PEACE in Action

Using Multi-Track Diplomacy to Deal With Ethnic Conflict

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Policies for International Peace
Using Multi-Track Diplomacy to Deal with Ethnic Conflict


Ethnic conflict is a threat to peace and the basis for much terrorism

Ethnic conflict is the major threat to peace in a number of regions today. It is also the basis for much internal and international terrorism. Three elements have contributed to creating this situation:

  1. Collapse of empires -- at the beginning of the 19th century, the world was dominated by 10 great empires, and they were all ruled by force and fear. When ethnic violence reared its ugly head, it was snuffed out swiftly and violently. Today, the empires are gone, and there is no intergovernmental structure or international force to control these internal conflicts -and they are flourishing.
  2. Disregard of Non-Negotiable Issues -- the empires, and many of the successor nation states, have stimulated violence and conflict by totally ignoring three fundamental human rights issues that go to the core of a people's identity and which are thus non-negotiable:
    1. Language -- to control ethnic groups, governments have frequently denied them the right to speak, read or write their own language. This control mechanism does not work because a people will kill for the right to speak their own language. It is at the heart of their ethnicity, their identity.
    2. Religion -- history has proven again and again that a people will kill and die for the right to practice its own religion.
      Denying ethnic groups their identities
    3. Culture -- the imperialists have used various means to deny an ethnic group its identity by destroying its culture, e.g., deny a people the right to produce their own literature or poetry, take away their music, their dance, the beautiful clothes they wore for special occasions, and not allow ceremonies of birth, death and marriage.

      When the denial of language, religion and culture takes place simultaneously, violence is guaranteed. The common thread linking these three non-negotiable issues is that they are all manmade; all have been imposed by the state -- and thus could be changed by a stroke of the pen. There are other reasons for violence in the world, such as poverty, hunger, a lack of natural resources, etc., but these are long-term issues that cannot be changed overnight. However, if language, religion and culture were universally allowed to exist, without state control, the world would be a far more peaceful place.

    Governments have not changed their approach to conflict
  3. Current International Structure and National Governance -- the world is not designed or structured today to cope with the kind of violence it is facing. There has been a paradigm shift in the nature of conflict over the past decade, but governments have refused to acknowledge this shift; they have not changed their approach to conflict.

Between 1989 and 1993, there were 82 conflicts in the world in which more than 1,000 people were killed, but only 3 of the conflicts were legally classified as wars. At the present, our international system, e.g., the United Nations Security Council, is only prepared to deal with wars. The other 79 conflicts all took place within national boundaries — intra-state conflicts where sovereignty reigned supreme. No external force (national or international) was allowed to get involved unless invited into the country by the government in power. Although increased attention is being paid to the problem, the world is not yet structured to cope with this kind of internal, ethnic violence.

The NGOs are the peacebuilders

Unfortunately, the vast majority of governments today still do not even acknowledge what is taking place in the world concerning the nature of conflict. Hence, needed institutional changes are not taking place, nationally or internationally. The only ones that are filling at least a small part of the vacuum are Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) -- private citizens practicing track two or multi-track diplomacy. The NGOs are the peacebuilders today, and the prime users of multi-track diplomacy.


Multi-Track Diplomacy is a systems approach to peace

The term and concept of MultiTrack Diplomacy was set forth in 1991 in a book entitled Multi-Track Diplomacy: A Systems Approach to Peace. This book, which Dr. Louise Diamond and I co-authored, reflected the progression from Track Two Diplomacy, a term coined in 1981 by Joe Montville, a colleague and fellow diplomat, to describe the conflict resolution work of private citizens in NGOs. Track Two was further expanded in Conflict Resolution: Track Two Diplomacy, which I was able to get printed by the US Government Printing Office in 1987. The term Multi-Track Diplomacy was coined in 1989 in a chapter in Dr. Louis Kriesberg's book Timing and Deescalation of International Conflicts. Track Two was expanded therein to include: Track Three, private sector involvement; Track Four, citizen-to-citizen educational exchange programs; and Track Five, the media.

In Multi-Track Diplomacy: A Systems Approach to Peace, we added four more tracks: education and training, peace activism, religion and funding. We then put the nine tracks in a circle, thereby emphasizing that all participants need to be equal partners. Thus, it became a systems approach, in which all parts of the community, including Track One, had to be involved in peacebuilding to make a peace agreement effective and lasting. A few months later, Dr. Diamond and I formally launched our Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy to carry out the theories we had developed from working in conflicted countries.


