Respect instead of disparagement – resolving conflicts through dialogue

Experiences and lessons learned after decades of war in the Near and Middle East

Lecture by Karin Leukefeld at the 2021 annual conference of the working group “Mut zur Ethik”*

Against the backdrop of the crises and wars in the Middle East of which I have reported for more than 20 years, there are many examples of lack of respect, of abundant belittling and demonisation, and of proposals for conflict resolution, but also for offers of dialogue to prevent war and destruction.

The suffering of the Palestinians, Kurds and Iraqis

Palestinians who have been demanding their rights for more than 70 years and who, despite endless concessions and peace negotiations, still live as refugees in camps in their own country, and also in camps in neighbouring countries, with no prospect of a better future.
  Kurds fighting for recognition – a similar fight, by the way, to the one the Tamils in Sri Lanka are fighting, which we heard about yesterday. And who continue to be fought against and disenfranchised in Turkey, who have become stooges of Western interests in northern Iraq. Who are heavily armed in north-eastern Syria as foot soldiers of Western interests and otherwise manage the poverty and could not prevent the occupation of Kurdish villages in Afrin or the destruction of Christian villages.
  Let us talk about Iraq. Since 1980, repeatedly embroiled in wars, economically, politically, socially destroyed.
  In February and March 2003, probably millions of people worldwide took to the streets against the threat of a new war in Iraq. At that time, the country had been under UN sanctions for almost 13 years. In a brain drain that lasted for years, well-educated Iraqis had left the country in their thousands. 500,000 children had died of diseases because there were too few medicines. In the south of the country, in the province of Basra, the population suffered from the consequences of the use of depleted uranium munitions, which had been used in large quantities by US and other troops during the war in 1991 – the expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait: stillbirths, congenital malformations that led to death. Cancers and no medication.
  What the US and Britain were planning was a dastardly raid on a devastated state. Iraq had nothing left to defend itself:

  • Radar and air defence installations in the no-fly zones had been bombed.
  • The last Scud missiles had been destroyed by the Iraqis themselves under Western pressure.
  • The alleged weapons of mass destruction did not exist.

Amer al-Saadi, the Iraqi negotiator with UN envoy Hans Blix, said at the time: "How are we supposed to prove that we do not have something we do not have?"

Futile efforts for peaceful solutions

I met Hans von Sponeck – whom we heard here yesterday – in Baghdad at the turn of the year 2002/03, when he was trying to mediate peace talks between Western states and Baghdad. Konstantin Wecker – a very well-known musician in Germany – came to Baghdad with a peace delegation and gave a touching concert in front of an Iraqi audience. Hundreds of peace activists from all over the world came to protect Iraq’s civilian infrastructure – electricity plants, water treatment plants, clinics, schools – against attacks.
  But nothing helped, the war began. Even a sandstorm that raged for days through the Iraqi desert at the time could not stop the invading US troops and the coalition of 45 willing states that accompanied the US army. Without a mandate from the UN Security Council, more than 200,000 troops led by US forces advanced on Baghdad from Kuwait in the south, from Jordan in the west and from the Kurdish autonomous regions in the north.

Destruction of Iraqi culture and access to the country’s oil

Hundreds of cameras documented the attacks on Baghdad live. The occupying army took up quarters in the Palestine Hotel, which until then had been a base for international media. A statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in front of the cameras, the government was disbanded as was the Iraqi army. Ministers, government officials and military officers were put on the wanted list. Their faces and names were printed and publicised as a card deck of the "Most Wanted". Saddam Hussein was the ace of hearts.
  In front of British and US soldiers sitting in their tanks, the Iraqi National Museum was looted. The Iraqi Oil Ministry was occupied by US soldiers and hermetically sealed off with walls and barbed wire.
  A US government official, Paul Bremer, was appointed as “civil administrator” in Iraq. Always – even when wearing a suit and tie – Bremer wore the dust-coloured, military combat boots of the US army – the occupier.

No respect for Iraq and its people

There was no respect for Iraq and its people, there was much belittling and lying. Conflict resolution and dialogue in and for Iraq were not wanted.
  Conflict resolution through dialogue? From what I – what we – heard here yesterday, it is not an easy thing. Rather, it is a lifelong task – with no guarantee of a good outcome.

What to do when one side refuses to engage in the dialogue?

What to do when one side does not want it and refuses to engage in the dialogue?
  What if there is no trust?
  What if one side is strong and the other side is weak?
  What if there are lies and deception?
  What if untruths are spread about each other?
  What if there are forces boycotting a dialogue?
  What if intelligence services launch provocations, so-called false-flag operations, which are blamed on one side or the other, as the case may be?
  What if a dialogue is started without the serious will to find a solution?
  What if important forces remain excluded from the dialogue?
  What if there are different understandings of what a dialogue is and what its goal is?

