UN’s definition of conflict needs reforms: International mediator Brian Currin, tells The Oslo Times

    UN’s definition of conflict needs reforms: International mediator Brian Currin, tells The Oslo Times

    Brian Currin, is a lawyer more known internationally for his role in mediation and institutional transformation. As member of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation he played an important role in the negotiation process in South Africa. He has also worked in the political transformation processes in Sri Lanka, Rwanda and the Middle East. He is now co-chairing the Sentencing Review Commission in the North of Ireland, which decides on the early release of prisoners related to the end of the armed conflict in that territory. This prestigious South African lawyer also acts as a mediator in the complicated Basque conflict.

    Currin in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times International News Network’s Orsola Casagrande, spoke about political situation in South Africa and his important role in the negotiation process.

    Excerpts below give us an insight into the interesting talk that followed:

    Let’s start from the Basque country, which proves to be a very complicated one. What advances have been made? image 2We have to state clearly that the progress that has been made has been the result of the steps taken by ETA, Sortu and some community initiatives and civil society in the Basque Country. If we were to list some of these developments so to also review what has happened in the past three years, I would highlight: the Brussels Declaration of 2010, ETA statement of January 2011, in which the organization declared a permanent and internationally verified ceasefire. This was followed by the creation of the International Commission of verification which is still working. Also noteworthy is the Declaration of Aiete (December 2011), which called on ETA to declare an end to the armed struggle and to the governments of France and Spain to respond positively.
    I would also underline as progress the fact that shortly after the launch of the International Commission of Verification, ETA ceased its activities of collection of the so called revolutionary tax and extortion against Basque businessmen. On the other hand ETA is also making progress in regard to the decomissioning of its weapons.

    And if you were to point the finger to the obstacles and blockages in this process?

    I would begin for example with the latest development that I mentioned, and that is significant, because it leads directly to the area of no progress”. For weapons to be decomissioned obviously a commitment from both the governments of France and Spain is needed. That image 3has not happened, neither France nor Spain have been involved. Clearly ETA is not willing to surrender their weapons to Madrid nor Paris. It is though willing to decomission, which means that the weapons will not be delivered but the dumps or “caches” could be identified and destroyed in the presence of international observers.
    It is precisely for this that the involvement and committment of both governments is crucial, because clearly decomissioning both in France and in the Spanish State can only happen if there is cooperation from both governments. International verifiers cannot destroy caches, as it would be totally illegal for them to receive information and locating weapons storage sites, belonging to an illegal organization.
    Another critical issue is the situation of the prisoners, deportees and exiles. Indeed, after the ceasefire declaration of ETA a positive response from the French and Spanish governments was expected. A response that would address the issue of political prisoners, or those imprisoned for political reasons, as they prefer to call them.

    Can you explain why the issue of prisoners is so important for any process to succed?

    In this respect I think there are two issues: the first has to do with how the issue of prisoners is discussed in relation to their sentences. So, here we must make a distinction and therefore it is necessary to encourage and create suitable structures that can address this particularimage 4 issue. For example, many of these prisoners have committed serious crimes: should their cases need to be evaluated individually or not? Any eventual amnesty should apply to all or only some? What are the criteria? There are prisoners who are in jail only because of their connection with an armed or terrorist organization, these should be released because they have not committed crimes of blood. The question is, shall they be released all at once? And following this line of reasoning we should ask: should prisoners be freed depending on the category of their convictions? Things are further complicated when there are murders involved, but all these are the challenges of a peace process. The second aspect in France and in Spain is that concerning the transfer of prisoners to jails in the Basque Country. No movement is observed in this direction though. The problems are different in France and Spain, but again, unfortunately, I have to reiterate that there is no movement. Both governments have not been positively involved in addressing the issue of prisoners. Clearly, the Spanish State asks the prisoners a statement addressing issues of repentance and recognition of the damage caused, in fact what is sought by the goverment is almost a total rejection of the methods used in the past. This expectation seems too high, the prisoners are not prepared to address these statements. The result is a total deadlock.

    According to your experience how can this deadlock be overcome?

    The lack of commitment by the governments also implies that even simply talks about exploring or considering mechanisms to address the issues of prisoners, transitional justice are unthinkable at present.