One important finding was that we needed to break the word "peacebuilding" into three different components:
  1. Political Peacebuilding -- this is a Track One task and governments can do an excellent job in this arena when they have the political will needed to act.
  2. Economic and Institutional Peacebuilding -- Track One plays an essential role here by inviting the participation of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN High Commission for Refugees, other UN agencies and bilateral aid agencies to help rebuild the infrastructure and the national institutions destroyed by internal conflict or war. Track One governments do an excellent job here, once the decision has been taken to act.
    Social peacebuilding is reducing hate and anger
  3. Social Peacebuilding -- this area is about working with the people; it is about working with the heart! It is about addressing the hate, the anger, the lies, the trauma, and the loss that a people has experienced during years of devastating civil war. It is about trying to ensure that when the outside peacekeepers leave and violence breaks out shortly thereafter, as it usually does, the community leaders already have the skills, and the support at the community level, to stop the violence from spreading. Thus, the goal of social peacebuilding is to prevent the cycle of violence from recreating itself.

Unfortunately, most governments have great difficulty in understanding or acknowledging the need for social peacebuilding. This is where multi-track diplomacy becomes extremely important -- to help meet the needs of the people and to encourage proper action by Track One in a timely way.


It took 15 months to get a dialogue started in Cyprus

Dialogue, as we at IMTD use the word, is simply sitting down together and talking about the problem. This is so easy to say, but in so many instances it is very difficult to do. In our work in Cyprus, for example, it took 15 months of hard work, separately with the two groups, to have key participants from the Muslim and Christian communities sit down together and talk.

Dialogue has been a fundamental part of our work. Early in the history of IMTD, Dr. Louise Diamond, our first Executive Director, wrote a paper on dialogue which we follow to this day. She laid out "Seven Principles of Dialogue" as follows:

  1. create safe space;
  2. agree that the purpose is learning;
  3. use appropriate communication skills;
  4. surface what is hidden;
  5. focus on the relationship;
  6. stay through the hard places; and
  7. be willing to be challenged by the situation.

Fundamental Principles

Twelve principles involved in working with conflicts

While there is no model to apply to every situation, because each conflict is different, we have developed 12 principles which we believe are fundamental in working with conflicted societies:

  1. Invitation -- we never involve ourselves in a conflict unless invited by a party to the conflict. If we accept the invitation (and we turn down more invitations than we accept), we go to the site of the conflict and listen, sometimes for two or three weeks. We listen to as many sides of the conflict as possible, and we ask the participants what are their needs. Then we decide whether we can meet any of the needs they have identified.
  2. Long-Term commitment -- once we decide that we can be of assistance in the conflict, we make a long-term commitment to that conflict. This becomes a personal, professional and institutional commitment of at least five years to that conflict. We talk about this commitment, telling people that we are not there for a weekend training or for a week or a month. We know that conflict-habituated systems take a long time to develop and cannot be resolved quickly. We are there for as long as the participants want.
  3. Relationship -- we believe that our success as peacebuilders is directly related to the quality of the relationships that we establish with the people and institutions with which we work. The way we build a relationship with Track One is to say very clearly that we are not in their country to try to solve the political issues that are a part of the conflict. That is clearly their responsibility, and we do not want them to misinterpret our presence. We tell them we are totally transparent and invite them to participate in our training of community leaders if they wish. We do not want to be seen as a threat by Track One.
  4. Trust -- trust is critical to our success because we cannot make progress without it. Relationships must be built slowly and based on mutual trust. Announcing our fiveyear commitment is an important part of building trust. Just showing up every few months is another way to let people know that you care about them and want to help them. We also say we have no hidden agenda; our sole goal is peace building. This takes more time for people to accept, but once accepted, it is an important part of building trust. We also honor the participants by acknowledging that they are the risk takers. We respect their courage.
  5. Engagement -- we let people know that we are engaged and caring partners. We are actively a part of our projects. We are interactive and present with our local participants, sharing and developing deeply human relationships. We are concerned about what happens to them. We do not charge for our services so that money does not get in the way of our engagement with our participants. We also do not advertise our trainings, allowing the information about them to spread by word of mouth. We have found that this is less threatening to the participants and allows them to decide if they really want to become a risk taker. You have to be a risk taker to be a peacebuilder.
  6. Women are the best peacebuilders
    Partnership -- we believe in the concept of partnership, both among professionals in the field of conflict resolution and in working with our local partners in the conflict situation. We recognize that we do not have all of the skills or the answers in this difficult arena of conflict transformation. Therefore, we create consortia and coalitions in order to bring together the best talent available to work in a particular conflict. We recognize that women are the best peacebuilders so we make an effort to bring them in as local partners.
  7. We seek out Indigenous Wisdom
    Synthesis of Wisdom -- Western principles and practices of conflict resolution are culture-bound and may not be as effective in other cultures; therefore, we seek out indigenous wisdom, learn from that wisdom, and then try to weave the two together. We acknowledge the skills and traditions that have been used by the local participants, often for many centuries, and offer our skills as a supplement to their practices. We talk about the fact that we are a learning community and encourage all participants to learn from each other. We believe in sharing and synthesizing wisdom, wherever it occurs.
  8. Multiple Technologies -- we bring together a number of different methodologies, activities and techniques, recognizing that each situation is unique. We also recognize that different talents are needed at different stages of interaction with the participants. This can also mean that we will bring in different trainers at different stages of the transformative process. At the beginning, one learns the basic skills of listening, rephrasing and putting one's self in the shoes of another. At another level, one can learn how to open one's heart to the enemy and begin to build trust. This will require different talents on the part of a trainer or might mean a different trainer. We adapt to the needs of the participants.
  9. Action Research -- we believe that our work is on the cutting edge of this new field of conflict resolution; therefore, we want to continue to learn from our practical work in the field. We then want to apply what we have learned to the next conflict situation. This is action research. Action research also includes the idea of evaluation. We build into our projects, from the beginning, evaluation techniques in order to test if what we are doing is effective and is in response to the needs of the participants. Evaluation is an important element of our work.
  10. Solutions imposed from the outside rarely work
    Responsibility -- our work is to assist parties in conflict to address their own problems. We cannot and do not promise to solve all their problems for them. We can facilitate, train and teach participants to become trainers, build local capacities and local institutions, but ultimately the responsibility for dealing with the conflict is theirs. Solutions imposed from the outside rarely work. We are there to train, help and support. We are also sensitive to the need to help participants with their re-entry process. When they have been working and training with the enemy, how do they explain what has happened when they return to their home, their work place or the local coffeehouse? We take responsibility for helping in these areas, but application of these new skills is the responsibility of the participant.
  11. Empowerment -- we are seeking to achieve conflict transformation in our participants, and that requires local empowerment. Empowerment, a critical part of what we are about, can take a variety of forms. We try to tailor our interaction with each of our participants in individual ways so that the goal of empowerment can eventually be achieved by all of the people with whom we work.
  12. To change participants' views of the "enemy"
    Transformation -- this principle, which is probably the most important one, is central to our goal and our mission. We are interested in trying to change participants' views of "the enemy" by getting them to look (or relook) at history, values, fear, anger, and their perceptions of the other parties to the conflict. We wish to see all participants able to work and live together in the same community without violence, fear and strife. Wherever in the world that occurs, it means that transformation has taken place, and there is a little more peace in the world because of that transformation.

