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One man’s war on war

Peace Guerilla: unarmed and in harm’s way, my obsession with ending violence by Ben Hoffman. Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation; Ottawa, Ontario, 2009. (206 pages). Reviewed by Donald R. Officer.

The surprising thing is that the idea of a “peace guerilla” seems so surprising. We accept the heroism and risk taking of warriors, raise monuments to them and praise their names for generations. Why is it so strange then that a high stakes mediator like Ben Hoffman borrows the language of combat to describe what he does for peace?

And make no mistake about it, the author of Peace Guerilla, modest though he might be about his contribution, has earned a reputation for taking huge personal risks in the presence of ruthlessly unpredictable psychopaths and tyrants. Hoffman’s peace insurgency strategy requires incredible patience and steady focus. He listens and he talks, but mostly he listens. This book is about his efforts in the early years of this new century to broker a cessation of hostilities among the combatants in the nasty neighbourhood of Northeastern Africa.

Former President Jimmy Carter has taken on a series of extraordinary herculean tasks since he was basically driven from office by the humiliating aftermath of the Iranian revolution thirty years ago. Here is a figure who has accomplished much, but was too far ahead of the voters. He must have learned a great deal from those frustrating times, but it wasn’t fear of failure. The Carter Center has stepped into near impossible conflicts to make peace or make a difference in quality of life for the oppressed around the world. The Center asked Ben Hoffman to help settle a terrible conflict. For many years it fed on the burning of villages, mass murder, religious fanaticism and child soldiers. Addressing it would bring Hoffman into Byzantine relationships with Joseph Kony, notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, with President Al Bashir of Sudan, an indicted war criminal charged with instigating a brutal civil war, the wary Yoweri Musevini, Uganda’s iron fisted President and countless other characters both courageous and sinister.

Why did he do it? Hoffman hates violence. Since his early days working in Canadian prisons, he has seen and loathed what violence can do. Being right or justified is of little comfort in the face of the dreadful aftermath of a violent act. Buying time that holds back the hand of violence saves lives and sometimes, sometimes makes real solutions possible. Any campaign against violence in this violent world is slow painful work with discouraging setbacks, devious diplomacy and the tragic loss of innocent souls along the way. Nevertheless, in Africa, the Carter team eventually facilitated the release and rehabilitation of several thousand child soldiers. Some time after talking started, the most impulsive insurgents were relocated to camps where less damage could be done as high level government communications channels reopened.

As Ben Hoffman first observed on seeing the results of Soviet cultural genocide, some of the worst violence is structural. Many minorities in our times have been systematically kept powerless and denied justice. Ben Hoffman is not the classic neutral mediator mostly because of his uncompromising beliefs on violence in all its guises. Whenever he steps between adversaries, it is as a tenacious advocate for peace, a peace guerilla. He is a special kind of strategic thinker.

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