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The road to peace

A woman walks near a house in the city of Homs destroyed in the fighting between the rebels of the Syrian National Army A woman walks near a house in the city of Homs destroyed in the fighting between the rebels of the Syrian National Army Volodymyr Borodin
05 May
The prospect of world peace undoubtedly gets a lot of lip service, however it remains sadly rare how often the opportunity arises to turn these words into actions. Geographical explores the complicated process of creating meaningful peace

While violence and war seem perpetually capable of ‘breaking out’ at any moment, we rarely have the luxury of saying the same for peace. Peace is a state that needs to be carefully constructed, discussed, debated, and constantly adjusted. It can take years – decades, even – with the process of negotiation and creation of working settlements often taking far longer than the initial period of violence to which they are responding. Even when countries do appear to have momentarily reached a degree of ‘peace’ – from Burundi to Yemen, Sierra Leone to Ukraine – unforeseen circumstances can result in years of progress unravelling without warning.

Five years and counting since the Middle East descended into the now painfully-mistitled chaos of the ‘Arab Spring’, the world dares to dream of the beginning of the end to Syria’s bloodshed. However, it begs the question: how does one actually negotiate peace? What tools can we utilise to bring about a lasting period of non-aggression? Has this process ever been truly successful and, if so, what lessons can we learn from the outcomes?

In this issue’s Perspectives, we bring together four experts from across the geographical spectrum to explore the complex processes involved in creating and, crucially, maintaining peace.


Geopolitics: Top-level versus grass roots

Phil Clark, Reader in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS, University of London, and author of ‘The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers’

In the last 20 years, African countries affected by mass conflict have used a vast array of processes to pursue long-term peace. These include international and domestic war crimes tribunals, truth and reconciliation commissions, reparations schemes, security sector reform and demobilisation and reintegration programmes. Debates have raged over the relative effectiveness of these different approaches, of which the most controversial, for some, has been the International Criminal Court (ICC). In its first 14 years of operation, the ICC has investigated and prosecuted only cases in Africa, leading to accusations [in many quarters of the country] of neo-colonial meddling in Africa’s affairs.

Away from the ICC, though, Burundi and Rwanda – two neighbouring countries with a similar ethnic make-up of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa peoples and a history of internal conflicts since the early 1990s – highlight two paradigmatic but divergent responses to violence. Burundi experienced a 12-year civil war in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed following the assassination of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993. A peace deal in 2005 led to a national power-sharing arrangement that constitutionally enshrined ethnic quotas in the Burundian parliament and armed forces. A proposed truth and reconciliation commission exists on paper but has never got off the ground. Nevertheless, Burundi’s power-sharing has been widely lauded for minimising ethnic conflict, at least until renewed violence following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s move in 2015 to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 claimed the lives of around 800,000 Tutsi and their perceived Hutu and Twa sympathisers. Since the genocide, Rwanda has been ruled by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-dominated rebel group that ended the genocide and captured control of the country. Overseeing an effective one-party state, the RPF has not embarked on national power-sharing as Burundi has done. Instead, between 2002 and 2012 Rwanda pursued the comprehensive prosecution of 400,000 genocide suspects – including peasant farmers and other community-level actors – through village trials known as gacaca. The aim of gacaca was to deliver justice in 11,000 communities and to bring survivors and suspects together to debate the events of the genocide, with the hope that intimate dialogue would foster reconciliation. Rwanda used gacaca because the genocide was driven as much by community-level as by elite actors. Therefore, it was necessary to address the role of hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens in committing genocide crimes.

Furthermore, because of economic realities in rural Rwanda where tight-knit communities have to farm together to survive, perpetrators and survivors would inevitably have to live side by side after the genocide. Gacaca was necessary to deal with community-level tensions to ensure these groups could live and work together more peacefully.

Long-term peace relies on addressing causes of conflict at multiple levels of society – national, provincial, community and inter-personal

Burundi’s and Rwanda’s profoundly different responses have proven highly influential across Africa. Burundi’s focus on reforming national political and military institutions critically shaped the power-sharing arrangements adopted in Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2008. Rwanda’s emphasis on dealing with violence from the community level upward influenced similar processes from South Sudan to Sierra Leone. Arguably, however, each country should have learnt lessons from the other. While Burundi’s focus on national institutions limited ethnic tensions among national elites and reduced the divisive role of the military, it has done little to address ethnic and other lasting divisions at the local level that are manifesting in Burundi’s present violence.

Meanwhile, Rwanda’s use of gacaca has been vital in unearthing local information about the genocide, including the names of individual victims and perpetrators and the location of bodies. Gacaca also succeeded in encouraging communities to confront the past and to collectively determine the best ways to prevent future conflict.

