UMass Boston conference establishes The Forum for Cities in Transition

Representative delegations from four cities — Derry/Londonderry (Northern Ireland), Mitrovica (two municipalities: one Kosovar and one Serbian), Kirkuk (Iraq) (including the chairman of the Kirkuk provincial council and all the leaders of the ethnic blocs in the council), and Nicosia (Cyprus) (two municipalities: one Greek-Cypriot and one Turkish-Cypriot) — led by their respective mayors or chief administrators met at the University of Massachusetts Boston, from April 14 to 16, 2009, and after three days of intensive interaction decided that the creation of a permanent Forum for Cities in Transition from conflict would be in all their interests. This Forum will meet once a year at a meeting hosted on a rotating basis by one of the member cities.

The Forum for Cities in Transition is an initiative of the John Joseph Moakley Chair at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The Secretariat is shared by the Northern Ireland Foundation and the Moakley Chair.


The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

– Albert Einstein

Since WWII, most wars have been intrastate wars – wars within a country where one or more groups have fought others who control the levers of power, either to overthrow them and establish their own hegemony or to force them into some governance arrangement under which, they, the out-groups, would have a share of power or even equal power. The distribution of that power would be reflected not only in the new forms of government agreed on, but in all sectors of society in terms of allocation of resources, redressing imbalances of the past, providing equality under the law and equal opportunity for employment, abolition of past discriminatory practices, recognition of cultural parity, and in some cases where the out-groups professed allegiance to a different national identity, giving parity of recognition to all identities. Invariably, these conflicts involved issues of religion, ethnicity, race, culture, language, and national identity.

Countries in which this occurs are labeled “divided societies.”

Among some of the countries torn apart by cleavages that have resulted in widespread and indiscriminate violence, as different factions sought to advance their claims by forming paramilitary organizations (or the armed forces of a neighboring country proclaiming the right to protect an ethnically related minority) are Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Lebanon, South Africa, the Balkans (when Yugoslavia imploded after the collapse of Communism), and  Iraq (where the Kurds carved out their own enclave, Kurdistan, under American protection after the first Gulf War).

In most of these countries, violence has now ceased or been brought to manageable levels and forms of governance have been adopted that sufficiently address the out-groups’ grievances (thus ensuring their participation in government), paramilitary groups have either disbanded or gone silent, and in some cases (most notably Northern Ireland), a process called “decommissioning of arms,” has culminated in the verifiable destruction of most paramilitary arms caches.

Each of these societies is in a different stage of transition to “normalcy,” although it might be better to think of them as societies in “recovery,” because if they do not continually address the causes of the conflict, if the grievances of war remain unaddressed or are inadequately addressed, if processes to nurture reconciliation are not promoted (especially at community level), if disparities in wealth and income continue to grow among competing groups despite legislation aimed at closing such gaps, if an agreed history of the past cannot be reconciled, if the root causes of what resulted in the conflict cannot be acknowledged by all, then the residual causes of conflict and perceived grievance linger and fester and risk the slow accumulation to a critical mass that sees the outbreak of conflict again. Thus, there is a need to put in place mechanisms that minimize this risk.

The premise that underlies the work described hereunder is simple: people from divided societies are in the best position to help people in other divided societies; that former protagonists, often former purveyors of violence and death who abandoned violence to resolve their differences, are best equipped to share their often tentative and difficult journeys to recognizing the necessity to abandon violence as the instrument to achieve their political aims and open the gateways to recovery, reconstruction, and reconciliation; that peoples from divided societies share behavioral, political, social, and psychological traits not seen in people in more normal societies, traits that predispose them to see things through a prism that is different than the prism through which more mature societies would perceive the same events. 

