Communicating for Peace
Growing up in conflict does one of two things – it teaches you the limitations of violence to engender sustainable social change, or it compels you to enter the cycle of violence itself. Especially when the well-springs of hope have run dry, violence is often perceived to be an effective way to change the order of things. The internal logic of martyrdom and suicide terrorism may be inexplicable to those outside terrains of hopelessness, but easier to understand when juxtaposed against the backdrop of a perceived lack of alternatives and indoctrination. Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), now often touted as a panacea for socio-economic development and part of the Western donor orthodoxy, fail to make any sense for those enmeshed in violent conflict, those touched by its long tail and those who fall outside our circumscribed vision or oftentimes, our urbane westernised bias.
This is why I have proposed a deep and meaningful exploration into the way ICT can help engender peace and conflict transformation. I am interested in how (and indeed, if) democracy and peace can be strengthened in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Colombia, Timor Leste using ICT – how they could be made more resilient to the mercurial actions and policies of political leaders and non-state actors that often sow the seeds for more conflict, how they could give voice to the voiceless and marginalised, how they could strengthen the participation of youth, children and empower women in reconciliation.
Many mature theories of conflict transformation and peacebuilding were developed before the information age. Many of today’s leading peace theorists and practitioners are those who grew up in a generation markedly different from that which exists today, in terms of their access to information technology. Today’s world of connectivity enables the flow of information and knowledge in ways unimaginable even a few years ago. No longer are news services cut off from the frontlines of conflict. Citizens with mobile phones are the new reporters of our information age. The web is ubiquitous and multi-lingual. I was interested in how these developments could engender a radical revision in the way peace processes are designed and implemented.
The evolution, practice and theory of mediation in particular need to take note of developments in technology. As a non-expert outsider sans a legal background yet partial to the key tenets of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), I have proposed for the past couple of years a multi-disciplinary approach to the development of systems to support online negotiation and mediation. These proposals have attempted to expand the interest of ODR to encompass the challenges of designing, deploying and training personnel to use systems in support of peacebuilding and peace negotiations. It is not an easy feat.
The world over, so-called ICT4D initiatives have demonstrably failed to foster justice, equitable distribution of resources and social transformation in countries with scant regard for human rights. In many regions, the lack of emphasis on the socio-political and economic foundations of violent conflict has led to assumptions in the conduct of mediation practices and the development of online systems that exacerbate conflict. We need to look at peacebuilding in all ICT initiatives, not as a passive after-thought, but as an active, committed and sustained attempt to flesh out the complex interplay between conflict transformation, human rights, peace, development and justice. This was recognised at the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005 in Tunis. Paragraph 36 of the Tunis Commitment states that:
“We value the potential of ICTs to promote peace and to prevent conflict which, inter alia, negatively affects achieving development goals. ICTs can be used for identifying conflict situations through early warning systems preventing conflicts, promoting their peaceful resolution, supporting humanitarian action, including protection of civilians in armed conflicts, facilitating peacekeeping missions, and assisting post conflict peace-building and reconstruction.”
The recognition at a global policy level of the importance of ICT in engendering peace is a significant boost ICT4Peace, as was the publication of a report titled The Role of ICT in Preventing, Responding to and Recovering from Conflict by the UN ICT Task Force.
However, sustainable social transformation in the midst of violence is a difficult process to envision, harder implementing, even harder to sustain. Cognisant of these challenges and yet recognising the need to address them head on, in 2003 I helped form a small organisation based in Sri Lanka, called InfoShare, to help further the practice and theory of some of the ideas I had for the use of ICT in peace processes. Our work has no historical precedent. I have since conducted extensive and path-breaking research into the possibilities of using ICT for all aspects of peacebuilding, including ODR, the development of One-Text negotiations platform, human rights violations mapping, conflict early warning and prevention and the use of mobile phones for social activism. However, to paraphrase the brilliant American poet Robert Frost, I have miles to go before I sleep. Today, we are barely scratching the surface of what is possible in the use of technology to resolve some of humanity’s most disturbing and pressing problems – such as the continuing genocide in Darfur.
The future of ICT4Peace, however, is pegged to the availability of funding to explore ways that technology can best help communities transform violent conflict. To date, donors, international agencies and local bodies are reluctant, at best, to approach ICT4Peace initiatives. This needs to change, and soon.
Precisely because of its growing importance and global recognition, ICT4Peace is no longer the domain of geeks or early visionaries. From Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), inter-cultural mediation, and virtual secure spaces for international collaboration to decision support systems in peace negotiations and advanced information visualisation, ICT4Peace spans a gamut of technologies, theories and communities of practice. So much of ICT these days is about the use of big words. The core vision and raison d’etre of ICT4Peace however is quite simple.
It exists to generate hope, where little or none exists.
And that’s something truly worth supporting, for all our futures.