Statement by Dr. Henning Karcher, UNDP Resident Representative At the opening of the Conflict Reporting Forum

03 Sep 2002

Statement by Dr. Henning Karcher, UNDP Resident Representative At the opening of the Conflict Reporting Forum
Nagarkot, 3 September, 2002

Distinguished journalists from South Asia, representatives from the Nordic Consulting Group, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to share with you a few thoughts on the occasion the opening of this Conflict Reporting Forum. Unfortunately Asad Naqvi from Paragon/UNDP in Islamabad who has been a driving force behind this forum will not be able to be with us today.

Most of today’s violent conflicts are not the wars between contending states of former years, but take place within existing states. Many are inextricably bound up with concepts of identity, nation and nationalism, and many stem from the competition for resources, recognition and power. While these conflicts may appear very differently from place to place, they often have, at their base, similar issues of unmet needs, and of the necessity to accommodate the interests of majorities and minorities alike.

Conflict is a normal part of any healthy society, but a great deal of attention has been focussed on recent years on how to prevent conflict, and less on finding peaceful methods of conflict management. In particular, there needs to be more attention given to the type of political choices that those negotiating an end to a period of violent conflict have to make to rebuild their country, and how they can build an enduring democracy – the only sustainable form of government – from the ashes of conflict.

It is in this area where I feel that journalists have a particularly important role to play. Media can contribute to building stable and solid internal political structures. They can be instrumental in bringing competing forces to discuss their differences within a legal and administrative framework and to seek solutions based on systems of rules which derive their legitimacy from the will of the people and from universal principles of human dignity. This in turn implies the creation of institutions built to last.

Happily, there is a growing trend throughout the world towards democratization and respect of human rights. Some 120 countries now hold generally free and fair elections, and a large number of internal conflicts end with a negotiated peace which includes an electoral process aimed at building political structures acceptable to all. The parties themselves agree to deliver a sustainable peaceful settlement through a democratic transition.

Democratic principles provide the essential starting point for implementation of such settlements, which usually involve not only democratizing the state but also giving more power to civil society. Once political actors accept the need for peaceful management of deep-rooted conflicts, democratic systems of government can help develop habits of compromise, cooperation and consensus building.

Unfortunately we see in South Asia including our host country Nepal all too often media reporting that causes escalation rather then the healing of society’s wounds. I am thinking here of bodybag journalism, daily death counts and the extensive dwelling on cruelty and brutality by parties of conflict.

In my view the greatest contribution journalists can make is to promote understanding that leads the way to negotiated settlements. Without full understanding of the root causes of conflict solutions cannot be found. While security forces have a role to play in protecting the life and physical integrity of innocent civilians military solutions are unlikely to be successful in resolving the type of conflict that plagues South Asia.

Allow me to be a little more specific on the type of media coverage and reporting that I feel would be helpful for our sub-region. First of all avoid any inflammatory reporting. The recent film on The Killing Terraces in Nepal brought once again out the fact that anger; and the thirst for vengeance are among the strongest driving forces of any conflict. Bringing out the human face of the parties, their common desire to meet their essential physical and social needs can go a long way in creating preparedness for new and creative solutions to old conflicts. Encouraging politicians and civil society leaders to identify root causes such as inequality, discrimination and exclusion can be very powerful. Addressing these issues require long-term strategies that need to be implemented over many years. Giving voices to the excluded and showing in particular, also examples of what has worked at the micro level can make an enormous difference.

Journalists are often among the best and brightest of any society. Using the power of the pen or moving images to elaborate concrete scenarios for negotiated settlements of conflict could go a long way in breaking stalemates.

Naturally, many of the issues at stake in a conflict have deep emotional or psychological reverberations for the parties involved. These should not be excluded or de-emphasized. But it is vital that, first, all objective issues of substance in the conflict are laid out for all to see and understand; second, that perceptions – feelings, memories of hurt and sacrifice, mutual views of each other – are also expressed and heard; and, third, that the difference between the two is made abundantly clear.

As I said at the outset most conflicts in South Asia take place within existing states. There are, however, also distinct tensions and conflicts between nations. Networks of journalists working in South Asian countries could be of tremendous help in both these areas. Demystifying conflicts, analyzing as I said earlier, the root causes and offering constructive solutions.

Speaking strictly off the record I would suspect that the majority of the citizens of both India and Pakistan would probably be prepared to accept any political arrangement provided a lasting peaceful solution could be found. Are national boundaries really an issue at this day and age of globalization? Speaking as a European whose country was engaged in two bloody wars during the last 85 years with its neighbours over territorial boundaries I would say we Europeans have managed to overcome our preoccupation with frontiers. Holding a European passport I can live and work anywhere in the European community. The exact borderline between different European countries is totally immaterial to me.

Evidently the situation in South Asia is very different. Yet I would say that working towards a similar situation represents a worthwhile and realistic goal.

You as journalists have unique role and opportunity to demystify issues go to their heart and ultimately advocate solutions that are in the best interests of the people. Unfortunately the interests and objectives of politicians are often influenced by considerations fare removed from the reality of women, children and men living in rural areas and who want nothing else but a simple life in dignity, free of violence and with a possibility to satisfy their basic needs. I hope that your meeting here over the next few days will later be remembered as a catalytic even that contributed to building peace in South Asia.

Thank you.