Among them:

  • Uniqueness: beliefs that “our” conflict is “special,”
  • “We all used to live peacefully together before all of this.”
  • “There has never been a conflict like ours,”
  • “No one but ourselves can ever understand it,”
  • Minority/majority dichotomies: either a majority holds all the instruments of power and is unwilling to share with a “different” minority, a minority that does not share similar religion / nationality / ethnicity / culture / race / language, etc.
  • “Othering” – to deny attributes or characteristics generally shared by human beings in order to suggest that the individual or group is another kind, an “other.” (For example, in Northern Ireland, the pro-British Protestant community regarded most Catholics as lazy, dishonest, and supporters of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), i.e. supporters of terrorism; white South Africans thought of black South Africans in much the same way).
  • More than / less than syndrome; the belief that no matter what change is made or formula is put forward to lessen divisions, inbred psychological predispositions trigger thinking on the part of one group that any change will always benefit the other party to the conflict and leave it worse off.
  • “The narcissism of small differences” – the more objectively alike opposing groups are, the more they magnify their pseudo-differences.
  • Zero sum analytical frames: if you appear to win, even if there is no overt evidence of it, I must be losing.
  • A recurring dynamic: doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome; i.e. believing no matter what happens that “we are going to win;” repeating acts of violence and expecting a different result.
  • Holding tight to perceived grievances /resentments, being unable to let go.
  • Kin is everything i.e., close communal and family ties.
  • Never letting go of the past; “Never! No surrender! Not an inch!”
  • Every side sees events through different perceptual prisms.
  • Every side has different historical starting points, narratives, and interpretations of the same events.
  • Any small incident can escalate into a major eruption; a killing, even an accidental one, can result in widespread violence.
  • Anything can become the spark that suddenly awakens dormant grievances or ignites festering grievances.

This thesis does not suggest that all intrastate conflicts or conflicts in divided societies are the same; it does posit, however, that there are sufficient points of possible identification – a convergence in the behaviors of groups that engage in such conflicts – to merit examination. There is much to be gained by everyone: groups from the countries who hear the narratives of conflict and emergence from conflict, shakily in some, more firmly rooted in others, and the groups from narrating countries.

All gain from such interactions, but especially those groups who are still in conflict, but who have reached a point where they are searching for a way out of what has seemed to them an intractable conflict. The fact that groups now in transition to shared governance would describe their conflicts as once appearing to be intractable to groups still convinced that theirs are intractable creates a bond between the two in ways not quite explicable to societies that never had to undergo similar experiences. While divided societies may indeed be dissimilar, they are quite the same in many respects. 

~ O ~

This thesis was first tested in July 1997 when the John W. McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the South African government of Nelson Mandela jointly convened a conference, called “The Great Indaba.” The conference brought together four key negotiators from each of the ten political parties in Northern Ireland to Arniston, a remote, secure, and private location in South Africa, where they met with key negotiators from all the parties to the conflict in South Africa who had reached its historic settlement in 1994 – the settlement that brought an end to apartheid and ushered in South Africa’s first democratic government under conditions of peace that few in the world had thought possible.

The hope was that by sharing the experiences of their negotiations with their counterparts from Northern Ireland, the Northern Irish would identify with some of the torturous routes the South Africans went through, draw parallels with their own situation, see some of the obstacles they had to overcome in Northern Ireland in a new light, and be able to move their own negotiations forward.

The conference was a resounding success in the sense that the Northern Irish themselves, who reached the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the subsequent St. Andrews Agreement in 2006, paid tribute to the South Africans for having had a crucial impact on the Northern Irish process. They continue to pay that tribute.

The thesis was taken to another level in 2007. Just as close interaction and sharing with South Africa had helped the Northern Irish on their path to a peaceful accommodation, it did not seem unreasonable to believe that the Northern Irish and South Africans might be able to help Iraqis (especially the Shia and Sunni, and in a larger context the Arabs and Kurds) to address their problems (sectarian divisions among the former, ethnic and identity loyalties among the latter) through a similar process of sharing.

A proposition along these lines was put to some key Iraqi participants at a conference: Iraq: the Way Forward, sponsored by the Institute of Global Leadership (IGL) at Tufts University, Boston, in January 2007, and they agreed that The Moakley Chair at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, UMass Boston and the IGL should proceed. The Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), Helsinki, Finland, headed by Martti Ahtisaari, agreed to be a third convening partner in the Iraq Project. The task of CMI was to underwrite the cost of the facilities in Finland for the conferences and provide support staff. Padraig O’Malley, John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation, was Project Director; Robert Bendetson, a trustee of Tufts University and Chairperson of the IGL’s external committee funded the project, and Quintin Oliver, director of Stratagems, Inc., Belfast was Head of the Secretariat.

