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Why Peace Processes Fail

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA of Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, Why Peace Processes Fail: Negotiating Insecurity After Civil War (Lynne Reiner Publishers, 2015), La Trobe University, Melbourne, 30 November 2015

One of my frustrations over many years as an international relations practitioner, now compounded by my role sitting back alongside academics at ANU, is how often practitioners and international relations scholars seem to occupy parallel universes, with neither side of the divide having anything very much useful to say to each other, and taking little or no notice of each other accordingly. It’s easy enough to see how this happens, with the relentless logic of rankings metrics and promotion criteria demanding that scholars write for other scholars through peer-reviewed journals, getting practically no academic credit for writing anything that practitioners actually read, and living in an intellectual world of reciprocal citations in which what is happening here and now, on the ground, is a second or third order consideration – if a consideration at all.

I’m delighted to say that Jasmine-Kim Westendorf is not such a scholar, and Why Peace Processes Fail: Negotiating Insecurity After Civil War is not such a book. It grapples with a very real practical issue, one which constantly troubles real-world policymakers, where the ground is littered with failures and where the consequences of failure are devastating for the lives and life opportunities of untold numbers of real men, women and children. And its basic source material is not just other academic books and articles – though the relevant literature is here exhaustively reviewed – but a legion of interviews with experienced and actively field-engaged policymakers and practitioners who know what they are talking about.
The result is an outstandingly comprehensive, clear-eyed, and practically very useful analysis of what has gone wrong, and why, in post-civil war peace processes – why it is, as Jasmine puts it, that “despite the best intentions, and the investment of significant resources, external actors fail in their reconstruction efforts and even contribute to perpetuating the very conditions of insecurity and conflict that they are trying to alleviate.”

Jasmine focuses on three of the four big elements which have been at the heart of international attempts to build sustainable peace in war-torn societies – security building, governance building and transitional justice initiatives – leaving aside only the economic dimension. 

She meticulously analyses how these efforts have played out in six different peacebuilding contexts – Cambodia (1991), Mozambique (1992) and Liberia (2003) which all involved fights about government; and Bouganville (2001), North and South Sudan (2005) and Aceh (2005), which were essentially secessionist conflicts, or fights over territory. Her chosen case studies are an intriguing mix of different population sizes, conflict durations and other variables in play like the presence or absence of decolonization, resource competition, and international involvement in the civil conflict in question – and between them cover pretty much the whole range of post-Cold War peacebuilding efforts.

While most of these country cases have not seen a resurgence of full civil war since their peace agreements were concluded, neither have any of them yet reached the point where every dimension of their peace can really be considered sustainable. As Jasmine puts it “violence, insecurity, ongoing divisions between formerly warring groups and a sense of political instability remain characteristic of nearly all these contexts, as they hover between peace and war, particularly at election times.”

So what has gone wrong?  Her basic argument, which I think is extremely well developed and sustained as she works through the experience of her representative cases, is that the dominant international approach to peacebuilding has been too technocratic and template-driven,  assuming too much universality in the nature of war-to-peace transition, leaving little room for peace processes to be responsive to very variable local contexts, and in particular too often distancing the technical aspects of security building, governance building and transitional justice from the internal political dynamics that are so crucial in defining the shape that peace actually takes.

While the limited resources and skilled personnel available to peacebuilders – with policymakers in the UN system and elsewhere always having to deal with many more problems simultaneously than they have the capacity comfortably to address – are a partial explanation of why we see so many one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter approaches which turn out pretty poor bakery, there is also a mindset problem which Jasmine’s book very clearly identifies:  “a conviction of  both the superiority and rationality of technical mechanisms, and their applicability across contexts”, and one which “privileges the bureaucratic imperative over other forms of decisionmaking.”

I had plenty of experience with this kind of cloth-eared box-ticking when I was Foreign Minister from the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s, and even more when I was leading the International Crisis Group after 2000, because by then the post-Cold War peacemaking and peacebuilding process was in full swing.  An early and very clear example I inherited at Crisis Group was in Bosnia, where the internationals were desperate to have an early election in order to tick the democratic governance/local ownership box, but where this would have been – in the context of civil society having had no time to find its feet – a recipe for simply giving plebiscitary legitimacy to the same old divisive leadership thugs, and where Crisis Group successfully argued for a significant postponement.

I am inclined to be a little more forgiving than is Jasmine of the Cambodian peacebuilding process in the early 90s because, for all its deficiencies, I know exactly how hard it was for the UN mission, UNTAC, to address the combined challenges of a peace process that was under severe military threat from the Khmer Rouge, a despotic government, and a human rights wasteland: there is much that remains deeply disheartening about the state of democracy and human rights in the country today, but at least the days of genocide and civil war seem completely over. But whatever the quibbles one might have about particular judgements here and there, the cumulative weight of the argument is overwhelming: international policymakers have been too insensitive to local political dynamics, and they badly need to lift their game in future.

The only thing that is missing in Jasmine’s book – and I hope she can be persuaded to redress this in a further volume in the future, for which I for one will be an eager buyer – is a detailed discussion of the kinds of more sensitive and responsive on-the-ground strategies that might actually deliver better and more sustainable results in the future. All of this is a lot easier said than done, but some quite sophisticated work is now being done – not least by the rather clunkily-named but quite outstanding Institute for Integrated Transitions (www.ifit-transitions.org ) in Barcelona, which is led by a refugee from the International Crisis Group – on the kinds of detailed strategies needed to avoid the problems Jasmine has described.

Clearly the core objective, as a necessary condition for building a successful state, has to be to somehow build a broadly cohesive society – with some kind of overarching national narrative reinforcing a sense of shared national identity. The development of effective institutions – across the whole political, economic, administrative, rule of law and security spectrum – has to grow out of, or proceed in tandem with, getting the socio-cultural context right. In particular there just have to be generally accepted ground rules for the pursuit and exercise of political power. Compare and contrast the relative success in managing transition of South Africa (which is on my mind because I’ll be visiting there next week), with its inclusionary “rainbow nation” narrative and inspirational leadership from Nelson Mandela, and Iraq, where almost every relevant group was excluded at one crucial stage or another, or throughout, from the peacebuilding process, and inspirational leadership of any kind was non-existent.

Even if Jasmine hasn’t, yet anyway, given policymakers all the answers they need to successfully manage post-civil war transitions, she has quite brilliantly – and far more systematically and forensically than I have seen elsewhere – made clear what they have been getting wrong. 

Her book should be absolutely required reading for anyone in the peacebuilding business – at the governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental level – because it is, throughout, not only a very easy and lucid read, but quite  unsparing in its sharp-edged, alert, practical analysis of what until now has been the policy orthodoxy, while being mercifully  sparing on the theory.  This is a fine example of how academically well-grounded research can at the same time have a real policy impact. May our academic colleagues follow Jasmin-Kim Westendorf in producing many more works like Why Peace Processes Fail, which I am delighted to declare duly launched.