This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Pospisil, J. (2022). Dissolving conflict. Local peace agreements and armed conflict transitions. Peacebuilding, 10(2), 122-137. https://doi.org/10.1080/21647259.2022.2032945
- Armed conflict and peacemaking are best understood not in terms of a hierarchical relationship between local and national levels but instead as a “mesh” of different “conflictscapes.”
- Examining local peace agreements on their own terms highlights how they can help dissolve armed conflict and address everyday security and well-being concerns of affected populations.
- Although local peace agreements do not address the substantive issues at the center of the national-level armed conflict, they can actually have “more relevance and tangible impact” for affected populations, especially regarding everyday security.
- Local peace agreements have diverse aims and fulfill three kinds of functions: “Connecting and strategising” (on the part of warring parties trying to gain advantage), “managing and mitigating” (to minimize the harmful effects of armed conflict), and “disconnecting” (“to end the armed conflict in a specific area”).
- Local peace agreements can help dissolve armed conflict in two main ways: first, by modeling a different logic, showing that “non-violent forms of conflict management” are possible, even amid ongoing armed conflict, and, second, by undermining the conditions necessary for armed conflict and providing concrete improvements to everyday security and livelihoods.
Typically, peace processes focus on negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement to resolve the core substantive issues of the national-level conflict, the effects of which are expected to trickle down to the rest of society. Any local peace agreements are usually understood in relation to this national-level process. Jan Pospisil is interested, however, in what we learn about conflict and peace from examining local peace agreements on their own terms. He argues that armed conflict is best understood not in terms of a hierarchical relationship between local and national levels but as a “mesh” of different “conflictscapes.” This reframing highlights the “everyday realities” of people living in conflict zones, as well as the role of local peace agreements in dissolving, rather than resolving, armed conflict.
|Conflictscapes:||“diverse landscapes of conflict,” which “work in different logics and to different aims…[and] appear at different levels in parallel.”|
To examine local peace agreements, the author draws on two main data sources: a database of 286 local peace agreements and records from two workshops involving participants from local peace processes worldwide.
What exactly makes “local peace agreements” local can be hard to identify. Although “local” usually refers to a specific, limited area, it does not necessarily mean “remote,” as local agreements can happen in both rural and urban areas. Likewise, although the actors involved are often local customary authorities or armed groups, they can also include others like national governments or international mediators. Ultimately, the distinguishing feature of a local peace agreement is that it does not intend to address the core substantive issues of the national-level armed conflict. But the modest aims of local peace agreements—a focus on concrete issues in sub-national settings—should not be confused with limited impact or lesser importance. Often, local agreements can have “more relevance and tangible impact” for affected populations—especially regarding everyday security.
Local peace agreements highlight dimensions of conflictscapes that are often sidelined in national-level peacemaking. Their focus on specific, concrete issues like local ceasefires or demilitarization of a particular area, mobility and access to resources, and/or “pastoralist nomadic rights” prioritizes managing ongoing conflict over addressing root causes. Furthermore, the frequent involvement of customary authorities and traditional conflict management mechanisms reveals how local religious and/or communal values and norms—rather than international human rights frameworks—often provide the moral foundation for local agreements.
Typology of local peace agreement (according to agreement goals)
After developing a typology of local peace agreements based on their different goals (above), the author identifies three functions served by local peace agreements (which cut across these agreement types):
1) Connecting and strategizing: When agreements are used by warring parties to “reshape the conflict landscape” to their advantage through strategic alliances and other measures.
2) Management and mitigation: When agreements are used to minimize the harmful effects of armed conflict in a particular conflictscape. One common example is the “‘classic’ form of local peace agreements, whereby customary or religious authorities engage with local militias” to address their conflicts.
3) Disconnecting: When agreements are used to “end the armed conflict in a specific area,” disentangling a particular territory or community from the grip of armed conflict. Methods include establishing peace zones or, somewhat paradoxically, even engaging in armed defense of a community.
Considering local peace agreements on their own terms, rather than simply in relation to broader national-level peace efforts, reveals important insights about armed conflict. First, “local” peace agreements are ultimately hybrid in character, involving not only local but also national and international actors and impact. Second, peacemaking is necessary at all levels, and there is a steady demand for local peace agreements regardless of what is transpiring at the national level. Third, local peace agreements are best understood not as grassroots peace efforts but as “political products” within a particular conflictscape, as they are often enacted by customary, religious, and/or military leaders who gain legitimacy through their ability to negotiate and implement them.
