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South Sudan's day of independence in 2011
South Sudan's day of independence in 2011
Victor de Currea-Lugo

Peace is a process, never a single event. Negotiations for peace are always far more complicated than the public understands, and the results are not always miraculous. Even so, the majority of modern conflicts — 80%, according to the School for the Culture of Peace in Barcelona — eventually end after negotiations. The school’s reports show that 12 peace agreements have been signed in the world during the last 20 years, but some of them would be well-worth revising.

Here we take a whistle-stop tour of the ups and downs and ins and outs of peace processes from around the world.

BOGOTA – Negotiations with the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SLM) in the southern part of the country took years to complete. From the start of the conflict in 1983 to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and for many years afterwards, unresolved frustrations stoked mistrust between the parties and constantly risked compromising the negotiations.

In the case of Mali, the inhabitants known as the Tuaregs were refused recognition as a minority group, and the government constantly reneged upon the promises it made after each uprising. These factors explain in large part the 2011 riot and also the rebels’ incredulity upon receiving new offers from the government. Several failed peace processes, jeopardized in particular by the country’s elite, were then used as a justification for the rebels’ launching an all-out armed assault.

In Afghanistan, attempts to establish negotiations with the Taliban have been impeded not only by the assassination of the Afghan government’s negotiators but also by war crimes committed by United States troops (desecrating dead bodies, burning copies of the Koran and deliberating killing civilians). It has created a mutually detrimental standoff in which both sides are strong enough to impose a veto on the other’s objectives, hampering any chance of reaching a negotiated end to the conflict.

In Senegal, negotiations were initiated in 1999, aborted in 2000, restarted in 2001 and fell apart just a few months later, even though agreements on specific aspects of the conflict had already been signed. Peace was finally secured with a new pact in 2004.

When there’s no concensus

Peace processes begun by one group are not always accepted by all of its members. In Darfur, the different factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) fought among themselves for several reasons, but in particular to scuttle the negotiations.

In the case of Chechnya, the killings of the most nationalist rebel leaders during military action created a vacuum that was filled by Islamist leaders. This result was a strengthened religious agenda, which in turn led to fewer opportunities for peace.

When there are several armed groups involved, it’s generally easier to negotiate with each one individually than with all of them at the same time. Not all parties will agree to follow the same process or the same rules and, as an obvious consequence, the more parties involved in a conflict, the more difficult it is to reach a consensus that will please everyone.

In fact, the existence of different rebel groups is often a byproduct of the many different grievances with the central government in question. Armed groups that have a predominantly nationalist leaning often have problems reaching a consensus with Islamist armed groups. This tension was seen in Chechnya, Palestine and Lebanon, for example.

The same can be said about the tensions between pro-independence groups and those that simply want autonomy, like in the cases of the Western Sahara, Kurdistan and Kashmir.

Signing an agreement with one party is quicker, but signing with many parties is more stable and lasting: To aid this, the macro document that guides negotiations can establish a procedure by which new parties can join the negotiations.

In Guatemala, three consecutive governments negotiated to end the conflict. The process took several years and three different negotiating teams. Initially, the exploratory contact failed because of the refusal of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) to disarm. The national armed forces used this refusal as a reason to oppose the whole peace process.

The support of the armed forces is vital to the success of any peace process. Guatemala’s military was divided with regard to the peace process, hence the long negotiating period.

Civil society doesn’t always help

However discouraging it may sound, civil society plays only a secondary role in peace processes. History clearly demonstrates this. But that doesn’t mean the secondary role is always a marginal one. The division of society in Northern Ireland, the marches against peace in Mali, and the religious and ethnic social fragmentation in Burma are just a few examples of how society can contribute to prolonging conflicts. On the other hand, in Central America, civil society has played a key role in setting each country on the path to peace.

In summary, peace processes are not linear, and they can’t be ordered from best to worst as though there is a right and a wrong way to achieve peace. Peace takes time, sometimes decades (Sudan); the process can often be riddled with failed attempts (Mali and Senegal); and though a truce may seem like the first step on the road to peace, it sometimes acts to prolong the war.

War crimes increase distrust between parties (Afghanistan), breaking agreements can lead to a return to arms (Mali), and changes in leadership can determine, both for better and worse, the possibility of peace (Chechnya).

And yet, while peace processes may be unpredictable, vulnerable and turbulent, they remain the most effective way of achieving a lasting peace.

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