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Peace is Everyone's Job

By Jimmy Carter

Some people wonder why I get involved in high-profile peace missions such as those in North Korea, Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Others even object.

Some of these critics are the same people who proposed bombing Tehran in 1980 as the way to end the Iranian hostage crisis.

They consider the use of military power, particularly when it is overwhelming, more politically appealing than time-consuming and unpredictable negotiations.

Unfortunately, the world is increasingly turning to the use of armed force. As you read this, there are more than 30 major conflicts under way, almost all of them civil wars.

When dominant central governments fragment, as occurred in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, ethnic and religious confrontations emerge.

Increasingly, human rights oppression, environmental degradation and population explosions in the poorest countries provoke armed struggle, not only for freedom and self-respect, but also for food and firewood.

Although hundreds of thousands of people are being killed, the Western world largely ignores even the most deadly combat unless American or European interests are directly threatened.

What is to be done?

The complexity of issues requires innovative and varied approaches.

Given so many conflicts, there usually are a few where one party or both want peace. However, most ruling parties resist any official intervention in their civil disputes. Without their approval, it is inappropriate for a foreign ambassador or the United Nations even to communicate with revolutionaries who are attempting to change or overthrow the government.

It can be especially troubling when the United States--or any government--is allied with one party or is directly involved in a dispute. Intense feelings are generated, often deliberately, against adversaries.

For example, because of close ties to Israel, South Korea and President Bertrand Aristide, it was politically difficult just recently for the United States to deal with key players in the Middle East and North Korea and with the coup leaders in Haiti.

Official visits to Pyongyang or with the Palestine Liberation Organization were prohibited, rendering it impossible for the U.S. government to have official talks with Kim Il Sung or Yasser Arafat. In Bosnia, the five-nation contact group has been willing to have direct contact with the Bosnian Serbs on only one occasion.

It is not easy nowadays even to suggest possible efforts by the United States to address stubborn differences with Iran, Iraq, Libya or Cuba.

An all-too-common policy is to preclude communication with the rulers and to impose trade sanctions against the already-suffering citizens, as was done in Haiti.

Nations rarely ever achieve their goals this way and either give trade advantages to their competitors or alienate their allies who advocate different approaches. No other nation seems willing to support America's total trade embargo against Iran, for instance.

In some cases, the best route to peace is through unofficial contacts.

When we at The Carter Center work with other non-official groups in a war-torn country like Sudan planting wheat or millet, immunizing children, building homes or preventing river blindness, it is natural to cooperate with everyone--government officials, revolutionaries, religious groups, expatriates and other foreigners. We discuss fertilizer, seed, vaccines, roofing materials, pickup trucks and bicycles--and explore common ground on which a peace agreement might be built.

Don't forget that the historic agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians two years ago was consummated by a private group of social scientists from Norway. They worked hand-in-hand with their foreign ministry officials and with the combatants.

Unfortunately, many government officials resist the involvement of private citizens because to accept outside help is, for some, an admission of failure.

As a former president, I can understand this reluctance, and I have always gotten approval from the president--Ronald Reagan, George Bush or Bill Clinton--before undertaking any high-profile or politically sensitive mission. I am also careful to comply with my country's policies.

Despite this, some critics have thought our mediation efforts were usurping the exclusive role of government.

But there are many times when officials will not or cannot establish contact with both sides in a conflict. Destruction and suffering continue even as the warring parties search for trusted, neutral mediators.

That is why conflict resolution, using every possible means--negotiation, mediation and the holding of democratic elections--is a major priority for me.

President Carter's columns are distributed biweekly by the New York Times Syndicate. For more information, please contact the Syndicate at (212) 499-3333.

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