in this direction, what do we do to get there?"  They look at what may block them from reaching their goal, and the way around these blocks.  They consider who can remove the blocks and in what order moves should be made.  During the first four stages, all of the meetings are private and the dialogue discussions are kept secret.

The fifth stage moves the dialogue and design for action into the general population.  It is then the people involved in the dialogue go back to their groups and try to get others to accept the plan to end divisions between their communities.

Mr. Saunders says this process was used in Tajikistan beginning in nineteen ninety-three. Tajikistan was in the middle of a bitter civil war that began after the Soviet Union ended.  The Tajik opposition was split into many groups.  In its first year of operation, the dialogue was the only method of communication between people connected to the government and people in the different opposing groups in the country.  The dialogue group met six times in that first year.

Mr. Saunders says that after three meetings, people in the group decided they needed to negotiate.  Yet they did not know how to represent the many voices of the opposition.  After the fourth dialogue, the different groups in opposition to the government met in Tehran, Iran and formed the united Tajik opposition.  They presented a joint proposal to the government.

This made it possible for the leaders of the Tajik civil war to join United Nations peace negotiations, which led to a peace agreement in nineteen ninety-seven.  But the dialogue did not end.  Members continued meeting.  In two thousand, they created their own non-government organization, the Public Committee for Democratic Processes, to continue dialogues in seven areas of Tajikistan.

Randa Slim is vice president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue.  She was born in Lebanon and speaks Arabic, French and English.  She moved to the United States more than twenty years ago to attend graduate school.  In nineteen ninety, Ms. Slim began working with the sustained dialogue process as a program officer for the Kettering Foundation.

Ms. Slim says an Arab-American-European dialogue officially began in two thousand three.  The first paper describing this project was written in October, two thousand one.  Ms. Slim says it was her personal attempt to deal with the horrors of the time.  She says, "I felt that the two parts of the world I most care about were heading toward a major confrontation."

There was an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust.  She felt there must be attempts to start developing creative ways for changing the conflicting relations between the people of the United States and Arab nations.  The dialogue, she says, is a move in that direction.

The Arab-American-European dialogue includes five Americans, five Europeans and fourteen Arabs.  They meet for three days every four months.  In recent meetings they have discussed reforms in the Arab areas and the relations between government, society and religion in both Arab Muslim and Western cultures.

Ms. Slim says that after two years of joint meetings those taking part in the dialogue are able to think about and work together on issues that concern them all.  And, she says, they are developing some joint solutions to the problems even though their cultural and political differences remain.  Now, Ms. Slim says, the Arab-American-European dialogue is at a stage where it can make its work public.

Ms. Slim says that the sustained dialogue process is effective in great part because it involves the same group of people meeting over a long period of time.  This means that the people learn to trust each other personally and then to move on to deal with difficult political issues.  Those who take part in dialogues are people of influence, Ms. Slim says.  The hope is that their efforts to build new relationships will spread through the wider community.

Next week, we will tell about how the Sustained Dialogue process has been used in South Africa and Zimbabwe and at colleges in the United States.  For more information about the work of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, go to www.sustaineddialogue.org.

This program was written by Marilyn Christiano and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: International Sustained Dialogue: Solving Long-Term Conflicts
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