While officials from the United Nations and other organizations have been conspicuously trying to resolve the conflict in Darfur, a Catholic lay association based in Rome has been doing its bit to help broker peace.
Thanks in part to the efforts of the Sant'Egidio lay community, the Sudanese government signed a peace deal in the Qatari capital Doha with the leading rebel group in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Although not a comprehensive settlement, the agreement has raised hopes that a lasting peace may be in sight, finally ending the seven-year conflict which has cost an estimated 300,000 lives.
Sant'Egidio, whose negotiators were present at last night's signing of the "Framework and Ceasefire Agreement," has built up a successful track record in helping to successfully mediate international conflicts.
Nicknamed the "U.N. of Trastevere" after the district in Rome where it is based, it effectively ended Mozambique's civil war in 1992, and helped broker a peace deal in Liberia in 2003. The community, which believes that war "is the mother of every poverty," has also helped resolve conflicts in northern Uganda, the Balkans, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In addition to peacemaking, the organization helps the elderly, the homeless, and campaigns against the death penalty. And it has run a successful project to treat AIDS victims in Africa which involves combining access to free antiretroviral drugs with follow-up and home care. President George W. Bush strongly supported the project, called DREAM, when he was U.S. president and visited the community during his last trip to Rome.
But it is on issues relating to conflict resolution that the community has become internationally famous. Concerning Darfur, Sant'Egidio has been participating in a search for a peaceful settlement since the conflict began.
The lay community's main mediation role has been to facilitate talks between the government and the many rebel factions involved. It expressed "satisfaction" with the agreement and ceasefire: Sant'Egidio mediator, Mario Giro, described it as "very positive" and added that "for the first time we have a serious agreement." A deadline of March 15 has been set for a comprehensive peace treaty.
But Giro predicts "bad reactions" from some of the other rebel factions linked to a larger rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA). For this reason, he said the lay community hopes to bring rebel leaders to Rome before the March deadline to help them come to a lasting peace deal. "We will go back and forth to try and convince the others, working particularly with the main rebel group but also the others," he explained.
Sant'Egidio has also been working closely with the UN-African Union mediator for Darfur conflict, Djibril Yipènè Bassolé, and other leading negotiators.
In a statement following the agreement, the organization said the achievement of the agreement "is further proof of how institutional and non-institutional entities working together can lead to efficacious results."
But Sant'Egidio's secret to effective peacemaking is chiefly down to its Catholic ethos which demands that all its staff are volunteers. The organization's chief spokesman, Claudio Betti, told me once that the effectiveness of this approach became especially apparent in 2003 when Sant'Egidio was mediating the Liberian conflict at their headquarters in Rome.
"The rebels and the government had been stalling for weeks, but when a breakthrough looked imminent, I was called over and had to cut short my holiday in the Dead Sea after only three days," said Betti, who works full time as a university professor.
"But when I arrived, they kept on stalling," Betti said. "So I started getting annoyed and said to them, 'Look, I'm not paid to do this and you've cut short my holiday.' They replied, 'Really? You're not paid?' I told them, 'No.'"
Said Betti, "They signed the peace agreement the next day."
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