    In the North of Ireland conflict for example we set up mechanisms and laws to reduce sentences and allow the early release of prisoners,image 5 on bail for example. Of course the release scheme had some conditions the prisoners should comply with. And it worked.
    This issue of transferring prisoners to Basque jails is a huge locking element, but this is not a political but rather a humanitarian issue. We know that dispersion violates the European Convention on Human Rights and the very Constitution of Spain. Yet the Spanish Government simply doesn’t want to talk about it. That means that there are over 500 families suffering from that policy for the past 15 or 20 years. They must travel thousands of kilometers, and we know that it affects family relationships, even cost lives. If we think that at least 10 people from different generations per family are affected by this policy, we will realize that we are talking about the lives of at least 5000 people … That is a policy that takes us back to colonial times, when dissidents were deported to remote islands. This is done to destroy the political and social life of the people.

    This leads us to the role of the international community in today’s conflicts. How do you see it?

    I guess we could say that there are confliimage 6cts where the international community is too involved and others where it is not even present or is unwilling to enter. We ca not compare, for example, what is happening in Ukraine to what happens in the Basque Country or in Colombia, the Middle East or Africa, or in the Palestine-Israel conflict. They are different conflicts and rely heavily on large political, financial and natural resources of the major players, either the US or Russia. However, we must emphasize that today the interest on natural resources (gas, oil …) is perhaps less important to Americans, because of the recent discoveries of gas in Canada, which make the US almost independent when it comes to energy. Clearly though wider political interests are still there.

    We live in an interconnected World, the very concept of conflict is changing, many people feel that their peace is increasingly dependent on peace in places that once seemed distant.

    It is true, and it is an important way to look at what is happening firstly because we see governments rethink how to address conflicts and what steps to take to prevent them. We are facing conflicts that are not like before. Look, for example, at the growing confrontation involving ISIS: we are in the presence of an “army” which is appearing in one place, then another and probably soon, before we know it, will be in our home. I mean that we must be proactive, think of new ways to deal with conflicts that are new, different from those in the past. That leads me to believe that perhaps governments should be more responsible in observing, studying and working within their own countries instead of looking to the outside. Governments should reflect on how to manage diversity in their societies, be aware of what is happening to their neighbor and to neighbors of their neighbor. I think the World is moving in another direction and it is crucial to think of new strategies to prevent conflict.

    Before somehow we had an “alarm system” in place which told us violent actions in a particular context were about to happen, or that a conflict was to explode for specific geopolitical reasons in one territory or another. Today conflict is more likely to be related to differences, lack of tolerance and coexistence between communities, whether religious or not. Violence certainly can have religious motivations, but still I believe it will certainly have economic and social reasons and motivations. I think that governments now face different problems from the past and the future certainly goes towards the rise of new types of conflictis.

    When it comes to dealing with certain conflicts, there are UN members which simply ignore the very UN resolution. Is it perhaps time to address the issue of a reform of the UN?

    That’s a good point. I think that considering that the problems the World is facing in terms of threats, violence, divisions, are so different from the past, perhaps a change, a reform in the way the United Nations defines the concept of conflict is inevitable as inevitable is addressing the issue of how to respond to these situations. I think it’s time for a review.

    How an international mediator defines the specificity and characteristics of different conflicts? image 7Each conflict is different, in the same way that different roles and intervientions may be asked to be a person like me, when I am asked to get involved in a conflict resolution process.
    The first thing of course is to understand the environment of the conflict. Often the issues that will be addressed are the same in almost every conflict. So are the obstacles to a solution, but every context (and when I say context I mean culture, the nature of the divisions, relations between the parties and the government, the very story of the conflict) is very different and strongly influences how one can find a solution to the various issues raised.
    Therefore, first it is crucial to understand the context, so we, the mediators, must read, read a lot, and meet with people, not only for information but also to build personal relationships. I think it is essential to build, or attempt to establish positive relationships with government actors, as well as with all the other actores. One problem that I have for example with regard to my work in the Basque Country is that I have never been able to build a relationship with the Partido Popular {Popular Party, the party in government in the Spanish State} and that has an impact in my ability to play a constructive role. Because when one side sees you as unacceptable or negative, the “evil”, they clearly don’t want any relation with you.
    In the North of Ireland the experience was very different, I managed to build relationships with different parts, and that of course helped a lot in my work and in achieving my goals. Building confidence between the parties, individuals, organizations is absolutely crucial. Working with a clear and visible integrity, helps people to trust you and then it is easier to solve problems that at first glance might have seemed impossible to solve. image 8

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