The first conference took place outside Helsinki in August 2007. It was attended by sixteen senior political leaders from Shia and Sunni parties and four senior negotiators from both Northern Ireland and South Africa who had been crucial to the settlements in their respective countries. This conference reconvened, again near Helsinki, in April 2008, with thirty-six participants from all political parties in Iraq (party leaders and senior officials were mandated by their parties to act on the party’s behalf, thereby deepening and broadening political representation), and the same Northern Ireland and South African negotiators. This conference laid the basis for an agreement, the details of which were ironed out by O’Malley in June 2008 in Iraq, culminating in the Helsinki Agreement, launched at a major political and media event in Baghdad, Iraq, in July 2008.

The Agreement sets out 16 principles that all parties agree to comply with as the framework for negotiations on all issues of dispute and 15 mechanisms that will ensure that the principles are implemented.

The agreement has become part of the proceedings of Iraq’s Constitutional Review Committee. Awarding the 2008 Nobel Prize for Peace to Martii Ahtisaari, the Nobel Committee cited him inter alia, for his work in Iraq.   

~ O ~

The Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT) is premised on a similarly based thesis. Just as divided societies are in the best position to assist other divided societies in a way more “normal” societies or international institutions can’t, so, too, are cities that are or were at the epicenter of the conflicts in their countries in a special position to assist each other, because they, too, harbor the same behavioral characteristics. They are divided along racial, ethnic, nationalist, religious, cultural, or linguistic lines with enclaves of different populations groups “guarded” by their indigenous militias or serving as the breeding ground for militias that launch attacks on members of other enclaves. They often are the micro-representation of their society’s fault lines, the loci of forms of “ethnic cleansing,” that is, violence that ensures that within an enclave, the minority belonging to the “other” who do not share the majority’s political dispositions, are either methodically targeted for murder or driven by fear to flee from their homes. 

Cities are compact, and in the period before some spark became the transformative agent of violence, places where it was not unusual for members of both out-groups and ingroups to live as minorities in each other’s enclaves. Nevertheless, the onset of conflict invariably becomes an instrument of “othering.” The next door neighbor is no longer a neighbor with whom you had shared many ordinary day-to-day living experiences, but an “enemy,” someone to be expelled as a threat to security or one who is suddenly “different.”

Concepts of humanness are malleable; they transmute with perceived threat. Retaliation killings become routine; kidnapping and disappearances random, torture often precedes murder, mutilation often follows; the compulsion to dehumanize the “other” becomes pervasive; cemeteries are transformed into recruitment centers for mobilizing against the other.

Cities become citadels of danger. The state’s security forces are predominantly based in cities. Governments are invariably on the side of the ingroups, their armory is directed at the enclaves of the out-groups, ostensibly at their militias, but indiscriminately enough to ensure that civilians are those mainly affected. Militias target each other’s populations but rarely each other. Cities witness carnage and mayhem in disproportionate measure. Members of one group never enter the territory of the other, as the layers of perceived responsibility are unfolded with each group accusing the other. Members of all groups become increasingly sensitive to each others’ idiosyncrasies, subtle variations in gesture, pitch of voice, or laughter – variations entirely imperceptible to an outsider – that appear to distinguish them but become instead tools in their survival kits. The “mixed” areas that remain after population movements (either to the safer haven of their own communities, displacement, or abandonment) and areas where enclaves of different groups abut each other, become the interstices that continue to remind all groups that sometimes raw emotions, often expressed in hideous ways, obfuscate the causes of the conflict itself.

Check points become normal; intricate patterns of movement and transportation are deployed in whatever remains of central business areas; stores check handbags and briefcases; body checks are normal and parking is prohibited. Arbitrary detention without trial becomes standard judicial practice; security forces close off streets as they go door-to-door searching houses for weapons, aggravating grievances into rage and rage into closer relationships with and support of paramilitaries. Demonstrations within boundaries of secure enclaves evolve into outlets for the expression of fear, paranoia, and regurgitation of alleged atrocities against members of their group in other enclaves; memory becomes the repository for as much that is false as is true; people pray for peace but rarely condemn the violence of their own. 

