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New inclusion project: building inclusive peace settlements


Christine Bell situates this publication as part of a new ‘inclusion project’ in global policy circles, which sees inclusion as an essential goal in building peace. But different actors have different perspectives as to why inclusion is important. Development actors see it as essential to long-term poverty reduction. Peacebuilders understand it as a requirement for processes to address root causes of armed conflict. Human rights promoters advocate forms of group inclusion as integral to a commitment to equality. Bell further explains that within the inclusion project there are also three subsidiary projects which are in tension with one another: efforts between conflict parties to forge a new pact to end violence; efforts by wider society to create a broader social contract; and the involvement of international actors connected to the conflict in a range of (often contradictory) ways, pursuing their own goals and interests. The fact that these various inclusion projects play out in different arenas – formal and informal, and internal and external – further complicates the inclusion challenge.

What is the new inclusion project?

The new inclusion project is a consensus across three quite different sets of actors that inclusion should be a key policy goal in conflict resolution efforts.

First are development actors. Development discourse has understood elite deals or pacts as the centrepiece of peace negotiations and crucial to a stable political settlement. Increasingly, however, donors recognise that these deals are incapable of sustaining and building strong development outcomes if they do not widen into a social contract that will enable public goods such as education and health to be delivered, and to address extreme poverty. The development of a social contract requires broad civic participation.

Second are peacebuilding actors. Peacemaking strategies often understand elite pacts between those at the heart of the conflict to be an important part of a peace process. However, peacebuilders also focus on broader social buy-in as necessary to reaching a peace settlement and sustaining it through the implementation challenges that inevitably follow. So-called ‘track one’ dialogues (between political and military actors), and ‘track two’ dialogues (between civil society actors) speak to two different inclusion agendas that are understood to be connected. Indeed, in recent times the boundaries between these two tracks are being broken down.

Third are human rights ‘norm-promoters’. International human rights norms emphasise equality and participation – the core rights which enable inclusion. However, standards that focus on groups – the rights of minorities, indigenous peoples, women, young people, children and victims – all emphasise not just individual equality but group equality, particularly when it comes to concepts of political participation in policies that affect groups. Increasingly, inclusion of these groups is emphasised as important to peace negotiations. The Women, Peace and Security Agenda found in UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) is a good example of how inclusion and women’s equality are understood to connect to peace. However, international legal commitments to inclusion in peace processes exist for all the groups mentioned above.

Interestingly, while apparently converging on the importance of inclusion, these three different actors have different perspectives as to why inclusion is important. Development actors see inclusion as something that is instrumentally important to long-term development outcomes. They understand inclusion of political elites to be important to short-term stability, but social inclusion to be important to ensuring that public goods are delivered widely.

Peacebuilders understand inclusion in terms of the process requirements necessary to create a robust peace process in which root causes of violence will be addressed. They understand agendas for change as needing to come from more than just armed actors and to address more than the use of force. Peacebuilders often focus on understanding the range of constituencies who need to be brought on board if violent conflict is to be ended as a practical matter, such as women, civil society, victims or religious groups.

Human rights norm-promoters understand forms of group inclusion to be an outworking of a commitment to equality and human rights. While they may believe that human rights protection is central to development and peacebuilding, they do not promote human rights purely to achieve these outcomes, but because they believe that rights are important to being human. The different reasons for supporting inclusion mean that behind the apparent consensus over inclusion being ‘a good thing’, there are quite different ideas of why it is a good thing. These different ideas shape the forms of inclusion being promoted and can lead to ‘inclusion confusion’.

Inclusion confusion

Despite broad support for the new inclusion project, when we come to ask ‘who’ is to be included ‘in what’ and ‘how’, consensus quickly breaks down.

For the development community, in 2011 the World Bank Development Report suggested ‘inclusive-enough pacts for change’. While requiring more than a narrow ‘elite pact’, the report suggested that aiming for a fully inclusive political system, while important, should take second place to the search for a coalition capable of bringing a level of stability. This report was influential in shaping donor strategies relating to peace and transition processes.

By 2018, however, a new joint report by the World Bank and the United Nations, Pathways for Peace, suggested a major new emphasis on inclusion as a tool for preventing conflict. It argued that much more broadly inclusive approaches to violent conflict were needed to respond to the reality that ‘a significant proportion of contemporary violent conflicts are rooted in group-based grievances around exclusion that forge deep-seated feelings of injustice and unfairness’. These grievances included issues of access to power, natural resources, security and justice. Yet, while the inclusion project is now understood to be much broader than a search for a new elite pact or ‘inclusive enough coalition’, strategy and process advice remain largely missing: ‘how’ to enable the inclusion project still needs to be addressed.

Peace scholars and communities have placed different emphases on whether the focus of peacemaking efforts should be on political-military inclusion of those at the heart of the conflict, or on broader social inclusion strategies which would proactively seek to include wider social groups and demands. Key groups that are habitually excluded, such as women and non-aligned minorities, frequently push for their inclusion as part of the peacemaking strategy. But they have often faced struggles with mediators concerned about how much inclusion a peace process can ‘bear’. Strategies for inclusion have had to engage with the reality that in the midst of conflict, military actors call the peace process shots, often backed by powerful international allies. Diplomatic peacebuilding activities will typically be narrowly focused on these actors.

