Foreign Policy: Making Up Is Hard To Do
by Charles Villa-Vicencio
Charles Villa-Vicencio is a visiting professor in the Conflict Resolution Program at Georgetown University and a senior research fellow in the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa.
In June 1976 Hector Pieterson was shot dead by police in the black township of Soweto, launching a nationwide student uprising that injected new life into the liberation struggle in South Africa. The movement culminated — 18 long years later — in the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Mohamed Bouazizi, a young market worker in Tunisia, set himself on fire in December 2010 and died in the hospital a few weeks later. Amid the political turmoil triggered by his death, the long-serving President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and the “Arab Spring” dawned.
National turning points like these give a people the opportunity to open themselves to renewal and hope. But such watershed moments don’t necessarily bring with them smooth transitions, and when the inevitable moment of conflict arises, they also have the capacity to close the door to reform, thrusting the nation back into violence and oppression. Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa differ in many ways from South Africa’s long and painful liberation struggle. But perhaps some aspects of our experience might prove useful to those nations now aspiring to a similar journey. As someone who was intimately involved in our country’s truth and reconciliation process, I hope that a few of my reflections can be of help. What follows are a few principles that the “Arab Spring” countries might do well to ponder:
A national peace accord
Most political settlements and ceasefires collapse in the first few months of being signed. Trust-building takes time and needs to be worked at constantly to ensure that the inevitable differences between former enemies do not collapse back into violence. To be sure, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are not now in a state of war. But they, too, must overcome the legacy of many years of state-sponsored violence.
The same was true in South Africa in the early 1990s. Violent clashes were taking place around the country. In response, political leaders, businesses, trade unions, military formations, and faith communities came together and signed a multilateral National Peace Accord (NPA) in September 1991. The NPA established 10 regional and 162 local peace committees across the country. Violence was not eliminated but these committees helped to ensure that it did not derail the anticipated settlement.
Peacekeeping could prove at least as difficult in places like Syria or Libya as it was in our country. This suggests the need for institutionalized peace efforts that may emulate those of the National Peace Accord in South Africa.
South Africa’s multi-party talks between 1991 and 1993, known at first as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), included even the smallest of political groups. It was a process that recommended proportional representation in the National Assembly, which resulted in some parties gaining representation in parliament on the basis of less than 1 percent of the national vote. The negotiations even tackled linguistic and cultural concerns, with the new constitution affording official recognition to 11 languages.
South Africa’s settlement prioritized inclusivity. It is tempting to exclude those who fought against the revolution, but it is not necessarily wise. The Berbers in Libya, the Alawites and the Kurds in Syria, and other minority groups will, no doubt, be waiting for assurance that their interests are met before supporting any political settlement.
Inclusivity — encompassing even members of the old regime and other potential spoilers of a settlement — is likely to prove an especially thorny challenge for many Arab Spring countries. Dealing with it requires both political sensitivity and realpolitik…
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