Despondent peacebuilding: Have we killed optimism in post-conflict studies?

#WR2050 10 / January 2022

Author: Ivor Sokolić, CHIP researcher

It has become common today to argue that efforts at post-conflict peacebuilding, transitional justice and reconciliation not only struggle to achieve and maintain sustainable peace, but that they erode it. These critiques come from a variety of angles. Some argue that these efforts only result in a Western imposition of occidental, paternalistic and sometimes post-colonialist visions of peace. Others argue that, whatever the aims, the efforts are ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst. They often alienate local publics and strengthen nationalist politicians, who are able to “hijack” these efforts for their own purposes (to borrow from Prof Jelena Subotić). More recently, works have started arguing that contact between formerly opposed ethnic groups through peace dialogues is more likely to exacerbate tensions between groups than reduce them.

This literature makes valid points. We ought to be critical. Reflexivity in our practice as scholars of post-conflict studies and as practitioners is crucial to improving our practice. However, the level of critique and pessimism that has now enveloped the scholarship seems extreme. Is the proposed alternative to abandon all efforts at peacebuilding, transitional justice and reconciliation? Or have we, the scholars who criticise these efforts for not being context specific enough, for ignoring local voices and for generalising too much, ourselves  ignored the contexts within which these efforts operate and thus assumed they are all the same?

Take the example of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia(ICTY). It has rightfully been critiqued for ignoring local publics in its work. It has been used as a pulpit by nationalist politicians to progress their political goals. And, it has left many victims unrepresented and many claims for justice unheard. Does that mean it was a mistake to establish it? I argue not. Instead, I argue that the positive effects are difficult to capture and require contextualisation.

The ICTY, and transitional justice efforts like it, are often a first of their kind. The ICTY had many shortcomings, but it also achieved some things that were otherwise unlikely to happen. It set legal precedents, for example case law dealing with sexual violence. It brought some of the main drivers behind  the violence to justice. In doing so, it provided justice to some (although far from all) victims that otherwise may not have seen any. And, it provided a physical legacy to its research and work through its archives. These perceived successes need to be contextualised, but they point to something positive in the work of the ICTY and to the usefulness of such efforts, which can inform future efforts. Approaching such projects with too much pessimism risks painting the whole effort in a negative light and ignoring some of the good that it did.

Critiques of efforts in post-conflict peacebuilding, transitional justice and reconciliation are valid and can be useful, but they need to be used to modify these efforts, rather than reject them outright. So far, we as scholars, have struggled to empirically capture positive effects, but this does not mean they are not there. More focus is worth putting into methodological innovation to do, rather than repeating critiques that give little voice to those who have felt the positive effects of the efforts. If our pessimism continues unabated, we put the very existence of these efforts at risk.