Terrence Lyons

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Topics: refugees, peace processes, retributive justice

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: The first question I have for everybody is "Will you give me an overview of your work?"

A: Ok. I regard my work primarily on the academic side. I am more of a sort of scholar, practitioner or social science practitioner. I am heavily on the social science side. In the practice that I do there are activities that have come up directly from my research work -- let me tell you what I mean by that. I started off as someone trained in political science looking at conflicts in Africa. Because I had expertise in certain areas of Africa. I was asked to go out on various projects observing elections working with the Carter Center to try to resolve, to try to encourage some talks related to political transition in Ethiopia and then later in Liberia.

So my practice work has come out of a background of being a social scientist who studied conflict. Rather than somebody who goes out looking for areas to engage in practice, I am really someone who looks for interesting research topics and practice is often associated with that. For example, I will get involved in something such as the Ethiopia Dialogue. I will get into that more later. It was out of an interest in what role do diasporas play in creating protracted conflicts. I said well how can I begin to explore this question? Well, maybe if I helped organize a group that engaged in an extended dialogue with the Ethiopian Diaspora. So my background is that I deal mostly with civil wars, international conflicts very, very violent conflicts, with a predominate focus on Africa.

Q: Ok, great. So very violent conflict, lots of African conflicts. One question that you and I have talked about a lot in class and that I would like to put to you now is

in post-conflict area where there has been a lot of violence is it more important to have stability or justice? And what is the trade off and then what is the implication of conflict resolution?

A: It is a key question that I struggle with because the answer, as with many complicated issues is not all of one and none of the other. The way that I have come to think about it is that it is a sequence of priority questions. Both are necessary in the long run. To get justice in the context of continued instability is extremely difficult so long as there are armed factions and gun fire, displaced people, and people who are afraid even to leave their homes or to join civil society organizations or to engage in normal social and economic behavior. Then creating systems of justice is extremely difficult. So establishing order and ending the violence must be first in terms of both sequence and priority. The peace studies people ??? and so on tell us quite correctly that this can be a trap, that you can get stuck in negative peace or stability at the expense of justice in the long run.

My feeling of the agenda in the post-conflict transition is that you by no means end, but you start with trying to build a stability and ending the violence so that over the medium term, people are able to organize themselves in such a way that they can sustain long term peace building -- justice, social harmony over a much, much longer period of time. But what worries me and many of my friends in the conflict resolution field and the human rights field, see social justice as the first step. Then you can get stuck. In other words, as we have been doing this interview, Charles Taylor has just left Liberia for exile and many people are quite appropriately saying that he should go to the War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone to account for his involvement in that horrific civil war.

In the short term, the imperatives of ending the violence in Monrovia and allowing the people not only in Liberia, but the people of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire, the sort of constellations of conflict around Liberia, required putting justice on the longer-term time horizon. That is the first step, getting Taylor out of Monrovia and the peacekeepers in Monrovia beginning the process. Again, my friends in Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International will tell me that that just builds a culture of impunity and you do not get conflict resolution. But I don't see how you get justice so long as fifteen year olds with kalashnikovs control the streets of Monrovia. You need to deal with that in the immediacy of the short run, but keeping your key on the longer run.


So, how then in creating stability and order do you ensure that there is not a return, just short of a latent power struggle, where there is a strong man, kind of like Pinochet, who sort of just takes over Chile one day. Okay, you have order but you also have death squads and a horrible regime for the next five years. People might argue that you had a terrible regime for twelve or fifteen years but now there is democracy and everything is okay in Chile now. Is that what you have to go through? Is it worth going through a dictatorship like that or are there better ways?

A: I certainly think that there are better ways but I wouldn't want to argue a certain linear causality that you must have authoritarian order to make the transition to democracy. In fact in many parts of the world democracy has come up in other ways. There are multiple models towards democracy. An image that I think is useful in trying to understand these transitions is that particularly immediately after a civil war, remember that my main area of focus is some of the most difficult protracted violent conflicts, Liberia, Mozambique, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Bosnia, where clearly you are not going to get to democracy as it would be recognized in the US for many years.

