Thursday, June 14, 2007
It’s 8:30pm on June 12 in Amman, Jordan when Bill Monning answers the phone for an interview. Ten time zones away from home and several latitudinal degrees south, the evening is warm and dry. He’s about as far as a person can get from the chilly summer fog of Monterey, where the idea that led him to the Mid-East was born four years ago.
Representing Global Majority, a peace advocacy network born at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monning has spent the day on the sleek new campus of the United Nations University. There, he is teaching mediation skills to 50 students from Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, the US, the UK, Denmark, and Norway.
Monning says he’s been nervous about how the five Israeli and five Palestinian students will get along. A forum like this, meant to counter the prevailing forces of a conflict, can all too easily turn into a bitter microcosm of the conflict.
“It’s been pretty dynamic,” he says. “Yesterday there was a Jordanian journalist who spoke, and he was direct in his denouncement of Hamas, and some of the Palestinian students took him on. It was principled and respectful, but they didn’t just let him get away with it.”
It was the kind of exchange that Monning and a handful of MIIS graduates had in mind when they formed Global Majority in August 2003. They envisioned an international network drawn from civil society—professors, students, activists and nongovernmental organizations—teaching nonviolent conflict resolution.
People on opposite sides of intractable conflicts would learn to talk instead of argue, negotiate instead of fight. In the best-case scenario, a groundswell of support for the nonviolent approach would push states to the negotiating table.
Two years ago, at Global Majority’s first conference in Monterey, this looked like a pipe dream. The conference was funded on a shoestring. The media mostly ignored it. The mission seemed lofty and abstract.
Now it looks wise and courageous. On June 22, at the end of the students’ two-week training in negotiating techniques (which MIIS professors Nuket Kardam and Jeff Langholz will also teach), they’ll be joined by 200 international leaders for a three-day conference. Panelists, including some current or former high-ranking government officials, hail from Chechnya, Iran, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Palestine and South Africa. Jordan’s Queen Noor is scheduled to deliver the keynote address.
The conference will culminate in formal recommendations on solving some of the region’s most stubborn problems. And the Associated Press will be there to cover it.
“We have a lot riding on this,” Monning says. This is the year Global Majority goes big.
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Help has come from many quarters along the way. Sponsorships from MIIS and the Monterey College of Law (Monning teaches at both schools), among others, have provided material and moral support. High-profile additions to Global Majority’s International Advisory Board—including former chief UN weapons inspector Richard Butler and nuclear weapons expert Mitsuru Kurosawa, who recently participated in six-party talks with North Korea—have also helped.
But perhaps the biggest boost came during the first week in March. Global Majority’s executive director, Lejla Mavris, along with the group’s secretary, Nick Tomb, were in Jordan to see about renting space at the UNU campus in Amman (one of several worldwide). Stunned, they came away from with a partnership instead.
As it happened, UNU’s academic coordinator, Murad Tangiev, was already planning his own conference on nonviolent conflict resolution. It was a natural fit.
UNU’s imprimatur and facilities provided a few key elements necessary to a successful conference: credibility, accessibility and security. Global Majority had been planning to hold this year’s conference in Jerusalem, but feared participants from Arab and Muslim nations couldn’t get visas to attend. And security was a growing concern. What if extremists started protesting, or worse? UNU’s secure campus guaranteed participants’ safety.
Even with the venue moved to Jordan, panelists are nervous about appearing too friendly with the other side. Some attendees are shedding their affiliations for the conference so their organizations back home don’t suffer funding cuts. Others have to be very choosy about who appears with them on the dais.
“A lot of people have told us, ‘If there are Israelis there, my organization can’t participate, but I as an individual am interested,’” Tomb says. “The people are ahead of the politics.”
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As in the student training seminar, the conference will tackle some of the region’s thorniest problems: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 40 years into the occupation; regional nuclear weapons proliferation; the flood of Iraqi refugees into Jordan; and the future of Iraq. “All easy issues,” Monning says dryly.
The goal of a conference like this is to produce a declaration—a position paper or plan of action to show for all the talk. This declaration could go in several directions, Monning says. It could simply recommend that states seriously address the issues. It could be substantive, recommending specific ways to solve problems. Or the participants could fail to agree on anything, in which case the Global Majority board would come up with a declaration.
“We may not make things better, but we won’t make them worse,” Monning says. “We may not achieve our greatest aspirations, but we will build links at a minimum, and at a maximum we will galvanize new initiatives that governments will have to react to or serve to inform the broader civil society network of actions we can take.
“We’re so focused on pulling this off, but what matters is really what comes out of it. It’s a launching pad for a greater sense of what we can do collectively. And we’ll have new people allied with us who we haven’t yet met.”