War is Easy, Peace is Hard: Why Do So Many Peace Processes Fail?

15/08/2016 1:50 PM AEST | Updated 06/10/2016 6:12 PM AEDT
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Adriane Ohanesian / Reuters

A few weeks ago South Sudan, the world's youngest state, marked five years of independence. But the July 9 anniversary was overshadowed considerably by reports of gunfire and fighting in the country's capital, Juba, in the same week.

In the five days of fighting, hundreds of people were killed in Juba, and tens of thousands were displaced.

United Nation Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and NGOs are taking measures to assist civilians with vital supplies, provide military and civilian personnel within the country and introduce a regional protection force, but the fact remains that the South Sudan -- where more than a million people have died in the last twenty years, many due to the complications of civil conflict -- is still a long way from sustaining long term peace. This, even though key factions -- including president Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar -- signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in August 2005.

Andreea Campeanu / Reuters
Women displaced by the fighting wait to get clean water at a water point in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the United Nations (UN) base in Bentiu, Unity State.

Now, research is being undertaken to establish why countries struggling in the aftermath of civil war, like South Sudan -- along with Bosnia, Iraq and numerous others -- often seem unable to consolidate peace and establish security, political stability and economic growth, or even keep everyone fed and with access to clean water.

Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, Director of the Bachelor of International Relations at La Trobe University has recently completed a major research project looking at why so many peace processes fail, and what can be done to give post-war states and societies the best chance of peace.

"Civil wars are enormously complex especially when they have been going on for a long time. And on a technical level it's really difficult to bring them to an end and establish the sorts of institutional systems that you might expect in a peaceful state," Dr Westendorf says.

While she says that there is no quick fix solution, there is one factor that could benefit in all post-civil-war societies.

"A better understanding of the political, economic and social dynamics that shape the choices individuals make about the use of violence is essential to building more robust peace post war," she says.

Dealing with the sources of mistrust and hate between groups is key to this. "In order for peace to stick, there needs to be some accounting for what happened during a major conflict. Some level of truth telling seems to be very important for peace building, because it can set the record straight on what happened during the war, and can give those who suffered a sense that their experiences have been heard," Dr Westendorf says.

In a place like South Sudan where the Sudanese People's Liberation Army -- the prosecutors of one side of a civil war, and then both sides of another -- is a major actor in the post-war state structures, it's difficult to see how they would allow free and fair war crimes tribunals, but Dr Westendorf says the truth telling process doesn't have to be judicial and criminally binding to be worthwhile.

Adriane Ohanesian / Reuters
South Sudanese women and children queue to receive emergency food at the United Nations protection of civilians (POC) site 3.

"Just having their stories being heard can be very transformative for communities. Even what is told in schoolbooks is important. When people's children are taught a history that doesn't speak to their understanding of the war, then they feel maligned and may lose faith in the peace process. If there is a genuine sense that all sides of the story of a war are being told, and that some accounting for war-time crimes has happened, it's far easier to build trust between formerly warring groups."

Dr Westendorf says she has "looked at these issues very broadly in conflicts that have occurred and been settled since the end of the Cold War in 1991," -- and her research findings reflect the opinions of survivors of other recent civil wars.

Dr. Damir Mitric, a former PHD student at LaTrobe University and survivor of the Bosnian Civil War says the information limitation and segregation was fuel that drove the Balkan Wars, and continues to drive discontent to this day.

Danilo Krstanovic / Reuters
The residents of Sarajevo take cover from sniper fire behind a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) armoured vehicle in 1993.

"In the Balkans the divisions are now ingrained because there are three separate media camps, three separate stories being told in schools, and three separate narratives about the war. That situation is created by those who benefit from such divisions,"says Mitric.

Dr Westendorf says that while there are numerous examples of truth telling processes transforming fractious societies, transitional justice alone cannot create lasting peace. If handled badly, truth telling processes risk re-opening the wounds of war -- causing more harm than good if they don't treat victims and communities with respect, or don't accurately account for the crimes of the war.

Ultimately though, she argues that "any truth telling processes must be complemented with efforts to fairly and effectively rebuild governance and security institutions, and rebuild the economy to the point that individuals and communities trust that the new state structures will work for them, rather than against them."

Thus lies the value of research such as that undertaken by Dr Westendorf -- it provides the world, including those involved with peace-making and peace building, with insights into how and why peace processes are failing, which may otherwise be overlooked.

"There's no sign that civil wars are abating at all and there's no evidence that the ways that we have over the last 25 years attempted to resolve them are working...so we've got to find better solutions," she says.

While truth-telling in a post-civil war country may not be the whole solution, it is a very important piece in the puzzle of helping states like South Sudan avoid remaining stuck in a cycle of poverty and hunger.

Learn more about how La Trobe are working to solve some of the biggest issues of our time.

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