In Theory We come in peace – shoot to kill: On the perils of peacekeeping

The creation of the UN, sixty years ago, has introduced the concept of "international peacekeeping" into the public lexicon. The UN peacekeeping missions are now regular features of news bulletins from conflict zones. And yet, both in its theoretical underpinnings and its practical manifestations, peacekeeping remains a highly problematic idea. Political theorist Andrew Robinson presents the many issues surrounding the idea of peacekeeping, and conducts an impassioned and lucid analysis of how peacekeeping efforts often get things wrong, and what needs to be done to set them right.

Columns, Features, Ideas, In Theory - Posted on Friday, August 13, 2010 13:30 - 4 Comments


By Andrew Robinson

Civil wars are not events which happen “out there”, in a mysterious other world, but are intimately connected to the forces dominating the lives of people around the world. Emerging in zones of exclusion and dispossession, civil war is a symptom of global neoliberalism, an effect of a particular constellation of forces which encourages violent resource-extraction and decomposes social integration. The sites of civil war, demonised as ‘black holes’ and ‘failed states’, are like the relative whose breakdown shows the abusive dynamics of the entire family; the violence of the ‘new world order’, while disavowed and condemned, is in fact predictably concentrated at these points. Peace interventions (peacekeeping, peacemaking, peacebuilding) often operate in this context as an attempt to square the circle, to have the rose without the thorns. They have increasingly occurred in a grey area between peacekeeping and military enforcement, in ways which border on colonialism. Advocates of peacekeeping tend to portray zones of conflict in Hobbesian terms, as an abyss of collapse in which not only peace but also social order collapses. They thus map real problems of warfare onto their own frames, substituting for the voices of agents or victims on the ground by reconceiving problems in terms of the lack of a modern state.

In liberal approaches, peacebuilding, statebuilding and state ‘security’ are conflated. Liberals generally start from the premise that ethics is universal, but in practice derive their universalist positions from dominant western value-systems. Speaking from this western standpoint, they then speak on behalf of the victims of civil war, who are taken to be the ethical referent of action but whose voices are rarely heard. What victims are taken to need is not simply contingent peace but a particular kind of state as desired by the liberal observer. In general, these accounts ignore colonial histories and current dependent relations, portraying the victims as at once ‘like us’, people with the same implied values, and radically other, as ‘strangers’ in Nicholas Wheeler’s phrase, with whom “we” have no prior contact. Liberals look to the state or the UN as the agent by which justice can be delivered on behalf of the victims (or those who speak for them). While the aim is to produce a liberal kind of state, draconian means are often countenanced in order to bring it about. There are then a number of approaches pioneered by authors such as Roland Paris and Michael Lund. These authors take the liberal view to account for its imperialistic assumptions, but retain a state-based focus. In fact, they revert to a narrow instrumentalism which justifies despotic measures as means to ensure ‘security’.

Liberal interventions often fail because the regimes and norms they seek to ‘restore’ are alien to the contexts in which they are implanted. Often, liberals intervene while imagining themselves to be bearers of universal humanity, bringing civilisation to others. In practice, however, they intervene in complex fields of contending social forces, and are viewed locally as anything but neutral. Even when successful, intervention creates a field of exclusions from the global frame which persist as lingering resentments, and can explode in later conflicts. Such failures are blamed on ‘spoilers’, hardcore groups with investments in the political economy of war, who need to be defeated militarily. Where injustice is not resolved in peace settlements, the persistence of conflict cannot be reduced to self-interested ‘spoilers’, and the discourse of looking for ‘spoilers’ becomes a way to silence grievances. In practice, the theory of ‘spoilers’ has largely been falsified: security guarantees which should deter spoilers do not correlate with the success of peace processes. Nevertheless, it continues to underpin mainstream thinking.

Viewing the state as a prerequisite to peace is problematic because the state is by nature an armed, violent organisation. The state does not eliminate warlike power from social life, but rather, reconstructs it as the basis for social order. It also rests on concentrated power, which introduces dangerous imbalances in settings with strong intergroup rivalries: statebuilding acts as a trigger for groups to compete for control of the state. In societies where many people have a strong sense of honour and where power has traditionally been diffuse – such as Afghanistan and Somalia – there is a tendency for the centralisation of power to provoke rebellion, reproducing cycles of war as political exclusion creates symbolic insults. The danger is that people go into civil war situations imagining that there is no peace, no state and no society, and the aim is to build all three at once – after all, they are taken to imply one another. Peacekeepers who view themselves as lawgivers are prone to act in imperialistic ways, behaving like Judge Dredd or Mad Max, in line with how local contexts have been explained to them. So ineffective have resultant interventions been that some authors, such as Darby and MacGinty, have argued that peacekeeping has only been successful when it did not involve armed enforcement.