It is unrealistic to expect you to go from state collapse to thriving democracy in a matter of years. It is going to be many, many years, perhaps even generational change. But there is a question about do you want to increase options; you want to provide the context so that new groups can emerge once there is stability. Once there is stability, not to freeze people in the kind of polarized attitude that they had during the war, where the kind of organizations that developed during the war, mostly war lords, militias, and armed groups. Rather to provide something that allows other groups to come up, civil society groups, none military political parties, women's associations, human rights groups, peasants associations. And when you see that the structure is allowing that fluidity rather than locking in place the institutions and the structures of the conflict, but allowing peace time institutions, institutions that can sustain long term peace building are arising, then I think you are on the right track.

In Liberia after the 1997 elections, it was frozen that the only actors with power were military organizations despite the fact that the war was over and that there had been an election. Charles Taylor transformed his military organization into what he called a political party, but it really derived its power from the same kind of behaviors and networks that sustained it during the war. So how to make those institutions transform themselves is the challenge.

Q: You have done some work in election monitoring and such, and elections are probably a clear indicator of moving toward social justice after order. But given that tension between people who want to rush to social justice and the need for order, can you get to elections too early? Is there a risk in going straight to elections?

A: There is certainly a risk in going to elections too quickly, but I would also argue that there is a trap in waiting too long. There is a tension between two different dynamics in trying to find the balance between these two different directions. To go to early means that you have elections while the people are still frightened, still dominated by the sort of legacies of fear and violence from the war.

People who are frightened will often vote for the person that promises them protection, so in other words, who is often the military person, the strong man. It doesn't surprise me at all if you are a Bosnian Muslim who has been purged or ethnically cleansed out of his or her village, you are going to vote for the biggest, strongest Bosnian Muslim. A Muslim, who credibly promises that no one will chase you out of your home again and has the arms and has the military skills to do that. Rather than somebody who says that I am going to make peace or says that I am going to establish a relationship with our former adversaries. But to wait to long, that means that some structure has to govern the country, it can't just float. Groups will come in and install themselves and put themselves in key positions of power and strengthen themselves during the transition without any legitimacy, without anyone telling them that that is okay.

For example, in Afghanistan there are a lot of these militia leaders, who are not in the interim, establishing themselves in little fiefdoms. They haven't had to face elections, no one is there to say, "No you are not allowed to control this area because I won the election." They just do it. The most powerful, often people driving from military power or power from things like diamond running in West Africa or drug running out of Afghanistan or Columbia, or places like that, put themselves in to positions of power. You don't want to wait so long that these types of institutions and leaders create facts on the ground and embed themselves in this society in ways that makes it more difficult to have this kind of open ended transition. It varies. There is another way of looking at it.

Let me use the Bosnia case as an example. Elections in Bosnia were too fast. Therefore the warlords and military people won the elections. I would argue that the problem was not that the elections happened too fast. But it's very nature was a peace agreement that was a peace among ultra-nationalists, so therefore a peace designed to protect the interests of ultra- nationalists on sides. Don't blame the election for that, it goes much beyond the election. The election was the event that allowed us to see most clearly that this was a system that was doing nothing. This was a peace process that was doing nothing to break the hold of hyper-nationalists over their respective communities. This is not just the Serbians, it was true of the Bosniacs and Croatians as well. Elections are kind of snap shots of political power at a time. They don't change that power or the power of the distribution of power.

The term I use in some of my writing is the "typography of power," you can imagine power as almost a 3-D map. If you looked at Bosnia during the 1996 elections you would have seen three high mountains. One was that by Serbian nationalists, the second was by Croatian nationalists and the third was by Bosnian Muslim nationalists. The election showed three parties winning in their respective communities. It was not that the elections created that outcome, the elections reflected an outcome that this 3 part division of power was a result of the war and had not been changed by the peace process.


So in a sense the peace process crystallized the legitimacy of the power of these three different entities?

A: That is a very good way to put it. It is that the election provides some sort of legitimacy. It also kind of locks in place a certain distribution of power, so if you can have a peace process that keeps that power changing, flexible, fluid, rather than locking it in place. The topography in Bosnia had three powerful parties, each in their respective ethnic zones. In Liberia, there was one peak and that was Charles Taylor's national patriotic party. In Mozambique there were two peaks, it was fairly evenly balanced between the government and the insurgents. In Cambodia there was three, so it varies. In a post conflict context an election is very likely to crystallize the power of the groups that became powerful as a result of the war and that is the worry; that you are going to increase the power of the military.

