Some people may want to kill me because I’m disrupting their plans – conflict negotiator

When we hear about a peace accord ending this or that conflict, we see officials under the spotlight signing deals and shaking hands – but what kind of gritty work goes on behind the scenes to bring that moment about? We talked to Jean-Yves Ollivier, chair of the Brazzaville Foundation and expert in parallel diplomacy whose work in the shadows has helped end wars and save lives.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Jean-Yves Ollivier, thank you very much for being with us today!

Jean-Yves Ollivier: Thank you for having me with you today!

SS:You’ve such an interesting profession, I want to know all about it. So you are a noted negotiator, lots of success stories in Africa. I know that you are now trying to get sides in Libya to sit down and talk. I mean, in a way you're more successful than the United Nations, at least you are getting these guys to sit down and talk.

JO: I cannot say that I'm more successful than the United Nations, I think we need the United Nations, but somewhere somehow I am needed also, it's a combination of two forces which work in parallel.

SS:So you are talking now about putting down the barriers of mistrust in Libya, but those barriers were actually put up way before you and for the reasons that are beyond you. What makes you think that an outsider can bring them down?

JO: First of all, the knowledge of the country. I know Libya since my first visit to Libya was in 1969. Respect for the tradition and the way the country lives also matters. We can't limit ourselves with issues of institutions and forces fighting over Libya, why can't we give Libyans possibility to express themselves, to hear their voice, let them express what they would like to do with their own country? This is my aim – not to make peace but to establish the fundamentals, the base for real peace. This is what I’m trying to do.

SS:What kind of effort you have to make to bring these people together in the same room?

JO: Trust.

SS:It’s a big word.

JO: Yes, it’s a big word, but it’s essential. What I have done for Libya is the following. In the general political scope I tried to identify two extreme forces, I found Bashir Saleh, who was a close aide to Gaddafi, and Abdul Hakim Belhaj, who fought the Gaddafi regime since the age of 17. Those are two extremes, those would never talk together, one accusing the other of the worst things. So I put them together.

SS:How?

JO: How? By convincing them that the meeting wouldn't be about the past but to see what they have in common, what they want for Libya in common. What's their point of convergence as far as Libya is concerned, and ignoring their points of divergence, what they don't agree on. And it happened. Of course, they were extremely criticised by their own people, their followers. “How can you meet with this man?! How can you sit with Belhaj?!” “How can you sit with Beshir Saleh?!” But since that meeting they agreed on a very simple principle about the future of Libya: they agreed that it should be one country, that there should be a civilian government, that there should be an army that will respond to the civilian government, that there should be an independent judiciary.

SS:But that is something that international diplomats have been trying to do forever! You’re just saying that you convinced both sides that they shouldn’t talk about the past, just talk about the future and common goals on Libya. This is a very simple and straightforward formula that other diplomats use as well. I still don’t understand how it works out when you come in and it doesn't with other diplomats. You must have a key that others don't. What is that thing?

JO: Probably, I have a key, I have my past.

SS:Do you give them some kind of guarantees?

JO: Of course not, there's no guarantee. We couldn’t have even shaked their hands at the beginning, they could have left after 5 minutes. The problem is that when you're not an institution or a government, your voice is your voice, it belongs to you, and if there's trust in your voice people accept to do the things they wouldn’t accept with an institution. This is the difference between parallel diplomacy and official diplomacy. The official diplomacy has only one line, everybody talks the same way, nobody can have their individual opinion, they have to express the official line. Me, I'm not bound to that. I can do what I want and when I want, and people trust me. Just one example: in South Africa I started the dialogue between white and black people about an exchange of prisoners. 360 people, five countries were involved. The exchange took place in Maputo, Mozambique, it happened very smoothly, everything went right – no documents were signed! There was no paper to be signed! Everybody arrived with their prisoners, with planes to bring back the prisoners, everybody believed they should arrive in that time and depart at that time – no papers! And that was involving major countries– France, Poland, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique.

SS:I wonder if it always goes down so smooth? I had an American friend, who was working at the fall of apartheid in South Africa, just like you. He worked in the conflict resolution as well. He was telling me: “Every time I go for a new job, I have this feeling that I know what to do. I know how to fix it, I know it better.” And after 3 years of being there he was like: “You just fall into that state when you don't understand and you don’t know anything and you probably will never understand anything.” Do you ever get that feeling when you go to a new conflict, to a new country, when you feel like: “I know it, I'm going to do this”? And then you're on the ground trying to do your job and in the end of the day you’re like: “I just don't understand anything and probably never will...”

