The Burden of History, Tradition and Reputation

In December 2015, I had the privilege of being in Madrid to attend the inaugural meeting of the Common Action Forum, a new attempt to engineer solutions to political, social and economic challenges globally. Learning from and sharing ideas with world-leading experts on social justice, political reform and economic ideology was a welcome addition to my regular investments in education and social development issues.


Speaking at the Common Action Forum

One of my last conversations in Madrid was with a German PhD researcher of Greek descent and a Turkish political researcher about the ongoing conflict in the Cyprus-Greece axis. I was not very grounded in the origins of the crisis but the conversation revealed that the conflict has spanned more than three decades and does not seem to be shifting towards resolution after all that time. I quickly chimed in that this was one of the common features of conflict resolution processes worldwide, drawing from my study of recent political crises in West Africa, and the protracted conflict resolution process in Syria – negotiators too often find themselves hampered by the burden of history, tradition and reputation, and are thus unable to achieve substantive success in spite of local and global pressure.

Every negotiation process commences with the involved parties defining unique positions which are defined as unshifting, but are really extrapolated and enhanced from hard-core interests. Interests are the genuine concerns of a party in a negotiation, while positions are their expressed concerns. For instance, the US government might declare its position in the Syrian conflict as the unequivocal removal of Bashar Al-Assad from office as a prerequisite for peace, while its genuine interest might be the possibility that the prolonged tenure of a reputed strongman like Assad will hamper improved oil trade in the region (this is purely hypothetical). In essence, no party in a negotiation is quick to reveal its interests, but it trumps up its positions as non-negotiable.

I was very hopeful, like many others, in 2011 that the Syrian conflict will run its course over no more than three months just as most of the other countries caught in the Arab Spring had experienced it, but nearly five years after, the crisis seems to be no closer to resolution than when it first started. What we have witnessed, however, is an overly complicated and prolonged negotiation which has drawn parties as diverse as the US, Russia and Iran to attempt to agree on a definite future for the Syrian people; a task which seems as attainable today as a resolved future for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Inevitably, the negotiators at the table are either deluded in an extended bout of insincerity, or they are merely plagued with the burdens of history, tradition and reputation. No one would be too pleased to return home with the higher number of concessions on their positions, while the other party smiles home with victory, so they stall for time while an entire generation of Syrians is dispersed to the ends of the earth and irrational American politicians blab about keeping the bad eggs away from their shores.

On the 1st of December 2015, more than 150 world leaders gathered in Paris for yet another charade about combating climate change, but none of their fancy speeches contained common sense approaches to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in the developed and developing world, or to drastically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide through automobiles. What we have however, is the stark realization that humanity is on course to put more than a billion vehicles on our already-congested roads by 2030, most of which would still be emitting carbon dioxide. As I read through the International New York Times on December 8th, my attention was caught by the image of the life-size sculpture of the blue whale, Bluebelle, which was on display at the Paris climate change conference, to draw attention to Japan’s continued pursuit of the endangered species purportedly for ‘research’. In spite of global outcry, a $1million fine by an Australian federal court and an existing ruling by the International Court of Justice, the government of Japan continues to plunder our oceans to “defend our tradition and refuse to bow to foreign pressure”. On Earth Day, Friday April 22nd, 2016, 171 countries gathered at the UN headquarters in New York to sign the ‘Paris Agreement’, but what exactly will change?


Signatories at the Paris Agreement in December, 2015

It is extremely shameful that the world is governed by greedy and cowardly people who are unable to pursue the common good because of the burdens of history, tradition and reputation. We are nowhere close to bequeathing a worthy legacy to the next generation, and if there is a planet left for them to inhabit, it is destined to be a severely damaged one. May our children never have to curse us because of our negligence or ineptitude. May common sense prevail.

Faith Abiodun is Director of the International Relations Council at African Leadership Academy, South Africa

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