Publication date: 
Dec 2012

War doesn't stop at borders. Why should peace?

Dr Alexander Ramsbotham
Director of Accord

Wars do not respect political or territorial boundaries. They form part of regional conflict systems that traverse state borders: through refugee flows, ‘nomadic’ armed groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), narcotic or criminal networks, illicit trade in ‘blood diamonds’, small arms flows, and cross-border political, economic and social ties.

The LRA survives in the hinterlands of four states in East and Central Africa, far from the reach of international interest or national jurisdiction. In Lebanon, vulnerable communities do not look to Beirut for protection, but outside their national borders – to Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the West.

But while international policy is well established between states (diplomacy) and within them (governance), there is a policy gap across borders and in borderlands where diplomacy and governance struggle to reach, as conflict response strategies prioritise states in terms of analysis and intervention.

Efforts to resolve the longstanding conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, for example, are defined by dysfunctional diplomatic relations between Mumbai and Islamabad. The reality on the ground, however, sees affected Kashmiri communities still divided by the impassable Line of Control (LoC) and excluded from discussions to determine their own future.

Building peace beyond the state

Regional integration can help to ‘soften’ borders, as shared membership of regional organisations can dilute state sensitivity to sovereignty through collective purpose and goals.

Regional bodies can instil confidence in peacebuilding, add impetus to inter-state peace processes and bring practical assistance in delivering peace dividends.

But regional organisations are not always best placed to resolve cross-border conflicts. They have to navigate (often fierce) rivalries among their own members, while organisations in the most conflict-prone regions tend to face the most acute capacity challenges.

European integration facilitated problem-solving in Northern Ireland, helping to balance disparity of power between London and Dublin and providing a more level playing field for talks. Furthermore, the EU has also been directly supporting local regeneration and reconciliation across the Irish border.

However, the EU has not been able to engage significantly with the Basque conflict, not least due to Spanish and French resistance to ‘internationalising’ it.

Regional organisations have often found it easier to agree ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’ security solutions – border security, military cooperation or peacekeeping coalitions.

Cross-border conflict dynamics are varied and complex and demand soft as much as hard approaches.

Regional initiatives that focus exclusively on security address the symptoms and not the causes of conflict. They can struggle to engage in conflict prevention or resolution, leaving in place many of the structural drivers that underpinned cross-border violence in the first place.

Regional responses to the LRA have often prioritised joint military operations by the Ugandan government in collaboration with its neighbours. But regional military offensives like Iron Fist (2002-03) and Lightning Thunder (2008-09) have not ended the violence and have in fact helped to disperse it much more widely – ‘like throwing stones at bees’. In fact, the LRA area of operation expanded by 20 times following Lightning Thunder.

Today, the UN and the African Union are again looking to a military response to the LRA conflict through deployment of a 5,000-strong Joint Task Force.

Building peace below the state

Sub-state cross-border networks exist through social and cultural ties between borderland communities and can provide policy ‘entry points’ for regional peacebuilding. Civil society can play peacebuilding roles across borders that governments and intergovernmental bodies cannot.

Shared experiences, traditions, social structures and kinship provide powerful tools to foster social cohesion and cooperation when diplomatic channels are blocked.

In an alternative response to the LRA conflict, affected communities from four countries have been coming together as part of a Regional Civil Society Task Force. This has been pursuing a strategy of encouraging LRA rebel abductees to return home – for example using the traditional Mato Oput reconciliation ceremony from northern Uganda to help communities accept them – in order to deplete LRA ranks, reduce violence and rebuild damaged communities.

By working together communities are transforming themselves from LRA victims to become ‘anchors of resilience’ to the violence.

The potential of cross-border trade

Cross-border trade can also contribute to building trust or establishing interdependencies across borders. These can provide incentives for cooperation and collective action and increase the costs of war. It is important to unpack precisely how trade interacts with other conflict drivers and dynamics, to distinguish corrupt or illicit cross-border trade and regional war economies from other cross-border economic activities that can contribute to peace and development.

Trade across the LoC in Kashmir resumed after decades of impasse in 2008 to develop economic linkages and build confidence between parties.

Cross-LoC trade has helped to soften the border and is assisting Kashmiris to re-establish links between divided families, trading communities and civil societies.

A significant development has been the formation of the Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the first official cross-LoC institution, which connects Kashmiri civil society and traders to governmental apparatus on both sides of the line.

But the impact of the trade initiative has thus far been limited. Traders have to use a highly inefficient barter system to overcome currency barriers, and exchanging goods across the LoC takes place through intermediaries, leaving little people-to-people contact.

The Joint Chamber provides a mechanism to develop and cohere the economic and peacebuilding functions of the trade initiative: to build grassroots pressure for normalising relationships across the LoC, to support sustained economic interdependence, to develop collective Kashmiri strategies and capacity, and to mainstream peacebuilding objectives. Today, cross-LoC trade is gaining momentum as an important outlet for business as well as a vital peacebuilding activity.

Promoting trickle-up

Connecting supra- and sub-state peacebuilding can help to develop regional strategies to tackle cross-border conflict dynamics at both their ‘branches’ and their ‘roots’.

Civil society can provide bridges into borderlands, to help diplomatic initiatives to engage with the communities who live there.

Academics in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador linked up with borderland communities affected by the spread of violence from the war in Colombia. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, women’s organisations, humanitarian agencies, environmental associations, schools and local governments: all played a role in developing a regional citizens’ response to border tensions.

Working with the media and international civil society partners, they were able to mobilise at critical moments of diplomatic tension and, ultimately, to challenge populist nationalist discourse between Colombia and Ecuador. The support of the Carter Center helped to connect their efforts diplomatically with the Organisation of American States.

States can do a lot to minimise tensions in borderlands by investing in border areas to reduce the alienation of local communities.

More effective border management can facilitate legitimate movement and trade, maintain accountable cross-border security and encourage cooperative management of resources and infrastructure.

Linking regional civil society and business networks with regional diplomacy can help to fill the policy gap across borders and in borderlands, and to move from regional security cooperation to conflict prevention and resolution.


Alexander Ramsbotham is Accord Series Editor at Conciliation Resources.

Originally appearing as the introduction to Accord 22: Paix sans frontières: building peace across borders, this revised version was published in New Routes: A journal of peace research and action, Volume 17 (2012:4)


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