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The journey to peace once the guns fall silent

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 Photo: Peace lines in the North have led to economic depression. Copyright Robin Kirk.

In Focus 88, David Traynor explores the challenges faced by post-conflict societies when making the transition to peace.

Over the past few months many regions have experienced revolt, conflict and emerging regime change. In what has been termed the “Arab Spring” we saw revolutions throughout the Middle East, including the ongoing strife in Libya and Syria. There has been trouble in Cote d’Ivoire and the birth of Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, after a long civil war. How can communities and nations in these regions embark on a path to peace, and transform their societies?

Post-conflict regions face the daunting task of rebuilding shattered lives and sometimes the state itself. The challenge is to rehabilitate divided communities and rebuild the social, economic, political and cultural infrastructure. Such transitional moments are critical, with the World Bank cautioning that “post-conflict countries face a 44% chance of reverting to conflict during the first five years after the onset of peace”. As a result, it is important to understand the complex role of humanitarian, and later development, assistance in such situations, which can potentially impact positively or negatively on lasting peace.

Different stages have been identified as occurring for post-conflict societies in transition. The emergency phase involves meeting the immediate needs of the population with humanitarian aid. The development phase involves improvements being made to areas such as livelihoods and education, economic and political structures. The period between these two is known as the transition phase.

According to the UN, external assistance is crucial to support fragile ceasefires. Transitions are often complex, with movements from conflict to cessations of hostilities, disarming and demobilisation programmes to a sustainable peace, or reversion to hostilities. Any aid must respect the vulnerability of transitional societies. It should not just involve a peace agreement; it must also address the political, economic, social and cultural needs of the society. Such aid can range from UN supported institutionbuilding to rebuilding health services by NGOs to community peace-building initiatives.

Communities must have ownership of, and involvement in, such aid programmes. Crucially, programmes to support transitions to peace must address the root causes of the conflict. For example, the successful dismantling of apartheid in South Africa was built with the involvement of the South African people. Apartheid was voted out by white South Africans and the new government received a mandate from all South Africans in the first multi-racial elections in 1994.

Characteristics of Societies in the Transition Phase
It is important to understand the immediate traumatic effects that conflict has on a society. As in parts of North Africa (including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya) and Cote d’Ivoire, there can often be intense grievances between the conflicting parties due to, for example, lack of human rights, disenfranchisement and/ or unaccountable policing and judiciary. Shattered economic and social infrastructures leave few opportunities for employment and a lack of social services. Any reconstruction of a post-conflict region must thus be undertaken with an understanding of the conflict’s dynamics, to ensure that any aid, and the peace process itself, does not fuel the conflict. Peace can be built by a comprehensive agreement which addresses the relationship of the conflicting parties and is a win-win for all sides. Interests that represent sectors vital for re-building the society must be involved in the making of any such agreement.

Key areas which need to be addressed include:
Security and Restorative Justice
As we saw in the security response of the international community in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Liberia, a concerted effort was made to ensure a secure environment through a comprehensive disarming, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme and commitment to adhere to the cessation ofhostilities. However in Sierra Leone high unemployment rates threaten the stability of the country. With 60% youth unemployment, there is a risk of young people becoming marginalised and even moving into crime. According to the UNHCR and UNDP, such a situation helped to fuel the original conflict which the country is currently emerging from. Former combatants need to have a livelihood to which they can return post-conflict. However there is also the issue of victims and survivors. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the use of the traditional court systems in Rwanda after the genocide illustrate that there is a need to have restorative justice for victims.

Establishing Democratic Governance Structures
Structures for democratic governance should also be built towards ensuring transparency in the political system and respect for human rights. Weaknesses in these mechanisms can often be the source of conflict, as witnessed in Cote d’Ivoire and in Northern Ireland. The peace processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland involved a concerted effort to ensure that the political system addressed, and acted on, the causes of the conflict. Establishing accountable policing and judicial systems is vital. For example in Rwanda and Bosnia such mechanisms were important to bring perpetrators to justice.

Infrastructure and Economic Development
Socio-economic investment is crucial to rebuild essential services such as health, social services, transport and to build and support livelihoods. This is all the more important as post-conflict societies often have a high proportion of unemployed young people, who may have the potential to lapse into crime without other ways of generating income.

Lessons from Northern Ireland
In Ireland we have experienced similar post-conflict challenges. Northern Ireland witnessed violent conflict, fought about religious identity and political aspirations for decades. In the nineties the beginnings of a peace process culminated in political representatives from all communities coming together to sign a peace agreement. This example illustrates how an holistic peace process can potentially build foundations for a successful lasting peace. The peace process in the North encompassed all the issues described above: ceasefires, a power-sharing agreement and commitment to democratic governance, the relationships being addressed at all levels, acceptable policing, decommissioning and restarting the economy. It can stand as a positive working example for policy makers and populations facing the task of rebuilding their states and communities.

There is also another lesson to be learned, however. With growing unemployment and socio-economic decline, many disaffected young people are easy recruits for dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland. This has been highlighted by community groups and youth workers in some of the North’s most deprived areas. These areas are often located where the boundaries of the divided communities are located, and marginalisation can nurture sectarian attitudes and behaviour. Neglecting one area of the rebuilding process can have ramifications for managing a sustainable peace. Once peace returns to today’s conflict regions, those involved should recognise this if they are to have a bright future. The transition to peace must be owned by the people. The fact that the “Arab Spring” revolutions were started by ordinary people’s desire for a voice and ownership of decision-making in their countries should be remembered during the task of building a lasting peace.

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