15 Jul 2010
Meddling From Afar: Diasporas’ Role in Conflict Resolution
Diasporas provide the uprooted masses a home away from home and a sense of belonging. Along with preserving their heritage, culture, and identity, diasporas also play an important role in enriching their adoptive homes by contributing to the cultural, religious, linguistic, and ethnic diversity. Furthermore, many diasporic groups become politically active in an effort to influence policymaking not only in their adoptive homes, but to also bring about change in their countries of origin by contributing to democratization and promotion of human rights.
However, when it comes to conflict resolution, diasporic groups, wittingly or unwittingly, seem to do more harm than good. The United States – as a major player in international affairs and home to a political system that is highly conducive to lobbying activities – provides a good case for examining diasporas’ role in conflict resolution (or perpetuation) in their native homes. Such lobbying activities and power contests are apparent among the Armenian and Azerbaijani diasporas in the US. Large segments of both diasporas have adopted quite an intransigent stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, thus partly contributing to the setbacks in the peace process.
Armenian-Americans constitute a larger and more established diasporic group in the US. The tragic history of persecution has been central to forming a distinct identity for the Armenian diaspora and has guided many of its activities. Shortly after the Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out, the Armenian diaspora, which views homeland Armenia’s security through the prism of genocide by Turks, adjusted its activities accordingly. For example, the Armenian diaspora played a (not insignificant) role in the resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrossian, a moderate who was ready to make concessions on the Nagorno-Karabakh and sought, albeit unsuccessfully, to normalize relations with Turkey, even if that meant deemphasizing the genocide issue. To the Armenian diaspora, for whom the 1915 genocide constitutes a significant part of their identity and a major mobilizing cause, reconciling with Turkey (and their Turkic Azerbaijani kin) at the cost of relegating the issue of genocide was inconceivable. The diaspora, therefore, sought to support and strengthen the more nationalistic politicians in the government who were less yielding on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and more in-sync with the diaspora’s efforts of genocide recognition.
The Azerbaijani diaspora, although smaller in number and less organized, is, nevertheless, becoming increasingly visible and active, thus contributing to the counterproductive power contest. In contrast to the Armenian diaspora, the Azerbaijani diaspora is on the receiving side (of both financial and other support) in its relationship with the homeland. The Azerbaijani government is funding much of its diaspora’s activities in an effort to counter the Armenian diaspora’s activities. Just as their counterparts, the Azerbaijani diaspora is emphasizing the issues such as the Khojaly massacre of 1992 and is working toward the recognition of the events of March 1918 as the Azerbaijani genocide by Armenians. The Azerbaijanis are also not sparing their efforts in promoting the linkage between the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which further complicates the peace process.
The argument here is not that these diasporic groups are single-handedly or even largely responsible for the derailment of the peace processes. Leaders both in Azerbaijan and Armenia have repeatedly failed to capitalize on windows of opportunity and rally their people around a peaceful resolution when an opportunity presented itself. However, the point here is that while having the power to wield a positive impact on the conflict resolution, the diasporas, more often than not, choose to pursue less conciliatory avenues.
However, diasporas can and should play a positive role in conflict resolution. To do so, they first need to ask themselves a very important question; “How representative are we of the people in our native homes and are our activities reflective of their current needs?” Despite the linguistic, cultural, and religious ties, the diasporas develop distinct identities and needs over time. So, the assumption that they know what’s best for their brethren overseas should be put aside. Secondly, diasporic groups should take advantage of the political space and other freedoms available in their adoptive homes (that is usually absent in their countries of origin) to open up dialogue with the opposite side. Finally, they need to remember that by promoting the hardliner approach and contributing to the endurance of the conflict, they are not helping the plight of their brethren in the conflict zones, since it is those people who suffer the day-to-day realities of living as refugees and IDPs or fearing for their lives because of the ongoing violence.