Sunday, April 7, 2013

Peace talk

The ABA Dispute Resolution spring conference this week invited former Senator George Mitchell to talk about his five year effort to mediate a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. When the agreement was finally signed in 1998, Mitchell knew the work of making peace was not over, that implementation of the agreement was going to be even more difficult than the long effort to obtain the agreement, and that it would take some time before violence died down. He told people in Ireland at the time that although he knew they still had a lot of difficult days ahead, he hoped someday to return to Northern Ireland with his son, born only about six months before the Good Friday agreement, and sit in the visitors' gallery of the Northern Ireland Assembly, where there would no longer be talk of violence, and no talk of peace either. Neither would be worth mentioning, as peace would be taken for granted.

Mitchell finally got the chance to take that trip with his son. (Some google research revealed that a documentary about this trip is going to be released this month.) Michell told our audience that after traveling a few days through the Northern Ireland countryside he had grown to love, he took his son to watch the debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly, where they sat and listened for about 45 minutes to a "dry as dust" presentation of a report from the European Parliament in Brussels. Finally, Mitchell's son turned to his father and begged to leave, complaining that the proceedings were really boring. Boring to his son maybe, but to Mitchell the mundane speeches in the Assembly were music to his ears.

Mitchell explained that the most important traits needed to reach a peace agreement are patience and perseverance. He also emphasized the importance of holding out hope and economic opportunity, otherwise people without those essentials are likely to continue to engage in violence. Since the end result of this process is so boring, however, that probably explains why the peace process does not excite most of us--it explains why they make a lot of war movies, and not very many peace movies. Only dogged peacemakers like Mitchell get excited by the deadly dull reports of an uneventful legislative session in a more peaceful Northern Ireland.

Of course someone asked about the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and even though Mitchell has taken leave of that project, he is still optimistic about the prospects of reaching a peace agreement. It's not going to be easy, but Mitchell thinks it will happen. That is because the interests of both parties are more clearly served by a two state solution than by continued conflict, and also because the dangers of continued conflict are so great. Those dangers include rockets; they include increasing instability in the region; and they include demographic changes in Gaza and the West Bank. The question is whether the parties will be able to overcome the political risks of making peace to come to an agreement that better serves their interests. 

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