Unorthodox Approach: Conflict Resolution in a Changing World

By Sinnar, Shirin | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Unorthodox Approach: Conflict Resolution in a Changing World


Sinnar, Shirin, Harvard International Review


JIMMY CARTER, President of the United States from 1977 to 1981, has earned almost as much recognition for his accomplishments since leaving the White House as for his legacy as President. In 1982, Carter established The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, to advance international health, conflict mediation, and human rights. In the past several years, Carter has made several high-profile visits to crisis areas to assist in mediation. In 1994 his negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung resulted in the resumption of US-North Korean discussions on nuclear proliferation. Later that year, his visit to Haiti with other US officials peacefully restored President Aristide to power and forestalled a US invasion of the island. In the past two years he has also traveled to Bosnia, the Sudan, the Palestinian territories, and central Africa to assist in mediation or humanitarian projects.

Features Editor Shirin Sinnar spoke to President Carter in April about his projects and perspective on current international issues.

Harvard International Review: For the past decade you have been a strong advocate of third party mediation, and The Carter Center has spearheaded that approach to conflict resolution. What special characteristics of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other third parties enable them to resolve conflicts with more success than other groups like the United Nations or the US government?

The primary reason for our success comes from the fact that almost all the wars now are civil wars. The United Nations was designed back in 1945 to deal with international conflicts like a third world war. With countries facing internal war, quite often the ruling party does not want to recognize the legitimacy of revolutionary groups that are trying to overthrow or change the government, so this makes it totally improper for any UN official or representative of, say, the US ambassador's office, to communicate with revolutionaries because these official bodies are credited by the ruling party. We do not have any restraint placed on us, and we have very free access to opposition leaders. In addition to that, we build up confidence with the leaders, even those in the so-called "unsavory" regimes, so that we can be trusted. Because we have been previously involved in immunizing children and eradicating Guinea worm and controlling river blindness and teaching small farmers how to grow more food grain, they have confidence in our sincerity that lets them turn to us when they do decide to mediate. So I think it is the unofficial nature of our status that makes it possible for us to provide some communication between groups.

Our prime successes at The Carter Center are with people whom the US government in Washington would not contact. The US government would not permit anyone to talk with Kim Il Sung although he was very eager to resolve differences between his country and the rest of the world. And for three years he asked The Carter Center to come over there so that he could have at least someone in the rest of the world with whom he could communicate. I had a hard time getting permission from Washington to do so. The same condition applied in Haiti; although President Aristide and Raoul Cedras and acting president Emile Jonaissant all wanted The Carter Center to intercede, we could not get permission from the US government to go until the last minute when war was imminent. In December 1994, no one was willing to talk to the Bosnian Serbs except us, and I finally got permission from President Clinton to let the Serbs send a delegation down here to my home in Plains, Georgia. I set down some strict prerequisites that the Serbs needed to fulfill before I went to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, once I was there, I shuttled back and forth between Pale and Sarajevo to assist with mediation.

You raised the issue of the State Department originally refusing to grant permission for you to visit these countries. …

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