JO: We're talking about success, thanks God, I had some success. But I also had failures. I had big failures, I tried to fix other conflicts where I didn’t succeed. Of course, I promote my success, but why? To give a chance to peace. Giving a chance doesn't mean that you guarantee peace, but at least you give a chance to achieve peace. This is the only thing I'm trying to do, with no guarantees that I will succeed. So I'm much more courageous and ambitious in this situation than if I think whether I’m going to succeed or not. That's not my issue, I don't think what are the chances, what is the statistics, what is the possibility for me to succeed, I'm not interested. I just think if I have enough elements in my hands to try to bring peace, do I have these elements here? Am I going to put them aside and not do what I want? Of course not, I go for it.

SS:Is there a slight danger at any point in your line of work where you feel a sense of superiority? “Here I am, white man, from the land of prosperity and peace, I come to you, squabblers, I will solve your pain because I know better” – do you ever get that feeling? It's dangerous, because there's a fine line when you have so much power and trust in your hands and you can make the processes move – you can get that sense.

JO: Can you?

SS:Yeah!

JO: Sure? I don't. If I don't believe that I'm sure of what I'm doing, if I’m always hesitant, if I doubt what I'm doing, the sense of superiority can never occur. If I doubt I don’t have the sense of superiority, and people know that. You know we are dealing with humans and sometimes we have to put aside papers, documents, reports and logical explanations to get the human side in the peace process because everybody wants peace. Even the most warlike characters - somewhere somehow they hope for peace, they want peace!

SS:There's something even worse than the sense of superiority that a lot of big powers get, when they are going in conflicts – that's ignorance. Right now we can see a lot of politicians: they don't have the understanding of the region, when they actually act in that region. They don't know the complexity, the fragility of the places that they affect. For instance, I remember president Obama saying that the lack of planning in Libya was one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency. Just recently Norway admitted having no idea what they were doing when they sent their planes to bomb Libya. And we see that happening a lot. Where does this amateur approach come from? Should the elected leaders be signed for some mandatory geography or political lessons about the world? This happens all the time!

JO: When you start to do something, - and it's valid for both governments and individuals – think twice before you eliminate the bad and replace it with the worse. And this is the misfortune that happens more and more often on planet Earth.

SS:My question is - why?

JO: You want to remove the bad, but you replace it with something even worse. How can you avoid that? You avoid this by reconciliations. When you solve a conflict by creating another conflict, you make solutions by creating other difficulties – you fail. But when you deal with reconciliation, when the reconciliation is sincere, when the parties really want to build the future together, you avoid this path from bad to worth.

SS:I remember you expressing your opinion in the early times of the Syrian conflict, you wrote about “wars of Good vs Evil”. That was you, right? You said that was led by the US and they can no longer force everyone because the balance of power is shifting. Why do the United States over and over again go for the same strategy of fighting black-and-white, good-versus-evil wars, while it has brought so much misery to the world and to themselves in the first place?

JO: That's not me who should answer this question.

SS:I see you're a true diplomat.

JO: That's not a question for me. Why should I express an opinion about America?

SS:But you have already. You wrote about good-versus-evil wars.

JO: I just have to say that we should be very careful about taking something bad not to replace it with something worse. History has proven that some actions were about replacing something bad with something even worse, and we should leave those mistakes in the twentieth century. Like you said about President Obama, there was no real planning about what we should do after. And as for me, I take this “after” as a very fundamental thing. “After” has to be reconciliation, if there is reconciliation there can be exchange of opinions, there can be democracy at large. I’m not talking about eastern or western democracy, or some specific democracy, I'm talking about the ability of the people to decide their own future. That can only be done if reconciliation occurs.

SS:You mentioned earlier in the interview that parallel diplomacy and official diplomacy, they go in parallel, not crossing paths. So you're not part of the system, not part of the establishment, when you do your job as a diplomat. A lot of your success stories from African period were tied to Mitterrand, to Chirac, so you're a kind of part of the system? Or you're completely out of it?