Other cultures know good solutions

Matin Baraki yesterday said about his home country Afghanistan: Afghans have their own way of solving conflicts, one should leave them alone. When a conflict arises, a person of respect and trust is appointed in the village, in whose house negotiations are held to resolve the conflict. This person selects participants from all circles of people and groups affected and involved in the conflict and invites them. Then they “talk, negotiate and drink tea” for weeks until an agreement is reached. In order to find a consensus on political and other matters that affect everyone, the Afghans have the Loya Jirga – which, by the way, also exists in some of the neighbouring Central Asian states.
  Something similar exists in the Arab world, where tribal associations and Bedouins have found a way to avoid conflicts; for example, in Iraq, where Sunni tribes marry their children, their sons, to the daughters of Shiite tribes in order to avoid religious conflicts among themselves. Because when a family is created that unites both religions, people show consideration for each other. And there is also a rule that says: “If an enemy of mine enters my house, he is safe.”

Western states want to tell the others what to do and what not to do

In the Western states, this understanding of conflict resolution does not exist. The Western states assume that they tell the others what to do and what not to do. The West considers itself to be a community of values that recently wants to implement legally non-binding norms, standards and rules of conduct in addition to the legally binding norms of international law with the instrument of the “rule-based order [...]” (Question by Die Linke in the German Bundestag, Berlin, and answer by the Federal Government).
  “These are, for example, the punctual payment of contributions, the multilateral cooperation with the aim of a cooperative world order or informal associations in groups of friends or alliances. The political term also refers to various international forums and their decision-making rules as well as negotiation processes.” (

“Rules-based order” instead of international law?

This establishes a parallel structure to the United Nations. And it is said by the German government: “This is our understanding of foreign policy.” There is the international law, but we have created a rules-based order that precisely dictates our terms to the others. Groups of friends, for example the “Friends of Syria”, which were founded when the UN Security Council did not want to authorise an invasion and air strikes on Syria. Or alliances, the so-called anti-IS alliance, which started bombing in Syria, in eastern Syria, in 2014. Ostensibly to hit IS, but on fact all of Syria’s oil production facilities have been destroyed.
  In other words, the West is telling the world how to live. How to bring up and educate their children. What their women should do. What they should and should not grow, what they should and should not produce. Who they should and should not trade with and on what terms. What accelerates climate change and what should be done about it.

Armies and wars are a “major contributor to climate change”

As an aside: The US Department of Defense, so the Pentagon – more precisely the military fleet, the fighter jets, ships, etc. – is the “largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels”. The US-led “anti-terror wars” are a “major contributor to climate change”, according to a long-term study by the Watson Institute at Brown University (Rhode Island, USA) on the “costs of war” that have been and are being waged by the USA in the “global war on terror” since 11 September 2001 (
  Can someone, a government, with such a self-image of its own superiority even conduct a solution-oriented dialogue?

In Syria the attempts at dialogue have been thwarted

In Syria, we have seen how approaches to conflict resolution through dialogue have been destroyed: When a conference of the Syrian opposition in Damascus in the summer of 2011 was looking for a way out of the increasing militarisation, the West, together with Turkey, supported the founding and arming of the “Free Syrian Army” – abroad, namely in Turkey.
  And when the government and the opposition prepared a “conference for a national dialogue”, the efforts for an inner-Syrian understanding were torpedoed by both sides: Syrian intelligence arrested leading opposition figures. A Syrian opposition sitting abroad accused the opposition in Syria of being “puppets of the regime”.
  When representatives of the internal Syrian opposition wanted to hold talks with the Arab League in Cairo, they were called traitors and agents and pelted with eggs and tomatoes by the foreign opposition on the way there.
  When Kofi Annan, then Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Syria, presented an agreement to resolve the Syrian conflict in June 2012, signed by the foreign ministers of the P5, the five veto powers in the UN Security Council, the ink was not yet dry when the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists that the agreement could only play a role when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was no longer in office.

Do foreign politicians know what the common good is?

Does the bonum commune, the common good, matter in relations between states? I wonder, given what I have observed for 20 years and also what I heard here yesterday, whether the common good is discussed at all among diplomats, politicians and military leaders?
  I don't have the impression. It is true that the attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and also in Syria were claimed to be about “freedom and democracy”, against the terror, about the rights of women and girls, about the protection of minorities, about a free press, an end to torture, against corruption and nepotism. But in fact it was only about their own interests.
  This may sound banal, because it is said again and again in politics: “There are no friendships between states, only interests.” But at the end of the day, it is always about people, about their structures, which they have developed over generations and centuries. So the question of the common good. I deny the states and their leaders and the military the concern for the common good of the people. What they show, what they demonstrate, does not speak for it.

