Conflict disrupts the social fabric. For example, as the Syria case identifies, the taking up of arms can give those who have felt marginalised in society an opportunity to exercise power and defy social and cultural expectations and structures. In each of the case studies discussed in this publication, high levels of violence (both state and non-state) reshaped social life, cultural practices, routine activities, and public and personal space.
Engagement with armed groups therefore implies different challenges for local communities who are part of the conflict context than for external actors. Access to and relationships with armed groups, including at leadership level, may already exist. But the ability to influence requires much more active agency, including adaptation of existing networks and development of innovative ways to sway armed actors.
Building on pre-existing links with armed groups such as kinship and shared ideology
In Micoahumado and in certain areas of Syria, communities relied on pre-existing relationships – kinship and family ties – to engage armed groups in dialogue. Some religious leaders in the ARLPI did not have ethnic links with the LRA, but initial contacts were often made through customary leaders with more historical connections to LRA members.
Many armed groups, at least initially, also had community support for their objectives, for example in their opposition to the state. In Syria, self-defence forces often emerged in areas of mass popular uprising against the Assad regime. In earlier phases of the conflict, the relationship between armed and unarmed elements was akin to a division of labour around shared revolutionary principles.
Identifying with and understanding the ambitions of an armed group is key to local actors’ ability to influence it: to establish trust, to be able to say things that others cannot, and to be listened to. It was easier to reach a de‑mining agreement with the ELN than with paramilitary groups in Micoahumado – and it was more likely that the deal would stick – because of the ELN’s roots in the community. In Northern Ireland, local connections between the IRA and communities were less evident, but the restorative justice initiative relied on ex-prisoners formerly associated with the IRA to develop convincing contacts with it.
Developing and strengthening structures for non-violent community mobilisation and organisation
Community mobilisation, organisation and strategy were key features in all of the case studies. In both Micoahumado and northern Uganda, communities assembled to discuss how to address the violence that was affecting them. The conveners of these local peace conferences went on to represent communities in talks with the armed groups. The fact that consultations were community-wide gave weight and credibility to the individuals who led the engagement.
The presence of pre-conflict networks and informal or formal institutions was also significant. Local representatives brought with them existing sources of status or authority, from both inside and outside the community. The ARLPI, as religious leaders with influential networks nationally and internationally, had access to the Ugandan government and the international community that traditional leaders did not, and so could, for example, promote an Amnesty Law, and advocate for peace. In Syria, civilian administrations in regime-free areas were more effective where there was a previous history of civil society activity or traditional structures.
A reliance on pre-existing community networks and structures can reinforce embedded social, cultural and political power actors and institutions. In the case study contexts, it was largely traditional (male) elders and religious actors who engaged in direct negotiations with the armed groups and governments, and church networks that provided protection.
However, the capacity of conflict to disrupt the social fabric can allow for new or previously muted social, cultural and political sources of agency to come to the fore. In Micoahumado, local leaders were forced to flee, leaving behind a new cohort of community activists; subsequently, the peace commissions included equal representation of women. In northern Uganda, an Acholi mothers’ network was instrumental in galvanising support for talks with the LRA and community acceptance of the return of abductees. Acholi women have also been at the forefront of reintegration activities, supporting the particular needs of female returnees.
Framing discussions in local cultural and social norms
As Simon Mason identifies in this publication [see Box 1], local actors work through different normative frameworks than their external counterparts, which can allow for a broader set of rules for engagement. These include more flexible cultural and informal understandings – often shared with armed groups – of issues such as justice.
In Northern Ireland and northern Uganda, legal and justice frameworks grounded in local social and cultural norms played important roles, at times complemented by international standards. Peace initiatives applied lessons from transitional justice such as conditional amnesty, reconciliation and restorative justice, which integrated traditional customs and understandings.
The ARLPI advocated for an Amnesty Act that allowed for the return of combatants, often abductees, to their communities without fear of prosecution, which applied principles of forgiveness rooted in Acholi culture. Restorative justice approaches used in Northern Ireland were grounded in international human rights and legal principles of rule of law, but were developed according to local considerations of legitimacy and reputation.