Difference Maker

A professor and writer finds ways for peacebuilding

Conflict negotiator and writer John Paul Lederach has spent decades seeking new paths to peacebuilding.

By , Contributor

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    University of Notre Dame professor John Paul Lederach is widely known for his pioneering work in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
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When John Paul Lederach was a student looking for a college that offered peace studies, he found only a handful of programs in the United States. That was more than 30 years ago.

Today, almost 100 US graduate schools and dozens of undergraduate colleges offer degrees or certificates in conflict resolution and peace studies. And Dr. Lederach's writings now are a frequent part of the study of peacemaking.

Some of Lederach's ideas draw on his views as a Mennonite Christian and an academic, first at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and since 2001 as professor of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

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Yet much of his perspective is based on his experiences as a mediator and trainer of peace workers in more than 25 countries, places of conflict where Lederach has tried to help people resolve their differences without violence – despite decades of unrest, injustice, or war.

He has pursued his career – peace building – with unchanging inspiration. "[This work] is the only thing I've ever done," he says.

He works with people "who have taken extraordinary risks and have suffered the consequences of violent situations," he says. But they also have kept their hope that they can defeat "violence in a nonviolent way," he says.

Lederach's first peace-building experience came in Nicaragua in the 1980s, when he helped mediate between the Sandinista government and a local movement on the country's east coast.

Since then, he's worked both with villagers caught in local rebellions and high-level government officials.

In the 1990s he served as a consultant to churches and peace groups in the Philippines as the country struggled with communist and Islamic insurgency and indigenous violence. In 2003, the Carter Center, a nonprofit foundation founded by former President Jimmy Carter, invited him to Venezuela to speak to groups seeking to maintain peace in the wake of a coup attempt on the government of President Hugo Chávez.

When Lederach himself isn't on hand to resolve a conflict, his influential writings often are there to represent him, sometimes at historic moments.

In Kenya in Jan­uary 2008, George Wachira, a senior adviser of the Nairobi Peace Initiative – Africa, was working with former military leaders as violence raged in the wake of controversial national elections. Mr. Wachira had partnered with Lederach throughout Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Wachira's group involved the news media in calls for peace and consulted with Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, who finally brokered a power-sharing deal between President Mwai Kib­aki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

"John Paul's ideas are about providing space and connecting, recognizing opportunities, all guided by a broad, yet clear, picture of where you want things to go," Wachira says. "These elements were directly present in our work during the postelection crisis in Kenya."

In February, Lederach visited Colombia as part of an effort to help reintegrate former paramilitary groups, who had used violence to traumatize the population, back into society.

In Colombia, "Many ... people have lost family members or experienced massacres," Lederach says. The challenge is, "How do we tell the truth about this violence when some may want to move quickly past that?"

In March he traveled to Nepal to address conflicts in a country staggered by poverty and political instability after a 10-year civil war.

The possible long-term consequences of violence must be conveyed to people on all sides of a dispute despite differences in language, faith, ethnicity, or politics. "Because of his rich practical experience in many conflict settings and peace-building processes, John Paul is firmly rooted in both practice and theory," Wachira says. "His ability to commute seamlessly between these two worlds serves him well."

Lederach grew up in Oregon and earned a PhD in sociology at the University of Colorado. He founded the conflict transformation program at Eastern Mennonite before moving to Notre Dame. He has written dozens of books and scholarly articles on ending conflicts, including the recent "When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation" (University of Queensland Press), with his daughter, Angela.

"He is a very modest guy, but I've encountered Lederach's writings in academic programs in Central America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East," says Brian Polkinghorn, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at Salisbury (Md.) University. "Works ... that he wrote 15 years ago or more continue to inspire and educate students and practitioners of peace today."

Why humans fight is a complex topic and no one definition of peacemaking has emerged.

One thing Lederach has noticed is that societies often expect concrete results – a treaty signed or brutality forgiven – far sooner than is practical. "Quite often, the view of what can be accomplished is on far too short a time frame, by my view," Lederach says. Conflicts that have been going on a decade or a generation may take decades to resolve, he says.

In 2003, he began working in Nepal with the McConnell Foundation of Redding, Calif., as that country struggled toward democracy following violence between Maoist groups and a government organized as a monarchy.

Lederach has developed his emphasis on long-term resolutions in places with deep historical disputes, such as Somalia, Northern Ireland, and the Basque region of Spain.

"John Paul examines any given conflict through a lens that allows us to ask: How do we address the torn or absent relationships caused by this conflict? If you ignore the human cost and suffering caused by cycles of deadly violence, they will continue to recur," says Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame.

Lederach concedes that some groups are skeptical that nonviolent means will satisfy them. And victims can be frustrated if their former attackers are not held accountable for their acts. Rebel groups often believe that the only path to legitimacy is armed violence.

"You can be criticized on one side as being too lenient with armed groups, and you can be criticized by armed groups of having too much of an idealistic viewpoint," Lederach says.

"I say it may be idealistic, but peace is the most significant thing that we as a human community have to find a way to create."

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