Is it Possible to Imagine Change?

As conflicts move from violence and intractability to the negotiation of peace agreements and ceasefires, individuals find they are changing, often in subconscious ways. They begin to change their perception of the other, their perception of their role in the conflict, and start to see that deeply felt beliefs such as compromise and dialogue are not signs of weakness and humiliation, but are in fact are positive steps towards achieving peace and reaching the very goals they once picked up arms to achieve.

Recent history is full of examples from Latin America, Africa or Asia where former guerilla fighters have sat down for peaceful discussion with once bitter enemies and chosen to be part of the political process, or where government leaders have had the courage to talk to those involved in violent struggle. Similarly, as the case of South Africa illustrates, even the most prejudiced societies can be turned around and people’s perceptions of each other changed. In these cases, both sides have come closer to understanding how their common human responses to repression and conflict can help them form a shared peaceful future.

From the same premise that people can change, we believe individuals who have suffered under repression and civil conflict can understand each other, and while there are very real differences between various countries and their respective national histories, we believe that dictatorships share many of the same characteristics, and that humans fundamentally react to them in the same ways.  In our experience we find that people tend to be reluctant to listen to or value the experiences of outsiders, whom they feel they cannot relate to their particular scenario.   However, in many of our initiatives, once common ground is found, open and sincere dialogue emerges around even the most personal and controversial issues.

Our efforts bring together people from diverse settings to share their approaches to and views of similar problems. By finding common ground in their counterparts from other conflict settings, they can begin to learn and see possible solutions to the challenges they faced in their home countries.

Beyond Conflict has had a hand in facilitating positive transformations. In 1995, Beyond Conflict organized a significant event in Northern Ireland’s history that brought together the senior leaders of all the political parties, paramilitary groups, civil society and the Irish and British governments to discuss the possibility of peace. Senior negotiators from South Africa, El Salvador, Colombia, Poland and the Middle East shared their experiences in ending longstanding conflicts and dictatorships. In our subsequent 17 Northern Ireland initiatives, a significant focus of Beyond Conflict’s work has been to build leadership capacity among political party leaders on all sides and in the process help them begin to trust each other.

Beyond Conflict’s work culminated in a workshop for leading DUP members focused on these issues. These leadership workshops helped the parties establish regular working relations and enabled better joint governance in the Assembly.

Beyond Conflict also worked in Colombia, helping civil society actors and former guerilla members gain legitimacy in society through peaceful political avenues. To Colombia we have brought key international figures from Northern Ireland, the Philippines, and Central America who themselves have made a transition from fighter to politician. Our efforts have assisted members of ELN and the Colombian government to consider how to negotiate a ceasefire and to think about what kind of transformations to prepare for—both as individuals and as a guerilla movement transitioning into a legitimate political party.

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