Not all peace processes end in success, said Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, in Colombo this week. It can take some a very long time to succeed-as it did in the case of Northern Ireland. Mr. Blair delivered the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture on August 24, the tenth anniversary of the late Foreign Minister’s [...]

Sunday Times 2

Seven steps to reconciliation

Former British Premier says peace takes a long time to succeed

Not all peace processes end in success, said Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, in Colombo this week. It can take some a very long time to succeed-as it did in the case of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Blair delivered the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture on August 24, the tenth anniversary of the late Foreign Minister’s assassination. His death brought an outpouring of respect, not only from Sri Lanka, but from friends and admirers around the world for what he had achieved for his country and for peace, Mr Blair remarked.

Mr. Blair garlanding the portrait of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who he said understood the importance of peace and security

The Northern Ireland peace process achieved success after, “according to some calculations, decades of conflict, and others, centuries of conflict on the island of Ireland”, Mr Blair said. “And that is an important lesson in itself to realise, that however tough things seem, and however intractable problems are, it is always worth striving for peace because you never know the moment at which peace becomes possible”

Sri Lanka had many years of conflict of a terrifying nature where so many innocent people lost their lives. Today, that conflict has ended and the pursuit of reconciliation has begun. “Now each conflict always has its own characteristics, therefore when you compare the experience of Northern Ireland with that of Sri Lanka you have to do so with caution because the circumstances are so different,” Mr Blair said. It was also true, however, that peacemaking and reconciliation had characteristics that were common to the circumstances and origins of each conflict.

Mr. Blair extolled the virtues of Sri Lanka, including its natural beauty, extraordinary history and natural wealth and resources. He mentioned tea, in particular because “the British care about tea”. The country had fantastic potential for tourism while its trade agreements offered amazing opportunities for business to come and locate here.

“Most importantly,” he said, “your biggest resource is your people who are kind and generous and want the best for their country. So there is so much to be proud of and hope for. Yet, despite all this, for decades, the country defined by conflict and conflict is always hard, bloody and unforgiving.”

Now, as peace has come, there was a “supreme moment of possibility and opportunity”. “But we have to realise one other thing… which is that peace is a beginning which gives you a chance to create something new. It does not in itself create it.”
“When we made that Good Friday Agreement in 1998, it took nine years after that before Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sat down in Government together,” Mr Blair recalled. “Through that period of time there were ups and down and periods of difficulties and crisis in which we thought peace would not be possible. You have the opportunity, but the opportunity has to be seized, for reconciliation won’t come unless there is much more work done.”

Mr. Blair referred to “seven principles of successful reconciliation”. The first was the continued absence of conflict. “Security matters,” he said. “Lakshman understood this very well, which is why he spent so much time and energy in waking the world up to the LTTE. We have to say constantly as we pursue reconciliation that, whatever your grievance and disagreement, nothing justifies terrorism.”

“To achieve lasting peace the cycle of violence has to be put in permanent suspense because the evil of terrorism is not just the act itself, but it also creates a division, a reaction. I have never come across an instance in the world where there is terrorism and there is not a response from the forces of authority. Then, there is a reaction to the reaction, and so it goes. That is why you cannot reconcile while there is violence.”

Secondly, the reconciliation framework needs to be fair. “In a conflict there will be dispute, divisions and disagreements,” Mr. Blair observed. “But for sustainable solutions to come to pass one needs a conceptual framework that allows people to understand the nature of the accord being afforded to them. Essentially what is the framework which is going to govern our view of the future?”

“Sri Lanka will have to work out its own framework,” he observed. “Obviously, there are issues around devolution, guarantee of rights, development and dignity and fair treatment which will have to be resolved.”

The third principle is unity and diversity. “Where conflict involves different parts of a country, faiths and ethnicities, then, for reconciliation to work, two things must be in balance: unity and diversity”, Mr. Blair said. “However, the thing about difference and diversity is that, while they have to be celebrated, it is also important that all the different groups recognise a common space which is governed by shared norms and values.”

The fourth principle is the importance to reconciliation of economic development. “Conflict creates dislocation, poverty, and despair and reconciliation is hard in a crippledeconomy, economic development is critical,” he said. “In Northern Ireland it definitely helped, because this investment, along with the improvedsecurity, meant that people came, located and invested. As a result, local communities got a stake in the future, thus mitigating the effects of despair, which was used as an excuse for violence.”

The fifth principle is education. “I am a person who believes education is a cure for virtually everything,” Mr Blair opined. “Education should not be about the number of students in the class but it should be about making them alive to the opportunities and enabling an ‘open mind’. To put it simply, you succeed economically if you are willing to be open-minded towards people who are different.”

“If globalisation is inevitably pushing people together, and there are people who have not got the educational opportunities to learn about these new developments and, in doing so, interact with these other groups, reconciliation cannot be fully achieved,” he said. “For these young people will not learn to be respectful, tolerant and understanding of the diverse world they are living in. In Northern Ireland we put a lot of effort into education. It is important to remember that extremism is usually taught, it is not natural. It is best if we teach from the beginning, from a curriculum that puts at its centre education aimed at opening the mind.”

The sixth principle is dialogue. “The dialogue has to be deep, it has to be inclusive and it has to be constant. All the time we have to recognise the importance, even after there is peace, even when you have the framework that I described, of a constant process of dialogue, of interaction, of understanding, of people working out their differences together. One of things that happens in a conflict, and I’ve seen this again and again around the world is that people don’t see each other’s pain. They know about their pain, but they don’t see the other person’s. In Northern Ireland, as we got the framework in place, those mechanisms brought people together, so that they understood that their pain was mirrored in the person on the other side.It was a really important in getting people to understand that reconciliation isn’t just about laws, constitutions and processes. It’s got to touch the heart. If it doesn’t touch the heart, it doesn’t really work.”

The final principle, Mr Blair said, was in many ways the most difficult and sensitive: “The past cannot be erased and is never forgotten, but it can be confined in some way so that it does not disrupt the possibilities for the future. And where the past is examined it should be examined for the truth and not for any retribution. Conflict creates victims. And that pain never leaves them. It may never leave the people in this room. Not least, Mrs. Kadirgamar herself knows about the pain, the grief, the suffering. And for the people who were left behind, the memory never dies.”

“When we try to pursue reconciliation always one of the most difficult things is what you do about the past,” he continued. The most difficult conversations he has had were “those with the victims of the violence of both sides, who felt that their truth had never been told, and that closure had never been achieved”. They would be very critical of what they thought was a political process that seemed to have diminished or relegated their grief.

“You, in Sri Lanka, will have to find your own way to do this, whatever way is consistent with your own sovereignty,” Mr Blair said. “But it has to be credible, thorough and it has to succeed in allowing people who have been hurt to understand that any suchprocess should be to salve their anger and not stir it. The way it is set up is very important.”

There was a methodology in reconciliation, Mr. Blair said: “You have to get good people in charge of it. Make sure it is organised properly.” You also have to realise that some people are going to try and stop the reconciliation. “There will always be people out there for whom the quickest way to whip up the audience is to tap into their fear, insecurityand grievance and play those into a situation of tension,” he warned. “The system has to be strong enough and the people have to be strong enough to overcome that.”

“Persevere is my final piece of advice,” he asserted. “People prefer to live in a society where they can bring up their children with some peace and security. They prefer to live in a country where, if they work hard, by their merits, they can succeed. They prefer that the rule of law decides any disagreements they have and that rule of law is impartially administered. They would prefer to have their government underneath them and not on top of them.”

“And they prefer,” he said, “to live in an environment where they can get on with their neighbour whoever their neighbour may be.”

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