Mediators Beyond Borders: Romania can become key peacebuilding regional player; mediation is not for the weak of heart

Prabha Sankaranarayan, president of Mediators Beyond Borders, talked to about peace in the region, ahead of the upcoming peace congress in Bucharest at the end of April. Romania has 10,000 mediators, and should use them, as well as engage civil society in peacebuilding, as the country has potential to become key player in the region. The end of violence is the beginning, she says, and much more is needed to keep peaceful communities. But mediation is neither for the weak of heart nor the unimaginative.

Why did Mediators Beyond Borders choose Romania, a country so close to the Ukraine conflict zone, for this peace congress in April?

PS: Romania is the exciting location of the next MBB Congress because of its geostrategic position, key role in peacebulding in a challenging region, strong mediation community and the strength of our host partners. As a gathering of mediators we hope to highlight the importance of dialog and a range of other mediative practices that have been used effectively in communities around the world.

As for the Ukraine, sadly, it is but one of many places in the world today affected by violent conflict. We think that that these are the very places in the world where the voices of mediators and peace builders need to be heard. As mediators we offer our skills and support to, the efforts of all those involved in the attempts to resolve these issues using mediative practices.

Given Romania’s strategic position in the region, and the recent NATO forces deployments in the country, what advice would you give the country’s leaders in helping maintain peace in the region?

Today, the greatest problems we face are beyond borders and cannot be fixed by individual nation-states, but require global collaboration, consensus and interest-based processes like mediation to be solved sustainably.

When systems are stressed, by fear or the threat of attack, communities are susceptible in a variety of ways, including along historical fault lines. It therefore becomes incumbent upon leaders of states to reduce threat: minimize increasing alarm, communicate openly, take responsibility and provide information; to increase physical and psychological safety – educate the public, engage the media in the values of peace journalism over sensationalism, use the mediators in your communities (Romania has over 10,000 of them) to engage civil society in connecting and creating public spaces for dialogue. Connected communities are safer than those experiencing isolation and disconnects. And induce calm.

How do you see this regional situation further evolving, and what turning points and key actors do you see playing an important role in defusing conflicts?

The end of violence is the beginning. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of restoration of relationships, creation of social systems that serve needs of the whole population and constructive resolution of conflict as critical components of real peace.

Acceptance of the rights of others, free flow of information, equitable distribution of resources, sound business environment, well-functioning government, high level of human capital and good relations with neighbors are all key to peaceful communities.

If we pay enough attention to building the foundation for this during the peace process, the chances of communities thriving are much better. Right now reconciliation is an afterthought – communities crack along the fault lines of previous unresolved conflicts when these relationships are not strengthened and supported.

What potential does Romania have in the context of mediation and peace building in the region, and further, in Europe, in your opinion?

If the number of mediators in this country is any indication, Romania has great potential to become a key player in the region. Mediation has to be thought of as a possibility at every level, from the leadership to the local level. The rich and complex history and traditions of this region create the conditions for Romania to take leadership in this area.

What challenges do mediators and peace builders face nowadays?

The push for quick fixes and the pull of using the huge build-up of arms in which nations have engaged are some of the challenges. Peace that does not address the legacy of a deeply divided past is temporary. To transform any conflict we need to trust that what will happen if we discuss it is better than what will happen if we do not.

The field has grown tremendously in terms of developing a much more modern set of skills and view of peacebuilding processes than those engaged in the last century. We need mediators and peace builders to use 21st century skills – these are multidisciplinary and engage civil society. They are not confined to track one actor. So when you ask what actors engage in promoting peace it is our belief that communities that have the skills to resolve conflicts peacefully can take a more active role in empowered decision-making. Thus MBB’s mission of building a peaceable world.

What we have found to be extremely effective is the engagement of civil society and inclusive processes that engage all the stakeholders. For instance, in Liberia we were working with a community of people from seven tribes and two religions. There were many historical (and current) barriers to their collaboration. Within eighteen months of the engagement we had the following results: the entire community participated in the selection of the project; the Christian and Muslim elders guaranteed their support to the women involved; the community leaders contributed land, the local high school cleared it, they planted, harvested, took their good to market for the first time; the community established a local banking system.

Most relevant for the current situation in Europe is the Dialogue project – MBB’s most recent undertaking has been the Athens Migration Dialogue project, sponsored with the Hellenic Mediation and Arbitration Center.  These efforts resulted in the creation of a new and sustainable organization, Metaplasis, a community mediation center in Athens, Greece. Centers like that have the capacity to convene stakeholders in courageous conversations that are going to be critical if we are to address the divides in communities impacted by migration and the changing identities of communities across Europe.

What sort of ‘actors’ in a society do you usually encourage first to engage in promoting peace? How could Romanians, for example, work towards building and maintaining peace?

No matter where violent conflicts occur there are some similarities – relationships are disrupted, feelings are hurt, communications are severed, attitudes are polarized, time and money are lost, innocent parties are made to suffer and everyone feels wounded powerless. In this context can anyone afford to stay back?

Building the systems for communities to engage with each other in public discourse can begin at any level of society. Every society and culture draws on its own traditions in resolving problems. Every culture can also learn from the experience of others. Thus the need for gatherings like our Congress, where we come together to learn and exchange ideas and skills.

The upcoming congress mentions ‘dangerous dialogues’ and ‘courageous conversations’. What are these conversations, and who should hold them, to build a peaceful future?

A couple of things about mediation: it is neither for the weak of heart nor the unimaginative. Moving forward to transform conflicts requires change – change in the way we see each other, the context, and the possibilities. Shifting from routines and familiar ways is often perceived as dangerous. It is also true that attempts to resolve conflicts means moving towards them which can escalate them.

Dismantling the desire for revenge takes courage – it takes courage to create the space in which these conversations can take place, and it takes courage to participate in them.

As mediators we need to be willing to bring a dangerous level of honesty and empathy to the process – not simply come to agreement in order to suppress, silence or settle them, but to truly transform them.

The conversations we need to be having are about the evolving identities of communities impacted by deep historical divisions and population migration, in the context of life-threatening resource shortages, present opportunities and challenges for conflict transformation professionals at every level.

To grow into societies with new civic norms such as pluralism, partnership, and accommodation, we must build peace ‘able’ communities by reducing and eliminating signs of retrenchment, tribalism and parallel living. This is what our conference is about.

Hundreds of peacebuilding experts to meet in Romania for yearly congress

Interview by Corina Chirileasa, [email protected]