From Benin to Papua New Guinea, national dialogues have in recent years served to resolve crises and further the transition to peace. Military and political elites are important to effective peace processes, but they are also often responsible for their failure. Is greater inclusion of civil society, private sector, women, youth, and other groups the key to improving the chances of achieving durable peace?
Speaking at UN Headquarters on 2 April, Dr. Thania Paffenholz, Director of the Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative at the Graduate Institute Geneva, said that while most national dialogues result in agreements, few are successfully implemented. According to research from the Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative (IPTI) that she heads, the attitude and behavior of national elites was found to be the single most important factor influencing the chances of national dialogues and other forms of negotiations to reach and implement agreements. Politically Speaking asked Dr. Paffenholz about her recent research on elite resistance and inclusive implementation of peace agreements:
According to your research, most national dialogues reach agreement, but only half of such accords are implemented. Why is that? And if that is the case, are national dialogues the best instrument to secure inclusive processes and long-lasting peace?
Our previous research compares national dialogues around the world and shows that national dialogues can be a very interesting instrument to help countries on their pathway to sustaining peace. But as for every instrument it depends on the phase, type of conflict, and context if such a dialogue could have chances to contribute to sustaining peace. At the heart of today’s conflicts (be they armed conflicts or popular uprisings) often lies the political, economic or social exclusion of groups from political decision-making. Frequently, governments in power merely fail to communicate with their people. Hence, most conflicts of today cannot be resolved in a classical Track 1 mediation between two or more powerful groups, as reality in most cases is more complex, with more actors and levels involved. Hence, broader dialogues can be an interesting instrument. However, these Dialogues have only been successful when key elites have bought into the processes; when change-oriented actors in the countries keep the momentum going; and when structures and procedures of such dialogues were set up in a way that ensured genuine representation.
National dialogues have been used by elites as a tool to gain or reclaim political legitimacy. How do elites circumvent or outmaneuver other groups?
Political and military elites use all sorts of strategies to gain or reclaim political legitimacy, simply said, to stay or come into power. National dialogues are therefore as prone to elite manipulation as any other process or negotiation format. The issue with national dialogues is more that they come along as broader inclusive instruments for political change. It is thus important to be aware that powerful groups can control these processes and manipulate other actors, to pursue their interests. Learning from the past which strategies have been applied by powerful actors to control peace processes can help to better understand whether current processes could either lead to sustaining peace; or, unsustainable, stabilizing elite power only. The key strategies that have been applied by powerful actors are, first, controlling selection criteria and procedures, i.e. making sure the ‘right’ people participate; second, putting decision making procedures in place that ensure control; or third, negotiating elite deals outside of the formal structures; fourth, influencing political views and narratives with strategic communication; fifth undermining or even blocking the process; and sixth, if the latter is not possible, controlling or undermining the implementation. Such strategies have been applied by elites before and during negotiations and throughout implementation.
Do you have an example of an “ideal” national dialogue resulting in political transition and sustained peace?
Political consensus, especially when negotiating new socio-political contracts are much too complex to take orientation from a simple template or one ‘successful’ case. In our advisory work we rather use relevant elements from different processes from the past, contextualize and then apply those to the specific process in question. This we do, taking orientation from both successful and unsuccessful cases. For example, during the Arab Spring, the national dialogue in Yemen (2013/2014) is an extremely interesting and rich example of managing diversity and inclusion on various levels, both generally in recognition of the important role of youth and women, and specifically for inclusion of the South. A quota for youth, women and Southern delegates was established across all delegations at the table. As the selection was done by the parties, such a quota would not have done justice to all the civil society activists that took part in the change movement that also had different views on many issues. As a consequence, in addition to the official delegations, three independent delegations of women, youth and Southern delegates were getting seats at the table and in many commissions. The Yemeni National Dialogue Conference is a very good example for a successfully completed inclusive dialogue; at the same time, it is an equally good example for failed implementation, with elites accommodating their power interests, rather than facilitating inclusive implementation. This subsequently led to the diminishing public support for the process and return to violence and one of the world’s most severe humanitarian catastrophes. Constitution making dialogues in Nepal or Afghanistan are also good examples for elite deals struck outside of the formal structures. The recently completed “Grand Dialogue National” in France is a good example of how a government establishes a national dialogue to regain public support and engage citizens in shaping their future. The national dialogues in Benin in 1990 and in Tunisia a few years ago are good examples where popular uprisings were successfully transformed into a political, non-violent reform processes.
How can the UN system work more systematically to secure inclusive peace processes around the world?
We need to turn the question around: It is not what the UN system can do to secure inclusive peace processes but what the UN system can do to help create pathways towards sustainable structures for inclusive, just and peaceful societies. The goal is not necessarily to always come to inclusive processes; rather, the goal should be outcomes leading to inclusive societies. This means strategically implementing a sustaining peace lens in all UN work, which is simultaneously combining the goal of short-term stabilization with this pathway-for-peace-logic and abandoning the linear sequence of peacemaking - peacebuilding - reconstruction and development paradigm. I can give a few examples: a sustaining peace lens in a ceasefire negotiation does not necessarily mean to include women or civil society into the talks, but to anchor gender provisions for all negotiation outcomes and to negotiate the start of a broader inclusive political dialogue thereafter, and then guaranteeing other groups spaces for meaningful participation. This could create the preconditions for a more inclusive society later. In Syria, for example, when it comes to inclusion, the question is not whether or not to enlarge the Women’s Advisory Board or broaden the civil society support room or how to fill the positions for the constitution body. The question is rather, “what can the UN system and the member states do better to help the country get on a pathway for peace?”. What does it take to remove the key barriers to get a process going and where are key opportunities that have not sufficiently been used in a creative way, for example by another approach to involve the neighboring region? And how can women and civil society from Syria and elsewhere contribute next to other actors?
This means the questions are too often focused on the means and not the ends. The answer for the UN system is also not more coordination but more coherent policies and creative strategies which are genuinely end-goal focused.
Title picture: UN Photo/Mark Garten
Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily reflect positions of the United Nations.