Conciliation Resources has started digging deeper into pre-formal dialogue phases and approaches. Through 2019-2020, and with the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Conciliation Resources is bringing together practitioners, analysts, members of conflicting parties, and communities affected by violence, to share experiences, reflect and debate the challenges faced to lay the foundations for viable peace processes.
There are many hurdles. This ‘early’ phase can involve years, sometimes decades, of efforts to facilitate or mediate agreements. Difficulties include the steep climb to reframe conflict parties’ rigid views of each other; the political and logistical efforts required to get peace talks off the ground; and, increasingly, to find more inclusive and representative ways of progressing.
Conciliation Resources recently released a first summation of these conversations reflecting a February 2019 workshop that filtered some early findings and initial recommendations which are detailed in a new Accord Spotlight, Pathways to peace talks.
What is pre-talks peace process support?
Peace processes ebb and flow. Much of the pre-formal talks phase takes place behind closed doors; dominated by warring parties. From the very beginning, armed actors, mostly made up of men, set the terms and issues that will be discussed, and who negotiates them. But even at this pre-formal stage, small spaces can be opened up by a range of unarmed movements, influencers and civil society organisations.
Today, there are many different types of peace support on offer to help belligerents and others to engage in considered peace processes. Indeed, the past decade has witnessed an explosion of actors in the field of mediation support. The Accord Spotlight notes the increasing number of such organisations, and, among these, the increasing prevalence of ‘hands on’ states that are simultaneously both donors and actively engaged in providing peace process support – so-called ‘donor-doers’. This is further reflected in the rapid and recent rise in the number of mediation units in states, in regional and international organisations and within international NGOs (INGOs) in the past 10-15 years.
The Accord Spotlight reflects the views of practitioners that the early phases and those associated with collapse and stalled processes can be vital opportunities to explore dialogue with potential ‘spoilers’ – for example groups with highly conservative or extremist views who are likely to resist negotiated solutions. Excluding such influential groups early on leaves the door open for them to undermine and stymie the process later. Reaching out to them can provide opportunities to better understand their perspectives that may be driving violence and their visions of peace and help to find common ground and potentially shift antagonistic relationships.
‘Peace process support’ has become an umbrella term, but what does it mean in the pre-formal talks’ phase? It spans a broad range of efforts: preparing fighting forces, civil society and government officials for dialogue – for example to increase subject-specific knowledge, communication skills and capabilities, and to frame and reframe positions and messages.
Pre-talks peace process support entails amongst other core actions, dialogue promotion and levelling the playing field. This often means working with armed actors to address asymmetry dynamics. This can also be particularly vital for women who are often disadvantaged by historical marginalisation, but who also miss opportunities to hone their negotiation skills in pre-talks and lengthy dialogue processes, as men do, because they are excluded from the get-go.
Third party peace process support frequently involves ‘accompanying’ both unarmed and armed actors in order to secure buy-in and build momentum for pro-peace strategies among different factions. Conciliation Resources painstakingly did so for years as a contribution to the Ogaden political settlement. Pre-formal talks phase peace support is incremental, low-key, and prone to collapse and repeated failure, but is essential to support pathways to peace talks.
But peace process support includes so much more than is introduced here. The examples explored in the Accord Spotlight will be expanded and deepened in a forthcoming full Accord publication, which will be produced in spring 2020. This will include expert analysis and first-hand accounts and experiences of efforts to initiate peace processes, providing evidence and ideas for action along three axes of inquiry: trends and dynamics in conflict and in peacemaking; conceptions of practice; and innovations.
Making policies work for peace
A hallmark of Conciliation Resources’ research and advocacy is the coupling of critique with suggestions for strengthening policy and practice. Opening dialogue during the early stages of a peace process is essential – but it’s far from easy. Often, third party support to the nebulous phases of peace processes is hampered by legal and financial challenges.
For example, counter-terrorism laws, and particularly proscription of armed groups designated as terrorist, means that third parties are increasingly wary of engaging with armed groups in many states and regions for fear of contravening complex laws and regulations. Experts highlighted in the Accord Spotlight that some counter-terrorism policies need to be reviewed to ensure that they do not undermine efforts to encourage armed groups to engage in early stage dialogue.
Early phase funding, too, can be challenging, for example in relation to flexibility. There are several potentially contradictory dynamics that need to be navigated to ensure access to reliable and adaptive funding, which is essential to be able seize the unpredictable ‘windows of opportunity’. This confluence of factors is explored in the Spotlight, and the discussion reflects the concerns of many peace practitioners that the right type of funding is increasingly challenging to both find and sustain. The prevalent emphasis on quick impact funding simply does not fit with the imprecise and often secretive early stages of peace processes, where intangible but painstaking relationship-building and reframing of problems can be difficult to quantify using more conventional development methodologies.
Focusing on pathways to peace talks taps a deep interest, and commitment, to uncover greater understanding and better practice of what works in early efforts to promote dialogue and conflict resolution. Evidence shows that peace pathways are neither singular nor linear – peace processes go through myriad twists and turns at many levels, and repeatedly seem like they are back at square one. They require a dedicated mix of relentless optimism and patience. Initiating peace processes demands competence, courage and commitment, to navigate countless obstacles, and to ensure that they start as they mean to go on – setting the right course so that progress is both inclusive and sustainable.