There is a need to reconceive civil wars as social situations involving participants and survivors with their own systems of meaning. Civil wars can cause immense suffering, but they do not typically involve the breakdown of all the structures of social life. People do not suddenly become atomised individuals caught in a Hobbesian struggle. Rather, the assumptions of combatants, the survival strategies of civilians and the processes whereby everyday life continues in spite of war reveal dense structures of meaning, interpretation and social composition every bit as rich as those occurring in apparently peaceful societies. The problem is therefore misconstrued in liberal and related theories. Firstly, where states have collapsed, building a state is not always a way to recompose social relations; it is often pitted against centrifugal forces in local societies. Secondly, building peace, in a field where diffuse social relations exist, does not necessarily imply building a state. On the contrary, statebuilding can interfere with peacebuilding by unleashing centralising and identity-fixing forces. Thirdly, where a (‘failed’) state still exists, it is typical for intervenors to pathologise every aspect of its functioning, ignoring the fact that the characteristics deemed to cause failure in one case are often part of normal state-society relations in another. As a result of these assumptions, a relatively simple task – turning a temporarily conflictual diffuse society into a peaceful diffuse society – is turned into a staggeringly immense one – turning a diffuse, poor, culturally incomprehensible society into a model liberal-democracy. Instead of working with social forces which could contribute to building peace, such an approach systematically works against them.

Militarised approaches often instead work with social forces which contribute to the continuation of cycles of violence. Jan Nederveen Pieterse has argued that rigid forms of identity, based on the ‘hard’ politics of power competition and militarism, produces the forms of reified ‘ethnicity’ which are the underpinnings of civil war. Rather than undermine such ‘hard politics’, peace operations tend to reinforce them in a number of ways (by practising hard politics themselves, by giving credibility to hard political actors, by concentrating on power issues and so on). From a different angle, Mark Duffield has argued that civil wars are often caught up in networks connecting global agencies and local actors, rendering the peacekeeping infrastructure a complicit part of the process of contemporary conflict.

So how might creative peacebuilding from the bottom-up operate? In terms of theory, the approach pioneered by Jean-Paul Lederach provides a possible way forward. This is an approach focused on ‘conflict transformation’ from below, based on the idea of linking peace to just relationships and establishing nonviolence and human rights as a way of life. Lederach argues that people respond most effectively when change seems to be felt and touched in their own lives. He calls for the transformation of reactive energies into creative energies, and for dialogue as the basis for peace. Peace requires a moral imagination which can step into the unknown and imagine a holistic web of relationships. Lasting transformation of conflicts can only occur when social structures and institutions are transformed to address underlying causes of conflict, distrust and resentment. For instance, land reform is often an underlying issue in rural rebellions. A change as fundamental as a transition from war to peace necessarily involves a deep reshaping of social relations, not simply gestures of crisis-management.

This approach fits with many of the conclusions emerging from empirical research. To effectively resolve conflicts, underlying injustices need to be rectified, power needs to be redistributed from warlord elites into everyday life, and former combatants need to be offered effective alternatives to militia life. Addressing aspects of conflicts related to identity and representation is particularly crucial. Conflict is often bound up with militarised forms of masculinity, with acquisitive forms of subjectivity imitated from the global media, and with exclusionary impulses in terms of identity which are a way of managing the destabilising psychological effects of globalisation. The problem is that such needs collide with a global system built on inequality and domination. As a result, interventions tend to take the form of crisis management rather than effective resolution.

In practice, matters are rarely as one-sided as a theoretical account suggests. Interventions often involve elements of both ‘hard’ peacebuilding, pursued at a state level, and ‘soft’ peacebuilding or ‘track two’ or ‘citizens’ diplomacy, pursued at the local level in terms of underlying causes of conflict. The latter tend to be treated as poor relatives of the former, which get the bulk of donor funding and international attention. Non-governmental organisations often complain of difficulties obtaining funding for prolonged projects in fields such as human rights promotion and combating nationalism. It is, however, the failures in the latter field which often compromise peace operations. Persistent conflicts tend to remain insoluble because of vicious circles of hostility at the grassroots level. Top-down approaches act as if incorporating or eliminating the leadership of armed groups is sufficient to bring peace. This ignores the fact that leaders are able to form militias only because they provide some force of attraction to potential followers – they claim to redress injustice, channel hostilities between groups, provide an income for unemployed young men, provide emotive symbols and so on. Conflicts are often concentrated at certain sites which are often both the main sites of suffering due to war and the sources of new combatants and their support-base. ‘Beheading’ the conflict does not take away the forces which bring it into being.

