The U.S. is moving away from the state of perpetual war that has marked the post 9/11 era. President Obama’s May 23 speech on counterterrorism policy makes a strong case for moving the country in the direction of new, more comprehensive strategies that address root causes of terrorism as well as its violent manifestations. He rightly notes that “force alone cannot make us safe” and that perpetual war “will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”
Although the last troops will not come home from Afghanistan until the end of 2014, now is the time to start thinking about what this comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should look like, and to start building the foundation for its full implementation. What are the elements of such a strategy, how can they fit together and reinforce each other? How can poverty, human rights violations, political disenfranchisement, instability, corruption and other factors contributing to instability be addressed? How can legal restrictions nonprofit groups be lifted in a way that allows them to fully contribute to this effort?
The war framework, supported by a restrictive web of law and policy, and a vast enforcement infrastructure, is ill equipped to address these challenges. It minimizes the role of non-military stakeholders with the expertise and resources to address the complex challenges we face. This includes civil society- the nonprofit world of philanthropy, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, humanitarian and development organizations, human rights defenders and more. These groups create “human security,” addressing the root causes of conflict and insurgency, and giving societies alternatives to extremism and terrorism. They have the experience and flexibility to adjust to conditions on the ground and are guided by ethical principles based on the public, common good, not personal profit.
An example of this work is Track II Diplomacy, which utilizes unofficial actors, usually sponsored by nonprofit organizations, to convene and set the stage for dialogue and negotiation to resolve conflict. Instead of bringing high ranking official diplomats and leaders to the negotiating table, Track II efforts focus on dialogue with influential private citizens, former officials, or officials acting “off the record” within a conflict area. Track II diplomacy in very contentious conflicts and delicate negotiations, such as the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland or the Oslo Accords, can be successful precisely because of its non-governmental character. It avoids political grandstanding, prepares the ground for official talks, and recognizes all parties to a conflict.
One reason nonprofits are so effective in Track II and programs that can address root causes of violent extremism is that they are not part of government. That independence is key to effectiveness. For conflict resolution programs it is crucial. Only neutral mediators have the credibility to gain the trust of local actors and to effect sustainable and peaceful solutions to deadly violence.
But this piece of the big picture has been severely constrained by the war paradigm. Counterterrorism laws act as a blunt instrument that prevents the pieces of the big picture from coming together. These laws include the prohibition on material support of terrorism that bars peacebuilding organizations from engaging in Track II discussions with groups on the terrorist list. The Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of the material support laws in the Humanitarian Law Project case in June 2010.
Ironically, this law takes away a key tool for making peace. We do not make peace by talking with our friends, but by talking with our enemies. Governments may not be able to conduct these talks, but nongovernmental peacebuilders have long had an important role in back-channel conversations and dialogue. If they are prohibited from talking through any channel, what is the alternative? More war seems to be the only likely outcome, as time has shown that the sanctions that come with being put on the terrorist list have not made these groups wither away.
The ban on engagement for peacebuilding purposes should be lifted immediately so that armed groups on the list that have an interest in peace can be identified and encouraged to come to the negotiation table. The nonprofit groups that do this work are experts. We need them.
Fortunately, the law provides a relatively easy way to unleash their skills. It empowers the Secretary of State to create exemptions for non-tangible forms of support like technical assistance, training in areas like negotiation and nonviolence, and services that will not aid terrorism. Peacebuilding and Track II diplomacy certainly meet that standard. The nonprofit community stands ready to work with Secretary Kerry to craft a reasonable exemption. The third anniversary of the Humanitarian Law Project decision, coming so soon after the President’s speech, is a good time to take this step.
Melanie Greenberg is President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. Kay Guinane is Director of the Charity & Security Network.