Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

International Mediation and Conciliation

Quakers have mediated, and worked for reconciliation, in several violent international conflicts. Often working on the ground in the midst of hostilities, these Friends have used their good offices to bring together those who regard each other as “enemies”.  There are many conflicts, and few Quakers, so there has always had to be some convincing evidence that they could and should intervene, often based on personal knowledge of the circumstances.

In his history of such work, Mike Yarrow described the Quaker approach as ‘balanced partiality’ – they do not take sides, but care about both parties, and believe that increasing mutual understanding will help those in conflict to find ways forward on which both can agree.

Adam Curle, an experienced mediator, defined the conciliator/ mediator role as one who is in the middle between protagonists in a conflict, who is wholly concerned to make peace and diminish suffering, and who has no agenda of their own.  Their task, he says, is to ‘reassure, unravel, explain and interpret,’ but not to advise.  The core of the work is to change protagonists’ perception in three respects – how they see their opponent, how they see themselves, and how they see the conflict.

Joseph Elder, another experienced mediator, spoke of “the power of the powerless.” He argued that although Quakers have no power in such situations, they can nevertheless do something that others cannot do.

Often mediation has been carried out under the conditions that (a) nothing about the Quaker role should be revealed publicly, and (b) that if either party felt their role was no longer useful, they should withdraw.  These conditions emphasise that the Quaker mediators have no overriding interests in the conflict and that control of the negotiations remains in the hands of the disputing parties.

One of the earliest examples of Quaker mediation dates from 1774, before the American War of Independence, when David Barclay and John Fothergill attempted to mediate between the British Cabinet and Benjamin Franklin. In 1850, Joseph Sturge tried to mediate between Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. None of these were successful.

However, the Quaker role as mediators of international conflicts really began after the Second World War.

In India in 1945, Horace Alexander and Agatha Harrison supported the negotiations between Gandhi and the British Government over Indian Independence.

Later, Adam Curle and Joseph Elder, with other Quakers, were involved in reconciliation efforts following the 1965 war in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. They put ‘balanced partiality’ into practice - their mission report included sections on `the Pakistan viewpoint’ and `the Indian viewpoint’. In each, they expressed the historical facts and judgments from an insider’s, rather than an observer’s, standpoint. Readers on both sides later expressed satisfaction with the way their views had been portrayed, although they had grave doubts about the accuracy of the presentation of the other side’s views!

During the war between Nigeria and Biafra (1963-67), Curle and two other Quakers attempted to set up negotiations between Nigeria’s General Gowon and the Biafran rebel leaders.  Despite significant danger, they were able to move between the two sides and give a picture unblurred by prejudice.  Although they were never successful in negotiating a ceasefire, their efforts were believed to have significantly reduced post-war acts of reprisals.

When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, it eliminated all contacts between East and West Germany. Quakers were respected and trusted throughout Germany, due to their wartime work and were able to build a dialogue that eased some of the tensions.

During the violent lead-up to independence in Zimbabwe in the 1970s, a small number of British Quakers maintained close relationships with leaders within Rhodesia (as it was then) and in neighbouring states. This enabled them to bring parties together for informal talks, support formal negotiations and advocate policies and actions in support of reconciliation.

In the 1980s, during the civil war in Sri Lanka, Joseph Elder and others met repeatedly with both separatist (Tamil) leaders and government representatives, carrying messages between them in an effort to de-escalate the conflict.

Since 1999, in Nagaland in northeast India, where the Naga people have been fighting a war of independence, Quakers have been assisting the ongoing reconciliation efforts undertaken by the Forum for Naga Reconciliation.

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Further Reading and Credits

Mike Yarrow, C.H.  Quaker Experiences in International Conciliation (New Haven, USA, Yale University Press, 1978).Sue and Steve Williams. Being in the Middle by being at the Edge (York, UK, Sessions of York, 1994).

Photograph reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holders AFSC