Norway as peacemaker

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

You find Norwegians in the most unlikely places.

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.

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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.

Eventually published as a book, "Impotent Superpower, Potent Small State," the thesis argued that Norway "had an unfulfilled potential for facilitating, bridge building, and being a moral entrepreneur," Egeland recalls.

"As an academic work, it was no good," insists the Nobel Institute's Lundestad, a professor of history. "But much more important was the fact that Egeland believed it, and he used it as a basis for his activism." It helps, of course, that Norway is not a threatening country.

It is not neutral - it has been a member of NATO from the start - but "Norway hasn't done much harm to anyone for 1,100 years," since the days of the Vikings, points out Dan Smith, director of the Peace Research Institute - Oslo.

"We have no colonial past," adds Juul. "We don't have stakes or strategic interests" that might make one side or another in a conflict suspect ulterior motives.

At the same time, "money and Norway's reputation are not enough" to play a useful role in bringing enemy parties together, argues Stein Villumstad, assistant general secretary of Norwegian Church Aid. It is only when Norwegians have been closely involved in a country over a long enough period to have made contacts who trust them that they can help.

In Mali, for example, where NCA workers funded by the foreign ministry brokered a peace deal ending a civil war in 1996, "we had a presence, a history, legitimacy on the ground, and entry into both sides" fighting the war, recalls Mr. Villumstad, who now chairs occasional meetings between Eritrean and Ethiopian religious leaders.

And in Guatemala, Staalsett believes the guerrillas asked him to intervene because "they had confidence in my profile as a genuine person involved in the struggle for human rights."

Norway also has showed a willingness to stick with problems however long they take to solve: The seven years of talks in Guatemala are a case in point.

And the country has proved its value as a discreet location for sensitive negotiations. In his memoirs, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres recalls how "in Norway, no one was looking for scoops."

At home, a consensus has developed among all political parties that "peacemaking has become more and more important to our foreign policy," says Raymond Johansen, deputy foreign minister in charge of peace and reconciliation processes.

"There is a growing awareness that in the countries where we've been spending a lot of money in aid, the money is more useful if peace is achieved first." That consensus is based on what Lundestad calls "the Norwegian mixture of idealism and realism" - an attitude born of the country's strong Christian tradition and its equally strong social democratic heritage.

At the same time, Mr. Johansen acknowledges, Norway's peacemaking efforts are not entirely altruistic. For a small, marginal country with a population the size of New Jersey's, initiatives in crisis zones "are a way for us to be in constant contact with the US, Britain, France, and so on, because they want to discuss what we are doing," Johansen says. "We can use the opportunity to raise other questions, which are of domestic importance to us," he adds with a grin.

"When [Norwegian Foreign Minister] Thorbjoern Jagland rings up Madeline Albright," jokes Mr. Smith, "she doesn't know if he's calling because he wants her help in some cod fishing dispute with Iceland, or because he's just resolved one of the world's wars, and he wants her to help arrange a signature ceremony in Washington. "A distinctive, individualistic foreign policy is one way to stay relatively high on the radar screen," he says.

Still, officials here are realistic about the limits to what they can do, bearing in mind Norway's lack of strategic might.

"The United States has big sticks and carrots it can use to mediate, but we are activist facilitators," says Egeland. "We can try to beg, to convince, to propose, to suggest, to prod, and to help, but we never endeavor to say 'Here is a draft agreement.' "

"We can help those who are willing and able [to make peace] or willing and unable. But we have no sticks and a very small carrot, so we cannot help those who are unwilling," he adds. "And anyway, we haven't made peace anywhere. The parties have. We have just helped."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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