Group puts city at centre of global conflict resolution

KEY players from opposing sides in conflicts around the world would be brought together in Edinburgh under a plan to make the Capital a location of choice for peace talks.

The plans have been compared to the Edinburgh Conversations of the 1980s, in which meetings between representatives of America and the Soviet Union aimed at ending the Cold War were held.

Former Lord Provost George Grubb has worked with academics, faith groups and others to develop the Edinburgh Peace Initiative.

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He hosted a conference at the City Chambers in October attended by 150 people from all over the world, including troublespots such as Darfur and Sudan.

He said: “The idea behind it all is Edinburgh as a safe city. If people were in a dispute or conflict situation, Edinburgh would be a safe place for them to come and resolve those differences.”

Dr Gari Donn, who is director of international education at Moray House and executive director of UN House Scotland in Edinburgh’s Hunter Square, is a driving force behind the initiative. She compared the opportunity to host peace talks with the Edinburgh Conversations pioneered in the 1980s by academic and military expert John Erickson.

She said: “He brought together people from America and the then Soviet Union to speak off the record about how each side would see arms control. No-one would say he had ended the Cold War, but the fact arms control experts knew each other by name and had shared time made it more difficult for them to be confrontational. Edinburgh is a wonderful city for not being confrontational.”

She said the Edinburgh branch of the United Nations Association had worked closely with counterparts in countries including Syria, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Through these contacts we could bring people to Edinburgh. The churches and other religious bodies also have links around the world.”

Some of the meetings could take place at the City Chambers, but a more discreet location in the countryside would also be available.

Dr Donn added: “There is a view that if you speak to those who hold an opposite position, you never quite go back to the position you held; you might not reach their position, indeed you might not want to; but as human beings we are profoundly able to understand the other, though it’s not always easy.” Current Lord Provost Donald Wilson has also become a patron of the initiative.

Crucial venue for thawing the Cold War

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In the 1980s, Edinburgh was the venue for a series of meetings that arguably played a significant role in the ending of the Cold War.

Known as the Edinburgh Conversations, the meetings were chaired by Sir John Burnett, the then principal of Edinburgh University, and were the brainchild of Professor John Erickson, the head of the university’s Centre for Defence Studies and a leading world authority on the Soviet military, who had good relations with both the Kremlin and the Pentagon.

Each year, senior military, political and academic figures from the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain would meet discreetly – alternating between Edinburgh and Moscow – to discuss the difficult issues in East-West relations.

They helped thaw attitudes on both sides and provided an opportunity to extend understanding and contact at a time when formal talks were relatively rare.