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The peacebuilders: Making conflict resolution permanent

Out of the UN comes a new idea for ending war. Peacebuilders: An intensive process that gives permission for foreign 'interference' in conflict resolution.

By Jina Moore/ Correspondent / April 2, 2011

Burundians waiting to vote at a school in the capital, Bujumbura, in May, 2010. This is a focus story in the April 4 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

Newscom Photo/John Kehe staff illustration

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Freetown, Sierra Leone

Michael von der Schulenburg drove deliberately into the riot. Angry men filled a main road here in Freetown; they quickly surrounded his car. They were members of the APC, the All People's Congress, and their leader, Ernest Koroma, was Sierra Leone's president. They were in a dispute with their opposition over a local election that had taken place a day's drive deep into the countryside.

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That rural dispute turned national and urban, and threatened to turn violent in Freetown. Thousands of APC men thronged toward the headquarters of the opposition party. They were drunk, and they were being used. Men here are cheap – a beer buys a vote – but they are not usually violent.

Mr. Schulenburg, the United Nation's top man in Sierra Leone, hadn't been in the country for long, but he did know this: So many men don't gather by accident, nor do they spontaneously decide to fight over such a paltry political event as a rural vote. Schulenburg didn't know who had reported the crowd, or why. He's friendly with Sierra Leone's "Big Men" – he chats daily with Mr. Koroma by phone. But that day, no one would take his calls.

As he approached the action, he wondered: Was this the kind of raucous discontent typical of Sierra Leonean politics, or was the street rumor right? Could it be the moment that the war comes back?

He focused again on the building, where 22 men cowered on the roof. Below them, the crowd shouted, "Hand them over! Hand them over!"

When Schulenburg retells this story, he pauses here. He doesn't want to sound like a hero. Not because his presence didn't calm things – it did – but because casting him as a hero misses the point. For him, the drama is in the diplomacy.

"We had so much credibility, they let us go through," he says of the crowd. "We reorganized the police; we negotiated so that people could come off the roof. And afterwards, we negotiated a sort of peace deal between the two parties."

And Schulenburg did this all remarkably quickly. The men were moved off the roof in a matter of hours, and discussions held over a matter of days. Only two weeks after the 2009 standoff that observers feared would mark Sierra Leone's return to war, its two major parties announced a new agreement that became the foundation for political fair play.

If Schulenburg hadn't driven into that crowd, chances are high that the 22 men would have been murdered by the mob below – even that the violence may have escalated. "I can do that because I have a political mandate," he says. That's UN-speak for saying that Schulenburg has a form of permission no one else has – not ambassadors, not World Bank officials, not aid workers with the deepest of pockets: He has "peacebuilding."

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Peacebuilding is a new approach to ending war, and it's becoming a global buzzword. It's different from peacemaking, which brings politicians around a table to hammer out a peace deal. And it's different from peacekeeping, which sends foreign soldiers to monitor peace agreements, separate warring parties, and protect civilians in conflict zones.

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