Conflicts of interest

October 12, 2007

Diaspora communities worldwide look back to, and sometimes frustrate peace plans in, the countries from which they have fled. How best, asks Hazel Smith, to make these far-flung peoples a force for good?

There are many stock notions about diasporas and conflict. Some people assume, for example, that communities living safe and relatively prosperous lives in the West tend to take a harder line in peace negotiations than the people suffering the direct consequences of fighting back in their "home" land. Others talk as though the whole Palestinian diaspora is Muslim, or assume that the whole Israeli (or even Jewish) diaspora is strongly Zionist or that all American-based Cubans or Croatians are united in a single political ideology.

In reality, such generalisations are never totally true. Diasporas come in many shapes and sizes, and they are all internally divided by factors such as class, gender, generation, occupation and country of location. They can undoubtedly make a deep impact on conflicts at "home" - at every stage from the lead-up to war through the "hot" phases of fighting to post- conflict rebuilding - but it is simplistic to see them as purely "peace- makers" or "peace-wreckers". In Diasporas in Conflict , the recent book I edited with Paul Stares, we draw on case studies of the Armenian, Cambodian, Colombian, Croatian, Cuban, Eritrean, Jewish, Kurdish, Palestinian and Sri Lankan diasporas to try to draw out the complexities and suggest how "host" countries can encourage diasporic communities resident within their borders to promote peace.

It is seldom accurate, we discovered, to stereotype a diaspora as unmitigated peace wreckers. The Croatian diaspora, for instance, was much criticised for its contribution to funding and arming the Croat army in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Yet it did not see itself as a contributor to conflict, but rather as a contributor to a national cause in which war was justifiable. Peace remained desirable, but not at the expense of surrender to the Serbs or the Bosnians. Once the fighting was over, however, Croatians from abroad returned to their country and invested in postwar reconstruction efforts.

Even when one generation takes a hard line, their children may think differently. Young Cuban Americans, for instance, often take less belligerent positions on US-Cuban relations than their parents, for whom the Cold War was a central feature of their upbringing and outlook. As a result, they have far less ideological baggage to prevent them exploring pragmatic possibilities of rapprochement with Fidel Castro's regime.

Another obvious, though often ignored, fault line running through every diaspora is gender. It is well known that women in war zones usually have fewer coping strategies available to them than men, mainly because they tend to be responsible for children's health and welfare. What is less well known is the gendered impact of conflict in diasporic communities. Displaced Bosnian women in the UK and in the Netherlands seem to have found it easier to get work, albeit low paid and menial, than their menfolk, thus enabling them to assimilate quicker into "host" countries and, sometimes, empowering them to take more part in political activities such as fundraising for humanitarian assistance. Men, conversely, can find exile, with its accompanying loss of status and professional identity, much more difficult, so that a common response is to become focused on politics within community organisations. Conservative patterns of family relations can also change if unemployed men become more involved in domestic activities and spend more time with their children than they would have in their "home" land.

Although conflicts often create diasporas, it does not automatically follow that diasporic communities want to get involved in the conflict back home. The Colombian diaspora in the US, sometimes understood as a "conflict-generated" diaspora, is so fragmented that it is difficult to identify a coherent overall identity, but if the multiple groups have anything in common it is their desire to leave the violence behind.

Whatever their desires, the ability of diasporas to contribute to specific conflicts - or to peace-making - is strongly shaped by the "political opportunity structure" in the countries where they are resident. In the early stages of the Iraq war, for instance, the Bush Administration involved Kurdish representatives in decision-making and planning for postwar reconstruction. The Kurds, therefore, developed a stake in peace and saw themselves as agents of peace-keeping. After 2004, when Kurdish leaders were pushed aside, the community became less motivated to make peace work. Similarly, the 1991 Paris international peace plans for Cambodia institutionalised a role for the diaspora in postwar reconstruction, which encouraged Cambodians to return home and run for office in the elections of 1993.

These cases reveal the impact of the conscious decisions by major states and international organisations to involve diasporas in peacemaking. But more diffuse factors can have a similar effect. When the US launched its worldwide so-called War on Terror after the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, diasporic communities became much more uneasy about supporting liberation groups that engaged in what could readily be understood as terrorist tactics. The Tamil community, for instance, became much more reluctant to fund and support the Tamil Tigers. Although their capacity to act remained much the same, the altered political context notably inhibited the inclination of Tamils to act as peace- wreckers in Sri Lanka.

These brief examples indicate how policymakers can and should do a lot more to encourage positive contributions (and dissuade negative contributions) to peace-making by diasporas. Home countries could consider the example of Eritrea, which expects Eritreans abroad to pay 2 per cent of their income to fund postwar reconstruction. Host countries can and should act to outlaw diasporic activity that supports and finances groups that adopt violent means to achieve their political ends - even, perhaps, when these are claimed to be in a good cause such as overthrowing a dictator.

In a democracy, it is the government's responsibility to decide on military activities abroad, and diasporic communities wanting to influence such decisions should do so solely through the normal processes of lobbying. Diasporas can often be, as hostile stereotypes suggest, the enemies of efforts to end conflict. But they can also be mobilised as powerful allies of conflict resolution and sustainable peace-building.

- Hazel Smith is professor of international relations at Warwick University. Diasporas in Conflict: Peace-Makers or Peace-Wreckers? (edited with Paul Stares) is published by United Nations University Press, £23.99.

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