What happens when you get nine of the most visionary leaders of our age in one room together?
The probing of deep moral issues? Yes.
An analysis of ills that threaten to dehumanize us all? Definitely.
But you also get fellowship, laughter, and playfulness: a glimpse of a world in which people from diverse backgrounds - many of them survivors of tyranny - can come together to explore what is common to us all.
So there was plenty of far-reaching analysis when the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and seven other Nobel Peace Prize laureates gathered at the University of Virginia for two days last week. But the strongest thread in the proceedings was the need for each of us to recognize the commonality of the human experience, and to engage personally to make the world a better place. "Sentiment without action is meaningless," Betty Williams told us, in the strong brogue with which in 1976 she accepted a laureate for her peace work in Northern Ireland. Even the Dalai Lama, the recognized leader of Tibetan Buddhism, told an audience made up mainly of young people that compassion and acts of human solidarity were more important than theological details.
Two of the laureates present, Bobby Muller and Jody Williams, were US citizens honored in 1997 for their activism in bringing about the treaty to ban landmines. They - and other laureates - expressed their disgust with a weapon that sits silent in the ground for decades, only to explode when a child or a herder steps that way. But Betty Williams also spoke about "the landmines of the heart": the bitterness, and insensitivity that can live on in young survivors of wars for decades after the guns fall silent.
Bishop Tutu, who headed South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recalled that since the dawn of history, societies have tried different ways to deal with the resentments of the past. One way was revenge. The approach South Africans chose was to ask perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes during the time of repression to tell the whole truth in public about what they did, in return for amnesty.
In a riveting exchange, Bobby Muller pleaded with that Tutu not ignore the most important principle established in the post-World War II Nuremberg trials: that of the accountability of each individual, whatever his place in a repressive bureaucracy, for his actions.
"We have not forgotten accountability," Tutu replied. "We have not given blanket amnesty. To qualify for our amnesty, a person must step forward and tell the whole truth in public about what he did. It is not easy." But his country's approach was dominated, he said, by the ideal of restorative justice, not retribution.
Dr. Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a Mayan Guatemalan named laureate in 1992, said she would love to see those who tortured and killed her mother called to public account. She suggested that Nobel laureates and others might set up a commission to examine the relationship between truth and justice. "Generally, the peace processes until now have ended with impunity. How can we change that?" she asked.
Jos Ramos-Horta, honored in 1996 for his work to win East Timor's independence from Indonesian occupation, noted that current conditions in Indonesia make his country's independence seem closer than ever. But he noted that leaders of East Timor's liberation movement would have to find similarly "restorative" ways to deal both with the Indonesian "migrants," who have been settled in East Timor over the years, and with East Timorese who have collaborated with the occupation authorities.
One of the laureates invited, Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was unable to attend: She could win no assurance from Burma's military rulers that if she left the country, where she is under effective house arrest, they would ever let her return. She sent a representative, Harn Yawnghwe. He, too, noted that Burma's democrats would need to find effective ways of dealing with members of the military after the hoped-for triumph of democracy
Yawnghwe joined Tutu in stressing the help that international economic sanctions had given, by weakening repressive regimes. "Some people say sanctions hurt those who are being repressed," Tutu noted. "But these people are being hurt anyway. The best thing is to isolate and weaken the repressive regimes."
The role of economics in international affairs was also tackled by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez (awarded the peace prize in 1984). He noted that global disparities in income and wealth have grown wider in recent years, with the world's three richest individuals now commanding more wealth than all 48 of the world's poorest states put together.
"Meanwhile, Americans spend $8 billion a year on cosmetics," he noted. "But that would be enough to provide a basic education to all the world's children."
Mr. Arias pointed out forcefully that, though the cold war has been long ended, "it has not been followed by the promised era of peace and prosperity." He argued that people need to start thinking about peace in a different way: Instead of using traditional benchmarks of national security, people and policymakers should now adopt the ideal of human security. "When we demand peace," he said, "... it must also be a peace concerned with welfare and health of all people."
Arias reserved special anger for those whose main goal is to maximize the profits of arms producers. In the past four years, he noted, 85 percent of US arms sales overseas went to non-democratic governments in the developing world - and the US arms industry received $7.6 billion in federal subsidies.
Arias has campaigned hard for the establishment of an international code of conduct on arms transfers. He noted that achieving this code would be harder than the continuing effort to ban landmines. However, the Dalai Lama expressed his conviction that a weapons-free world was still a real possibility, not just a utopia - though it might take 100 years to bring about.
But the first steps toward a world free of violence, revenge, and militarism were, the laureates all agreed, the small steps that everyone could take in his or her own life, and in their personal commitment to these goals. "We need external disarmament," the Dalai Lama said. "But we also need inner disarmament."
* Helena Cobban is writing a book for the University Press of Virginia on last week's Nobel Peace Laureates Conference.