What makes a good ethical leader? Mobility and membership

SOAS President Graça Machel
SOAS President and Elder, Graça Machel

This blog post is part of a series surrounding the event ‘Challenging Human Rights Leadership‘, in partnership with The Elders and the British Council Future Leaders programme, that will be broadcast at 6pm on Monday 29 October via Facebook Live. Visit the events page and select ‘Going’ to receive a notification when we go live. #humanrightsleaders

Words by Dr Phil Clark.

In 2007, Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel created The Elders, an international organisation of prominent figures, chaired by Kofi Annan and mandated to, among other tasks, ‘use their political independence to help resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts’. Over the last decade, The Elders has provided mediation and support to local peace activists in conflict situations as diverse as Israel/Palestine, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.

The Elders’ roving interventions in violence-affected societies around the world have reaped some impressive rewards. One vital aspect of the organisation’s work is its capacity to speak to multiple sides of conflicts. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, after the 2010 electoral crisis, The Elders were the first international body to meet with both the newly elected President Alassane Ouattara and the deposed President Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to step down after losing the fraught election sparked weeks of violence and the deaths of 3000 civilians. Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu and Annan met Ouattara in Abidjan then several days later travelled to the northern town of Korhogo to meet Gbagbo who was under house arrest. These meetings were instrumental in the Ouattara and Gbagbo camps tamping down their violent rhetoric and in part paved the way for Ouattara to establish a (highly contested) government several weeks later.

As The Elders themselves have acknowledged, however, their effectiveness in responding to mass violence depends entirely on the legitimacy and skill of their domestic peace partners. While The Elders may help kick-start a dialogue between belligerents or draw international attention to conflicts that may otherwise be ignored, their work is no substitute for local efforts to build sustainable peace.

A three-year research project that I recently completed, with funding from the US-based Fetzer Institute, highlights the crucial role of a neglected level of peace actors – ‘middle tier’ or ‘go-between’ leaders who bridge national and community-based peace processes in particular conflict settings. These domestic actors connect these two levels, sharing community needs and insights ‘upwards’ with national elites and helping translate national dialogues ‘downwards’ in ways that are comprehensible and responsive to local populations.

Drawing on evidence from Colombia, Sri Lanka and Uganda (summarised in a research brief entitled, “Leading from the Middle”), go-between leaders are defined by their membership and mobility: they are typically full participants in national and local peace endeavours, who move regularly between these levels, sharing ideas and information. Because they occupy multiple spaces and belong to multiple constituencies, these individuals play a vital bridging role and are critical to the legitimacy and sustainability of peace processes around the world.

One example highlighted in “Leading from the Middle” is the work of Rosa Emilia Salamanca, a highly experienced civil society peace activist in Colombia and Executive Director of the Corporación de Investigación y Acción Social y Económica (CIASE). Salamanca has participated in several phases of peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) rebels. During these negotiations, Salamanca has played a pivotal role in transmitting to national elites the views of women and indigenous groups directly affected by violence, ensuring those perspectives have influenced the negotiations and increasing the legitimacy of the talks among often sceptical local communities.

The report also highlights the example of Betty Bigombe, who initiated two phases of peace negotiations between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels – in 1993 and again in 2004. On both occasions, Bigombe played a vital bridging role not only between the government and the LRA but also between the national and community levels, as she drew heavily on grassroots consultations in her native Acholi sub-region to inform her negotiations among elites. In both 1993 and 2004, a key feature of Bigombe’s peace facilitation was her constant shuttling between community consultations and elite negotiations, keeping local actors informed of high-level dynamics and transmitting grassroots perspectives to the government and rebel leadership.

While The Elders display an important degree of global mobility – moving across continents and different conflict contexts – go-between leaders are mobile between different levels of their own conflict-affected societies. Their membership of those societies matters. Unlike The Elders, go-between leaders are based permanently within the conflict environment, have a deep knowledge of the specific context and maintain the national and local networks necessary to tailor peace to the needs of domestic constituencies. Some of The Elders’ own work underlines the importance of go-between or middle tier leaders, as The Elders have partnered with this category of actors in places such as Israel/Palestine and Sri Lanka.

While the global prominence of The Elders rightly spotlights their valuable contributions to peace, go-between leaders such as Salamanca and Bigombe warrant much greater attention. International actors have a key role to play in these settings but domestic actors – especially those who can connect national and community dimensions of peace – ultimately determine whether peace can be achieved and whether it will last.

Dr Phil Clark is a Reader in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS and Co-Director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice (CCRJ). His latest book, to be published at the end of October 2018, is entitled, Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics (Cambridge University Press).

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