Peace after war: what goes wrong?

According to recent studies, 30 nations are currently engaged in civil war or highly violent conflict. While the international community has tried to build peace, countries with peace settlements in place are still experiencing security, violence and mistrust. La Trobe's Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf asks the question: why do peace processes fail to establish lasting peace?

The complexities of war

Peacebuilding is in Dr Westendorf's blood. From 1996 to 1998, she lived in Peshawar, Pakistan. Her parents were humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan during the civil war there, and the family was deeply connected to Pakistan’s Afghan refugee community. That experience, she says, influenced her interest in wars and peace processes.

Dr Westendorf’s research has taken her to Cambodia, Nepal, East Timor, Cyprus and Palestine. She’s travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and America. In 2015, she worked with Palestinian peacebuilders in the Occupied West Bank.

Now, she hopes to aid the development of more effective policies for post-war governance, security and transitional justice mechanisms. She wants to build processes that allow peace to ‘stick’ after civil war has ended.

According to recent studies, 30 nations are currently engaged in civil war or highly violent conflict.

Even if there’s no war raging, there are many places where people can’t live with dignity, human rights, or access to health and education.

Even if there’s no war raging, there are many places where insecurity is so pervasive that people can’t live with dignity and human rights, or even basic access to services such as health and education,’ she says.

Part of the problem is that civil wars are enormously complex. When they’ve been in progress for a long time, it becomes extremely difficult to end the conflict and establish the sort of institutional systems you might find in peaceful countries.

According to Dr Westendorf, ‘it’s hard to hold free and fair elections, or to get formally warring groups to participate in governance structures and processes, or to tell the truth about wartime atrocities, or to find out who’s responsible for certain crimes.’

That’s because relationships between the groups continue to be riven with mistrust and fear. That could manifest in anxiety that the war will resume, or fear of other warring groups

Broadly, Dr Westendorf’s research looks at conflicts that have occurred since the Cold War ended in 1991. Her focus is on how the international community engages in peace building, analysing processes like disarming combatants and building government structures and security forces.

She confronts the past, looking at how transitional justice is rolled out through war-crimes tribunals, truth-telling commissions and other mechanisms aimed at helping communities come to terms with conflict.

Her research examines civil trouble spots in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific, trying to uncover similarities in how the international community approaches conflict.

‘Why do failures of peacebuilding reoccur across very different countries and contexts?’ she asks. ‘Is there something about the way the international community understands peace – and peace building – that actually creates incentives for further instability?’

A fundamental failure

Dr Westendorf believes current processes fail to uncover the heart of the conflict and don’t do enough to convince people to embrace peace. Sometimes, peace processes even create further divisions that lay the groundwork for renewed conflict. This then creates even more difficult situations to resolve.

For example, the new situation could have regional and global implications through displaced people, destroyed infrastructure and devastated environments. The new scenario could serve to spread disease, and create war economies related to resource extraction and the arms trade. Sometimes, it could even provide opportunities for terrorist networks to consolidate.

In addition, ex-combatants might suddenly find themselves powerless, purposeless and without a source of income after war. Participating in violent criminal games or fostering new militia could be their way to restore control and meaning in their lives.

Dr Westendorf says that most wars started in recent years occur in countries with previous civil war. In other words, these wars today are the product of failed peace processes. So where and how exactly does a war end?

‘There needs to be more pragmatism in the choices being made by the international community,’ she says. ‘People seem to think peace can be achieved with the right recipe of institutional, social and political arrangements. In reality, peace is deeply contested and there might be any number of reasons why it proves to be disruptive rather than a desired way forward.’

She explains that the technocratic approach to governance focuses on elections, constitutions, setting up good governance, training bureaucrats and civil servants – and trying to deal with corruption.

‘But what if certain people don’t want to participate in those structures? They might find it easier to get what they want by undermining new governance institutions. That’s why there’s a lot of violence in post-war societies around the time of elections.’

The road to reconciliation

Dr Westendorf reckons we need to face up to an unpalatable truth: the methods we’ve used to try to resolve recent wars aren’t working. Take Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan. An enormous amount of resources went into peace building in those countries, but the situation is probably worse now. War has restarted in all three.

We need better solutions, as many countries are increasingly unwilling to commit resources to international peace-making without evidence of positive change.

Traditionally, as she highlights, the ‘technocratic approach’ to governance focusses on elections and constitutions. It sets up efficient governance bureaucracies. It trains bureaucrats and civil servants.

But it doesn’t explore why people might not want to participate.

Her research has an educational function: to guide the international community. For example, her book, Why Peace Processes Fail: Negotiating Insecurity after Civil War, isn’t theoretical. Instead, it presents accessible lessons drawn from case studies and Dr Westendorf’s extensive interviews with world-leading peace negotiators and peacebuilding practitioners. She asks: how can peace be better made, and more robust? What are the policy challenges that must be overcome?

According to former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, Professor Gareth Evans, Dr Westendorf’s book is ‘required reading for anyone in the peacebuilding business’. Globally, peacemakers have also been appreciative. Because their work is so hands on – there are so many conflicts and so many problems to solve globally – they have little time for research.

‘If academics can contribute to developing policy relevant conclusions that peacemakers can easily understand and implement,’ Dr Westendorf says, ‘then that’s really valuable for them.’

Ultimately, she wants to help those involved in peace-making and peacebuilding consider different approaches to ending wars. She also wants to help rebuild the governance, security and justice processes that contribute to consolidating peace.

Rather than building electoral systems, peace builders should respond to the reasons why people use violence.

‘Through better planning and more flexible, dynamic approaches to peace building,’ she says, ‘you can respond to the challenges that arise after peace settlements.’

For instance, rather than focusing primarily on building robust electoral systems, understanding and responding to the reasons why some individuals or groups use violence around the time of elections would be a useful way of shaping the international community’s peacebuilding strategy.

And rather than assuming war crimes tribunals and truth commissions will automatically assist with reconciliation, it would be valuable to consider how those processes might be used by political elites to capture and dominate the stories of past crimes. That might then in turn lead to better approaches to giving a voice to those who suffered the most and whose confidence is essential to stable peace.

And that leads to one clear aim: building enduring peace in a world affected by repeated cycles of conflict.

Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf is lecturer in International Relations in La Trobe University’s Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, and Director of the Bachelor of International Relations.

See yourself helping to build peace.

Study International Relations at La Trobe

Inspired by our research?