How Do We Be Safe?

I saw the possibility of a just and peaceful world last week--at a conference on a mountain in Switzerland. The (second annual) Caux Forum on Human Security was no Davos nor G-8 Summit. No media were invited. While the 300 invitees included some global VIPs, the key criterion for being there was not celebrity, but a personal history of creativity and courage in addressing public problems. The guests were people like:

Two entrepreneurs, one Israeli, the other Jordanian, who've launched a joint project to supply new water to the West Bank, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for the common purpose of irrigating their fields.

A French Christian couple and five Muslim friends who organize events and discussions in France to promote understanding and acceptance between the two populations, helping defuse a demographic time bomb as Muslims become a larger and larger percentage of Europe's people.

A brave imam in the UK who confronts Muslim radicals to give angry Muslim teenagers models and programs that provide real alternatives to hate and violence.

A former leader of a guerilla movement in Sudan's worst and longest war who now, as a government minister, helps bring black and Arab Sudanese together across a still dangerous racial divide.

An American political psychologist who debunks the myths and stereotypes that Christians, Jews and Muslims use to demonize one another, and suggests ways the three faiths can come together by acknowledging their common heritage.

A Somali activist and an American philanthropist who work tirelessly in Somalia to build trust among the warlords of that fractured country, and to press for more informed actions from other nations who see Somalia only as the home of pirates and Black Hawk Down.

A guiding theme of the Caux Forums is that "human security" means far more than physically protecting people from the violence of wars and terrorist attacks. It means addressing the root causes of insecurity that are real seeds of violence. These include poverty, injustice, oppression, and the untended angers and fears generated by feuds that may have started decades or even centuries ago. The more recent pressures generated by the global economic meltdown and by the effects of global climate change have only raised the stakes and the sense of urgency.

The Forums are so "no-frills" that all the guests share in its chores. A young activist from Moldova could be chopping vegetables for lunch alongside a former US Senator. The wait staff for dinner might include a government minister from Uganda, the leader of a youth movement in Mexico and a senior professor from California. It was impossible to posture in a setting this informal. Friendships were made, trusts built, new ideas and perspectives honestly exchanged.

There were plenary sessions and workshops during the four days of the Forum, but the extraordinary impact of what takes place here stems from more than intellectual give-and-take. A core strategy at Caux is that effective political change stems from personal change. All parties to a conflict must acknowledge and take responsibility for their own failings and for the shortcomings of their own policies and actions. Most of the breakthroughs I've seen at this and previous visits to Caux have followed heart-felt mutual apologies from people who might not have been speaking to each other the week before.

At this Forum much of the "work" was done in ad hoc gatherings, over tea or on the mountain trails outside the magnificent old hotel that is the Forum's permanent base. The Forum's strict rule against quoting anyone by name leads to an openness and vulnerability that would otherwise be impossible. A large group of Indians and Pakistanis, for example, were huddled in quiet meetings throughout the week, honestly airing their differences and building understanding and trust between two nuclear-armed nations that have already fought three wars. See this report from a Pakistani newspaper.

Does it work? As a former US Foreign Service Officer, I know there will always be psychopaths and zealots eager to kill, motivated by their own madness. I know there are multinational corporations that will not see beyond their own greed unless they're forced to.

But I've now been to Caux three times. I've felt the power generated here to promote honest talk. I've seen the magic of the place in healing the wounds of history, a role it's been playing since 1946 when it hosted the first post-war meetings between groups of Germans and French--meetings that eventually led to the European Union.

By emphasizing the link between personal and political change, and by broadening the definition of human security to include freedom from poverty and injustice, the Caux Forums provide a wise and practical template for solving public problems. And as the impacts of these Forums grow, so does their ability to promote public policies that can in fact provide human security because they better deal with the root causes of conflict.

The wide-angle and human-centered approaches of Caux work to solve problems and resolve conflicts at any level. I've used them with good effect for years as an environmental activist in the Pacific Northwest. Twenty years ago, I wished I'd used them to deal with a teenage son.

Borrow a page from the Caux Forums and get involved in helping solve a problem you care about, at home or abroad. Start by understanding all the factors that create that problem, not just those staring you in the face. Take honest stock of your own attitudes and behavior; if they're making the problem harder to solve--change them. We all have opportunities to be peace-builders.

For more on the 2009 Forum, see this Washington Post article.

For more on Initiatives of Change, the sponsor of these Forums, go here.