The broader lesson from Burundi’s and Rwanda’s responses to violence is that long-term peace relies on addressing causes of conflict at multiple levels of society – national, provincial, community and inter-personal. The failure to address conflict at any of these levels can, in time, undermine the gains made at the others.

sierra leoneSoldiers tasked with keeping peace in Sierra Leone. Even 14 years later, tensions still remain high in the country (Image: US Army)


Cultures: Positive and negative peace

Gearoid Millar, Lecturer in Sociology at the Institute for Conflict, Transition, and Peace Research (ICTPR), the University of Aberdeen

Big international peace settlements initiate all kinds of interventions, whether that be to write new constitutions, or to reform political parties or social services. On the ground, these things are sometimes experienced positively, very often negatively, but always – and this is the key – not as predicted by the international peace actors.

The UN, or the World Bank, or whoever is the primary driver of these interventions, almost always assume that big interventions are going to be experienced the way they would be in London, Brussels or New York. But the fact is that people on the ground in contemporary conflict zones generally don’t relate to mechanisms of governance in the way that others do. We always go in with what we think are really big interventions, but they can be easily manipulated and turned to different purposes on the ground. Sometimes those purposes are peace-promoting, sometimes they are conflict-promoting, sometimes they’re marginalising, sometimes they’re empowering. But whatever their effect, they’re always unexpected.

The disciplines within the social sciences that govern these mechanisms are economists and lawyers. My experience has always been that no one is hired because of their cultural sensitivity or knowledge of the local context, or for their ability to translate Western concepts to these foreign places. I’m not saying economists, lawyers and political scientists shouldn’t be involved – but 99 per cent of decisions can’t be made by people who don’t understand the local context.

My research has been in Sierra Leone. One thing I realised straight away is there are lots of people on the ground that the interveners didn’t even attempt to talk to. You have priests and nuns who have been in the country since the 1970s, who lived through most of the war, interact daily with local people, and know the culture inside and out. They were never even asked, ‘What might we do here?’ You have anthropologists who have been working there since the 1960s – again, not consulted for their expertise.

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, we have failed miserably to develop positive peace

In any post-war context these days we have thousands of NGOs, big international donors like the World Bank, the IMF, bilateral donors like the Department for International Development or GTZ – the German Technical Cooperation Agency. Even the UN has different sub-bodies, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme. Some want to build peace, some want to help people recover from the trauma, some want to work with child soldiers, some want to work with people who lost their homes. Local people don’t understand the difference between these interveners, so it all rolls together into a confused picture of what intervention actually is.

We have this debate between positive peace and negative peace. Negative peace is easy, just people no longer shooting at each other. Whereas positive peace is the experience of community and shared belonging in a state, an experience that’s positive and friendly. Interventions quite often succeed at creating negative peace; there are no longer rebels and government forces shooting at each other. But, violence often continues anyway. Women are no longer being abused by rebel groups, they’re just being abused generally, because there’s a lot of crime.

Interventions can, of course, separate two parties, like they have done in Kashmir, Israel-Palestine or Korea. But that’s not peace. We’re just managing tensions. Sierra Leone, 14 years after the war, is still the eighth poorest country in the world. It’s always on the tipping point. Every election, you’re wondering, ‘Will this be the one where they go back to war?’ Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, we have this kind of dynamic, because we have failed miserably to develop positive peace.

For several years there’s been this idea of mixing and melding the global and the local. People use the word ‘hybridity’ to describe this interaction. To people in public administration, in political science and in law, hybridity became something along the lines of: ‘We’ll have the same institutions, but we’ll use the local chief. He’ll come in and do this ritual, and then it will make it legitimate to the local people. It’ll be a hybrid process.’ But really, hybridity became one more thing that would be planned. When the international interacts with the local, it has effects that we couldn’t have known and that we wouldn’t have been able to predict.

With a number of colleagues, I’ve been trying to promote the idea of friction as an alternative to hybridity. It assumes unpredictability and tension. Tension doesn’t mean conflict or war, but it assumes there are two things rubbing against each other. They’re not a natural fit, and so it will inherently result in some form of change.


Gender: Women at the negotiating table

Hilary B Stauffer, Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, London School of Economics and Political Science

In the 21st century, it is intrinsically understood that those who suffer from the effects of war are not only the soldiers fighting the battles. In modern armed conflict, the ‘front lines’ of the battlefield are increasingly blurred, and the ramifications of warfare affect civilians like never before.

Women can be doubly impacted: firstly on a socio-economic dimension, as their husbands, sons and brothers join the fighting and they are left behind to run the household; and secondly, on a personal dimension, if they become victimised by the sexual violence that accompanies so many non-international armed conflicts today. In parallel, the participation of female combatants is no longer an extraordinary occurrence, and we see their involvement across the globe.

Given these uncomfortable truths, it is all the more remarkable that women are still so absent from peace negotiating tables. The global Women, Peace and Security agenda – established by United Nations Security Council resolutions – is built upon a fundamental understanding that ‘women’s participation and inclusion makes humanitarian assistance more effective… contributes to the conclusion and implementation of peace talks… and accelerates economic recovery.’

Both anecdotal stories and empirical evidence bear out the truth of this: because women are often relegated to supporting roles in society, they are better at marshalling soft power and forming alliances across diverse groups.

