Training insider reconcilers in pursuit of sustainable peace

ID: Three men talking, one in blue shirt with hand over heart, another in white shirt and black vest with white turban, another in white shirt with hand raised.

Antti Pentikainen (right) with Sheikh Faraj Al-Obeidi (center), a prominent tribal chief in Libya who heads the National Movement, which is focused on grassroots reconciliation. (Photo provided by Pentikainen.)

By Audrey Williams

When Antti Pentikainen was early in his career as a peacemaking practitioner, his work assisting Nobel Peace Laureate and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari took him to conflict zones and immersed him in mediation processes.

However, as he did this work, he began to notice that something wasn’t quite right.

“Although Ahtisaari was cautious of time, I saw that these processes in general drag on,” he told S-CAR News.

He noticed that these processes seemed unable to account for “the urgency of the pain people have,” and he realized that although people affected by conflict seem to know best what the problems are and how to fix them, they rarely have access to the mediation process.

Gradually, this realization led Pentikainen to set up the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers at the UN’s request.

This effort has reinforced to him that not only should communities affected by conflict be included in mediation processes, they should also be supported in healing and dealing with the issues that have separated them from each other.

According to Pentikainen, the current lack of healing in conflict-affected communities contributes to the fragility of peace agreements and leads to the continuation of violence. 

In short, getting to peace is one hurdle, but sustaining it is quite another.

Just as the search for how to support sustainable peace processes led Pentikainen to convene the Network, it has now brought him to the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, where he will serve as the founding executive director of the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation

The center was established through a generous gift from Jim Hoch and his family to honor the legacy of his late wife, Mary Hoch.

The center’s description, which was provided to S-CAR ­­News­ by Pentikainen, says that the center, through the legacy of Mary Hoch, aims to honor and support “ordinary people with extraordinary heart” in “changing how history evolves” by “breaking the barriers that separate people…to overcome differences and heal wounds of the past.”

ID: Two men in suits talking

Antti Pentikainen (left) and Jim Hoch (right). (Photo provided by Pentikainen.)

“Through her we can honor global efforts aiming to enable healers and reconcilers of the world to be better understood and supported,” Jim Hoch said.

Pentikainen notes that often the healers and reconcilers doing the work to sustain peace are women.

“I am thankful to serve a center that is named after Mary, and to support these often under-appreciated heroes,” Pentikainen told S-CAR News

Pentikainen believes S-CAR to be the “perfect home” for the Hoch Center given the school’s commitment to connecting research with practice, which he hasn’t seen at other universities.

“The practice has to be based on evidence—it has to be based on training new generations—so that's why I am filled with gratitude that George Mason and S-CAR have decided to move forward with this,” he said. 

During his first two years at the center, Pentikainen will also serve as a part-time fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), which has partnered with the center “to do research on the impact of reconciliation processes and how to improve that impact,” according to Pentikainen. He intends to take recommendations produced by this research and “flesh them out with insider reconcilers” to better understand “how to make them applicable for different cases.”

To this end, Pentikainen will also serve as a research professor at S-CAR, where he is particularly eager to identify and work with students who have a passion for broadening the existing research and practice around the role of insider reconcilers.

His goal is to “embed students into existing reconciliation processes” and to help them develop the connections and skills necessary to give them a “fast track” to a career in facilitating reconciliation, whether abroad or in the U.S.

He said that when students are involved in reconciliation processes, whether as interns, researchers, or employees, “that’s when we are in the right place.”

“Everyone can be a reconciler,” he said. “We should inspire the reconciler in everyone. We have to equip a generation of reconcilers [in] this world.”

Susan Allen, an associate professor at S-CAR, director of the school’s Center for Peacemaking Practice, and Chairperson of the Hoch Center’s Advisory Board, said that the center will give the school “more possibilities to engage constructively in support of long-term sustainable peace.”

The center will focus specifically on training and supporting insider reconcilers, an effort that stems from Pentikainen’s assertion that sustainable peace relies on reconciliation processes that are driven and supported not just by state authorities but also by grassroots communities within the conflict.

“This is not about us Westerners or the mediators. It's about the people within the conflicts,” he said.

Specifically, it’s about how those people draw on their local traditions to promote healing in communities damaged by conflict. 

It was Marc Gopin, the James H. Laue Professor of Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at S-CAR, who helped Pentikainen understand the essential role that local traditions and grassroots reconciliation processes play in sustaining peace. 

Gopin told S-CAR News that he first began to develop his relationship with Pentikainen through the latter’s convening of the Network at the UN.

“As I watched Antti perform the critical mental acrobatics to gather influential thinkers and activists from such a diverse background, and to help them build something substantial with the UN, I became deeply committed to him as a young scholar and pioneer,” Gopin said.

Through his work with Gopin, Pentikainen said that he came to understand that “[t]here is this unique healing power in the human mind that's been elaborated by [local and faith] traditions, and that’s basically ignored and not appreciated at all by those who are in the state [reconciliation] process.”

This realization prompted him to look into the contributions that different traditions can make to reconciliation processes, and he became “inspired.”

“My conclusion is that all good practices are known—everything that we need to know exists—but there’s a disconnect between [the grassroots process and the political process],” he said.

Pentikainen explained that reconciliation processes—usually in the form of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs)—tend to be state-led, and they can ignore the essential role that insider reconcilers can play in “resolving issues that separate communities and in enabling individual and collective healing.”

A more sustainable approach, he said, would be a simultaneous multi-track approach to designing reconciliation processes, with one track being a TRC, another track involving insider reconcilers, and another track focusing on providing psychosocial support to address the traumas that both individuals and communities have experienced during conflict.

Pentikainen has been developing his commitment to this line of work throughout his career, which has included serving as an advisor for the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide.

“We are excited about the ideas and the deep, practical experience Antti brings [to S-CAR],” said the school’s dean, Kevin Avruch. “S-CAR recognizes reconciliation as one of the crucial areas where further research and conceptual development are urgently needed.” 

Gopin told S-CAR News that he and Pentikainen “look forward to pioneering work together on reconciliation theory and practice, for that is what he and I see as one of the number one tasks of humanity as we face global challenges in the future.”

For Pentikainen, being a reconciler means struggling with one’s own pain and striving toward personal growth in order to become open to the pain of others as well.

His years of experience as a mediator have also shown him that “we should never get involved lightheartedly." 

“There is so much pain that if you want to become a vehicle for communities to move forward with that pain, it will affect you—it will eventually hurt you too,” he said. “But there is also this enormous [capacity] of the human mind to heal, and that's the real gift of those who are working [in reconciliation].”

According to Pentikainen, in helping conflict-affected communities and individuals to heal their own pain, insider reconcilers—and those who support them—can heal themselves too.