Joseph Elder is an academic and lifelong Quaker peace activist with experience of mediating conflicts in Kashmir, Vietnam, Korea and Sri Lanka. He is a currently professor of Sociology and Languages and Cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin, USA.
Elder was born in a Kurdish region of Iran, the son of a Presbyterian missionary, and lived in Tehran until he was 15. While a student at Oberlin College, Ohio, during the Korean War (1950-53), he told his draft board that he would go to jail rather than be inducted. Shortly after, he became a Quaker.
In 1966, along with Adam Curle, he was part of a Quaker delegation who attempted reconciliation between Pakistan and India following the war in Kashmir. By listening carefully to each side and not imposing their own opinions, they were able to present the views of each party in the conflict to the other as though from the standpoint of an insider – an approach Quakers call ‘balanced partiality’.
In 1969, Elder travelled twice to Hanoi on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee to assess medical needs and to deliver medical supplies to civilians in North Vietnam. As well as assessing the need for medical supplies, he was able to convey messages from North Vietnam to the government in Washington.
In 1984, during the civil war between the Tamil minority and the nationalist Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka, Elder was sent as one of the two-man Quaker delegation to determine whether Quaker involvement in reconciliation efforts was feasible. They had no prior involvement or contacts in the country and were effectively starting from scratch. Although, on the surface, the two groups were highly polarised, Elder believed that, on the basis of the initial contacts, that Quakers could play a useful role as “message carriers” between the two groups.
During 1985, Elder and his Quaker colleague travelled repeatedly to Sri Lanka and India to meet with leaders on both sides, on missions funded by QPSW (Quaker Peace and Social Witness) in London. Through a series of private meetings, they were able to sow the seeds for the formal mediation conference convened by the Indian government in Bhutan later that year.
Elder imposed two key conditions for Quaker involvement. First, nothing about the Quaker role should be revealed publicly. Secondly, if either party felt their role was no longer useful, the Quakers would withdraw. These conditions emphasised that the Quakers had no overriding interests in the conflict and that control of the negotiations remained in the hands of the disputing parties.
In 1989, Elder found himself once again in the role of message carrier, this time between the North Korean government in Pyongyang and the US government in Washington.
In the 1990s, Elder helped to found Madison Quakers, Inc. which has built a peace park and a school in My Lai (scene of a massacre during the Vietnam war) , and also provides micro-loans to village and ethnic women in Vietnam.
In 1995, Elder became a founder member of the International Committee for the Peace Council, a group of religious and spiritual individuals who are internationally known and respected. They come together to demonstrate that peace is possible, and that effective collaboration between religions to make peace is also possible.
In 2009, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Peacemaking from Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice.
Recently, his experience of living in Iran and his long record of studying religion and society in South Asia have led to his views being sought on the tensions and conflict in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Speaking of the role of the mediator, Elder said:
“We have no power. We could easily be dismissed as do-gooders who should be back home minding our own business. The fact that we are taken as seriously… is a never-ending miracle, which I have only been able to explain in the context of our being able to provide a service which apparently is often not available through any other channel. So to this extent we have the power of the powerless of doing something which they can't do and they have no vehicle for doing.”