Campus & Community

University-wide initiative gives peace a chance

7 min read

Suppose you wanted to start a company. You would probably have little trouble finding advisers, consultants, workshops, and textbooks to guide you each step of the way and warn you of possible pitfalls.

But what if you wanted to start a nation?

National start-ups may be less common than corporate ones, yet they do exist, and usually they involve far greater risk for a much greater number of people than the birth of a new business.

There is at least one organization, however, that can help fledgling nations get started. The Project on Justice in Times of Transition has an eight-year history of helping countries end conflict, establish peace, and build civil society. Its advisory board is replete with the names of leaders whose experience amply qualifies them for the role of advisers, names such as Oscar Arias, Hanan Ashrawi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Adam Michnik, and Shimon Peres.

Since September 1999, the Project has been based at Harvard as a University-wide initiative with the involvement of the Kennedy School (KSG), the Law School (HLS), and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

The Project is the brainchild of Tim Phillips, who, in 1992, was a fellow at the Salzburg Seminar, a privately funded forum for dialogue on issues of international concern. While there, Phillips met a number of dissidents from former Soviet bloc countries whose experiences in making the transition from dictatorship to democracy fascinated him.

“I was curious how people were dealing with the legacy of communist repression,” said Phillips. “How were they handling practical issues like what to do with state security files? How were they treating people who had collaborated with the secret service or committed human rights violations?”

As Phillips talked to these leaders who were negotiating the difficult passage from dictatorship to democracy, it occurred to him that their experience would be a valuable resource for leaders of other countries facing similar situations. He began thinking about creating a forum where leaders of countries around the world that were struggling to trade old systems for new could come together to help and inspire one another.

In 1992 Phillips brought the idea to Wendy Luers, who agreed to help launch the project as part of her organization, the New York-based Foundation for a Civil Society. Luers had extensive contacts among the new democratic leadership of Eastern Europe, formed during the time her husband William Luers was ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Today, Phillips and Wendy Luers continue to serve as members of the Project’s steering committee.

The first conference organized by the Project brought together Eastern European leaders such as Václav Havel from the Czech Republic and Adam Michnik from Poland with leaders from various Latin American countries and from Spain.

In this and subsequent conferences, the Project’s philosophy remained the same. In each case, representatives from different countries are brought together to share experiences and derive knowledge and insights from the challenges they have encountered and overcome.

“The people we bring together are not preaching a particular methodology,” said Phillips. “These are people who have struggled and who are able to say, ‘these are the mistakes we’ve made, and these are the lessons we’ve learned.’”

The Project’s association with Harvard began in 1996 with a conference bringing together representatives from the struggle in Northern Ireland. To the Project’s established practice of promoting learning through the sharing of experiences, the KSG added its own approach of offering executive education through the case study method. The combination turned out to be a good fit.

According to Project steering committee member Peter Zimmerman, associate dean for teaching programs in the Kennedy School, this was the first time leaders from Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists, groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, had agreed to sit in a classroom and work on case studies together.

“The conference was forward-looking,” Zimmerman said. “It wasn’t about the current state of negotiations in Northern Ireland or the legacy of the past. It was oriented toward the future society that would emerge out of the struggle, its economy, its system of justice, its public institutions.”

The KSG hosted another conference on Northern Ireland in 1998, and this time, in the wake of George Mitchell’s peacemaking mission and the Good Friday accords, the event proved even more auspicious, so much so that KSG officials began to entertain the possibility of a permanent partnership.

“They were interested in what the University would be able to contribute in terms of research and teaching, and we saw a wonderful opportunity for documenting the reform of governmental institutions as well as contributing to that process. It seemed like a happy marriage,” Zimmerman said.

Under the new partnership, the Project has continued to bring the message to societies in conflict that their troubles are neither unique nor intractable. At a conference on Northern Ireland in December 1999, for example, a group of leaders from Israel, South Africa, El Salvador, and other societies that have been struggling with conflict were on hand to offer their insights. The encounter included moments of drama.

Project steering committee member James Cooney, the executive director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, recalled a talk by a government official from El Salvador whose 16-year-old son was kidnapped by an opposition group soon after the official took office and was held captive for a year.

“I’ve never seen a crowd so mesmerized,” Cooney said. “I think that what was so stunning to them was that the situation there could actually be as bad or worse than the one they faced.”

The association with Harvard has allowed the Project to carry out more work because of greater faculty involvement and the University’s fundraising ability. The work of the Project has also been expanded through the addition of executive education programs, but the basic approach remains the same.

“We’ve tried hard to avoid telling people what needs to be done,” said Cooney. “We try to encourage discussions that wouldn’t take place otherwise, and we introduce participants to others who have achieved success in particular areas. After that, they can come back to us for education programs, but we leave it up to them.”

Other areas which have been the focus of recent conferences by the Project include Guatemala and Bosnia. The Project is currently exploring the possibility of additional work in Africa, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, Cyprus, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

On June 25 and 26, the Project will hold a conference in Gaza designed to help the Palestinian National Authority strengthen its institutions and resolve issues that the new nation confronts.

The conference will bring together leaders from around the world to share their experiences working to build effective governmental institutions in the wake of civil wars, wholesale changes in governmental and constitutional structures, and other dramatic changes in the political and social order. Afterward, Palestinian leaders will take part in a three-year series of executive education programs to build on the insights gained through the conference.

According to Philip Heymann, the James Barr Ames Professor of Law and faculty chair of the Project’s steering committee, the Gaza conference will typify the contribution that Harvard is uniquely qualified to make. This will include a substantial amount of preparation work before the conference, a more detailed agenda to guide the proceedings, and, afterward, greater documentation and analysis, that will prove useful in future projects.

Harvard will also give the Project an even greater ability to bring together members of antagonistic groups and get them to sit down together and talk in positive terms about the future of their society.

“I think what is most striking is our ability to bring into the same room and into interaction parties that have been very hostile to one another,” said Heymann. But, reflecting on his assertion, he added that perhaps this convening power is not so surprising after all.

“If you were a member of a political faction and a prestigious university invited you to a conference in which a lot of famous leaders from around the world were going to participate, I think you would want to come. If not, you’d feel left out.”

For more information about the Project on Justice in Times of Transition, visit the Project’s website at