United States Special Operations Command hosted the Sovereign Challenge VIII conference in Savannah, Georgia, Dec 6-9, 2011.
Titled “Resilience, Reconciliation and Reconstruction: Creating Stability and Peace after Conflict,” this conference focused on the challenges nations face after war and the need for resilience while confronting these challenges.
USSOCOM hosts Sovereign Challenge as part of its international engagement program. The program focuses on defending the security of sovereign nations against threats associated with extremism. This event provided a venue for 78 representatives from 51 participating countries to build relationships and share national policies, positions, and ideas related to these issues, as well as the capabilities to battle these threats, which are often exacerbated as a nation comes out of conflict.
Sovereign Challenge began in 2004, when USSOCOM hosted a group of defense attachés from Washington D.C. in Tampa to discuss major issues of concern to their respective nations. Since then, conference participation has focused on accredited military and defense attachés and other diplomats from D.C. embassies.
The ongoing dialogue via conferences, seminars and other appropriate forums enhances security around the globe. Although the last several years have seen an increasing number of non-defense diplomats engaged in the program, the majority of attendees remain foreign military with the increasing recognition that the issues nations face require a “whole of government” response.
In an effort to create synergy between the conference theme and its location, USSOCOM has actively sought locations that lend to hands-on engagements supporting the message and topic of the event. In Savannah, Georgia, organizers saw an opportunity to showcase some of the challenges the U.S. faced following the Civil War and how Americans overcame these challenges as a beginning for a larger examination of the conference theme.
According to Stan Schrager, Sovereign Challenge program coordinator, Savannah’s U.S. Civil War history provided an appropriate setting for discussing difficulties nations face in post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction, both within and between nations, and the need for resilience as they confront post-conflict issues.
“The theme of this particular conference - "Resilience, Reconciliation and Reconstruction" - clearly struck a chord of recognition among this audience,” said Schrager. “It built upon the previous conference which looked at minorities and ethnic groups and expanded this important knowledge base with a look at the theme as it applied to the U.S. Civil War. That was the U.S. experience, which provided a starting point for discussions of the experiences of Rwanda, Russia, Cambodia, Norway… all in the context of a larger view of how nations develop the resilience necessary to overcome or come to grips with these or similar tragic events.”
Guided tours of Savannah provided attendees with insight into the culture of the local area and jump started conversations about specific post-conflict challenges represented by historical sites. Following the tour, Dr. Brian Wills, Director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and professor at Kennesaw State University, provided attendees with an overview of the history of the U.S. Civil War, and the effects that can still be felt today throughout America.
“When you talk about what happens as a result of the war, keep in mind that there are a lot of bitter feelings, a lot of antagonisms that will not simply go away once the hostilities have ended, once the formal engagement has ceased,” said Wills. “…I will say it's just very fascinating to see a war that built up such antagonisms and such hostilities, and in which, frankly, there are still some lingering feelings even today, nevertheless, we found a way to move on.”
Throughout the four-day conference, guest speakers and panel discussions afforded participants an opportunity to learn from the many challenges other countries have faced throughout the reconstruction and reconciliation process.
A Balkan panel presented a unique look at the many challenges that region faced after regional conflict. This panel included three ambassadors, two deputy ambassadors, and a representative from the German Marshall Fund. The panel discussion afforded an unusual opportunity for senior diplomats of Balkan nations to come together and discuss common issues and goals.
At the invitation of ADM William H. McRaven, USSOCOM Commander, the conference also featured the first Russian and Cambodian guest speakers at a Sovereign Challenge conference.
Alexey Drobinin, Russian Embassy Counselor, spoke about Russia’s internal conflicts and the reconciliation process.
“Just to give you a glance at our perspective, we also experienced a civil war in the 19th century from 1918 to 1920. The wounds of that war are still healing,” said Drobinin. “ Just in 2007 there was a reunion of the two wings of the Russian Orthodox Church, the one that remained in Soviet Russia and the one that was forced out and stayed abroad. So this reunion took more than 70 years. So you can imagine how difficult the problems created by civil wars are”
Dr. Say Samal, Deputy Secretary General of the Royal Cambodian Government, discussed the genocide in Cambodia and the importance of stability to his country’s future.
“To strike a balance between reform, development and stability and to achieve unity of the three is an important guideline for achieving overall success in Cambodia's modernization,” said Samal. “Development is critically important, and upholding stability is also a critically important task. Without stability, nothing can be done, and even the achievement already made could be lost.”
Romeo Dallaire, Canadian Senator and former commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda in 1994, captivated the audience with his first-hand knowledge of civil war atrocities and his own experiences with conflict resolution efforts in Africa.
“I think the title of the forum today is significant because I believe that reconciliation is, in fact, part of an offensive weapon that should be used for conflict prevention,” said Dallaire. “…If we do that, we are then, I believe, achieving a high level of responsibility ultimately to protect, but also a responsibility to advance humanity and its serenity.”
Throughout the conference, international government and religious leaders presented their personal accounts of issues concerning their nations.
Stanley Lucas, the Haitian Ambassador to the U.S., discussed the many challenges Haiti faces since the recent devastating earthquake and stressed the importance of international communication.
“I think the lesson we learned, and why we appreciate Sovereign Challenge, is that solidarity, sharing, partnership, talking to each other is important, because you don't know what tomorrow is about,” said Lucas. “By bonding together, working together, and sharing together, we can face anything, and we share values as well.”
The Honorable Roger Ingebrigtsen, State Secretary of Defense of Norway, talked about his country’s efforts to reconcile and heal after the terrorist attack last summer in Oslo, Norway.
“The physical destruction was massive, affecting the lives of hundreds, but the damage to our people, our society, and democracy was far greater,” said Ingebrigtsen. “In the aftermath of such a national trauma, it is critical that society does not alter its open and free ways.”
A memorable complement to the conference’s theme, attendees took a riverboat to historic Fort Jackson, where they received a first hand look of what life was like during the 1800’s as Civil War re-enactors presented accounts of the challenges faced by both sides.
The final day of the conference featured the “Seeds of Peace.” Founded in 1993, the program is dedicated to empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with leadership skills needed to advance reconciliation and coexistence. The panel consisted of speakers from Israel, Palestine, India, Pakistan, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The cultural diversity of these young people, mixed with the historical conflicts between their native countries and the efforts and successes in reconciliation and reconstruction provided a positive example of what can be achieved through communication and resilience.
“It starts from a very young age and talking to the other side, and at least understanding that the other side has a perspective,” said Ahmed Hemmat, Seed participant from Afghanistan. “To be able to have that conversation, the dialogue we were talking about throughout this conference, is important for the youth.”
“I think our audience took away from this conference the perceptions and insights on the differences which, in some ways, actually unite us,” said Schrager. “It highlighted the common strain of resilience necessary to reclaim nationhood and put a country together after deep tragedy that can rock a national psyche and challenge the nationhood of a people.”
According to Schrager, SOCOM hosts Sovereign Challenge primarily because of its global responsibilities within the DoD structure. Unlike regional commands, SOCOM's reach and designated responsibility correspond well to the group of global senior military officers and diplomats engaging in this program. Additionally, each conference and engagement includes a small number of Special Operations representatives who benefit from the interaction with this international audience.
For more information on the Sovereign Challenge program visit www.sovereignchallenge.org.