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.


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