Publication date: 
Feb 2019

4 lessons on building inclusive peace settlements

Christine Bell
Director of the Political Settlements Research Programme
This article is written by Christine Bell and is taken from our latest Accord: 'Navigating inclusion in peace processes.'

Over the four years of the Political Settlement Research Project (PSRP), I have had two dimensions to my work. One as Programme Director of the PSRP, focused on addressing inclusion in violent conflicts as a ‘development’ project. The second as Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Edinburgh, expected by virtue of my position to offer insights into domestic constitutional legal developments in the UK, which in the same time period have included the aftermath of the Scottish referendum and the Brexit referendum.

Curiously, during that time it has become striking how the concerns and phrases that emanated from communities and researchers engaged in the PSRP within developing countries seemed to resonate with the challenges facing Western states and institutions. Whether one looks to the US, the UK, Spain or the European Union, all seemed to be facing accentuated forms of radical disagreement over who the state exists to serve and who is included and excluded by its current political settlement and place in the global order. Disagreement over questions of inclusion has moved beyond the realm of ongoing political disputation able to be easily resolved by political institutions and constitutions in ways that have proved difficult to respond to. Each of these countries and the EU faces fundamental destabilisation of their political settlements whose outcome is unpredictable.

In our research on some of the world’s most contested and conflicted societies, people know this politics of radical disagreement and uncertainty very well, and have fashioned imperfect but practical ways to assert inclusion as a way of bridging across deep social divides. With the PSRP’s programme commitment to North-South partnership, understanding the ‘whos, whys, hows and whats’ of the inclusion project, now – more than ever – requires us to take lesson-learning much more seriously as a two-way street.

Based on our research, below are four of the most startling lessons we have learnt about the inclusion in the course of our PSRP journey.

There are clear tensions between the different inclusion projects which cannot be eliminated but must be managed. Tension between different forms of inclusion and different agendas for change are inherent to the process of peacebuilding. Most notably, the types of deals that enable political and military elites to work together across divides, often ignore the wider inclusion claims of the population at large, in ways that destablise any peace they create over time. This tension cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed in better or worse ways. We suggest that no single inclusion project can be prioritised at the expense of others because both the buy-in of those actors at the heart of the conflict and the broader social agendas for change will be critical to building sustainable peace.

The difficulties of resolving conflicts continue to mutate as a result of a new uncertain global context. Our research on peace processes has revealed how intractable conflicts are increasingly multi-level, with forms of local, national and international conflict nested in each other. Each of these levels involves a different ‘inclusion arena’ in which social change is negotiated, all of which must often be addressed to end conflict. We suggest that it is increasingly important to recognise that development actors, peacebuilders and norm-promoters are working in a context in which both the nature of intra-state conflict and normal ways of doing ‘peace processes’ are being challenged.

For nearly 30 years, peace processes and their inclusion projects have focused on national conflict and the relationship of the state to one or several large armed opposition groups. The most intractable conflicts today, however, involve both geopolitical conflict and diffused local armed actors that, rather than having fragmented, were never formed into a large and coherent opposition but always operated as small groups in loose and changing alliances. PSRP work relating to Afghanistan indicates that understanding how we might produce multi-level peace processes to address nested conflicts is critical to peacebuilding. It might even hold new opportunities for using inclusion projects at a local level to build islands of peace when national peace processes are struggling to gain purchase.

Inclusion mantras tend to hurt rather than help the underlying inclusion projects that they seek to serve, if not accompanied by practical strategies for meaningful inclusion. The example of the failed peace agreement referendum in Colombia, unfolding as it did within our research timeframe, provided a working example of how a gap between the rhetoric of inclusion and the forms of inclusion actually on offer in the peace process, agenda for change can undo the results of an apparently successful negotiation process. People lacked confidence in the agreement’s agenda for change.

Unexpected forms of complementarity mean that dividends in one aspect of the inclusion project lead to unexpected dividends in others. Research by Jessica Doyle and Monica McWilliams on domestic violence, for example, shows that if political and military elites can agree on radical programmes of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration and police reform, violence against women in their intimate relationships can decrease as a result of better policing and reduction of weapons in homes.

You can read more about these key findings in the new Accord 28: 'Navigating inclusion in peace processes'.


Christine Bell is Professor of Constitutional Law and Assistant Principal (Global Justice) University of Edinburgh and Director of the Political Settlements Research Programme. Her research interests lie in the interface between constitutional and international law, gender and conflict, and legal theory, with a particular interest in peace processes and their agreements.

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