Peace is made by the same people who make war - and they tend to be people with blood on their hands. Although mediators know that it would be wrong to dismiss them as criminal psychopaths it still constitutes one of the main dilemmas for peace-makers. By Martin Griffiths.


Peace is worth many sacrifices‎, not least from the ease of mind of a mediator. The average mediator comes with a full bag of moral and ethical beliefs, the most profound is the belief that peace overrides all other principles. We hear a great deal of the dilemmas faced by those who make peace, including those who are representing parties to the conflict. These usually include how to assess the value of the fallen in agreeing on the necessary concessions of a settlement. 

But‎ mediators - ethical men all (most of them are male by the way) - have their own challenges. They need to suspend judgment of those with whom they work to make peace.  A good mediator takes no account of the past, current or indeed future crimes of those with whom he creates a close and even intimate relationship. Put simply, the mediator is supposed to keep his eyes on how to achieve peace and look away from the inconvenient truths about those he works with.

Mediators tend to imagine in rich detail the popular advantages of peace, and how these might bring more value than the public penalties meted out to their 'clients'. As someone who has frequently had to believe in this ethical settlement‎, let me tell you: it simply does not work. No imagination can make it feel right. Instead, the mediator deals with the dreadful and goes quietly into the night hoping for nobody to question his ethics.  

‘If you want to make a friend ask of him a favour’ 

My friend Sergio Vieira de Mello died at the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq on August 19, 2003. We must assume that no trial has yet nor will ever take place. It happened in the heat of a summer morning in Baghdad: Sergio and several other officials of the United Nations were brutally killed by a massive truck bomb. I had known Sergio for many years; I was his Deputy, he was the godfather of my first-born. We spent long evenings in far-away places ruminating on life. His never-written autobiography had got as far as the title: 'War Criminals - my Friends'.

Recently I met a man who might have been a part of my friend's killing‎. We met in a country to which neither of us belonged; in a cafe which was not open at that time of day, and we spoke about how to stop a war that neither of us had started. My date was a prominent Islamist.  

We did not start by talking about the war. We began, just as Sergio would, by talking about what united us: the evident bonds of humanity. I have two young children, and their future means everything to me. In this I am no different from the most committed leader of a violent insurrection. We are all fathers.

I told this other father that Europe needs his help. On my continent most people don’t know how to respond to Islamism. Politicians dismiss it out of hand as something pernicious.  Our citizens fear it. Most people don’t understand it. So I asked this man - who might have been part of the death of my dear friend - if he could help me bring peace to Europe by explaining his beliefs and allowing us the privilege of learning from him. He told me, that this was the first time he had heard a Westerner asking him a favour. We finished our chat and went our separate ways. But I was left with a sense that we not only could but must do business together. Sergio would have added the encounter to his lengthy autobiography.

Embracing ‘the other’

Dealing with people with blood on their hands makes for a very complicated psychology. I have spent a great deal of my professional time with murderers and terrorists. I see it as my place to make professional contacts of them. All for the greater good. One of the lessons I have learnt is to embrace the ‘other’ to overcome the fear of the unknown. The same also applies to the ‘other’. We need to remember that extremists also need a perspective in the ordinary world – a world they usually left years ago. Are we prepared to welcome them back?

We need new contrarian views to beat the simplicities and fears which have overtaken our western world. In an increasingly divided Europe we would be well advised to embrace ‘the other’. Only by doing this we will be able overcome divisions and engage in a constructive dialogue.