But the peoples know what the common good is

The peoples, on the other hand, have more of an understanding of the “common good” because the underlying ethical principles are at least very similar on essential issues. This understanding must be promoted, which is blocked – again by the West – by unilateral punitive measures such as sanctions, travel restrictions and exclusion from international committees.
  An example, one of many: There are international meetings of parliamentarians that are organised in different countries. There are parliamentary meetings where members of parliaments from all over the world come together and discuss with each other for a week – an international Loja Jirga one could perhaps say, in any case an important event.
  But the Syrian parliamentarians were denied entry, for example, by Canada, which belongs to the US-led circle of Syria’s friends. And other trips by parliamentarians or ministers from Syria were also not possible because these unilateral punitive measures mean that they are not allowed to enter, for example, Europe. Talk and understanding between the peoples is obviously not wanted. And only the peoples must and can ultimately enforce it, I believe that this coming together must be possible after all.

The great importance of direct interpersonal encounters

The best understanding of the common good in relationships is between people directly, but it is not self-evident. It needs to be worked on.
  Alienation is increasing. People are becoming isolated from each other. Globalisation is standardising, and not in the interest of the common good. New, so-called social media are giving rise to different parallel realities, the discourse on “identity” is splitting society into many small interest groups.
  Direct, personal discussions about the meaning of the common good or other questions that are important for a good development of social coexistence are rare. And then for me the big question: What are the media doing in this situation? Are they doing justice to their task? - Those who try are often accused of spreading “fake news”, false reports. And in Germany, one has gone over to shutting down video channels and really inciting against people.
  And where do young people go?

More questions than answers

So there are actually more questions than answers. But certainly, the questions are always important to arrive at an answer.
  For my work as a journalist, I have set myself rules beyond the general journalistic standards, which are often no longer observed, personal rules, because I believe that without this personal determination, one also becomes a pawn. These rules come from peace education and have proved – at least for me – to be a good compass for understanding difficult conflict situations, for not letting conversations break down, for being able to analyse crises and conflicts, for encouraging reflection and understanding, but also for recognising my own limits, but also my own possibilities.

De-escalation instead of escalation

It is about respect. And for that I have a chart that I would like to show you (see box below). It's about the question whether in a conflict you escalate or de-escalate a situation. The idea is: de-escalation enables a conversation, escalation blocks it. And what we have seen politically over the last twenty years – maybe longer – is that there is more and more escalation from certain Western sides.
  It happens that it escalates

  • when you create facts against another side,
  • when you use abusive language,
  • when the personal integrity of the other side is undermined,
  • when there is no separation between a matter in dispute and persons,
  • when a power struggle is slugged out (causing uncertainty about how to proceed),
  • when international organisations, i.e. the UN, are not being involved,
  • when only one-sided interests are taken into account,
  • when existential needs are not recognised,
  • when international law is not respected (I only say: rule–based world order),
  • when camps are formed,
  • when the other side is left with no way out, and
  • when unwritten rules are violated.

All this escalates and leads to the fact that a dialogue, a conflict resolution, cannot be found. That is actually what we have seen in the conflict in the Middle East for over 70 years.
  What de-escalates – and that, I think, should be a gauge, or this at least is the compass by which I orientate myself:

  • to agree on a course of action,
  • using a language where the other person listens (i.e. accepting language),
  • ensure the personal integrity of the other person (this card game against officials in Iraq, where they are put on a list of so to say “most wanted”, violates the personal integrity of that person to the highest degree),
  • condemn a thing, accept the person (so if one disagrees politically with something, with a course of action, one should still accept the person who stands for it – even a government official must be accepted),
  • the guarantee of security must be given,
  • international organisations should be involved,
  • interests are considered equal (not that the interests of the Western world are considered higher and more valuable than those of the rest of the world),
  • existential needs are recognised,
  • international law is respected,
  • there must be an offer of cooperation,
  • a balance is to be sought, not division, separation or exclusion of anyone, and
  • unwritten rules must be respected.

You have to try to understand

To be able to do that, you have to engage with your counterpart. You have to try to understand society, you have to try to understand the history of the person you are in conflict with.
  This is a big task, a long task, and the outcome is not always certain, but it is the only possibility we have, and we have to work at it.  •

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