This sweeping panorama of cities that are the centrifuges of the larger conflict that engulfs them is painted on a broad canvas with careful strokes, artfully depicting the neighborhoods and streets where maximum destruction can be accomplished, targets are easiest to find, clandestine connections made, and youth recruited to paramilitary structures; where informants are most productive and infiltration easiest; where poverty is most acute and class differences most glaring, pitting the working class of the ingroup against that of the out-group, the former asserting its marginal advantage through its affinity with the ingroup and willing to fight and kill and be killed to preserve this perceived superiority.     

And, of course, cities are most often the places in which the media (local, national, and international) can converge; they usually have some or all of the infrastructure the media needs: hotels, Internet, fax machines, land lines and cell phones, drivers for hire – all the paraphernalia that television requires to record the footage that maintains viewers’ interest in the conflict. Interest, however, is predicated on footage of gruesome violence: refugees fleeing their homes, abandoning their possessions, frightened children and raped women.

The electronic media, by the act of recording conflict, alter the form of the events they cover and thus the content of what they transmit. Ingroups, out-groups and their affiliated military arms become extremely adept at using the media to advance their agendas. It is for this reason, for example, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) prevented the global media from access to Gaza in January 2008, since the imagery of its assault would undoubtedly have redounded to its disadvantage.

The cities attending the conference on a Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT) experienced different measures of the appalling consequences of their respective conflicts. But all – Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, Nicosia, Kirkuk, and Mitrovica – experienced a great human toll, burnt or bombed out neighborhoods, abandoned housing, destruction of infrastructure, demographic reconfigurations, proliferation of militias, laboratory-like experiments by the security forces to control the flow of people and vehicles through particular areas, policing that is abhorrent to out-groups, and gross violation of human rights.

But even at the depth of their conflicts, they managed to provide a modicum of basic services; although in some, adequate services had never been available to members of the out-groups. But the sense of territorial entrapment can also generate a concomitant sense of communal pride – unwillingness on the part of groups to let things fall apart in their own communities and a pride that sustains loss. Thus, perceptions of poverty, access to amenities such as electricity, drinking water, and water itself, schooling, housing, health, transportation, and most important, perceptions of policing – unwelcome intrusions to one group, welcome presence to the other – are seen through different prisms that refract the distortions of how people cope with war rather than reflecting the metrics of relative deprivation.

Our concern is with the city of the “other,” especially with the “othering” that is pervasive in the societies of which these cities are part – the cities that are at the epicenter of divided societies, the cities that define and epitomize the nature of the societal divisions and cleavages that are the pervasive and permanent characteristics of some nation-states or regions. These are the cities of the “old” terrorisms.  

The cities invited to the Boston conference, – Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, Mitrovica, Kirkuk, and Nicosia – share a set of internal and external characteristics. The internal characteristics relate to the routes they took to arrive at internal power-sharing or consensual governance protocols; the external characteristics relate to members of some groups professing different loyalties, oppositional senses of belonging and affirmations of antithetical identities. Some cities are situated in a country within the territorial boundaries of the state specific to one group, and some straddle the boundaries of nation-states where the boundaries themselves are the issue. 

Thus in Derry/Londonderry – referred to by many residents as simply Stroke City, perhaps up to 70 percent of the population, who regard themselves as being Irish aspire to becoming part of a united Ireland, and the 30 percent who regard themselves as being British want to remain part of the United Kingdom. In Belfast a similar division pertains, although the percentages are probably 50/50.

In Mitrovica, the declaration of independence by Kosovo in February 2008 that was recognized by the United States and the European Union but not by the United Nations, was not recognized by Serbia or the UN and was vehemently rejected by Serbs on the northern side of the Ibar River. Here Serbs maintain allegiance to the Serbian government in Belgrade. Serbia does accept the partition of Serbia that created the state of Kosovo. Kosovo Albanians on the southern bank of the river recognize the Kosovar government in Pristina and the Kosovo government regards the northern municipality of Mitrovica as illegitimate: Mitrovica on the north side of the river Ibar is claimed as part of the Kosovo state.

