Presentation of the drastically opposite cultural beliefs and positions on homosexuality and polygamy that caused some tensions in an international forum.
2001, during the 3rd United Nations World Youth Forum (WYF) in Senegal, I was representing the interest of the Swiss youth organisations in my function as elected board member of the National Youth Council of Switzerland (SAJV/CSAJ). The goal of the WYF is to elaborate the priorities of the world youth for the global political agenda into one document which in the end is adopted by the present youth representatives and goes then for information to the United Nations General Assembly. It’s a highly politized process where a lot of different interests are at stake. In addition, some “adult” interest groups like fundamentalist religious or political organisations try to bias the outcomes for their purposes by the means of young delegates of their own.
My organisation was asked by the Swiss government to participate not only in the WYF but also in the Francophonie preparation conference prior to the WYF – this primarily out of political reasons to show support and interest in the Francophonie cooperation and the particular event organised by the Senegalese government. In terms of cooperation among youth organisations, there are strong regional networks organising themselves according to continent belonging. For the National Youth Council of Switzerland (SAJV/CSAJ) this means the membership in the European Youth Forum (EYF). A Francophonie cooperation between youth organisations does not exist based on different historical reasons and different understanding of “independent non-governmental youth structure “ etc. and in this regard, this WYF preparation conference was quite an artificial event.
Not surprisingly, only the European organisations participating at the Francophonie conference have known each other before while the institutional knowledge between all the other represented organisations was very poor. From the 50 representatives, there was only me as female representative.
Despite the unconventional circumstances in which the meeting happened, it was a great experience for all participants how fast we altogether found a smallest common denominator which actually was not small at all! The document consisting of objectives in central question for young people like education, youth employment, participation, democracy, human rights, eradication of poverty, access to health care, social insurance, new technologies etc. was elaborated without any dispute neither on the common goal nor on the strategy to achieve the objectives. In fact, there was a great recognition and understanding of the concerns and constraints of the representatives of other country coming from totally different context.
Also on the personal level as the only woman, I felt very comfortable and quite respected during the meetings as also during the evenings. Not coming from a European state with colonializing history gave me, even more, legitimacy than my European male colleagues from France and Belgium had... Only in some late hours, it happened that some representatives of polygamy tolerating countries found that they would choose me as wife number 2, 3, 4... Comments that I defended with the argumentation that I would accept polygamy if it would be possible also for women.
The last day of the Francophonie conference a short CNN news on the arrest of a homosexual couple in an Arabic country changed the whole atmosphere. Suddenly, the majority of the conference participants (coming from Muslim countries) started to demand the inclusion of a repudiation of homosexual practices as an unnatural and detestable sin which should be punished by law etc.
All argumentation has not served anything to explain why for the European participants such a statement could never be accepted, so the chair was about to proceed with the votation on the inclusion of such a clause. The situation was tense and critical as for the Europeans such a clause would have been not explainable to the own constituency and government at home as well as to the European Youth Forum members etc...
At this moment, in a state of panic, I was taking the floor, stating first that all my best friends were homosexual and secondly that the Europeans also feel very detestable about polygamy and thirdly that if the present Muslim majority would now include such clause, we – the Europeans – would lobby the whole World Youth Forum together with our allies to include a repudiation of polygamy practices to the final World Youth Forum document and I was showing that we – the Europeans – would clearly get a majority meaning for the Muslims that they would end up with a repudiation of polygamy practices instead of a repudiation of homosexual practices...
My threatening functioned “very well”, the clause on homosexuality was no topic anymore. But the egalitarian negotiation basis which was before always there has been disappeared for a power relation between the minority dictating the common position based on a bigger experience in international political settings and the “blackmailed” and suppressed majority coming from the developing world. At once, these differences became very decisive. In addition, I as the only female representative was no longer tolerated, it was not possible anymore to speak with the male representatives from non-Muslim countries.
Interest of parties:
Muslim participants: Interest to defend their deep beliefs and values concerning homosexuality and at the same time being conscious of the majority power in the given Francophonie setting.
European participants: Afraid of loosing the control on the situation, possibility to end up with a clause repudiating homosexuality. Interest not to come in a dead-end situation with a homosexuality repudiation clause which would not have been possible to explain either to the own constituency, to the home government nor to the partner organisations in the frame of the European Youth Forum.
Me as a person: Emotionally touched because I have friends having experienced terrible discrimination just because of being homosexual. In addition, not feeling very respected as a person because of being a female.
Out of an egalitarian and fruitful negotiation framework, a sudden exogenous message brings up a new very controversial topic on the agenda. The majority is very clear about the way to deal with this topic, the minority is shocked and tries to defend their point. A big pressure in time and in circumstances as the same evening a common position had to be found. The chair having a clear position (for the clause of homosexuality) and forcing the end to the discussion by announcing a votation without giving the minority the possibility to express properly their concerns and point of view. The majority feels sure to get their interest through, while the minority starts to panic fearing to loose everything here and afterwards also at the organisational level at home.
