Building Trust in Peacebuilding Interventions for UN75

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Virginia Swain, Founder and Director of the Institute for Global Leadership, went to the United Nations in 1992 to study the reasons why the Persian Gulf Resolution passed in the Security Council. She began a master’s degree program at Lesley University to explore how to create safe emotional space in groups for people to grow.  She then explored the theory and practice of coexistence—a minimum standard for a world where people grant others, who they deem threatening, the right to exist—making it emotionally safe for people who are different (trust can build between people when they feel safe). She was also interested in developing a deeper standard termed reconciliation, for leaders. This process would use tools, techniques and perspectives to build trusting communities to heal the anger, fear, and other emotions that lead to a breakdown of communications and to address deep-rooted, intractable disputes.

Swain’s thesis project was conceived and implemented as an alternative to the use of armed force in Kuwait as part of the United Nations Security Council Persian Gulf Resolution. Her goal was to develop political will among people on the ground in accordance with Rousseau’s will of the people. She provided a new style of leadership in the United Nations community that she calls Reconciliation Leadership. It was her hope that Reconciliation Leaders could further contribute to Chapter V1, Article 33 of the Charter so the United Nations and the international community could become a true peacemaking body—dedicated to its followers, the world’s peoples, by using pacific resolution of disputes. This would enact the General Assembly Resolution in 2003, “The Peoples of this world have a right to peace.”

Drawing on Harvard’s Ron Heifitz’s Leadership without Easy Answers, when there is no clear-cut solution to a problem, an experimental approach is needed for an adaptive style of leadership.  The conventional style of leadership is technical and requires expertise.

Reconciliation Leadership is an adaptive style rather than the conventional technical style of leadership. Reconciliation Leaders provide a catalytic, facilitative leadership that allows emerging and seasoned professionals to draw on inborn core gifts to develop their vocational calling to leadership with academic training.

Additionally, Reconciliation Leaders provide a way to address the emotional aspects of a challenge.  When high levels of emotion cause people to raise their voices, scream at, strike or kill one another, skilled Reconciliation Leaders provide a useful way for participants to begin healing from those alienating experiences by building relationships across divisions.

Participants create ground rules for themselves that are facilitated by Reconciliation Leaders. When internalized emotions are released participants can form a bond.

Reconciliation Leaders offer healing for the Historic Cycle of Violence

A safe, sacred place is created where people can coexist, begin to trust themselves and each other, and become conscious of unconscious behavior. The need comes from an understanding of the shadow or unconscious part of each person and situation where we express our limitations without our awareness. Reconciliation Leaders share resources and power, withdraw their unconscious projections and dissipate emotional reactions in such a way that the outcome of the meeting is owned by everyone present.

There is an untapped potential for good in our emotional and spiritual energies. A piece of beautiful Swedish glass, in memory of Dag Hammarskjold, is given to each participant as they take turns speaking. Reconciliation Leaders release these [unconscious] emotions, letting go of their need to control the outcome. “I” statements are used (rather than you, blameful, statements) so that participants can own their experiences without projecting them onto others.

Reconciliation Leadership addresses dominators and victims in people and systems that allow people to share their gifts in safety, without being invalidated or denigrated. It is a respectful, fully participatory model, allowing a shared vision and mission to emerge. Prescriptive processes are given up; being an expert evolves into having expertise; blaming and evading accountability evolve into interpersonal competence and personal responsibility; reacting evolves into responding.

Reconciliation Leader Dr. Sam Onapa explains the impact of how the cycle of violence is reconciled here >

Figure (above): To create emotional safety through the Sacred Container, Virginia Swain drew on the Victimhood and Aggression: Psychological Dynamics, The Center for Strategic and International Studies shows two circles: the inner circle shows the cycle of victimhood while the outer circle shows the cycle of healing when an intervention takes place. Reprinted with permission.

Reconciliation Leaders provide an intervention to address the cycle of violence and provide a way for victims to mourn, express grief and accept loss (outer circle). Participants create ground rules as a way of re-humanizing the enemy, holding them accountable for unconscious inner conflicts. This allows people to share openly in a safe space, without feeling invalidated or denigrated, in a respectful and fully participatory process. The allows a shared vision to emerge. People uncover new ways to forgive and negotiate solutions.  Sam Onapa speaks of the impact of Reconciliation Leadership and the Sacred Container.

Conflict and cultural competency

There is a need for conflict competency—first to clarify what is believed and valued when it comes to conflict; second to stimulate thinking about how conflicts in one’s life have been managed; and third to see that resolving conflict in a positive manner will strengthen all relationships, working as a valid conflict management system in community, institutional, national and global settings.

There is a need to learn the impact of cultural differences (including gender, ethnicity and race) in the dispute resolution process. Because the effectiveness of various conflict management strategies is influenced by cultural considerations and differences, we need to examine the various models for training leaders to intervene in disputes where these are a factor.

Reconciliation Leaders serve their followers by facilitating others through their transformations in a deeply respectful “I-thou” relationship (Martin Buber), rather than one of control and manipulation.

Created by a Nobel nominee and Dartmouth College sociologist, the late Dr. Elise Boulding’s Conflict Management Continuum is enhanced by Reconciliation Leaders working toward the penultimate part of her continuum, “union.” Boulding’s view is that we live in a society that places a high value on dealing with conflict as something that has to be won. The goal is to vanquish or threaten (deter) the adversary. Yet we all know there are other ways of managing conflict—these other methods could be thought of as varying approaches on the spectrum of Boulding’s conflict continuum.

Reconciliation Leaders help move conflict from a war of extermination to integration and union, from violence to nonviolence, from destructive to integrative behavior. Limited war, deterrence, and threat are all on the violent side of the continuum. Noncompliance, arbitration, mediation, and negotiation lie in a violence-neutral, middle region. Reconciliation, active cooperation, and integration/union lie on the positive, nonviolent side.