When underlying causes, including the systematic deprivation of these core conflict areas, are not addressed, top-down peace approaches simply ‘behead’ a conflict, driving it underground. This may soften its most visible manifestations and produce an appearance of peace for awhile, but the conflict will often re-emerge later. Either new groups will emerge to carry the flag of the dispossessed groups, or conflicts will be displaced sideways, into forms of low-intensity warfare carried out in spite of social ‘peace’. The former problem is noticeable in Northern Ireland today, where the incorporation of Sinn Fein into dominant power-structures has not addressed the dispossession of impoverished Catholic communities, as a result of which, dissident Republicans are now gaining in strength; and in Palestine, where a peace process loaded towards continued Israeli dominance caused a mutation of social forces away from the now-complicit PLO towards Hamas and towards everyday forms of resistance. In neither case is a lasting peace possible without justice. The latter problem is noticeable in a case such as South Africa, where persistent conflicts drive anti-”crime” and anti-poor violence and the emergence of cityscapes dotted with fortified areas, and in Guatemala, where the lack of resolution has seen former combatants displaced into ‘criminal’ violence which claims more lives than the warfare from which it stemmed. In these cases, ‘peace’ without justice has simply displaced conflict. Feminist scholars have similarly shown how apparently ‘successful’ peace operations have actually spread violence in the lives of women on the ground, for instance through sexual violence by peacekeepers. In looking at the ‘success’ of interventions, we need to bear in mind the indirect effects which might not be classified as war, but which might be even more devastating in everyday life.

Hope for alternatives to the new colonialism also emerge from everyday practices of conflict resolution. Indigenous societies often have their own peacebuilding and conflict resolution approaches using local cultural idioms. Often these avoid the emergence of power-asymmetries, instead relying on something more akin to civil than criminal law, with disputes referred to a mutually accepted arbiter and resolved in terms of reparation payments and ritual peacemaking. Among the Nuer of Sudan, a person involved in a violent incident could claim sanctuary at the house of a ‘leopard-skin chief’, a local shamanic mediator who would then seek to broker a deal to head off intergroup feuding. Among the warlike Sambia in Papua, the frequent open-ended feuds between groups of male warriors are periodically constrained by the interventions of women, based on the impact of warfare on subsistence agriculture. In the Moluccas, warring villages would reach peace agreements by recognising each other as fictive kin with mutual obligations. There are also a range of cases where ritualised conflict serves as a substitute for lethal warfare.

Such practices can often be seen in successful bottom-up peace processes. In the Moluccas, ethnic and religious conflicts were stirred in the 1990s by military and political leaders hostile to democratisation in Indonesia. The eventual resolution came about when local communities, organised for years to fight resource extraction, initiated a local peacebuilding process based on customary laws and wisdom. This locally-based process, with little outside support, shows the power of bottom-up processes. Another unexpected success was the peace process in Somaliland, a northern breakaway region of Somalia which entered a prolonged peace at exactly the time the rest of the country was embroiled in civil war. This process was successful because it did the exact opposite of the peace process in the rest of Somalia: it started from the grassroots, sought to resolve local issues (such as land disputes) prior to those at the centre, and placed a large emphasis on providing alternatives for combatants, who were effectively bought off. La Ruta Pacifica provide another example of bottom-up peacebuilding. This women’s network has challenged the institutionalised violence of the Colombian civil war through practices referred to as ‘social weaving’, including collective mourning rituals which convert fear into hope, and confronting the terror of armed groups through nonviolent occupation of militarised spaces. Ultimately, more can be achieved through encouraging these kinds of bottom-up peacebuilding processes than from the cynical or well-meaning attempts of powerful agents to fight fire with fire.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge.



