The United Nations has formalized its relationship with the Community of Sant’Egidio, the highly regarded Catholic membership organization based in Rome that has been focusing on conflict prevention and resolution, primarily in Africa, for 30 years.
A community of 60,000 laypeople founded in 1968, Sant’Egidio has been working with the UN on mediation prospects in hot spots for decades, but this move, enacted through a memorandum of understanding, reflects a deeper alliance that ties into the UN’s recognition that it cannot prevent conflicts and keep the peace in post-conflict settings on its own.
Working more officially with Sant’Egidio represents a rare step by the UN in forging partnerships with civil-society groups and regional organizations to end longstanding disputes and fighting in nations.
The Department of Political Affairs, the main organ in the UN Secretariat providing mediation and other expertise in detecting and defusing conflicts, has been working with Sant’Egidio since its first success, brokering peace in the Mozambique civil war in 1992.
The agreement with Sant’Egidio was announced at the Italian mission to the UN on June 9, with Jeffrey Feltman, who runs the Department of Political Affairs, and Marco Impagliazzo, a professor and the president of Sant’Egidio, making remarks to the media.
“For us it’s a very turning point, this agreement today,” Impagliazzo said. Sant’Egidio’s formalized relationship with the UN, which involves no exchange of money, will provide a “centralized and more regular channel of communication” between the two organizations, he added.
Impagliazzo, who teaches at the University for Foreigners, Perugia, will be speaking to the UN Security Council on June 12 about the Central African Republic. The UN has a peacekeeping mission there and Sant’Egidio has been negotiating with armed militias there for years.
Sant’Egidio is run by volunteers from 73 countries, who immerse themselves discreetly in conflict zones or areas where tensions are brewing to try to coax warring parties toward peace. The volunteers work independently — as neutral, confidential go-betweens — concentrating mostly in poor countries in Africa and dealing with people “who know war,” Impagliazzo said.
Or as Feltman said, Sant’Egidio’s success is persuading armed militias — “some of the most hard-to-reach parties” — to sit at negotiating tables.
Besides the Central African Republic, Sant’Egidio currently operates in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, South Sudan and Libya. In the past, volunteers have worked in Bosnia, Guatemala, Algeria, the Darfur region of Sudan and elsewhere. The organization is also involved with the Italian government to establish humanitarian corridors for refugees and migrants flowing from Syria and the Horn of Africa region to Europe.
In a sign of Sant’Egidio’s enhanced visibility, some members met with Ivanka Trump during her trip to Rome with her father, President Trump, in late May. The meeting, arranged with the US embassy in Rome and the Holy See, was held behind closed doors, where Ivanka Trump listened to women who had been trafficked and who are now assisted by Sant’Egidio to help them regain their lives, said Mauro Garofalo, who attended the meeting in Rome.
Ivanka Trump, he said, heard the small group of women, mostly from Benin City in Nigeria and Eastern Europe, tell their stories in a gathering that was meant to last a half hour but went on for 90 minutes. Garofalo said he has followed up with meetings in Washington, D.C., at the US State Department and USAID on the global human-trafficking problem.
At the Italian mission, Feltman particularly praised the Italian ambassador, Sebastiano Cardi, who helped the UN agreement come to fruition. Italy is an elected member of the UN Security Council through December.
Impagliazzo noted progress made by Sant’Egidio in the Central African Republic, despite constant news of deadly flare-ups in some cities in the last few months, as Muslim and Christian militias rage. All 14 militias in the country, he said, are about to convene at the negotiating table.
Sant’Egidio, it appears, has an “advantage of being in Rome,” he said: everyone is happy to meet there.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.