The field of citizen diplomacy, also known as Track-II talks, can potentially play an important role in conflict resolution mechanisms around the world. In the Middle East and elsewhere, Track-II Talks have helped build bridges among communities and nations torn by war and factionalism.
Citizen Diplomacy postulates that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape a country’s foreign relations one handshake at a time . It refers to unofficial contacts between people of different nations, as opposed to official contacts between governmental representatives where private citizens become involved in an international conflict in an effort to transform or mitigate the situation. Due to failure or shortcomings of key Track-I (official diplomacy) talks; peace activists, conflict resolution experts, peace-builders and communities in general may increasingly rely on Track-II Talks in attempts to resolve protracted conflicts around the world. The primary objective of Citizen Diplomacy is not to replace Track I Talks (Official Diplomacy), but effectively complement the latter in building durable peace from within a war system.
Theoretically, the field is premised on Gordon Allport’s Contact Hypothesis, which posits that contact with members of another group (e.g., racial, ethnic, religious, class or gender group) reduces prejudice toward the group and that getting to know members of other groups personally, breaks down stereotypes and prejudice.
It is further rooted in the Social Network Theory that views social relationships in terms of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors. It focuses on the role of individual actors and the relationships between these actors.
Primary actors in citizen diplomacy including peace activists, scholars, journalists, former statesmen and military officials, elder statesmen and other notable personalities representing various non-state entities in the wider society committed to resolving conflicts within their states or communities.
It is believed that citizen diplomats have the potential to bridge political divisions within their nations and communities and influence state actors make strategic decisions that can help facilitate a functional conflict resolution process at the official level. In conflict –ridden societies, ceasefires, truces and fragile peace deals have often been used by state and armed actors as an opportunity to consolidate their positions while at the same time, re-arming and strategizing for the next round of hostilities. As a result, conflict resolution mechanisms dominated by state and armed actors may have limited impact in building lasting peace and in most cases, have only paved the way for renewed hostilities.
Unlike Track-I (Official Diplomacy) talks, Track-II (Citizen Diplomacy) talks take place in a less sensitive environment. While it is sometimes difficult for state actors and their opponents to meet face to face, citizens always take the initiative to reach out to each other to find collective solutions to issues around conflict.
The inroads made by the Middle Eastern Peace process, highlights the potential and overall effectiveness of citizen diplomacy. For example, in the past, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) have not only denounced each other, but never met face to face prior to 1993 to resolve the Middle East Conflict . But both Israeli and Palestinian citizens have been meeting and coming together for decades to find ways to end the conflict.
Although the 1993 Oslo Peace Process is in tatters, it was nevertheless, the product of successful rounds of talks initiated by citizen diplomats both Israeli and Palestinian working hand in hand with third party Norwegian actors. It helped pave the way for the official behind the scenes, Track-I Talks involving Israeli government officials and leaders of the Palestinian Authority culminating in the signing of the Middle East Peace Accord in the White House.
With several peace processes stalled or potentially heading for imminent failures in a multitude of conflicts around the world, citizen diplomacy, more than ever before, may hold the key to unlocking a new formula for fostering peace through the direct involvement of citizen peace delegates in fragile and failing peace processes. While women are traditionally excluded from official diplomacy, they often play a very central role in the far more inclusive rounds of citizen diplomacy. They have played important citizen diplomatic roles in improving national, regional and global security on the path to building sustainable peace in war-torn nations .
There are strong arguments why Track-II success in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world can be replicated in conflict-ridden societies in Africa. While it has been difficult for state actors and opposing rebel authorities in Africa to resolve long standing conflicts in places like Somalia, Congo and Sudan, the citizens of these countries and other parts of Africa who happen to belong to opposing loyalties can potentially find ways to end conflicts afflicting their nations or communities.
Building a vibrant citizen diplomacy sector in the African continent would go along way in eliminating obstacles to peace and further develop the necessary pre-requisites to peace in war-torn nations and communities. Like their counterparts in the Middle East, citizen diplomats in Africa and other conflict zones in the world have the potential to bridge political divisions and also influence state actors make strategic decisions that can help facilitate a functional conflict resolution process at the official level.
Since this potentially important field has received little attention from researchers and scholars, there is need to contribute further to the existing but inadequate body of literature on this subject. Additionally, extended research should illustrate that traditional mediation and negotiation by themselves are not adequate to address intractable conflicts, meaning that a transformation in the conflictual relationship of the parties is required. Further, there is need to demonstrate that the methods employed in official diplomatic tracks, such as confidence-building measures, are often undermined by the very dynamics they are trying to address. They must therefore be supplemented by unofficial processes that address the dynamics of the relationship between the parties and deal with perceptions, distrust, and fears that fuel the escalatory dynamic.
In order to foster a culture of peace and healing, it is imperative that the citizen diplomacy sector around the world, which lacks adequate resources, be supported so as to build an active constituency of citizen peacemakers and peace builders.