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Norway as peacemaker

Its officials are brokering deals in many of the world's hot spots.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2000


You find Norwegians in the most unlikely places.

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In Sri Lanka, for example, a Norwegian deputy foreign minister is leading efforts to bring the government and Tamil rebels to the negotiating table (related story, page 6).

In Colombia, a Norwegian United Nations official is seeking to cement peace between the Army and Marxist guerrillas.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, Norwegian church workers are fostering talks between religious leaders on both sides of the war.

"Everywhere there is a crisis, there seems to be a Norwegian," says Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute.

Ever since Norway helped broker the Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, the Norwegian government has been inundated with requests to help solve conflicts, from Kashmir to Kurdistan, from Cyprus to Guatemala. And wherever it gets involved, Oslo has practiced its unique brand of diplomacy, blending official overtures with freelance initiatives by ambitious private citizens in a way no other country has dared.

"It is a particularity of Norway's civil society that no one has a monopoly over bureaucracy and diplomacy," says Gunnar Staalsett, the Bishop of Oslo. "Rather, the government cooperates closely with organizations like churches and trade unions."

"The purest form of the Norwegian model is the foreign ministry working in symbiosis with one or more academic or nongovernmental humanitarian organizations," says Jan Egeland, the Norwegian diplomat who invented the model, and who supervised the "back-channel" through which the Oslo accord was negotiated.

That operation remains the classic, but by no means the only, success that the new style of Norwegian diplomacy can boast.

It began with contacts that Terje Roed-Larsen, a Norwegian academic following his diplomat wife to her posting in Cairo, made with Palestinians and Israeli officials as he planned a study of living conditions in Gaza for FAFO, his labor union-funded think tank in Oslo.

Those contacts led to secret talks in Norway over the course of a year that gradually involved ever more senior officials, until the world was stunned to learn that the PLO and Israel had made peace even though public negotiations in Washington had got nowhere.

"The risk profile is lower if you start with contacts at the nongovernmental level, and slowly progress to the official level," says Mona Juul, who with her husband Mr. Roed-Larsen coaxed the Palestinians and Israelis to an agreement. "And the fact that FAFO was involved meant that if anything leaked, we could say the meetings were purely an academic seminar."

The same pattern emerged in Guatemala, where Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), a church-sponsored humanitarian organization, had been running numerous aid projects and had developed good contacts with both the government and the guerrillas fighting Latin America's longest civil war.

That prompted the guerrillas in 1989 to ask Bishop Staalsett, then head of the Lutheran World Federation, to set up contacts with Guatemalan authorities.

He rang his old friend Knut Vollebaek, then Norway's deputy foreign minister, to ask for a safehouse for a meeting and for money to fund peace talks, "and right there, over the phone, I was told I could have what I needed," Staalsett recalls. Seven years later, in Oslo, the cease-fire was signed.

As a small country with a small foreign service, Norway's global ambitions as a peacemaker have forced it to outsource its diplomacy to nongovernmental organizations, officials say.

"The ministry is quite limited when it comes to expertise in different parts of the world" explains Ms. Juul, "so we've been exploiting outside expertise. We have the money, they have the contacts."

"I call it venture capital for peace," says Mr. Egeland, who is now the special envoy in Colombia for United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "The costs are so low, and the potential rewards are so high that even one success in 100 makes it worthwhile."

Egeland first had the idea that a country like Norway might sometimes be better placed than more imposing nations to broker peace deals when he was writing his graduate thesis in the 1980s.