Other organizations that may call themselves political parties in fact really derive their power not because they have mobilized a constituency, but the constituency they mobilize is largely through the manipulation of fear. In other words, vote for me because the other guy is going to come and steal your land if I don't stop them. Or vote for me or else we will go back to war. So those elections are really about war and peace, not about democratic empowerment or the choice of policies or any number of other things that elections might be about. Don't worry too much about the first election that is an election really about order and peace. Worry if this first election provides a beginning that allows you in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th election to have more of a structure that can sustain peace building.

Q: Trying to create a culture of democracy just by having an election in a sense?

A: Yes, in the institutions of democracy. In other words, political parities, rule of law, independent media and civil society that often mobilize and organize around elections.

Q: It is interesting that you say don't worry about the first election because when you said it would be good to have a peace process to have a more amorphous power base it made me think about our initial conversation about stability and how it may have crystallized those hyper-nationalist in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. Yet, is that fairly stable to have three identifiable points of power like that?


Yes, and I probably shouldn't have said don't worry about the first election. However, don't make your assessment about the entire process just on the first election because I think that it is often the case that the first election is about frightened people very much mindful of the war voting for parties who promised to protect them. They are often nationalists and often military based.

But the second, third, forth elections, if there is stability, is often about jobs and schools, and who offers how to vote those corrupt people out of power. And so when Croatia, for example, this is less true in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the nationalists have held on to power to date, you know six years, quite a while. In Croatia Proper, while the old Tujmen? people were regarded as corrupt and once there was no longer a war where they could pose as the protectors of the Croatian nation, they were perceived as corrupt people who were pocketing all the money. The voters were saying that they don't need them to protect us, and they certainly haven't given us a job, so let's try another party or some other alliance. So the subsequent elections can be different from the early elections.

In some ways this is an argument that says in the long run things will get better but of course people live and die and are imprisoned in the short run and so on. So how long must you wait? It is often quite easy for someone from the outside to say, "Just give it a generation and things will get better." But for people on the ground; they are living and struggling and dying very much in the short term, very much in the immediate term.


Can you vote corruption out of office or is it an institutional thing?

A: There are often movements to vote the bums out when voters become fed up with the individuals in office or even the political party in office. The problem is that the people who are voted in often fall prey to the same incentives and the same structures.

Q: Or even cronies to those who gets voted out. Lower in the same party or something like that?

A: Yes. It becomes a cycle of different people getting turns at the trough, or that is how they talk about in terms of African democracies.. In Zambia for example, there was an election and the new leader came in and he ended up replicating the patterns of the guy he campaigned against. The structures are very powerful. It is not just that all politicians are venal and you know only interested in their self-aggrandizement. These are very powerful institutions and structural constraints, so I do think that it is possible through the ballot box to change the government slowly over time. Now these things don't happen all at once, but over time, with different leaders that respond to the political incentives can help to move the country in a different direction.

Q: This image of a cycle in mind is growing where I have heard people say there are no old ex-leaders in Africa. Either they stay in office until they get killed, or they leave to get assassinated. There is a problem in which inhibits the transfer of power, because as soon as they do, then they are getting killed or someone is going to take them down with them. Then I think about the international court of justice and things like that and what incentive do I have as a leader maybe even if I were nominally democratically elected. What incentive do I have to turn over power if I am going to go to the ICJ or get knocked off somewhere or something like that? How do you deal with punishing people who have done wrong versus pushing them in a sense to stay in office longer than necessary?


Right, no it is another of the conundrums, or the paradoxes that you don't want to set the bar in such a way that your choices are either steal the election or have you go to jail. If you can give a powerful person that choice, you will have a lot of stolen elections or a lot of elections that are overturned by military coup, or a number of procedures.

