At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict

I’m beginning to get the feeling that Roland Paris’s At War’s End is the definitive book on post-conflict peace-building operations. I’ve read a few recent books and articles which pull heavily from Paris, and having read it, and re-read many sections, I can see why. After a short introduction to the history of peace-keeping and the post-Cold War development of peace-building, Paris gives us eleven cogent evaluations of UN peacebuilding operations from 1990-1999, examining the varying levels of failure and success in each. He does this to build up to his primary criticism of peacebuilding – a rush to elections in postconflict countries – and propose his own theory on institution building.

Rather than summarize each of the operations he presents, I’ll divide them categorically as he does, as some of them have similar results:

The Perils of Political Liberalization: Using peacebuilding operations in Angola and Rwanda, Paris gives us a horror story of what can go wrong and why both elections and free speech can completely backfire. In both cases fighting resumed and the Rwandan conflict turned into genocide.

Democracy Diverted: Cambodia and Liberia are good examples of democratic elections giving power over to those unwilling to continue a democracy. Replacing a dictator with a future dictator cannot be considered a victory for democracy.

Reinforcing Ethnic Divisions: Paris uses Bosnia and Croatia as good examples of the ways democratic elections can strengthen ethnic divisions.  In each case, political parties were based on ethnic lines. In Croatia the minority had become so small they had no real choice but to leave the country, whereas in Bosnia power-sharing agreements meant that there was no need to promote actual peace and understanding between the ethnic groups.

Reproducing Sources of the Conflict: Using El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Paris shows how political liberalization can put those responsible for the conflict back into power with the ability to achieve their objectives through peaceful means. Even though the countries are out of war, they can’t really be viewed as a victory of democracy and elections.

Success Stories in Southern Africa? Just about the only good news Paris provides is the success of Namibia and Mozambique at achieving political and economic liberalization. Two out of eleven isn’t bad….

Rather than break down any of these further, particularly since I highly recommend reading this book if you’re at all interested in postconflict work or any sort of political policy dealing with wars, I’d rather talk a bit about his recommendations. As he says early on in the books, in each of the eleven cases a rush to democratic elections was the primary goal of the peacebuilders. Often, as soon as the elections were completed, the peacebuilders considered the operation a success and left the country. The problem is that most of these countries have only recently emerged from a war, they have no idea what a democracy entails, and they have little to no bureaucratic institutions to support the fledgling democracy. Rarely is there a competent police force, let alone a legal and judicial system, and just about every section of the government is operated by people who have never done the job before, so they’re almost destined to fail.

Because of this, Paris recommends holding off on elections. In most cases, elections only tend to cause more violence and rarely help resolve anything, so the delay would be a good thing. He suggests that instead of elections, peacebuilders should focus on building up those institutions which are lacking. He even goes as far as to say the country’s institutions should be operated by international workers who will train locals to take over the positions over time. And once the prerequisite institutions are in place to support democratic elections, the country can begin preparations for them.

He has a lot more to this, as he deals with ethnic violence, limitations on free speech to make hate speech illegal (the sort of thing which helped fuel the Rwandan genocide), and incentives to promote moderate cross-ethnic political parties. But overall his main focus is that all this must be done through institutionalization of the country.

The biggest problem with this approach is that it would be massively expensive and take significantly longer. But, if you take for example the peacebuilding operations in the Congo, had there been a focus on institutionalization before the elections, much of the work being done now may have been avoided. The UN had actually believed that after the 2006 elections they would be able to leave the country in success, but instead heavy fighting resumed, mostly because of election tension, and the UN was forced to increase its operation in Congo and assist in the development of government institutions.

More people who deal with policy should read At War’s End. Since I constantly see it cited in other works, at least I know the academics have recognized it as a superior work, but little has changed on the international postconflict landscape. In Iraq and Afghanistan the race to elections seemed to be the most important thing, and it usually resulted in more fighting and many people contesting the results. To simplify the book down to its theme, Paris is telling us that it’s cheaper to do something right the first time than to fix it over and over again.

Wagenia Fishermen: The Last Days of their Culture

The Small Fishing Village of Wagenia

This is the scaffolding over the rapids.

One of the more unique cultural standouts in the Congo is the strange methods employed by the Wagenia Fishermen to catch their fish. These fishermen, located in a small village at the edge of Kisangani by the first (or last depending on which way you’re going) of the rapids that collectively make up Stanley Falls. For over two hundred years, these fishermen have been fishing the rapids by building scaffolding over the rapids out of bamboo and using that scaffolding to lower wooden nets into the water along the rapids. The nets have a wide mouth and then taper down to a very long, thin neck. The fish swim down the rapids and end up going into the nets and getting trapped in the neck, unable to turn around and escape. Once a day, the men climb up on the scaffolding and use vines to hoist these nets up and then climb down to check for their catch.

The Wagenia village still operates on a tribal system virtually disconnected from the city it closely neighbors. They have a village Chief who manages the ownership of each of the nets. The

The Fishermen on the Scaffolding Raising up a Net.

way it works is that each family in the village has their own net, and, at the end of the day, that family will get to keep the fish that end up in the net. There are more lucrative positions on the rapids, so village politics and shifting positions of power determines a family’s location in the system.

If you visit the town of Wagenia, you must pay for the opportunity to see and photograph the nets and the fishermen. Part of the reason for this is because of the fishermen’s cultural disdain for photography (we were yelled at when we pointed our cameras towards some children), and the other part is simply because they aren’t catching much fish anymore and need to support themselves. For an additional fee, they’ll take you out to the island where the Chief lives on a dugout canoe, and the Chief will greet you and give you his blessing.

As I mentioned, there are fewer and fewer fish being caught in the nets. The Congo River, as a whole, has been massively overfished, and each year fewer and fewer fish are caught. The fishermen told us that the nets are now failing to feed the families they are supposed to support, let alone provide them with an income. This is one of the reasons they’ve turned to tourism as a means of support.

Master Net Weaver Climbing down to the Net

And their approach to tourism is rather well thought out. They offer decent services: A guide who speaks French only of course, the boat trip to meet the Chief, and for the extra cost of a few beers the fishermen will demonstrate hoisting one of the nets out of the water. The basic cost is $20 per person plus an additional $10 to go see the Chief. This is rather high, but since Kisangani doesn’t exactly have a high tourist population they have to exploit those they do get. They also sell incredibly original souvenirs crafted out of simple rocks, wood, twine, bamboo, and even black plastic bags to make the figures, they create miniatures of the scaffolding and nets or fishermen on their boats. I get the feeling that some NGO worked with them to create these because they seem a bit more complex than any of the other trinkets in town. They’re very reasonably priced as well. My boat cost me just $5 and the other one my friend got cost $20. Both of them were initially priced at about double that but we talked them down.

Overall, going to see these fishermen is like looking into the past. There aren’t many places along the Congo River where you can still find people unchanged by the Belgiums or the wars, but in Wagenia you’re given a rare treat of looking at a tribe which was fishing the same way long before Henry Morton Stanley ‘discovered’ them, and hopefully they’ll be able to continue into the future.