Out of this strong institutional constraint, the Europeans fall back to use the old scheme of power relation in order to impose their interest and threat the majority in challenging a highly emotional value of them. The majority coming off the developing countries react immediately on the power threat and leave their position in order to avoid that their own important value (polygamy) would come at stake during the World Youth Forum.
Used “argumentative” strategies:
In the actual conflict, there was only an “argumentative “ strategy from the side of the minority, as the majority gave in to the threatening and abstained in defending their position anymore. And the minority “argumentative” strategy was nothing more than to show a real threat to a central value of the majority and the willingness to make the threat true if the majority would not give in. There was, in fact, no space anymore for an exchange of argumentation as one party expressed an absolute condition which excluded from the beginning on another compromise as the one proposed: not to mention at all homosexuality in order not to endanger the value of polygamy.
As it became clear throughout the narrative, my communicative practice was limited to be one of the negotiators having the strong and not compromisable position to prevent a repudiation of homosexuality in the Francophonie document. For the next part, I will change the communicative practice to the one of a mediator.
The conflict as presented above consists in fact of a high potential for effective resolution leaving the possibility to understand and to respect both fundamental values and to decide neither of them to compromise by mentioning it in the document. A supportive mentioning of either of the values would for sure not be acceptable for neither of the parties as it would go against the own conception of what is “right”.
On the basis of the mutual understanding of the importance of this particular value for the opposite group and the comparability of vulnerability between the two groups when it comes to the offending of this value would allow respecting each other because of the comparable vulnerability. The conflict could in this way change the level from the unresolvable opposition of two beliefs to the common understandable and even shared feeling for caring about a fundamental value and being deeply vulnerable in its regard.
In order to be able to get to this mutual understanding, the setting will play a crucial role. First of all, the pressure of time to come up with a decision and the majority-minority mismatch has to be tackled. To reach this, the official meeting should be asked to agree to suspend its session. Furthermore, from both sides, an equal number of representatives should be nominated to engage in the negotiation with the mediation.
Ideally, the mediation consists of two persons: a male (black, as most of the participants are black) Muslim mediator and a female “European” mediator which would share the mediation process equally but would focus on their “own” group mainly when it comes to “moderate” them. Before the mediation can start the usual preliminary preconditions need to be established as e.g. the definition what the procedure will be, who will have which role and responsibility, the common adoption of the rules of procedure, the readiness to treat the opposite position with respect and the willingness to listen and to understand the opposite position.
During the preliminary talks with each of the group, it’s important that the mediators ask about the whole cooperation process in order to give both conflict parties the chance to remember that until the day before there was a really constructive atmosphere which led to a document covering the most important concerns to all participants. During the first moment of the “confrontation” of the two groups, the narrative of this common constructive history should bring back the atmosphere of respect which was in place before the critical incident of the BBC news happened. By questioning each party after the other, the mediator lets both groups explain when, how and why the conflict has arisen.
At this step, it’s crucial to let both groups realise the strong emotional element in the conflict – this should afterwards become the common basis for the understanding of the mutual vulnerability in this conflict in order to promote the respect for the feelings of the opposite group. At this point, the atmosphere should be prepared to ask one group after the other to explain what does mean toleration and non-toleration of homosexuality for the one group, and respectively toleration and non-toleration of polygamy for the other group. The points mentioned in each presentation touching the meta-level of vulnerability in the field of such a fundamental value should be noted down privately by the mediators and be presented afterwards together in order to show the similarity of the situation of the conflicting parties when it comes to the meta-level.
The next step consists of the question how to avoid this vulnerability in the actual context having in mind that the two fundamental values are and stay opposite. The most probable outcome of this question will be the proposal to remain quiet on both values in the final document in order not to put them at stake for the discussions during the World Youth Forum. From the mediation point of view, it would be also possible to make the conflict parties realise that in the context of the World Youth Forum the conflict parties are in fact allies concerning their knowledge about each other's vulnerability and a common strategic decision to protect the vulnerability of the other group.
The function of the mixed mediator team is first to show the possibility to work constructively together on the cultural, religious and gender differences. Secondly, it shows respect to the male-female role understanding of both parties: the Muslims are directly addressed only by the male moderator, the Europeans feel the respect of gender equality in the presence of the female moderator which has the same responsibility as her male colleague whenever it comes to the moderation of the whole group together. In this way, no of the group needs to feel discriminated by the choice of the mediator being male or female.
Personal concluding remarks
I need to tell that now after this analysis from the perspective of a moderator, I see much better how the problem at that time could have been solved without leading to a deep division of the Francophonie group. Unfortunately, as on of the party involved it’s often not possible to stand back and to think about the resolution of the conflict as in many circumstances this would mean the compromise of the own interest constraints etc.