The components of accountability, forgiveness and reconciliation are essential to the style of leadership that is needed for the UN75 review. Otherwise the world will repeat the suffering and horrors of this century’s wars, ethnic conflict and the use of force as a response to terrorism. The best of our humanity is desperately needed now. The figure above shows the Public Peace Process (Saunders) integrated with the Personal Peace Process (Swain) for a Sacred Container to reconcile the cycle of violence.

Peace Through Reconciliation

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)

Reconciliation, according to Martin Luther King, is the final, large and difficult step in peacemaking, essential if we are to move into beloved community. If we fail to nurture a reconciling spirit that listens, forgives and persists, our protests can become harsh and shrill as we move from one struggle to the next with deepening anger and frustration.

Rightly enraged at the vast scope of injustice, suffering, greed and exploitation in the world, we are tempted to externalize evil as “out there,” forgetting our own complicity, our own shadow (unconscious) side — our own need of redemption. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, writing in The Gulag Archipelago of his experiences in Soviet prison camps, observed that the line separating good and evil passes not through states nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart and through all human hearts. The enemy, the oppressor, the hurtful person, the “other,” is (with his victim) a part of the whole human family. The cycle of evil and suffering can be broken when we open ourselves to the grace that enables forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation to take place. To say this does not mask the real conflict involved in struggling against injustice and oppression, but it reminds us that — at every stage — the peacemaker seeks to overcome evil with good, using means that are consistent with the aim being sought.

The challenge to peacemakers to overcome evil with good (by developing the work and upgrading skills to provide resources, tools and processes for Reconciliation Leaders) is essential so that mediation and reconciliation services can be provided for the United Nation’s 75-year review in 2020.

The Celebration Model was a new model for building global community (Lesley University Master’s Thesis Project, 1993). Inspired by a vigil of the world’s religions at the Rio de Janeiro Brazil Earth Summit in June 1992, people of sovereign nations came together for a celebratory experience of one human family, brother and sisterhood. Celebration helps people accept the sufferings of everyday life by allowing them to relax and let go. Celebration expresses the true meaning of community as they unite their hearts through a moment of wonder. The joy of the body and the senses are linked to the joy of the Spirit. Former Secretary-General de Cuellar says there is no more beautiful profession on earth than to unite humans. Celebration allows an experience of unity and empowerment by bringing people together for an experience of joy.

Using Celebration as a Tool for Dispute Transformation

At the United Nations in New York in 1992, Virginia Swain designed Celebration of the Children of the World: A Model for Building Global Community (CCW) for her master’s thesis project. CCW was designed to build on the momentum of 40,000 people from 185 countries assembling at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED or Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro. At a vigil of all the world’s religions at the Global Forum, a parallel conference to UNCED built on a profound experience of the union that Boulding uses as her penultimate stage in the Conflict Management Continuum during the all-night vigil worshiping with thousands in their own traditions. The Dalai Lama brought them all together in five minutes of the deepest silence Swain had ever experienced. Following the silence, a sound arose from one person and grew to include the sounds of 40,000 people, such that they became one. They sang and danced for joy at meeting one another anew—strangers became joyful co-celebrants.

Even though there was no dispute in Rio at the Earth Summit, Swain was struck by the potential for such communities to transform disputes through celebration. She began conceptualizing a Reconciliation Leadership intervention at the United Nations, much like what she had found at the Vigil in Rio, as one of nine key characteristics or competencies of this leadership style. Fifty celebration artists and a steering committee produced the Celebration of the Children of the World event after six months of preparation, by having a vigil and performances by children. To do this, Swain used the celebration model to build a holding environment for the steering committee to contain the emotions, presence and purpose to bring various components of the UN community together as a soul force for building global community. They realized they could hold the space intentionally for members of the United Nations community in the event itself—international civil servants, state and non-governmental actors. In the steering committee, people were able to let go and find their common humanity—especially useful for post-conflict peacebuilding.

On the eve of the New York Celebration of the Children of the World event, there was a dispute between two of the steering committee members.  One of the mutually-agreed-upon ground rules was that “we wouldn’t run away from conflict, but rather be a listening presence for the other no matter how hard it was.” Because of the successful enactment of that ground rule, one of the parties to the dispute was able to tell the second disputant that the experience was a positive and life-changing example for her on how to work through interpersonal conflict successfully.

The Celebration Model became the first Peacebuilding Process of Reconciliation to Develop Political Will (the Peacebuilding Process, Rousseau, the will of the people). In instances where it is not appropriate to celebrate, a ritual that would commemorate the need to mourn or express another emotional stage of growth would be available—a Global Liturgy.

Since 1992, Virginia Swain committed her consulting practice resources to design and implement the new social development model, the Peacebuilding Process.  There have been dozens of implementations, always in the political context of collaborative change-making and peaceful evolution to advance the common good. The conceptual framework for this model comes from Swain’s corporate experience in human resources and decades of experience as an organizational development consultant (using models that also apply to national and global challenges), vocational counselor and Reconciliation Leader, coach and trainer.


Reconciliation Leadership and the Peacebuilding Process of Reconciliation to Develop Political Will as leadership frameworks have been practiced since 1992. Given the global problematique all challenges are now interconnected, extending far beyond state geographic boundaries. In addition to the 1992 United Nations Celebration, trained Reconciliation Leaders have reconciled conflicts in Sudan, Timor-Leste, New York post 9/11, Burundi, Spain, Philippines, human trafficking in the USA, Rwanda, Liberia, Ex-Yugoslavia, racism USA, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and many more. 

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