Conflicts and Reconciliation: An American Perspective

Conflicts and Reconciliation:
An American Perspective

By Jim Nicholson
United States Ambassador to the Holy See

Edited from a speech made by Ambassador Jim Nicholson to an international meeting on “Faiths and Cultures within Conflict and Dialogue”
sponsored by the Noble Peace Prize-nominee Sant ‘Egidio Community in Rome, 3Q02 

The United States has been and remains active in every corner of the globe, working with other nations, international organizations, and NGO’s to prevent disputes from turning into armed conflict, to end wars, and to promote lasting reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict.

A brief tour of the world’s most troubled regions offers a glimpse of the breadth and depth of this U.S. engagement for peace and reconciliation.  Just across the Adriatic Sea, the U.S. remains deeply engaged with the European Union in seeking to forge a lasting reconciliation in Bosnia; to create stability in Kosovo; and prevent bloodshed in Macedonia.  In the Middle East, we are engaged bilaterally and with other members of the Quartet — which includes the U.S., EU, Russia, and U.N. — to create conditions for security and stability and work toward a lasting peace settlement.  In Africa, our Special Envoy for Sudan has helped spearhead an agreement that holds out the first prospect for an end to that country’s long and debilitating internal struggle, including an agreement providing for religious tolerance.  In South Asia, U.S. diplomacy has been indispensable in recent months in averting a potentially devastating conflict between India and Pakistan.  In Korea, U.S. troops continue to provide a buffer of security that has kept an uneasy peace for nearly half a century, and now facilitates Korean efforts to develop a dialogue of national reconciliation.

In considering this global engagement and how the international community can best respond to conflicts and promote reconciliation, a few initial points stand out.  The first is the importance of international engagement. This engagement includes securing backing of the U.N. Security Council for specific courses of action; direct diplomatic efforts with parties to promote dialogue, identify contentious issues, and propose steps to address them; and the creation of international diplomatic or military coalitions.

A second essential point is the importance of tailoring this engagement to the unique circumstances and challenges of each conflict.  In some cases, such as India and Pakistan intense shuttle diplomacy has been the right instrument to avert conflict.  In other cases, the threat of economic or political sanctions or enticement of potential economic or political benefits has steered parties away from conflict and toward reconciliation.  In still other examples, such as the Balkans, military engagement has been needed to end fighting, separate parties, and maintain peace while the process of reconciliation gets underway.

The American response to the evil of September 11 offers an example to the world on how justice and reconciliation can conquer revenge and anger.  In the first terrible days after September 11, President Bush did not call for revenge; instead he called America to a national day of prayer and remembrance.  Observing that “grief, tragedy, and hatred are only for a time,” the President reminded Americans “goodness, remembrance, and love have no end.”

These indiscriminate suicidal terrorist acts represented the antithesis of the values of peace and reconciliation, and suggest an abandonment of interest in building a world of mutual respect and toleration of differences.  All Americans, and most peace-loving people from all over the world, were outraged by these unthinkable acts of barbarism.  I met with the Pope on September 13, and while discussing the events of 48 hours before, he said:  “Ambassador Nicholson, I have concluded those were acts not just against the United States, but against all mankind.”  This was the predicate for the moral support that we have received from the Holy See in our efforts against terrorism, while keeping our democratic principles and justice system intact.

Proceeding from prayer and a spirit of reconciliation, the President was determined not to allow our effort to root out the enemies of freedom to be seen as a new crusade or religious conflict.  The national day of prayer therefore included Christian, Muslim, and Jewish representatives.  The President visited the Islamic Center in Washington D.C. in the early days after September 11 to reach out to the Islamic community in the United States and abroad and send a clear message to the American people that we must treat all others with respect, recognizing that the Qu’ran teaches the value of charity, mercy, and peace.