Fortunately, in Africa in the last decade you are beginning to get examples of retired African leaders, Nelson Mandela is the most prominent among them. Jerry Rollins in Ghana is an ex-president who is around to tell the tale, Benin in West Africa. Kerekou, the leader was both thrown out of office and four or actually it was eight years later, was brought back in and elected again, sort of an astonishing way. But there are people who say for Jerry Rollins, the president in Ghana, that they want him to account for his deeds, especially in the early days, when he came to power through military coup. He then moved to elections with some trials and his political opponents were executed. That is a very difficult trade off. Eventually people say that one of the reasons why George Washington is such a revered figure is not so much how he governed, but that he stepped down after two terms.

Q: No one remembers what he did!!

A: Right. One of the most important things that he did - looking at it two-hundred some odd years later - was not run again and to say that there is life after politics. In Africa and other parts of the developing world, so much power gets concentrated at the head of state level. You don't have the government positions that you gain wealth in or power and privilege. It becomes an all or nothing game. You either win the elections or you are a nobody.

Where in the US if you lose an election you can go off and run your business or become a TV celebrity or do a talk show. Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Ford; these are all people of some wealth and prestige and power in society, even though they are no longer in formal political office. That is something that takes a long time to develop. I could probably name the handful of examples in Africa where that has happened. But it has happened. Daniel arap Moi in Kenya stepped down. I never thought that would happen, yet it did. He accepted that life after power was better than holding onto power at all costs.

Q: So there is hope.

A: There is indeed, things are moving.

Q: Good, well lets talk about Diaspora then, and how they affect the maintenance of the resolution of conflict in their domestic settings.

A: I have been trying to track out some of these dynamics of how diaspora related to their conflicts back home and it just became apparent to me that other people have seen this. There is at least a set of protracted civil wars where diaspora groups abroad are very powerful forces in keeping the conflict protracted and also making compromise and settlement more difficult. Cases I have been trying to understand better are things like in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Diaspora in Northern Europe is a very powerful force that is reinforcing the hardliners, who are the people who don't want to compromise by providing resources and they are helping to frame the conflict in ways that you cannot compromise. It is an all or nothing struggle. It is also true for some of the Irish in the US.

For example, the hard-line, don't compromise wing of the IRA was supported by Irish in New York and Boston, more so then by the Irish in Northern Ireland. This is true with Ethiopians, this is true with Armenians and Kurds. There is a number of cases where this is true. So it occurs to me that one of the ways to try to intervene or play a constructive role is to work with the diasporas and see if there are ways to help the diaspora to engage in processes that need them to be more of a force for constructive conflict resolution. Diasporas are often reluctant to compromise or accept a settlement because on the one hand the costs of the conflict is less for them, I mean they are sitting in town houses in Fairfax, Virginia. So to say "everything to the war front" is a different type of statement then for someone in the war zone to say "everything to the war front," whether it is for their children or they themselves are at risk. Holding on to the cause, and it is often an important cause, a cause worth mobilizing for, a cause of social justice for liberation. Holding on to the cause is extremely valuable because it gives them an identity. I am not just one of 250 million Americans, I am a Oromo, an Ethiopian, one of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia. I am a Kurd. I am an Armenian and part of my identity as an Armenian American is mobilizing and working for social justice for Armenians and I get great benefit from working on behalf of that cause.

Being in North America or Europe or Australia or any number of other places means that the diaspora groups often have relatively more resources and many of the refugees, of course, are working. People in the diaspora are working at low end jobs in the North American point of view, but if you are sending 100 bucks a month home that is a huge amount of money for village life in much of the world. So you have tremendous prestige and also power that comes from those resources. Often many of the media sources are run from abroad partly because you can't run a newspaper in many of these war zones or create a web site, or create videotapes or do radio shows, but you can in New York, London, Hamburg, Lisbon, and else where abroad.

Me using the Ethiopian example is because, which is one of the ones I know best, is that Ethiopian politics, the debates, the way that the conflict is framed is largely framed by Ethiopians here in Washington, DC and Western Europe particularly in Germany, because they have the newspapers, the web sites, the radio shows. Within Ethiopia it is very difficult to run some of these media operations, it costs money. Newspapers are regularly closed down in Ethiopia, and so a lot of the debate about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable from a political point of view are set or established by people in the diaspora and then filtered back home. You see this in Ethiopian politicians, including opposition politicians. They will regularly come to the US to address people in the diaspora to raise money to try to influence the debate and to try to position themselves as the leader of the opposition. They come here to the US because part of what they want to do is they want to do an interview, they want to talk to people here. They do this knowing that it will get picked up by the media here, which would then be read by the people back in Ethiopia and in that way provide them with a certain position.