This different approach to thinking about local peace agreements points to the distinct role they can play in armed conflict transitions. Rather than contribute directly to the resolution of national-level conflict, they can help dissolve armed conflict in two main ways:
1) By shifting to and modeling a different logic of conflict management, showing that “non-violent forms of conflict management” are possible, even when there is no agreement on the core conflict issues at the national level.
2) By undermining the conditions necessary for armed conflict—for instance, through disbanding or preventing recruitment for armed groups or reducing the flow of weapons in an area—and providing tangible peace benefits, including enhanced everyday security and access to resources necessary for livelihoods.
Adopting a non-hierarchical view of local peace agreements opens up new “conceptual and practical opportunities” for understanding and addressing armed conflict. It reveals the hybrid conflictscapes that together constitute an armed conflict and underscores the key role local peace agreements can play in dissolving armed conflict and addressing everyday security and wellbeing concerns of affected populations.
Key Insight for Informing Practice:
Recognizing the distinctive value of local peace agreements and broadening our perspective in peace efforts beyond “resolution” to “dissolution” highlights the role of ordinary people and gives us more tools to address armed conflict. It reminds us that we can all work to stop armed conflicts by taking away what they need to continue, like military equipment, willing fighters, and militarist thinking.
The contention of this research—that local peace agreements have value in their own right and that examining them on their own terms can help us understand and address armed conflict in new ways—provides a helpful reorientation away from an exclusive focus on national- or international-level, Track 1 conflict resolution processes and towards the conflict dissolution potential of local peace agreements. Especially in contexts where the Track 1 process is stuck, this reorientation may prove useful—and empowering—as it foregrounds the role of civilian agency in the midst of armed conflict and the fact that civilians can affect the armed conflict landscape in which they live. Yes, many local peace agreements are negotiated by armed groups jostling for a more advantageous military or territorial position or hoping to consolidate political authority and may ultimately have a negative impact on everyday security if these groups use ceasefires, for instance, simply to strengthen or move their forces. Yet, other local peace agreements are the work of civil society groups and customary leaders trying to carve out space for a demilitarized existence amid the wider turmoil of war or to provide temporary respite from bullets or bombs so civilians can find their way to a safer place. In these ways they can serve as a civilian-led tool of demilitarized security, using relationships and legitimacy and other forms of leverage to bring armed actors to the table. Civilians can cultivate the everyday security they require without waiting around for elite political and military leaders or international forces to do it for them.
Peace practitioners and advocates can support and value these efforts, and UN peacekeepers and other involved military forces can be mindful not to supplant or interrupt these efforts by assuming that they—and not local civilians—are the prime security actors.
Additionally, valuing local peace agreements on their own terms has the added benefit of valuing the work of those actors—often women, as noted with reference to Syria here and South Sudan here—whose labor and expertise in local and/or informal peacemaking can frequently run beneath the radar.
Finally, reframing peace efforts in terms of dissolution rather than resolution provides a broader set of tools for addressing armed conflict, no matter the kind of “conflictscape.” Dissolution is essentially about depleting an armed conflict of what it needs to continue (military equipment, willing fighters, militarist thinking) rather than resolving its substance. When doing the latter is too thorny—or when the conflict is not quite “ripe” enough for substantive negotiations—peace advocates can approach matters from another angle, extracting the violent means currently used to address the conflict from the conflict itself. Local peace agreements constitute just one possible method of dissolution; others include counter-recruitment and broader support for combatants wishing to refuse (further) military service, efforts to stem the weapons trade, the expression of counter-narratives that challenge widespread militarism and/or dehumanization of the opponent, the mobilization of societal institutions away from support for war, and so on. If war is no longer a viable means for addressing conflict—because hawkish leaders have neither adequate political support for it nor access to sufficient numbers of willing combatants or weapons—the original substance of the conflict may still exist, but parties will simply have to address it through other means. [MW]
How does reorienting our perspective from “resolution” to “dissolution” change the options we see for ending armed conflict?
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PeaceRep (Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform, University of Edinburgh): https://peacerep.org/
Key Words: local peace agreements, local peacebuilding, ceasefires, zones of peace, customary authorities, peace processes, everyday security, conflict dissolution/disintegration
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Photo credit: United Nations Development Programme in Europe and CIS