Peace initiatives up in smoke

Little reason for optimism in violence-torn Colombia, Sudan, Mideast

Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2002

WASHINGTON-- Most armed conflicts, whether internal or international, have what diplomats commonly call a ''peace process.'' Some are more successful than others.

Last Thursday was a particularly bad day as peace initiatives in Sudan and Colombia both went belly up within hours of each other.

The grim prospect in both countries is more war. The two conflicts already have ravaged the countries for more than 50 years.

On the same day, there was less drama in the Middle East, but it was hard to find an optimistic soul after a rare televised speech by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He offered no hint that 17 months of violence with Palestinians will end. The peace process, despite U.S. efforts, seems to be retrogressing.

There are occasions when negotiations produce durable agreements: Next month, President Bush will travel to El Salvador to help celebrate a negotiation that has led to a decade of peace after an extraordinarily bloody decade of war.

No matter how gifted peacemakers may be, their efforts usually are doomed if circumstances are not ripe. ''The stars have to be in the right alignment,'' said John Hulsman, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Says Chester Crocker of Georgetown University and the U.S. Institute of Peace, ''Both sides have to perceive things could only get worse if the fighting continues and that there is an acceptable alternative.''

Sometimes successful negotiations start to unravel, a process that may be taking place in Macedonia. There, a peace accord was signed six months ago between the government and ethnic Albanian insurgents, but the Albanians are saying the agreements are not being implemented.

Negotiators who have tried to resolve conflicts between Arabs and Israelis, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis and rival Congolese groups know how elusive settlements can be.

The now-suspended Colombian peace process was largely driven by President Andres Pastrana, but U.N. mediators tried to keep the initiative going.

Pastrana gave up his 3 1/2-year effort on Thursday after FARC rebels hijacked an airplane and kidnaped a senator. He ordered an immediate escalation of the war against the insurgents.

Defending Pastrana, Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week: ''He's been rebuffed.'' Said Crocker: ''He spent three years turning the other cheek.''

In Sudan, an Army helicopter attack on civilians in rebel territory prompted the State Department to suspend efforts to end the country's civil war.

U.S. officials said the attack seemed to be a case of the Sudanese military ignoring a government commitment to American negotiators to halt bombings of civilians, 17 of whom were killed in Thursday's attack. The United States is demanding an explanation.

The next day, fresh reminders of another failed peace process came when Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was ambushed and killed by government forces in that country of southwest Africa.

Once revered during the Reagan administration as an anti-communist ''freedom fighter,'' Savimbi proved in the end to be less than that.

The turning point came in 1992 when Savimbi, bowing to international pressure, agreed to allow a democratic process decide Angola's political fate.

When he saw that he was losing a presidential election, he decided to take up arms again rather than accept defeat. A huge expenditure of time and resources, mostly by the United Nations, was squandered. The postcolonial phase of the Angolan conflict has gone on for 26 years.

A peace agreement that stuck was the one in El Salvador 10 years ago. The turning point occurred, Hulsman said, when the leftist FMLN rebels realized that the withering of European communism left them increasingly isolated.

They also recognized that victory over the Salvadoran military, generously supported by the United States, was impossible.

''They realized that they could get a large part of what they wanted through the political process,'' Hulsman said.

George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.

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