Our Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy has carried out peacebuilding activities in Cyprus, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Bosnia, Liberia, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Pakistan, Georgia, Indonesia, Nepal and the Great Lakes Region of East Africa and with the Government of Tibet-in-Exile. We have worked with CARE, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We have received financial support for our work from a number of US foundations, three governments, several international organizations and our 1200 duespaying members. We send our quarterly newsletter to over 6,000 people in 115 countries.

Our work in Cyprus began in 1991 and is described in my paper The Need for Multi-Track Diplomacy, published as Occasional Paper Number 9 in May 2000 by The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy. Our work there over an extended period of time has surely contributed to recent improvements in the situation there. There follows a description of a part of one of our sessions there; it illustrates the importance of social peace building and of the need to work with your heart.

During a visit to Cyprus in 1991, Dr. Diamond and I put on a halfday training in the Turkish North. We were pleased that 35 people gathered for the session and that 40 percent were women. As I opened the session, I asked that each person in the circle give their first name and say why they had decided to be with us that day. Halfway around the circle, a man in his midforties said his name and then said:

"I have hated the Greek Cypriots all my life because they killed both of my parents. I went on with my life, however, became a medical doctor, got married and have a four-and-a-half-year-old son. I came to this workshop because of what happened three nights ago in my home. I went in to kiss my son goodnight and found, lying next to him in bed, a long, wooden toy rifle. I asked my boy why he had that rifle in bed with him and he said, "To kill the Greek Cypriots when they come after me."

The doctor then said:

"I am here to learn some new skills so that I can help my son have a different life than I had."

"I herewith forgive the Greek Cypriots for killing my parents. "I am here to learn new skills to help my son have a different life than I had."

Ambassador John McDonald is Chairman of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD), 1925 North Lynn Street, 12th Floor, Arlington, VA, 22209, USA [E-mail: website:]. Ambassador McDonald was trained as a lawyer and served 40 years in the U.S. Diplomatic Service, of which 8 in the Middle East and 16 years on United Nations Affairs. He was appointed Ambassador twice by President Carter and twice by President Reagan and led U.S. delegations to dozens of UN conferences. Following retirement from U.S. government service, and before co-creating IMTD, he served as the first President of the Iowa Peace Institute in Grinnell, Iowa.

This article is derived from IMTD's Occasional Paper Number 9, The Need for MultiTrack Diplomacy, May 2000 and IMTD Report, The First Decade 1992-2001. Occasional Paper No. 9 and No. 11, The Role of NGOs in Policy Making, also by Ambassador McDonald, are both available on IMTD's website.

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