The hope is that enlightened policy makers will pave the way for full gender inclusivity at the peace tables of the future

More concretely, a review of nearly 200 agreements showed that peace accords are 35 per cent more likely to endure at least 15 years if women are at the table. And yet, the statistics betray a disappointing reality: between 1992 to 2011, of 31 major peace processes conducted, only four per cent of signatories of agreements were women; only 2.4 per cent of chief mediators were women; only 3.7 per cent of witnesses or observers to peace negotiations were women; and only nine per cent of negotiation team members were women.

Even contemporary examples are discouraging: women have been routinely marginalised in the negotiations aimed at finding a solution to the crisis in Syria. An infamous picture (below) from peace talks held in Vienna in October 2015 showed 19 foreign ministers sitting around a table – only one was female.

Nevertheless, change is coming: the necessary fundamental shifts in culture, societal norms and institutional power structures which will permit the full participation by women in peace negotiations are gradually clicking into place. These incremental gains are not what campaigners want or what victims of armed conflict need but, thankfully, long gone are the days when a room full of middle-aged men seems like the best way to solve a crisis.

As the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere grind on, it will be more important than ever to have new voices and fresh perspectives at the table. The hope is that enlightened policy makers will build on the hard-won achievements of the previous generations of activists to pave the way for full gender inclusivity at the peace tables of the future.

peace talksSyrian peace talks in October 2015. Of the 19 ministers attending, the only female was the EU's Federica Mogherini (Image: U.S. Department of State)


Cities: Showing the way forward

Wendy Pullan, Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Urban Conflicts Research

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that there were problems with the way peace is conceptualised in many situations: we need to understand conflict better if we’re to have any sense of which aspects of peace might be available to us. The nature of conflict has changed, persisting over very long periods, with peaks and troughs of violence, and more and more cities are the places where these conflicts are played out. But there has been little attention paid to the connections between cities and conflict.

Too often, political negotiations focus only on a peace solution. It’s seen as the light at the end of the tunnel, and if we can only get to that light, everything will be fine. However, even if you do arrive at some sort of negotiated settlement, the city may have been so badly damaged that conflict will not suddenly end. This brings into question the usefulness of the notion of ‘post-conflict’.

For example, Belfast is very interesting. Since the Good Friday agreement, most people feel that things are immeasurably better. But the conflict is still ongoing, despite some very strong efforts at the governmental and municipal levels, and by lots of different community groups. There are periods of violence and then periods of relative peacefulness. That seems to be the same pattern we find in a lot of these cities.

When there are large national, trans-national or religious conflicts they are increasingly played out in cities; this is partly because that’s where the population is. Because cities so often form the setting, we have to look at them in terms of their urban characteristics. Spatial qualities matter in these conflicts. The built environment and the natural topography play important roles in cities (less evident in more abstract state settings). However, better buildings rarely make for less conflict. Instead there is a confluence of different factors at work.

Additionally, architecture and planning can be used by some powers and groups to further their own interests. Jerusalem is a very good example, where most of the post-1967 planning of the city – when Israel conquered the eastern half, annexed it and started building settlements – has been seen as a way of Israel taking over Palestinian East Jerusalem. One of its main strategies for doing so has been through the planning system and the architecture. But all that’s done is create more conflict instead of contributing to peace.

Many of the city conflicts that we’re witnessing today – Jerusalem, Baghdad, Aleppo, some of the Ukrainian cities – are much more complex, violent and geopolitical

Conflict is very much part of the urban condition. In some cases we’ve learned to channel it in a constructive manner. If you look at many of our urban and national institutions – such as courts and parliaments – they’re based on adversarial relationships.

Opponents never really agree with each other, it’s not a matter of coming to some consensual opinion. This is different to a negotiated peace settlement, and we have to respect the nature of such conflict as well. Significantly, cities form a setting for these types of institutions.

Certainly diversity also brings problems. Different population groups, with different languages and religions and ethnicities and so on, may generate friction. But I would say that without diversity you don’t have a city. However, the richness of cities that comes from diversity can cause conflict in them. Montreal was never terribly violent, but the October Crisis of 1970 saw a period of terrorism and emergency laws, and for a long time the question of whether Quebec would separate from Canada was a hotly-debated one.

The pro-independent Quebec government eventually decided to make it a French-speaking city. Effectively, it decided it was going to privilege culture over economics. French became the dominant language and the provincial government brought in laws to support that. Most of the multinationals in Canada that were based in Montreal pulled out, and the city went through a very bad economic period. Today it’s a fully recovered, dynamic, bilingual city.

Can we call it a success story? No, I don’t think I’d call any of these cities straight-forward success stories, but at least they have found some ways of dealing more constructively with their conflicts. Many of the city conflicts that we’re witnessing today – Jerusalem, Baghdad, Aleppo, some of the Ukrainian cities – are much more complex, violent and geopolitical.

Belfast and Montreal may offer some pointers, but they too may be in cycles of more then less conflict.

This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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