In Kirkuk, Kurds want Kirkuk to be become part of Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq, while Turkmen, Arabs, and Assyrians strenuously object to such an arrangement. They want to remain under the control of the central government in Baghdad, to remain in “Arab” Iraq. A referendum that supposedly would have resolved the issue should have taken place by 31 December 2007 but was postponed until it can be determined who is a legitimate resident of Kirkuk. Since Saddam’s ousting, some 400,000 Kurds have made their way to Kirkuk. Many have legitimate claims on properties. Some don’t. Determining which Kurds are legitimate residents of Kirkuk is a matter on which Arabs and Turkmen will give little ground to the Kurds.

In Nicosia, the two-thirds of the population who are Greek Cypriots generally want the unification of the Island into a federal state emphasizing the unity and continuity of the state. The Republic of Cyprus is a member of the EU, its boundaries encompass the whole of the island of Cyprus. The one-third of the population that are Turkish Cypriots generally prefer a loose federal system within a new state and a closer relationship to Turkey. The self-acclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is only recognized by Turkey and otherwise has no international legal standing. Nicosia is divided: Greek Cypriots on one side of the UN buffer zone, Turkish Cypriots on the other. To enter the Turkish Cypriot Municipality of Nicosia, one has to go through the buffer zone and police controls at the Turkish boundary.

In three cities — Kirkuk, Nicosia, and Mitrovica — there are property rights issues: in each, population movements took place as groups sought the refuge of their own, and moved to secure enclaves, leaving behind their homes and possessions. These movements flowed in both directions.

Turkish Cypriots — and Turks who have emigrated from Turkey — now live in properties to which the Greek Cypriot owners still have legal claim. And, on the Greek Cypriot side, a similar situation exits, although on a much smaller scale — Greek Cypriot refugees live in properties to which Turkish Cypriots have legal claim. 

In negotiations, Greek Cypriots emphasize the right of return for refugees and argue that previous owners should be given priority while Turkish Cypriots emphasize new realties and the rights of current property holders. 

In Mitrovica, Serbs live in properties to which Kosovars have legal title, and Kosovars live in properties to which Serbs have legal claim; and in Kirkuk, as part of his policy to bring the Kurds under his dominion, Saddam Hussein removed tens of thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk, dispersed them throughout the rest of Iraq, and moved Sunni Arabs into their homes. The Iraqi government is now trying to placate returning Kurds who want to live in their old homes. Arabs in possession of these properties refuse to simply hand them over. 

Derry/ Londonderry has undergone a different kind of migration. Almost all the Protestants (in favor of continuing the union with Britain) who once lived in Cityside (which has a predominance of Catholic residents) have left, reducing their presence to the mere hundreds. 

In three cities, rivers are natural dividers. In Mitrovica, Serbs on the northern side of the Ibar, Kosovars on the southern side; in Derry/Londonderry, Catholics on the western side of the Foyle, Protestants in the Waterside on the eastern side; in Belfast Catholics on the western side of the Lagan, Protestants on the eastern side.    

~ O ~

This conference brought together 34 individuals from these five cities. Three delegations headed by their mayors — in some cases by two mayors claiming a like status in adjacent areas of the same city — elected officials from their respective city councils, members of select NGOs, and some government officials. In the case of Kirkuk, the delegation was headed by the chairman of the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) and includes members of all ethnic blocks who serve on or are represented on the council. For three days they engaged in a series of conversations, which they themselves designed, that exposed each to the other through the sharing of their respective narratives of conflict and post-conflict transition and of how the residual problems that transitions invariably leave in their wake, still contain the seeds of future conflict unless they are purged of their poisons.

After three days they were asked whether their interactions over this period have been of sufficient depth to convince them that they have much to learn from each other, that establishing a permanent forum, a Forum for Cities in Transition, can become a catalyst for change for each.

Such a forum entails each city that chooses to become a member will, in turn, host the other city members, for a period agreed upon among themselves, to share the experiences of “on the ground” engagements that will expose participants to ways of dealing with similar, although different problems in their own cities, thus creating an expanding pool of knowledge and support from which all can draw.

The John Joseph Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Northern Ireland Foundation, Belfast, Northern Ireland, will act as the Secretariat for the Forum, undertaking the administrative tasks to get it off the ground and assisting each host city to organize its conference.

Padraig O’Malley, April 2009