Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership co-convenes Iraqi peace talks in Helsinki

Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership co-convenes Iraqi peace talks in Helsinki
by Dan Pasternack (The Tufts Daily)
8 July 2008

Tufts took on a major role in helping to heal the war-ravaged nation of Iraq as Iraqi leaders met late last month with officials from South Africa and Northern Ireland at a forum in Helsinki, Finland.

The private forum, known as Helsinki II, examined how diverse members of Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein government can coexist and bring about change without the use of violence. It sought, at the very least, to hold peaceful discussions.

The idea and funding for the conference came from Robert Bendetson (A ’73), a university trustee and the chair of the executive board of Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership (IGL).

“He had a dream,” said Sherman Teichman, the director of the IGL. “He met [the forum organizers] when he became involved in IGL.”

Bringing together Iraqi Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, the forum provided a neutral location for the leaders to come together and talk.

What made Helsinki II different from most peace talks was the use of outside facilitators from South Africa and Northern Ireland. Both nations have been faced with and resolved violent social divides similar to what is occurring in Iraq today.

“The whole process started many years ago, and it has continued from that,” Bendetson told the Daily. He continued to say that he “had an idea to bring South Africans to work with Iraqis. Then it just moved from one level to another.”

Bendetson and Provost Jamshed Bharucha both attended Helsinki II.

By many accounts, the Iraqis had made significant progress in the forum. “Helsinki II was a really great step forward. They were willing to speak and be open and express their opinions,” sophomore Kelsi Stine said. Stine and fellow international relations major J.J. Emru, a senior, attended Helsinki II and worked as note takers for the forum.

Bendetson saw reconciliation between Iraqi factions as a gradual, arduous endeavor. “I feel that it’s a continuum and that it’s a process,” he said. “The problems are so perplexing that the solutions are not immediate.” He added that the outcome of the conference could be considered positive, “as long as progress is being made.”

According to Emru, issues surfaced that demonstrated why the Iraqi leaders needed to learn how to have peaceful discussions. “There were probably three or four really contentious issues they really couldn’t agree on, though they’re not going to be settled in one conference,” he said.

“Sometimes the debate … descended into squabbling,” he said, adding that in some cases leaders insulted each other, or focused more on the wording of phrases than the actual issues they represented.

But he never felt the debate had gotten become out of hand. “I don’t think [the squabbles] detracted from the process. As long as the door is kept open, there is hope for peace in the future,” he said.

Cyril Ramaphosa, who worked to end apartheid in South Africa as the chief negotiator for Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC), and Martin McGuinness, who helped resolve the religious conflict in Northern Ireland as the chief negotiator for the Irish-independence party Sinn Fein, spoke as facilitators and role models at the forum.

“It’s intended to be very organic, and foster a lot of the peace process from the Iraqis themselves,” Stine said.

In addition to being note takers, the students helped with logistical tasks that allowed them to interact with the Iraqi leaders and the facilitators. The students performed tasks such as organizing one-on-one meetings between Iraqis and facilitators, writing instructions in Arabic on how to use the laundry machines, and taping pictures of Mecca to hotel room walls to indicate the proper direction for the Iraqi leaders to pray.

“Meeting everyone was an absolutely incredible experience,” Stine said. “To get to meet … so many people who brought peace to their own countries was amazing,” she said of the facilitators.

Emru was equally impressed by the facilitators. “These are people who were considered terrorists at some point, the people that were considered the bad guys,” he said.

Attendees also found the forum impressive and innovative. Ali Allawi, a former defense minister for the first post-Saddam Iraqi government, wrote a letter to Teichman expressing his gratitude for the work of Tufts and the IGL.

“The initiative of [the IGL] is certainly a good step in the right direction, which compels me to express my utmost gratitude,” Allawi said in his letter. “To know that there are so many peace loving intellectuals and friends from around the globe and among those who have gone through traumatic situations is indeed a valuable experience.”

As its name suggests, Helsinki II was not the first forum of its kind. In fact, the entire process started at Tufts about three years ago as “Project Iraq,” an initiative of the IGL’s Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC) program.

Bendetson said he funded Project Iraq because he had “the opportunity to make a difference,” although declined to discuss the financial details of the initiative.

“This was the right thing to do, taking people from a divided society to … a society of majority rule,” he said.

Seeds for a first forum, Helsinki I, were sown during the 2006 EPIIC colloquium on “The Politics of Fear,” which brought in for a panel discussion many South African leaders that would attend both Helsinki forums.

The IGL continued Project Iraq in January 2007 with a three-day program entitled “Iraq: Moving Forward,” which brought many of the Helsinki attendees together for a panel discussion and several other discussions and lectures in Cohen Auditorium that weekend.

Then Project Iraq traveled to Finland in September of 2007 for Helsinki I, a behind-closed-doors forum organized by Professor Padraig O’Malley of the University of Massachusetts, Boston and the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) in Finland.

O’Malley, a former Tufts professor who taught Bendetson, had organized a similar conference in 1996 when he brought members of the ANC to help resolve the conflicts in Northern Ireland. The attendees of this conference were invited to help in Helskinki I.

The result of Helsinki I was a document called the “Helsinki Principles and Political Objectives,” which set a standard by which discussion between the differing factions could begin.

The Helsinki Principles state that the inclusion of all factions of Iraq is necessary for the well-being of the nation, the negotiations should be conducted without the threat of violence and any sect can be included in the discussions as long as they approve the Principles.

Helsinki II expanded on the first forum by welcoming even more, diverse representatives into the discussions. The conference was only announced to the public around the time attendees were boarding planes to Finland.

Bendetsdon and Teichman applauded Tufts for embracing Project Iraq.

“I think that the Tufts community should be very proud that the genesis of this project took place at one of their signature organizations,” Bendetson said, referring to the IGL. “What better standard for the school [than] to be at the forefront of the pressing issues of international diplomacy? We are ahead of the curve in trying to find solutions.”

Teichman added that the IGL is “very proud of the university for accepting this and moving forward. It’s the appropriate role for the university to act as an actor,” Teichman said.

After Helsinki II, the Iraqi leaders have started to consider having another forum, one that would be called “Baghdad I.” It is uncertain if this forum will actually be in Iraq.

What is certain is that a number of prominent Iraqis are closer to being able to unite different factions in peacefully resolving hard-hitting issues, and Tufts is at the center of the negotiations.

Article originally published at The Tufts Daily.