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London 20:14, 02 Jan 2013
New York 15:14, 02 Jan 2013

Address to the UN General Assembly on Strengthening the role of mediation in the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution

13 September 2012

By Lord Alderdice

Your Excellency Mr President, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Your Excellency Mr. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am most grateful for the opportunity to contribute to your increased focus and attention to the Role of Mediation in Conflict Prevention and Resolution, as mandated in the 66th UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/65/283 adopted unanimously on June 22 last year.

As we saw from the horrible events these past days in Libya, movies are not just moving pictures, but pictures that move people, sometimes to terrible actions. At other times, as in the case of the extracts of the documentary you have just seen, one can be moved to tears of sympathy and appreciation by the way the human spirit at its best can overcome terrible experiences.   In this week, in this city where we have been remembering again the dreadful events of 9/11, we have to ask ourselves why such events occur, how we can understand man’s inhumanity to man, and whether we have learnt anything about peace-building from the last decade.

The movie shows us how individual people can find ways of getting beyond the painful legacy of conflict, and as a psychiatrist this was part of my professional work for many years.  But as the Leader of a Northern Ireland political party it was part of my responsibility to understand how we can apply these understandings to communities that have been, or still are in violent political conflict and so contribute to the Irish Peace Process.

What are some of the lessons?

The first is the impact of our emotions.  What you saw was the struggle that individual victims have to deal with their deep hurt, anger, and sense of injustice.  These powerful feelings affect the way that we think.  Even when it is to our disadvantage we cannot just dismiss our feelings. Powerful emotions actually affect not just what we think but the way that we think; they disturb our capacity for rationality and acting in our own best self-interest.   This is true also of groups, communities and whole nations of people.

Secondly we must be aware of the particularly toxic effect of a sense of deep injustice, disrespect and humiliation.  In every part of the world where I have studied the outbreak of terrorism and profound violence, I have found at least one group of people who feel that their culture, their values and their people have been treated unfairly and profoundly disrespected.  When they have been unable to right what they perceive to be this terrible wrong, they have turned to violence, not out of rational self-interest, for their people rarely benefit from the violence; they usually suffer terribly.   This is one of the mistakes that people from stable societies often make in addressing violence in other places.  They try to interpret the events using a rational actor model, when what they are observing are ‘devoted actors’ motivated  not by social and economic drivers but by ‘sacred values’ – by which I do not mean religious values but values that transcend economic benefit – the value of the life of my child is a sacred value.  I cannot trade that without losing part of my very humanity.

Thirdly, we need to appreciate that solving the injustices of the present does not take away the feelings about the past.   The people in this documentary were suffering the pain of terrible events in their past, sometimes from years ago.  What is true for individuals over decades affects communities sometimes for centuries.   Resolving the current injustices that have resulted in violent conflicts does not lead to reconciliation, much less to forgiveness unless the issues of the past, and sometimes the distant past, are also addressed.

Forgiveness, like trust and reconciliation, is not a prerequisite for starting the process of addressing such conflicts, but is a result of a successful process of doing so.   However while trust tends to grow out of the experience of working together in a human relationship with the other side, forgiveness is much less common, much more difficult and very painful.

The key element in building trust, achieving agreement, ending violence, and eventually contributing to reconciliation is the construction of a process through which by direct engagement with each other, the two or more, sides begin to see ‘the Others’ as human beings who have their positive as well as negative elements.  If you treat others as less human than you and your people they will feel able to treat you and your people as less than human too.  Then, as Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen has pointed out the rich diversity of our humanity is lost and we become less than human enemies set against each other and diminishing ourselves.  When we act in such a way we are no longer rational actors operating on real self-interest, but devoted actors sacrificing ourselves and others for a higher cause.  People who have felt themselves disrespected, humiliated and treated with profound injustice sometimes respond with terrible acts, but these are perceived by them, whatever anyone else thinks, as actions taken in a just cause.

Let me be clear, physical force and strong security measures do have their place in containing a situation until negotiations can find a political resolution.  I am not in any way suggesting that there is no place for the use of force.  Sometimes it is absolutely necessary.  But security measures if overdone can make a bad situation worse and even in the best case scenario they rarely of themselves bring a resolution and they never bring reconciliation.

These then are some of the key issues in mediation work with groups in violent conflict:

The power of the past – with repetitions and reactions to hurts, over centuries not just years.

The impact of the emotions – I react not out of rational self-interest but emotionally, and often to my cost.

The toxic effects of injustice and humiliation – resulting in devoted actors, who, if they find no other way may react with self-destructive violence in what they perceive to be a higher cause.  If you humiliate me, I will remember it forever and find it hard ever to forgive.

The need to construct a robust process through which I begin to relate directly to ‘the Other side’ as human beings with good in them as well as bad, and recognizing the faults on my own side in the past and the present.

As this most distinguished President, His Excellency, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, passes on the baton to his successor, His Excellency Vuk Jeremic, I am greatly encouraged that your new President also proposes to make the settlement of disputes by peaceful means the theme for the General Debate in the upcoming year, and I wish Your Excellencies all that is good in your important deliberations.

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