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Johnny Blaze
Aug 14, 2010 3:21

Great article but the idea that “As a result of these assumptions, a relatively simple task… is turned into a staggeringly immense one – turning a diffuse, poor, culturally incomprehensible society into a model liberal-democracy” sounds very similar to military apologists for the Iraq war who argued that their mistake was trying to bring democracy to a people who just didn’t get it whereas in fact as soon Saddam was overthrown the Iraqi people were organizing local elections the results of which were subsequently dismissed by the coalition and the US only held general elections in Iraq after a wave of non-violent demonstrations forced them too. The problem in state building is never the attempt to create a liberal democracy but rather, as the rest of your article suggests, the attempt to impose top-down military solutions which ignore the underlying causes of conflict

Aug 15, 2010 11:04

Yeh, I wasn’t meaning to sound like that – that’s the Paris/Lund line I criticise above – basically, that what goes wrong in peacekeeping is trying to insist on a specifically liberal state meeting some kind of minimal standards, rather than just any old state (better a strongman than no-one). In my view this is even worse than the liberal line, which at least pays lipservice to other issues.

This said – they’re never going to get off the ground a Northern-type (so-called “modern”) state in most of the world, because this kind of state has a certain resource-base which is necessary for it to be sustainable, and this includes attributes of society which the South doesn’t have – things like a stable and extensive tax base, a mass-mediatised citizenry mobilised in atomistic ways through the media, and state employees with secure enough life-opportunities that they don’t need backhanders or scams on the side. What they can get if they really want a state and will put a bit of money behind it, is a patronage state run on the extraction and distribution of tribute. This even works in places like Somalia and the Solomon Islands where states in principle “don’t work” – elites will collaborate, or fight among themselves, to get a share of the money coming in, they will create a facade of a functioning state and keep up appearances if it’s worth their while. If they create a relatively inclusive patronage system then it can function as a formal democracy as well, which is how India works for example – though the permanent minority problem creates dangers of a Saddam popping up even in democracies (e.g. Sri Lanka). It is becomes really democratic and people start self-organising rather than relying on patronage systems, well, they might still have a state, but it will be the type that gets classified as “failed” or “rogue”. As a result, there’s acually cases where there’s a functioning democracy which ‘peacekeepers’ treat as part of the problem – Haiti is the obvious example – the whole point of the current occupation is to keep Lavalas out of power. Lavalas are the closest Haiti has ever had to a democratic government and now they’re not allowed to stand in elections. To make it worse, the intervention was to keep the peace in relation to an insurgency which was itself US-manufactured: destabilisation -> instability -> intervention (they would like to do the same to Venezuela and Bolivia too). From the liberal standpoint these kinds of regimes are not properly democratic because they don’t respect property rights and they have certain populist overtones, and use everyday social networks as a crucial part of their political articulation. “Real” democracies are meant to have two identical candidates backed by big money machines which garner votes mainly through the corporate media. Personally I’m not so sure that Northern ‘democracies’ are actually so superior to the kind that crop up elsewhere.

There’s another problem here, linking democracy to peacebuilding: the problem of how to handle permanent minorities. If one group (ethnic group, party/faction, religious group, clan) is always in the majority then that group can in principle ignore all the others and take everything for itself. It can do this through majority procedures easily enough, but if it does, the minority isn’t very likely to accept the outcome as just. This becomes even more complicated if the local population have 1) an extractive view of politics and/or 2) a Clastrean intergroup identity-structure (Somalia and Afghanistan epitomise these characteristics) – in these contexts, a majority coalition will almost certainly try to take everything for itself, and minorities will almost certainly fight back if they do. So, what to do in these contexts? Some kind of power-sharing? Decentralisation? Some kind of group veto right? TBH I’m not sure that these societies can sustain states at all, but if they can, it would have to be something quite innovative.

Johnny Blaze
Aug 20, 2010 3:47

“I’m not surethat these societies [Afghanistan and Somalia] can sustain states at all, but if they can, it would have to be something quite innovative”. I would be more more optimistic
Afghanistan was founded as a state (including most of its present territory except the tajik ares in the extreme North that were ceded to Afghanistan by Britain in order to maintain a buffer between India and the Russian Empire; and most of present day Pakistan and parts of Iran) in 1747 and worked well enough, barring a brief revolt in the 1920′s over Attaturk-style secularization reforms, until the 1970′s when the CIA intervened to destablize the popular Marxist government. The Taliban, despite their many faults, managed bring 95% of the country under state controll (again, the exeption being the Tajik North due to the Iranian supported Ahmed Shah Massoud who was killed six weeks before the American invasion) . I feel that idea that Afghanistan can’t exist as a state, a variation on the not-ready-to-be-a-liberal democray-idea. to be an arguement that is mainly used as an excuse for foreign occupation ie. they can’t rule themselves so its in their interests for us to