It is tricky because the groups here are often none compromising all or nothing groups, so it forces the politicians from Ethiopia to appeal to a certain political opinion, a certain political set of ideas that often that often do not facilitate conflict resolution. So at ICAR with my colleague Chris Mitchell and Tim ??? we help to organize the Extended Ethiopian dialogue. We worked with groups of Ethiopians in the Washington Diaspora to try to get people from different perspectives together to begin to understand each other better and to be able to recognize to complicate their perceptions of the conflict back home. But really it was, well, to see if we could develop a process that would allow them to relate to the conflict back home in new ways, in ways that we hoped to be more constructive.


Talk for just a second about how polarized the community was within Washington.

A: Within Washington, within a community of whom many have been in the US for many years, some of them decades, they were extremely polarized. The Oromos, which is the largest single ethnic group within Ethiopia, the ??? groups would very rarely talked to other Ethiopian groups, particularly the ???, the old elite, the old governing group. And so within the Diaspora in Washington, there were different subsets, who would go to different restaurants, belong different churches, different community associations. So the Oromo community associations would have nothing to do with the Ethiopian community associations because many Oromos don't regard themselves as Ethiopians. They see Ethiopia as an empire that they were forced and coerced into. Not all Oromos think that, but there is a segment of the community that feels that very strongly.

So part of our process was to get Oromos and Amharas and others into a room together to talk with one another about how they perceive themselves, the community, the conflict back home, the issues of history, identity, and language. You know all of these core things that we know from conflict analysis that are so deeply embedded in protracted conflicts. We wanted both sides to begin to understand each other better and to generate new ways of understanding. In part, not traditionally, many of the Ethiopians in our group that in earlier community meetings which often ended up being very partisan and political, some political organization or leader of a political organization would stand up and say this is the truth stand with me, or you are my enemy. And it was very difficult to get out of that.

The meetings would end in shouting matches, or with the sort of leaders of political factions seizing the agenda. By conducting an extended dialogue not with political leaders, but with kind of mid-level community leaders, not political leaders, we were able to encourage people to talk and listen to each other in new ways. I was very proud of that work. To complicate their understandings and to begin to have them say, "Well I still don't agree with that guy, but I at least begin to understand he is not saying that just because he is out to destroy me or my people or he is not saying that because he has ill intent. It is because of his understanding of the history of his people," for example.

Q: There was a very direct link between politics in Ethiopia and the very group that you were facilitating in Washington. Can you tell that story and be general enough about it. A leader was coming and one of the members of the group who was very close to that leader told him that it was okÃ?Â? I don't remember the details.

A: I am not sure. I can say in general, as with many conflict resolution processes, problem solving workshops and other types of processes, selecting the group is often critical and extremely difficult.

One of the things that we did in our Ethiopia dialogue was that we did not seek representatives of the X groups, whether it was an ethnic identity or a political identity and so on. We wanted people who were generally well informed of represented voices of the community. Many of them had links. This is a characteristic of diaspora groups in general. They were very closely linked with political figures and political organizations back home, that was good and that was fine. They would bring in ideas from some of the political organizations.

We presumed feedback in the political debates and some of the learning that was taking place within the dialogue group. And in that way it was not be simply an exercise of the twelve people in the room but something that would feed into the larger political dynamics as is often the case with conflict resolution processes. Measuring that, seeing that, evaluating that, is extremely difficult except in the most subjective of ways. We at least were hoping and have some reason to think that some of the ideas out of the dialogue would fit into larger debates and discussions.


It is interesting, the more I hear about systems theory, and people talk about complex adaptive systems, and ??? of learning and things like that, this is almost, and of course secondary effects of system, right? I feel like the diaspora is working at a secondary level of a conflict but it feeds into the primary level of the conflict.

