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