Conflict & Justice

Opinion: Norway's secret weapon


The morning sun cuts through the frost smoke hanging over the Oslo fjord, on Dec. 9, 2010.


Odd Andersen

OSLO, Norway — No country in the world has been more in the forefront in trying to facilitate peace and settle conflicts than Norway. Being a small Scandinavian country with no ax to grind, and no colonial history, Norway is ideally positioned in its chosen task.

Strong civil society and labor movements in Norway have “traditionally emphasized international solidarity, which joined forces with Christian movements that underscore compassion,” says Jan Egeland, a former diplomat and now director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

Egeland spent a long career trying to facilitate peace among combatants. He recently summed up his thoughts in a paper delivered last month at a cultural biennale in Venice.

“A classic mistake that I have committed more than once is to try to transfer a method that was successful in one particular set of talks to a very different negotiation where it would fail,” writes Egeland.

This is the peace equivalent of the military dictum that generals are always trying to fight the last war. American overconfidence that the methods that brought a measure of success in Iraq might work in Afghanistan is matched by Britain’s thinking that lessons learned in Northern Ireland might apply in the sands of Helmand Province.

When the Cold War ended in 1989, Norway “saw suddenly a new opening for foreign police activism for new and non-traditional actors,” according to Egeland. This led to the famous if ill-fated Oslo Accords with Palestinians and Israelis, as well as efforts in Latin America, Sri Lanka, the Caucasus, Africa and other hot zones around the world.

Egeland’s first lesson is that “parties must want to end their conflict.” If this element is lacking, it is near to impossible to impose a peace from the outside. “From the Israeli Palestinian conflict to Sri Lanka and Darfur, I have seen long years of futile attempts to get unwilling parties to agree to anything meaningful.”

Perhaps the most heart-breaking failure was the Oslo Accords.

Egeland witnessed up close how “internal dynamics simply tore apart the internationally supported peace efforts. The handshake of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September of 1993 was not enough to overcome the strong anti-peace forces among Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

His second lesson is that “the actors will not behave rationally.” Among the “many conflicting parties I have met, nearly all stated that their objective and interest is to end the killing and pursue ‘just’ peace. Their real interests, as demoted war lords and potential war criminals, may be to prolong the struggle as long as their exit from struggle and future existence is insecure.

“Perhaps the main error made by students of conflict resolution theory is to assume that the circumstances for the talks are stable and predictable, and that the parties will pursue long term interest… Many governments, from Israel to the Sudan and Yugoslavia, have not seen that continued intransigence will undermine the strength and legitimacy of their governance,” according to Egeland.

An example of irrationality might be Saddam Hussein who, if he had revealed in 2003 that he had long ago stopped trying to make nuclear weapons, might have been able to avoid the invasion of his country and his eventual capture and execution. But what might seem rational behavior here in Norway might not be rational in Iraq. Saddam Hussein may have concluded that to admit his weakness would be to throw himself to the wolves, and that his chances might be better if he toughed it out.

Even well-meaning combatants who are willing to compromise often need external support to end their conflict. Even though they ultimately failed, the good offices of Norway in the Israel-Palestine conflict were necessary to bring about the Oslo Accords — the closest Israelis and Palestinians have ever come to peace. Norway can, and has, “provided hundreds of relief workers, human rights advisors, constitutional lawyers, military experts, peace mediators and observer teams that have since been dispatched to more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East..,” according to Egeland.

“Define the right third party role,” is another of Egeland’s dictums. A small country such as Norway, working quietly out of the spot light, may, in certain conflicts, be more effective than “full-scale muscle-mediation” as was undertaken by the late Richard Holbrooke at Dayton, Ohio, to resolve the Bosnian conflict.

Defining “realistic goals” is necessary in peace negotiations. “In a situation when there is no trust between the parties” it is advisable to start by looking for limited humanitarian and confidence-building measures as “stepping stones” to something more substantive, says Egeland. And always be prepared for set backs.

If gaining the trust of combatants is a must, so is understanding that stated positions may not represent the real interests of the parties. Each side may have internal tensions and conflicts of their own — “hawks and doves, traditionalists and modernists, military and political wings” will be tugging and pulling within each party.

This will be particularly true when and if it comes to striking a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The movement is so fractured that no matter with whom we negotiate there will be other Talibs with a different view. One can only hope that when that time comes there will be Norwegians helping with the talks, for no one has more experience in conflict resolution than Norway.