A: In part, I think that on the practice side, for practitioners and fore people who are engaged in different conflict resolution interventions; working with diasporas is often a very rich set of opportunities. Not because they are the primary driving force behind the conflict, but because first of all, they are accessible. You don't need to go off into the bush. They are often right in your back yard. They are in the major cities. It would seem ridiculous to me being in Fairfax, Virginia and trying to imagine how could we do conflict resolution in Azerbaijan.

When I kept saying there are people involved in international conflicts, Ethiopians, just down the street and why don't we start working in our own back yard with low costs and we don't have to have a huge proposal. It doesn't take a huge budget and to begin that way will get you to understand the conflict. To have access to the communities to build up trust, and people begin to understand who you are as a facilitator, who ICAR is and that way expand the circles. I have no doubt that there is great potential working with Diaspora groups. We started with the Ethiopians partly because it was a community that I knew, and partly because it is an extremely high concentration of Ethiopians in the Washington area. Anybody in Washington who goes to 18th street for a decent meal will know there is a lot of Ethiopians in Washington.

Q: Or taken a cabÃ?Â?.

A: Or anybody who has taken a cab, or parked the car, or checked into a hotel or any number of other places, will know that there is a tremendous number of Ethiopians. It is part of the nature of the Diaspora community. Ethiopians, Eritrans, Oromos, people who often identify themselves within the community is very differently then how those on the outside look upon them, Somalis. But in other places it might be with Tamils or Kurds or any number of other groups. If we were in Los Angeles, I might be working with Armenians. If I was in New York City I might want to work with the Irish and it would depend onÃ?Â?


I was just thinking about the Irish, has there ever been an Irish dialogue outside of Ireland?

A: Not to my knowledge, and I think that is a problem because part of the dynamic, but not the only dynamic, of the conflict in Ireland is that groups in the Diaspora don't want to give up the conflict. They don't want Ireland to be a normal place, with normal people, with a normal political life, that is important for them. It is important for their identity as Irish American Nationalists to have this cause and not to surrender this cause. You need 100% if you are you are not willing to say, "Well we will take 80% of our agenda and be very pleased." It is very difficult if you are in exile, you need it all and so that feeds into the most hardline elements, who don't want to settle. Furthermore, when some of these groups in order to show their loyalty to their cause are collecting money and guns and are shipping them to the conflicts, it creates protracted dynamics.

To deal with the conflict on the ground, as many have been doing for many years, but there is an additional need to work with the Diaspora. The Cuban Americans is another case. I don't know the conflict as well but people tell me that one of the dynamics that makes settlement of some of the Israel-Palestine issues so difficult are Jewish American groups here in the United States, who don't want to surrender one inch of territory because they regard it as so salient to their identity. It is so important to who they are. Dealing with these aspects provides and opens up alternatives and opportunities for people back home in the conflict.

Q: I am sure there is tons of dialogues between Israeli and Palestinians everyday, or at least around here.

A: One of the things that we have done with the Ethiopian dialogue is that we have written up a really large report. You were part of it when we were doing month-by-month reports and then we tried to do a synthesis report. We did write

a synthesis report. What we have now is about a 20 page report that is written by ICAR and is in the ICAR voice so it is reflecting from conflict resolution practitioners on the process. We were trying to capture two things. This report has not been released so we will still have to have a couple more meetings with the group to see if they are comfortable doing that. They are much closer now than they were before and seem to be anxious after all of these meetings, as they want some learning to come out of it.

They don't want it all to just kind of dissipate. Learning what went on in the content of the conflict and about different perspectives on Ethiopian conflict, but also learning about the dialogue process itself and how it is a useful process for dealing with conflicts and we hope to be able to continue to work. Again this is not to move from the practitioner to the scholar so as to write up in more of an academic point of view. However, what did we learn from this process in terms of a conflict analysis point of view about how identity and language and history link up with the conflict is that we now understand better about how dialogue processes within the diaspora can work to open up new options, greater opportunities, provide more space for constructive conflict resolution.

Q: Are they still meeting?

A: Well, there will be a meeting relating to this report, but we have not met since February.

Q: So that was a long time, what was it two years?

A: It was a great project, great fun.

Q: Well thanks, Terry.

A: You got enough?