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Last Updated: Friday, 24 October 2003, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
'International flashpoint? I'm on my way'
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online

John Paul Lederach is parachuted into some of the world's most violent hot-spots to talk peace. Somalia, Nicaragua, and, this week, Northern Ireland.

You should find his contact details filed under E for emergency in government address books.

Few academics can say they have lived through assassination plots in far-flung corners of the world, threats against their family and being beaten by a rioting mob in Nicaragua.

But Mr Lederach, professor of international peacebuilding, smiles and says he just gets on with his work, wherever it takes him.

So this week, as Northern Ireland's politics stalled once again, Mr Lederach has been working behind the scenes, helping people find their own routes to peaceful co-existence.

Hands-on approach

Somewhat like his namesake in the Vatican, John Paul Lederach is one of a select number who globe-trot for peace, taking their expertise in defusing sectarian tensions from country to country.

Professor of Peacebuilding, Joan B Kroc Insitute of International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
Conflict resolution expert
Consultant to governments and communities
Has worked in: Nicaragua, Basque region, Somalia (above), Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Colombia, Cyprus, Tajikistan
One week he may be advising communities how to reach out to each other. The next he may be chairing delicate peace forums thousands of miles away.

"Peace studies," he says, "can be very up in the clouds. I'm an unusual academic because I spend six months out there practising what I say."

His work as a trouble spot trouble-shooter was born out of his family's Mennonite Christian ethos of pacifism and his experiences of being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.

One of the first graduates peace studies, Mr Lederach initially worked on community building in post-Franco Spain.

From there he became a mediator and international peace consultant in Nicaragua and throughout Africa.

It was during this period he developed personal theories of conflict resolution which are now in use around the world.

Multiple peace processes

In today's conflicts, he says, the hardest part of peace is ensuring people at the bottom are every bit as part of the reconciliation as the elite.

Keeping the rioting at bay in Northern Ireland
"There is no such thing as a peace process, there are peace processes which sit in a container which you need to keep moving forward.

"Change only comes through ensuring that people are represented. In Somalia where I did a lot of my early work, there was no government and it was a chaotic situation.

"My job was to engage in longer term bottom-up grassroots work. You do this by establishing organisations for elders, women's associations and so on which build strength into a community by creating space for civil society."

It's these civil structures which slowly fill the vacuum, according to the Lederach doctrine, pushing violence to the margins.

Those taking steps towards the enemy are risking a lot. But it's these brave individuals who end conflicts, says Mr Lederach, because if the wheels come off the political process the communities have already moved further away from violence.

That's why he believes Northern Ireland is closing the book on its past.

The unwritten peace

It is a past which has offered peace a number of times before. But this time it has held, he says, "because there has been much more capacity at the grassroots".

I remember a conversation with an IRA man who said the day a republican leader handed over so much as one gun he would get a bullet in his head
"This active civil society creates a safety web so that no matter how much happens at the top, we have something at the bottom.

"There are now some enormously sophisticated bridges between extreme groups that you would not have ever thought possible.

"These are spaces which are now full of unwritten stories of the peace process - spaces that people want to protect by keeping to themselves."

This is not an overly rosy view of Northern Ireland - it still takes just one spark to cause a fire. Such a concern was reflected in the recent finding that housing here is more segregated than 20 years ago, and enormous suspicions that one community is getting more than the other.

'It's about perspective'

"There are no short cuts to dealing with this suspicion," says Mr Lederach.

"Someone once said that violence is the known and peace is the mystery. But you have to help people move from 'knowing your enemy' to 'engaging with your enemy'. And this takes a long time."

So how do you convince the people of Northern Ireland to keep moving on?

"It all depends what kind of lenses you look through. If you use lenses to look at just the last few days, you ask if anything has changed.

"But if you put on lenses to see across decades, you have a different perspective. I remember a conversation with an IRA man who made it clear that the day a republican leader handed over so much as one gun he would get a bullet in his head.

"But what happened this week remains so significant I believe that it marks the beginning of the end."

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