The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Rob Sijstermans,Training and Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Netherlands.

As we mark the International Day of Peace, it’s worth asking what we should do when the ink of a peace agreement dries up. Is peacemaking only the domain of a few elite personalities and is all well after they put pen to paper?

Take the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty as an example. Signed in 1979, it is the longest-standing peace agreement in the Middle East, lasting now for almost four decades. In his memoirs, Jimmy Carter, who brought together Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, the leaders of Egypt and Israel, at Camp David, recalls showing Begin photographs of his grandchildren. Carter had signed each photograph with the children’s names, but insinuated to Begin that these mementoes would mean little if they couldn’t reach a peace agreement: “we talked quietly for a few minutes about grandchildren and about war”. As the popular success story goes, the tactic worked, and Begin agreed to sign the Camp David Accords.

Skillful diplomacy and unshakeable commitment also seems to be instrumental in other modern groundbreaking peace agreements. Consider the work of Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton’s special envoy for Bosnia, in diplomatic negotiations between the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s, or even the 37 visits to Northern Ireland that Tony Blair made in preparation of the Good Friday Agreement to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

However, when the ink of the elite’s signature on the peace agreement dries, a conflict is not automatically ended nor is the structural violence ended or have the scars of war healed.

The period after the signing of these agreements is the most important period for a possible peace to flourish. It is then that trust building with the aim of renewing a dialogue amongst the different factions and especially between local people affected by the conflict should begin. It sounds so easy, but as we all know from personal experience, building trust is not the same as building water wells; it goes deeper than the depth of the well and trust takes more time to surface.
In the case of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland for instance, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams knew that “The people who have to be the brokers are the people who live in the areas of conflict” and “implementing it is going to be the difficult bit”.

Keeping the peace and allowing it to transform from a ‘mere’ absence of direct violence in a society into a positive form of peace, which creates a society that becomes resilient to internal and external shocks, is a whole other challenge that, in the best possible scenario, takes decades.

So who are the actors that can speak with and for the principal part of the people in conflict- affected countries and who can help generate this resilience? In short, civil society is at the heart of the peacemaking process, before, during and after the signing of a peace agreement. Although it is worrisome to observe that in many societies across the world the space for civil society is shrinking, I believe it is here where the most sustainable progress can be made, as most civil society organizations are firmly embedded within the local populous and really have local ownership.

They are the central actors in what is known as Track II diplomacy, which gives NGOs, churches and academia a real say in peace processes, which ideally are multi-track diplomacy processes. I stated back in 2014 that everything in South Sudan “short of inclusive peace talks only stops violence momentarily and serves as a palliative”. Unfortunately, my prediction was proven right, and I think the same applies to Syria and many other conflicts today. In our experience we also find that most people trained in South Sudan on peace negotiations do not even know what the Peace Agreement is all about. Despite the best intensions of (I)NGO’s, civil society was side-tracked too often at crucial points in the South Sudan process for the agreement to become a foundation for peace.

There’s also a key role for civil society in the long-term, not just resolving conflicts, but preventing them in the first place. Envisioning this role requires a new focus on the key characteristics of peaceful countries, rather than merely the absence of violence.

One example of this is the Positive Peace research done by the Institute for Economics and Peace, which defines eight ‘pillars of positive peace’, ranging from equitable distribution of resources and well-functioning government, to low levels of corruption and high levels of human capital.

However, civil society cannot do this by itself. The task is simply too big. The reality is, despite all the rhetoric of the different players, in a complex situation like a conflict setting, no single actor can solve all issues by themselves. Not the military, not diplomats and not even civil society. There is no silver bullet or one single approach. Coordination and cooperation amongst all actors that strive for inclusivity is the key. And this in itself is a complex and major task.
To start this process we can begin by bridging the disconnect between the (donor)elites and local populations/civil society. For this we need bridge-builders. People who are able to speak the different policy languages and are realistic enough about the fact that there are those who sign a peace agreement, but implementing it is a different proposition. Turning signed paper into active peace requires an inclusive and multi-layered approach in which all relevant stakeholders play their role.
As such, from our side, we need to connect more with the people in the conflicts themselves. Talk more with them instead of talking about them at high level meetings, be committed for the long-term, and back this up with appropriate funding and a huge dose of realism on what can be expected in a short period of time.
There is no better time to attempt more creative civil initiatives that combine training, research and on–the-ground work, because there is a clear and widening ‘global democratic deficit’, or in other words, an erosion of the ‘ability of every individual to be able to influence or participate in the decisions that affect their lives’. This deficit is fuelling the growing public frustration not only with sovereign governments, but also with global governance institutions like the U.N. or the E.U. A new approach is urgently needed, because traditional, grand diplomatic treaties are increasingly hard to pull off in the context of globalized political or ideological movements and the interests of non-state actors.

Peacemaking is everyone’s responsibility, and we can reduce that global democratic deficit by ensuring that we participate in different ways in the events that shape our livelihoods.

Sometimes -as one of my teachers said- we should go slow to go fast, and I think that especially on the International Day of Peace we should acknowledge that peace needs time and commit ourselves once again to moving forward past the dried ink towards a sustainable form of peace, at a steady pace and as realistic idealists.

Mr. Rob Sijstermans LL.M MA is a Training and Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Netherlands. Rob was awarded the Rotary Peace Fellow Scholarship in 2011, and completed a MA in Conflict, Security and Development from the University of Bradford, UK. Currently Rob has been selected for the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index Ambassadorial Program.

NB This piece was written in cooperation with Rotary International. The views expressed in this op-ed are not necessarily the views of his current employer, nor was this piece written in the function of his current employer.

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