JO: At a certain moment it is time for the system to take over, that's for sure. I'm here not to make peace, I'm here to facilitate peace. Who's going to make peace – that's the institution, because you need treaties and agreements and I'm not capable to provide that. So at a certain moment, if the parties accept agreement, it is time for an institution to bring everything to the final point. Brazzaville accord which led to the independence of Namibia, when for the first time the Cubans and the Americans were sitting at the same table with the South Africans and the Angolans, once I had the protocol signed – that was taken by the UN and there was a big show in the UN about this agreement. I wasn't even invited! Nobody invited me, although they all knew that I initiated these things. So at the certain time the officials must take over and I don't pretend to replace the official part. I am here to help, to assist, not to replace.

SS:Do the official diplomats listen to your advice, or do they try to shut you down, because it is a competition?

JO: Here we go back to the human nature. I have extraordinary friends who are diplomats and they understand and approve what I do. Does the system they belong to have the same view on my role? Probably not. But again, it's not black and white, I have very good friends among diplomats and I have no problems with them, because they realise that I bring something extra to their official diplomacy, but, of course, they belong to the institutions that may not like me and my successes.

SS:Have your political convictions or moral convictions ever got in the way of doing the job in parallel diplomacy? For instance, this guy I cannot talk to, or whatever you feel personally is irrelevant when you make peace and make people reconcile?

JO: There's not a single person on this planet I can refuse to talk with. Even if it is a criminal, if he is willing to talk about peace – I will talk to him.

SS:In the beginning of this interview you said you bring fighting sides to one table because there is trust, if they come together, it’s better for the common cause. Does this always work? How do you make people unwilling to reconcile change their minds? Or does this only work when they really want to negotiate deep inside?

JO: This is about tactics. When I organised the first conference on Libya in Dakar (it’s called Dakar One, ‘cause hopefully we’re going to have Dakar Two), I invited all the people there, I did know all the people there. But I also went to Beshir Saleh and Abdul Hakim Belhaj and asked them to convince their friends to come to the conference. So it was them convincing their friends to come to the conference. So I was not exposed as a person, the trust was jumping from one person to another. If that would be me who was travelling around, meeting those people and convincing them to come – maybe I would not have succeeded because they didn’t know me - “who is this white man in the Libyan conflict?” But if I use somebody they know that's a different approach. When I got interested in Africa I was very young, I was 28, I was invited for dinner by a fantastic man, the president of Cote d'Ivoir Houphouët-Boigny. He was listening to me, I was enthusiastic, I told him what I wanted to do in Africa, and in the end of the dinner he said: “You are interested in Africa, I can give you only one advice: never enter an African village if you're not accompanied by someone known by the people in the village”. And I have applied this all my life. The guarantees at the beginning are never given by myself, they are always given by somebody who has the trust of the person I’m meeting, and it works.

SS:I realise that there are no guarantees of any kind when you bring together people who have been killing each other for a long time. It's always a big deal when they sit down, but what is the success rate usually?

JO:  There's no statistics, sorry.

SS:But what about your personal experience?

JO: I don't count, but let me tell you something. Dialogue is the most essential thing, because if they have accepted to meet, they accept dialogue. When they prepare for the meeting they evaluate the risk of the meeting to fail. But I never experienced the situation, when I brought the parties together and one of them left. They may not enter the room, and it did happen in Dakar One, when the delegates accepted the meeting, took the plane to Dakar, but when they were going to be in the room they said: “No, we cannot be there.” And they left.

SS:Do you know gestures and words that are already a signal to you: “O-oh, there’s going to be a deal here”? Do you feel that in advance?

JO: Yes, that's when you need courage, that’s when you intervene. Your neutrality remains as long as the conflict doesn't start, but when it starts, you have the right to intervene and calm them down and remind them about their goals. And you can feel it, in negotiations you usually feel the time when you should intervene.

SS:Would you work on a complicated conflict like Syria and, if not, what would you advice people to do there?

JO: I would never work on a conflict like Syria, because that conflict has gone far beyond the people of Syria. I still believe that in Libya the conflict hasn't reached that level yet, beyond the people of Libya. People of Syria today doesn't count. I mean, what will be my role? Negotiations between the Syrian government and the US government – this is not my role, I don't have the keys, in those cases I give up. I’m not following these things.

SS:Good luck in the cases that you are involved in, and I'm sure they are going to be successful. Thank you very much for this interview, it was a pleasure!

JO: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure for me too!