What challenges do contemporary peace processes face?

Isabel Bramsen, David Lewis and Yaniv Voller

A large banner with a slogan ‘Resume peace talks! Oppose martial law!’ is held aloft during a demonstration.
Thousands of Youth and students lead a broad multisectoral rally at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila on the 20th of September 2019, the eve of the 47th anniversary of the commemoration of the declaration of Martial Law by the Ousted dictator Marcos. Photo byJ osefiel Rivera/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

As the terms of modern conflicts continue to be defined by complex coalitions of military and political actors, the obstacles to establishing effective peace processes are many and daunting. In this blogpost we interview contributors from recent issues of International Affairs to discuss the key challenges facing contemporary peace processes. From the difficulty of building trust between opposing political leaders to the rise of authoritarian approaches to peacebuilding, contributors highlight some of the key difficulties facing policy-makers as well as the steps that they can take to address them.

How does the absence of political leaders limit the effectiveness of peace negotiations?

Isabel Bramsen: Literature has shown that face-to-face interaction can generate trust and social bonds which are critical in peace talks. However, peace talks generally take place between representatives of the conflicting parties rather than their leaders, meaning trust is often built between representatives with limited decision-making power. Hence, even if there is a very good atmosphere and friendship-like relations between negotiators, as I observed in the Philippine peace talks between the government and the communist party CPP, talks may fall apart if leaders or hardliners from the government are not present. The problem is that leaders usually only meet when an almost-agreement has been worked out at lower levels to avoid losing face when meeting with an opponent without any direct results. This catch-22 therefore constitutes a critical challenge for peace negotiations.

If used in the right way, virtual technology could perhaps be applied to circumvent this catch-22. Virtual meetings do not produce social bonds and trust to the same extent as in person meetings. But they may enable leaders of conflicting parties, who might be unable or unwilling to meet in person, to talk to each other. This is because the risk of loosing face is smaller with unsuccessful virtual meetings, since they hold less symbolic weight diplomatically.

Isabel Bramsen is Vice Director of Peace and Conflict Studies and Associate Senior Lecturer at Lund University, Department of Political Science.

How does the Russia-led rise of authoritarian approaches to conflict resolution challenge existing western approaches to peacebuilding?

David Lewis: Russia’s war in Ukraine has shocked the world. But the pattern of Russian behaviour in Ukraine is not new. My research examines Russia’s authoritarian and often brutal mechanisms for controlling territory and societies in zones of conflict. The use of force is central to Russian policy — but not sufficient. Alongside its use of the military, Russia relies heavily on information and narrative control, co-optation of local elites, asymmetric negotiations and economic levers — including the use of humanitarian aid as a mechanism of control.

These are not just ad hoc Russian tactics — they constitute a model of authoritarian conflict management, which relies on top-down, violent practices to impose an often grim and contested ‘peace’. This model is not unique to Russia. We have seen versions of this ‘illiberal peace’ emerge in conflicts over the past decade. It poses a fundamental challenge to the liberal norms that informed peacebuilding in the post-Cold War world — reflecting a much wider global backlash against liberal values. Authoritarian conflict management may provide short-term stabilization in some wars, but it cannot resolve long-term conflicts or produce a lasting and just peace.

David Lewis is Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter.

How do pro-government militias gain influence and what does their prominence mean for attempts at conflict resolution?

Yaniv Voller: Local militia leaders have two key advantages: their regional power base and ability to serve as intermediaries between the authorities and local population. In Syria, these qualities and the militias’ support for the Bashar al-Assad regime enabled leaders of marginalized communities to gain political influence, secure participation in governance and present their communities’ grievances.

So far, attempts at demobilizing these militias have remained partial. Even the Russians, who are the regime’s principal backers and are antagonistic towards irregulars, have in practice accepted their presence. Moreover, while it is commonly assumed that demobilization of militias is a necessary step for post-conflict resolution, the status quo may suggest otherwise. As long as the regime is unable to guarantee the safety of peripheral communities and as long as their leaders’ participation in governance and the economy depends on militia forces, the disarming of militias will not, and perhaps should not, be prioritized.

Yaniv Voller is a Senior Lecturer in the Politics of the Middle East, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent.

This blogpost was commissioned by Joseph Hills, the Digital Content Editor at International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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