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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All Things Must Fight To Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in the Congo

Stories of War:

I’m a horror movie fan. When I was young I saw Clive Barker’s Hellraiser which is about a puzzle box that, when solved, will open a gateway to a dimension of pure pain and suffering and pull the person in for an eternity in Hell. This film, and its first few sequels, are pretty old now but could still cause a person to cringe and look away. More recently, Eli Roth almost single-handedly created the short-lived horror subgenre called Torture Porn with his film Hostel. Here we have a group of travelers arriving in Bratislava, Slovakia, and staying at a youth hostel where they’re one-by-one selected to be tortured and killed for the pleasure rich elites.

Both of these films and their sequels are NOT for the faint of heart.

But, it turns out, that neither Barker nor Roth could have imagined that reality would be far worse.

The stories found in Bryan Mealer’s All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in the Congo don’t pull any punches, so if true and graphic accounts of murder, torture, infanticide, rape, and amputations are likely to cause you nightmares, then tread lightly when approaching this book.

Mealer’s story begins with his arrival on a UN flight to Bunia, a town in the eastern part of the Congo. As a green journalist looking for an exciting story to put him on the map, he was one of the few there to cover the rapidly deteriorating events in 2003 as the Ugandan army pulled out and the United Nations Peace Keepers were set to take over ‘protection.’ Unknown to the people of Bunia, the UN Security Council Mandate only allowed the soldiers to protect themselves and UN property and not the people of Congo.

The Lendu attack on the Hema tribe in Bunia followed by the subsequent Hema retaliation on the Lendu tribe are captured by Mealer in easily the most horrifying hundred pages I’ve ever read. The violence reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in how it seemed so senseless yet made you search for a purpose. There is a difference between being shocked by fiction and being paralyzed by reality: When you’re reading fiction, you can walk away and claim it wasn’t for you, but when you’re reading about true events you are chained to the words, held prisoner by the obligation to understand the plight of those who suffered.

As I’ve previously mentioned, there was no official war going on at this time. The UN officially categorized the Congo as a Post-Conflict Country, and throughout his first three years in the Congo Mealer covered the violence of this “Post-Conflict” country. In the chapter entitled Daily Blood, Mealer and another journalist joke about how a death doesn’t seem to happen unless they write about it. Mealer even considers going back through all of his stories and counting up the bodies.

It’s after the first presidential elections and the violence that erupted in the streets of Kinshasa that Mealer decides he needs to find something more to this country, something more to write about than horror.

Stories of Deliverance:

Mealer’s decision to take a barge from Kinshasa to Kisangani in order to actually get in touch with the Congolese people and find some stories of hope and promise seems a risky yet promising notion. While the results don’t give him the cathartic answers he’s seeking, it does give him a better connection with the river that is the lifeblood of this country.

Congolese river barges are incredibly slow and unreliable, particularly after the elections in 2006 when they were just starting to make the full trip to Kisangani. They were notorious for breaking down, getting stuck in sand drifts, stopping for weeks at a time due to illness of the captain, or any other number of reasons. While Mealer starts off in comparative luxury on a tugboat operated by a Frenchman who was a former member of Mobutu’s entourage, he, his photographer, and their translator decide to switch over to an actual barge for the majority of the journey. This puts them on the slow trip while living outside under a tarp facing the elements of the Congo and the constant noise of the many travelers crowded on the deck.

The journey upriver morphs the narrative away from contemporary violence to a sort of floating history lesson, where Mealer recounts the exploits of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley and how it led to King Leopold of Belgium taking over the country to become his own personal resource mine. This history is juxtaposed with the Congolese people and their own lack of knowledge about the past that led to where they are now. The river people simply live from trip to trip, hoping to double their investment and not be wiped out by a disaster.

The trip does give a welcome respite from the brutality of the first half of the book, and, in fact, I would recommend the chapter The River is a Road to anyone interested in understanding the Congo and how the nation and the river are inseparable. He meets people who are returning home to Kisangani for the first time in many years after being displaced by the war. He meets others who have taken to the river because there is no work anywhere else. But he never really finds any strong narrative of hope.

Like many youthful adventures, the trip degrades into chaos and simply because of mechanical failures, medical emergencies, bad roads, lack of food, and sickness Mealer and his compatriots were lucky to survive, having to peddle the final 400 kilometers on bicycle while feeling the effects of malaria and other illnesses.

Even though there are no bright lights that point to a happy future, he does gain a better understanding of the people in the country and the land he’s fallen in love with. Even now, four years after Mealer’s last words were written, there are maybe signs of hope, but they’re balanced by failure after failure. When the elections coming in November this could all start again. I hope that’s not the case, but it’s definitely a possibility.