What approach should we take to resolving conflict?

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Paul Jackson is a political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. A core area of interest is decentralisation and governance and it was his extensive experience in Sierra Leone immediately following the war that led him into the area of conflict analysis and security sector reform. He was Director of the GFN-SSR and is currently an advisor to the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre which engages him in wide ranging policy discussion with donor agencies engaged in these activities, including various European Governments, the EU, the UN and the World Bank as well as the UK Government.

Thursday 21 September is the International Day of Peace. In many ways it is deeply sad that we need a special ‘day’ at all. In fact, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank which has produced the Global Peace Index for the past 10 years, only Botswana, Chile, Costa Rica, Japan, Mauritius, Panama, Qatar, Switzerland, Uruguay and Vietnam were free from conflict in 2016.

The world’s most peaceful countries

Iceland is the world’s most peaceful country, followed by Denmark, Austria, New Zealand and Portugal. Europe is the most peaceful region through practising what the index terms ‘positive peace’, or maintaining the factors that create and sustain peaceful societies. These include acceptance of the rights of others, low levels of corruption, the free flow of information and a well-functioning government.
The idea is that if positive peace is strong enough, then a country which suffers a violent event is sufficiently resilient to not deteriorate further.

Conflict inequality

The index also shows that whilst 79 countries improved their levels of peace, 81 declined and those that declined, declined very rapidly, particularly in the Middle East. This produces a form of ‘conflict inequality’ where if you happen to be in a country experiencing serious conflict, then you are far more likely to experience serious, recurrent and increasing threats to your security.
Long-term conflicts like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq that together account for 75% of all battlefield deaths and have regional effects, spreading conflict through migration, terrorism and instability in countries like Yemen and Libya.

Resolving conflict

So what can we do to address some of these issues? Approaches to peace and reconciliation are many and varied. Since WW2 there have been numerous attempts by major powers to act as global policemen. There is a strong argument, though, in pointing out that both Iraq and Afghanistan are results of this type of top-down approach and attempts to impose particular views of the world.

Academics have even argued that indices like the Global Peace Index are heavily biased because they privilege particular measures like western style democracy, although it should also be said that areas where these factors are strongest are also those that suffer the least violence. They are also amongst the wealthiest, and what the index shows is that peace inequality is accompanied by other forms of wealth inequality that contributes to underlying conflicts within countries.
If you live in a remote village in Africa, Asia or Latin America, then you may not be educated, you may not have access to land and you may not have family or any job prospects. Picking up a gun may be a form of emancipation and chance to become ‘someone’.
This points to the importance of reconciliation and bottom-up approaches to building peace. Top down aspects of governance and economic development, remain important, but they can also remain distant to many people.

We need to recognise that people who have turned to violence have done so for a reason implying that reconciliation itself needs to recognise the legitimacy of views that some other groups may not approve of.
Different types of reconciliation can address and fulfil particular aspects of a peacebuilding process. ‘Top down’ approaches to reconciliation tend to be high-profile and situated at the national level, creating reconciliation by bringing atrocities to public awareness through truth telling and the rule of law. ‘Bottom up’ approaches focus on the trauma of past abuses suffered by individuals and communities; these include traditional counselling, religion and the arts.

In reality, both are needed to prevent the types of recurrent violence that we see in those places where peace has been declining for some time.

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