Somalia too has a strong basis for a state in that its extremely ethno-linguistically homogenous (Most Somali children are able to trace a common ancestor back to eight generations and are taught how to do o from an early age) Its problems tend to stem from the fac that it was occupied by 5 different European countries whose colonial borders still make up the the borders of the 5 provinces of Somalia today. When US-backed warlords were finally overthrown by the Islamic Courts Union Somalia enjoyed a remarkable degree of unity and stabitlity for the six months before the Ethiopian Invasion (again US-backed) forced them from power. Though the intervention of special forces from America and possibly Britain and the splintering, and growing extremism, of their youth wing Al-Shabaab has been worrying, I feel the period of ICU rule proves Somalia’s viability as a unified state even if statehood is not neccersarily an ideal to which it should be striving

Aug 20, 2010 23:44

When I say “state”, I’m assuming some degree of de facto control by the central authority over the entire territory – something I don’t think existed in pre-colonial Afghanistan, or in the Taleban/ICU setups either. These kinds of regimes function rather like older tributary systems – the localities do their own thing and pay official fealty and maybe some taxes in return for being left alone. Yes, Afghanistan and Somalia might still be able to sustain this kind of state, but if so, it isn’t very relevant to peacebuilding.

The reason I don’t think Somalia for instance can have a state with effective central control is that the social structure is centrifugal and fissiparious, i.e. local units tend to claim power from and protect themselves against centralisation, and the groups (mainly clans) self-define in antagonistic ways, i.e. a gain for any one clan is seen as potentially threatening by other clans (there are around seventeen major clans). Also, the structure of identity is radically localised: it usually goes family/kinship network then locality then sub-clan then clan then clan-alliance then nation. In the event of conflicts among the identities, people will emphasise the local identity first. Do they also have a sense of common ethnicity through common ancestors? Yes, but this doesn’t mean they’ll agree to prioritise their commonality as Somalis over their local and clan identities. By itself, this approach largely prevents state-formation: any group seeking concentrated power is balanced-against by the other groups. When a state is introduced with outside assistance, the result is that certain Somalis get power and resources others don’t. They distribute these resources through their clan networks (remember, their clan loyalty is stronger than their national loyalty) and other clans get resentful and start to balance against them. This account is based on the work of people like Ioan Lewis and Ken Menkhaus, and is borne out by the conflicts in the brief postcolonial democracy, the evolution and collapse of the Barre regime, the difficulties the UN had in finding interlocuters in 1993-4, and the failure of various statebuilding initiatives since then.

I think the Taleban and ICU have some similarities with other viable externally-backed states (e.g. the Barre regime): they are based on the channelling of transnational resources (from the ISI, the Saudis and the global salafi/jihadi scene). Whereas with the Barre regime this was largely about money from donors, with these groups it is about the provision of military expertise and extraordinarily devoted fighters. Local leaders or groups can gain advantages by adopting the right symbolism to attract these external resources. The other big advantages they have is that they have a claim to neutrality between local groups – the Taleban in particular were pretty much “clanless” owing to being raised in orphanages, and as such were viewed as impartial. I would, however, question whether the Taleban or ICU are “states” as opposed to hierarchical ecumenical organisations. And their stability if not externally destabilised/overthrown is also untested. Their “apparatus” so to speak is made up mainly of young fighters whose power and importance comes from the existence of a permanent state of war – if they win, then what then? Would they maintain loyalty to a regime which did not provide opportunities for prestige and plunder? Would the population put up with the fighters acting like little lords, if there wasn’t a war on? And how long could they keep up the appearance of neutrality between the groups? I think they would prove rather ephemeral, like the Somali warlords of the early 1990s (who lost their power spontaneously in the years after the US left).

You’re right that this kind of argument can be misused to say “they can’t rule themselves so someone else has to rule them”, but external occupations in such contexts are costly and not very viable either, the occupier is interpellated locally as just another faction in alliance with some groups against others, and the dynamics of conflict and balancing are set off all over again. Instead, I’m trying to say that concentrated, formal power is not the solution to conflict in these cases. Why must all people be “ruled” through centralised power at all? Certainly, Somalis and Afghans can “rule themselves”, but they generally do it in a diffuse, localised way. What Somalia does seem able to sustain (I’d guess Afghanistan too), are highly localised power-structures with strong local participation and mediation – the normal situation before and during the colonial system, and the situation after the UN withdrawal up until about 2001. The focus should be on supporting these local processes and encouraging them to become more democratic, rather than on trying to create something at a national scale. Done properly, this might actually be *more* democratic than trying to build a centralised liberal-democracy.

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