We’ve all heard the argument that violence is strategically necessary. Decision-makers may believe that nothing short of force will resolve conflicts, protect their interests, or keep in place systems that protect their interests. Leaders may feel the need to avoid loss of political capital or loss of face, to project strength, protect access to resources, and prevent the emergence of rival blocks of power. People are sometimes driven to extreme action in an effort to demonstrate personal resolve.
But as a means to secure peace, war is not working. In 2012, the world directed 11 percent of its gross product—a total of $9.46 trillion—toward containing violence, with half spent on militaries. Fighting violence with violence begets more violence.
Every day, all over the world, people from all walks of life resolve conflicts without killing anyone. Most do not espouse pacifism per se; yet communities, states—even rebel groups—achieve their desired ends without violent force time and again. Experience shows that peaceful approaches to conflict do work.
It’s a simple truth, but for those tasked with responding to conflict, it can be hard to see. That’s why AFSC is actively promoting the idea that conditions for peace can and must be built without resorting to violence. And we’re starting at home, with U.S. lawmakers.
One problem encountered in policymaking circles is that those who realize war is not working do not have models for effective nonviolent approaches. Because the U.S. leads the world in investing in war, examples of successful nonviolent interventions are more difficult to find.
AFSC’s experiments in building peace provide some of the best evidence. Our methods include engaging with local organizations, strengthening their capacity and effectiveness, and accompanying them in their grassroots work. At the same time, we help forge connections between these local partners and policymakers, internationally and within the United States. As AFSC pushes or U.S. foreign policymakers to adopt similar methods, examples from our work are coming into play.
“A lot of policymakers are engaged with the peace-building community,” says violence prevention expert Bridget Moix. She is currently compiling evidence from AFSC’s work to share with influential international organizations and academic institutes working on peace. “It is a way [for policymakers] to see important work and to open more evidence-based relationships,” she says.
Evaluating the impact of peace-building programs is not easy, Bridget says—it’s something the whole field is trying to figure out. “[Peace-building practitioners] are not yet good at showing how approaches impact the larger dynamics of a country,” she says, pointing out why AFSC’s examples are so important: “AFSC’s work shows how community work is linked to broader policy and structural policies.”
As AFSC calls on leaders to put the power of governments, civil society, and cooperative international institutions toward diplomacy rather than force, we recognize how critical it is to demonstrate the effectiveness of such decisions.
Case study: Truth and reconciliation in Burundi
Burundi is still healing from a civil war that ended in 2005. Individuals and communities are working to recover, but it is also a national effort. To avoid falling back into conflict, the society must uncover and deal with the truth of past events. Victims’ frustrations must be heard, and perpetrators’ stories must be heard, too, if the root causes of violence are to be understood.
For years, AFSC supported government decision-makers as they considered how to forge a path to lasting peace. A turning point came at a conference on truth and reconciliation commissions (TRC) that AFSC organized in 2011.
Representatives from nine African and Latin American countries shared their experiences with building peace and stability through a TRC mechanism, which helps to address past human rights violations.
Generally, the truth is uncovered through widespread consultations with victims and witnesses. Reparations are offered, and individuals and institutions responsible for past human rights violations are named. Preventative measures are developed from a deep analysis of the root causes of conflict. And forms of peaceful conflict resolution are encouraged at the grassroots.
After three days of examining TRC experiences in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Kenya, participants at the conference identified three elements integral to a successful commission: political will of the government, a national consensus, and a guarantee of security for victims and witnesses.
Leaders in Burundi eventually developed a draft law for a TRC in their own country, but they recognized that they were missing a key ingredient: national consensus on its content. This missing component meant risking the integrity of the TRC process—and risking the country’s fragile peace—if the law was implemented as drafted. So in 2013, AFSC coordinated another dialogue and exchange, this time bringing members of the Burundian parliament to South Africa. There, they were able to learn how similar issues arose and were addressed when South Africa developed its TRC process.
With this understanding, members of parliament were able to revise and pass a TRC law in 2014. The president of Burundi came out in support of the law, and now, the nominating process for commissioners is underway.
Solutions found within a group’s history, knowledge, and culture are more effective at making peace last. Supporting this process with resources such as space for dialogue and exchange is one way to make peace possible.
Case study: Linking civil society and government internationally
Chinese communities have been partnering with AFSC since 1920, when AFSC’s humanitarian assistance program—which delivered aid to people regardless of political affiliation, religion, or nationality—established a model village near Shanghai. While other policies seek to isolate or criti-cize China, AFSC facilitates dialogue and builds connections among groups affected by Chinese interests. Recently, those groups have included Chinese companies developing assets in Southeast Asia and in Africa.
In January 2008, AFSC invited influential experts on Africa from Beijing’s leading official foreign policy think tank to a study tour in Zambia and South Africa. The delegation met with African labor unions, opposition party members, local nongovernmental organizations, and policy experts. They toured Chinese factories and copper mines and spoke with local Chinese businesspeople and Chinese ambassadors.
Upon returning to China, participants urged policymakers to build relationships with African civil society groups, address local environmental and labor concerns, and expand training for Chinese businesspeople and embassy staff in Africa. Independent of AFSC support, the Chinese delegation also invited African experts to a return visit to Beijing, where African participants could raise their concerns directly with Chinese officials and academics.
Communities need to be able to engage directly with the public and policymakers whose decisions affect their lives. As a U.S. organization, AFSC is reluctant to speak on behalf of affected communities around the world, instead creating opportunities for people to speak for themselves—and in the process laying foundations for a more just and peaceful world.