Having established the nature of our response and our determination to secure justice in the face of this evil, the President then turned to enlisting the engagement and contributions of the world community.  As the President told the American people, what was at stake was not only American freedom, but the freedom of “all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.”  He therefore set about to patiently build a “mighty coalition of civilized nations” that shared in the responsibilities and sacrifices.  Each member of the coalition contributed, whether through military efforts to eliminate the terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, law enforcement efforts to track down terror networks, or humanitarian assistance to avert starvation and rebuild institutions.  Critically, even while we worked to eliminate the terrorist nest in Afghanistan, we worked hard with the international community to avert starvation, clear mine fields, rebuild roads and improve health care.  We literally had helicopters carrying machine guns and rations — fighting our way in to feed the starving population.

The U.S. response to September 11 thus not only encompassed broad international engagement and efforts to integrate the contributions of many international actors, but it also sought to sow the seeds of religious and cultural reconciliation, even as we moved forward in pursuit of justice and security.  During my presentation of credentials to Pope John Paul II, he expressed to me his hope that this event would awaken in the hearts of all “a firm resolve . . . to combat everything that sows hatred and division within the human family, and to work for the dawn of a new era of international cooperation inspired by the highest ideals of solidarity, justice, and peace.”  This then is the third point:  that the response to violence and provocation is insufficient unless it also seeks to plant a seed of reconciliation to overcome the religious, cultural, ethnic or national division that sparked the conflict. 

This has been the approach we have pursued, and is the reason why today the Afghan people have new hope, why governments throughout the world have awakened to the dangers of terrorists in their midst and taken the strongest concerted action ever to defeat what the Pope termed this “unspeakable horror.”   For in fighting terror, we are fighting for the conditions that make lasting peace possible.  It is, as the President told coalition members on the White House lawn on March 11 this year, a “fight for lawful change against chaotic violence, for human choice against coercion and cruelty, and for the dignity and goodness of every life.”

The importance of sowing seeds of reconciliation is nowhere more important than in the Middle East, where an increasingly bitter spiral of hatred has engulfed the Israeli and Palestinian people, characterized by senseless acts of suicidal violence and other angry acts of retribution.  As with the attacks on the United States last year, the forces of extremism and terror are killing innocents and casting a shadow over the entire region.

The United States believes, as President Bush observed earlier this summer, that it is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror and untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and humiliation.

As in our reaction to September 11, the President has called on the parties to the conflict to begin planting seeds of reconciliation.  To this end, he has presented his own vision of two states, living side by side in peace and security, and has committed the United States to work with the parties to achieve this.

At the same time, he has recognized that this vision can only be achieved with the engagement and unique contributions of the international community.  He has therefore enlisted Middle Eastern and international leaders to help prepare for the creation of a Palestinian state through the development of a comprehensive plan to support Palestinian reform and institution building.  Together with the European Union and Arab states, we are working to create a new constitutional framework and working democracy that will culminate in fair, multi-party elections by the end of this year.  The U.S., EU, other donors, IMF, and World Bank are simultaneously committed to helping the Palestinians build a vibrant economy, and to increasing humanitarian assistance to relieve suffering.

Ultimately, however, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to follow the example of the response to September 11 and not react just with anger and vengeance to injustice, but to seek a lasting justice rooted in reconciliation.  The Palestinians must stop terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.  The Israelis must take concrete steps in support of a Palestinian state, including withdrawal to positions held prior to September 28, 2000, greater freedom of movement, and the release of frozen Palestinian revenues.  Only if both sides are able to take these steps to plant seeds of reconciliation will peace be able to take root in the harsh and hateful climate of the Middle East.

In his address to representatives of world religions in Assisi, Pope John Paul II observed that peace rests upon the twin pillars of justice and forgiveness.  In an ideal world, conflict would always be avoided.  But as the Pope made clear, “there can be no true peace without respect for the dignity of persons and peoples and respect for the rights and duties of each person.  Sometimes, it is unavoidable for the world to act to prevent greater evil.  The World War II defeat of fascism, the struggle against communism during the Cold War, and now the War on Terror all demonstrate the importance of defending the value of life and human dignity against evil.  As St. Peter reminds us, peacemakers cannot be passive, but rather we must “seek peace and pursue it.”  (I Peter 3:11)

The United States was founded on the belief that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This belief continues to inspire our international efforts to promote peace and reconciliation for others around the world.