The day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected the idea of peace talks with listed terrorist group al-Shabaab in her Feb. 23, 2012 speech at the Somalia conference in the UK, a conference of the United Nations Friends of Mediation Group (UNFMG) convened in Istanbul to promote mediation initiatives and provide a forum for experts from governments, academia and civil society to exchange experiences and pursue new initiatives. The UNFMG, launched by the governments of Finland and Turkey in the fall of 2010, succeeded in passing a UN General Assembly Resolution in June 2011 titled “Strengthening the role of mediation in peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution.” Thirty countries and eight organizations have joined the FMG.
In contrast to the UNFMG’s emphasis on dialog as a means of ending or preventing armed conflict, the seven point plan agreed to by the Somalia Conference had a heavy emphasis on security issues and use of the military. The IRIN headline on the conference said “Military emphasis at conference ‘puts more civilians at risk.’” These results are out of step with the growing international preference for using mediation to resolve conflicts.
This includes promoting the involvement of civil society organizations that conduct peacebuilding programs. As UN General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser told the conference:
“I am pleased that the main focus of this two-day international conference is track II actors. Track II actors - such as civil society organizations, research institutions, and former high level personalities - play a growing role in resolving conflicts, building capacities and engaging in post-conflict reconstruction. In some cases, track II actors support and contribute to mediation processes. In others, they initiate, lead and successfully conclude entire processes. As past experiences have taught us, every conflict or dispute is distinct. Each one requires careful attention and the most appropriate tools. I would also assert that sometimes, track II players have a comparative advantage. They often act in a more informal and flexible way than State actors. For this reason, the United Nations system, regional organizations and Member States should draw more from the expertise of this track.”
Unfortunately, U.S. counterterrorism law makes it a crime for peacebuilders to engage with armed groups on the terrorist list for just the kind of “Track II” efforts Al Nasser describes. Sec. Clinton has the power, under current law, to change this counterproductive situation by exempting expert advice and assistance, training and personnel related to peacebuiding from the material support prohibition. In May 2011 a bipartisan group of foreign policy and peacebuiding experts wrote to her asking that she do just that. The State Department is now considering options for doing so.
A peacebuilding exemption from the State Department would have many benefits, putting the U.S. in sync with the UNFMG and firmly on the side of mediation as the preferred way to resolve conflicts. It would unleash the expertise and resources of U.S. peacebuilding groups, significantly increasing the potential for Track II projects. These off-the-record talks often are necessary to create conditions for the more formal negotiations carried on by nation states. A premier example is the process that led to the formal negotiations ending apartheid in South Africa, dramatized in the BBC movie Endgame.
The UNFMG has held several meetings since its June 2011 launch, and Al Nasser announced future efforts at the Istanbul conference. On March 22, 2012 he will sponsor a one-day debate on the best ways to foster cross-cultural understanding that can help build peace. On May 23, 2012 he will convene a General Assembly meeting in New York to focus on the role of UN members in mediation. The results will feed into a Secretary-General’s report that will provide guidance for more effective mediation.
These upcoming events give the U.S. good opportunities to become a leading player in the push for non-violent resolution of conflicts. But the most effective step the U.S. can take is to fix the problems the current material support prohibition creates for peacebuilding and track II projects. Congress has provided the State Department with the means to do so by giving the Secretary of State the power to create exemptions. A well crafted exemption will open the door for peacebuilding without allowing bad-faith actors to take advantage of it. Clinton could announce such an exemption on time for the May meeting, giving non-violent conflict resolution an important boost. Given the number of armed conflicts around the globe, there is no time to waste.