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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Betty Bigombe at GWU's Elliott School

With a name like this, you know she's a star!

Last Monday evening she addressed about 100 mostly female, mostly graduate students in the City View Room at GWU's Elliott School of International Affairs on "The Art of Conflict Mediation". It was part of GW's "Distinguished Women in International Affairs" series, and spying the topic beforehand, I could only wonder: Can she supply her peacemaking skills honed during the Northern Uganda conflict to the Iraq quandary? I wish I had asked.

After hearing her, I could only wonder: What is anyone waiting for? Well, why not?

Articulate, attractive, sophisticated, and distinguished (but I don't want to go overboard), Ms. Bigombe became strategically involved with peace efforts in Uganda, her homeland, in the mid-1990s when she tried to end rebel activity. She got fed up with military action and believed peace was achievable through talk. (Sound familiar?)

She convinced the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, to communicate, leading to peace talks in 1993 and 1994 which later became known as the "Bigombe Talks".

She asked the crowd: "What do you put on the table when the rebel leader has no idea of what he wants other than to rule by the Ten Commandments? Why should rebels even talk if they (come out of hiding) to be arrested?"

In 2004 after a massacre in Uganda she returned to the country from a post at the World Bank to start peace talks anew. Although they were not successful, her efforts are credited with laying the base for later talks.

So what else did she say?

Around the world 20 to 25 national conflicts are constantly at play. Many children in Uganda have never known peace. Many are abducted as youths and over time, trained to become soldiers who kill their own families whom they have not seen for years.

"A boy is abducted at 11 and held in the bush for 18 years and kills his family. Is he responsible?" she asked the audience.

Mediation is not an art, she said. Lots of competition and rivalry exists among mediators driven by fame and fortune, and she sometimes mediates between the mediators.

Some "spoilers" do not want wars to end for they profit from them. (Ed's note: Can you think of any?) "War's end means cutting off their livelihoods."

"As a mediator you are always walking a tight rope and can easily become a punching bag." Intrastate wars require heavy confidence building: "You take one step forward and 10 steps back because of deep-rooted distrust which exists. (Mediators) must gain trust to protect interests," a point she emphasized repeatedly.

Often, mediators plead with the news media to be sensitive about issues.

"Extreme sexism" exists in the mediation world. "Be patient, don't bang the table, and take a lot of risks." Representing an institution in mediation is made more difficult by its rules and regulations which have to be followed and yet, "if you go in as an individual, you are very vulnerable."

"Patience is a virtue in mediation, and you really must be a good listener. Transparency is so important to avoid suspicion. You must show both parties their interests are protected" (which she repeated several times).

If anyone walks out at mediation, it is "very, very difficult to get them back to the table". Some "need to vent out their anger, and then they are ready to talk."

Answering a question, she said more than half of peace treaties ultimately fail. What can be done?

She was elected to Uganda's parliament in 1986 and served for 10 years. In 1994 she was named Uganda's "Woman of the Year". She has a master's in public administration from Harvard.

The venue of her talk was a room with a view on the seventh floor of the 1957 building on E Street which looks toward the Potomac River. With a backdrop of blue and pink dusky sky sometimes dotted by planes departing National Airport, Uganda was far away geographically yet Ms. Bigombe's talk reminded attendees of another land needing help.

She talked for about 30 minutes and answered questions from a serious audience for about the same length of time. She wore a white blouse, black jacket and black pants.

Other speakers in the series have been Dr. Paula Dobriansky of the State Department, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, president of the United Nations General Assembly, and Hunaina Al-Mughairy, Ambassador to the U.S. from Oman.

Biographical information from Wikipedia and the U.S. Institute of Peace where Ms. Bigombe has been a senior fellow was used for this posting.