Broader approaches to peacebuilding, therefore, will face the ‘how’ difficulty of connecting the agendas and people at the heart of movements for change with the peace negotiations. For local civic actors, this will be part of a conflict-long challenge of how to influence and effect change and compromise without coercion and often without negotiations.

International human rights norms also raise as many inclusion questions as they answer. Equality standards emphasise the need for political and legal equality, of individuals and also of groups. Yet, human rights lawyers and courts remain uneasy about the types of group-based solutions that peace agreements come up with. For example, the power-sharing provisions at the heart of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina emphasised the inclusion of Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs whose grievances had been at the heart of the conflict. The European Court of Human Rights, however, found that these violated the equality provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, because they in effect discriminated against unaligned minorities – in this case Roma and Jews (Sejdi´c and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina, application nos. 27996/06 and 34836/06).

There are reasons to be concerned about power-sharing: research from PSRP has found significant difficulties of participation and of rights protection, for women and unaligned minorities in power-sharing regimes. Yet, political power-sharing often remains crucial to achieving an end to conflict because it provides important security guarantees to parties that are otherwise reluctant to stop fighting – see Christine Bell, Political power-sharing and inclusion, 2018.

Human rights standards also seem to suggest the importance of excluding some actors from any new political institutions. Those responsible for serious violations of international human rights law are to be prosecuted and punished, rather than brought into government, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1999). This form of exclusion is often understood paradoxically as part of the inclusion project, because it sanctions and removes from power those who have had and may continue to wield a violent exclusionary capacity. Reconciling legal and moral imperatives to exclusion with conflict resolution imperatives to inclusion remains a challenge in peace processes.

Coordinating inclusion projects

What have we learnt from PSRP that might inform how the inclusion project is taken forward? We have learnt that a peace process must often construct three different inclusion projects simultaneously. These processes create competing agendas for change which must be brought into some sort of alignment if the process is to be successful.

First is the inclusion project between the main political and military actors at the heart of the conflict who hold power. If those engaged in violence and contending for power cannot find a way to end the conflict, other projects of inclusion and justice are often not possible, except in very attenuated and fragile ways. While elite pacts will not necessarily deliver peace, peace without them is often impossible.

The second inclusion project is that pursued by broader social forces who have mobilised in pursuit of peace and development. These groups often bring wider agendas for change related to how best to end the conflict, address division and improve people’s lives. Political and military elites are usually unable to unpick the broader fabric of violence in which society is embedded. The violence of groups directly engaged in the conflict is connected to many other forms of violent division and exclusion found in inter-communal and even inter-personal relationships – from violence used to force social segregation, to intimate partner violence against women. Civil society will often have a broader vision of the domains of social change that are necessary to address the interconnection between different forms of conflict. This vision is often necessary to address the complexity of conflict, and to bridge the gap between peace agreement proposals and the lived reality of social relations.

The third inclusion project is that of international actors who are often connected both to the conflict and to the peace process in a range of ways: as neighbours; as underwriters of negotiations; as members of regional organisations involved in supporting the peace process; as international legal norm-promoters; as regional or geopolitical actors in the conflict bringing their own strategic and economic interests; and often all or several of these capacities simultaneously.

While external actors may provide some incentives and opportunities for more inclusive approaches to peace processes, these interventions are also shaped by an alternative inclusion project of their own. This inclusion project involves their own inclusion as agenda-setters in a new ‘global political marketplace of political transition’ in which many states now seek to influence both conflict and peace process trajectories, for mixed reasons as Thomas Carothers and Oren Samet-Marram have discussed.

Our research in some of the most intractable conflicts today – Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia – has indicated the extent to which significant conflict and peace process decisions are being taken by actors beyond the country’s borders in a context of international competition for influence. The peace process is then beyond the easy influence of the local communities most affected by the conflict.

Inclusion arenas

These three inclusion projects often take place in three different peace process ‘inclusion arenas’. A challenge therefore exists as to ‘how’ the different inclusion projects are to be connected up. The inclusion project of political and military actors is usually negotiated in the arena of formal peace negotiations. The inclusion project of wider civil society takes place in the wider social debates, interactions and interventions (for example street protest) that surround the peace negotiations and attempt to influence them (see the work of the Inclusive Peace and Transitions Initiative:

International actors in essence are negotiating not just intrastate conflict but the terms of their own global inclusion and influence when participating at the diplomatic level of inter-state talks that surround geopolitical conflicts, such as the somewhat competing Geneva and Astana processes focused on Syria (see the article by Hellmüller and Zahar in this publication). In each of these inclusion arenas, two things are going on: first, those involved in respective arenas are negotiating with each other; and second, they are often simultaneously trying to influence the agendas of actors in other inclusion arenas. Processes in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, for example, see a complicated mix of local, national and international actors negotiating formally within their immediate inclusion arena, but with entry points to the actors in other arenas as they create tapestries of influence and involvement that are woven, unpicked and rewoven over the course of a conflict and peace process.

Peace processes today must focus not just on the national peace process, but also on how these three different arenas in which different forms of inclusion are promoted can be brought into forms of articulation with each other, so as to create a joint agenda for change across arenas. The complexity of the interaction of arenas is perhaps the biggest challenge for peace processes in the new inclusion project era. Often, development actors, peacebuilders and norm-promoters will be called on to support activities in one or other arena, and here their different ideas as to ‘why’ inclusion matters may see them pulling in different directions. The 2017 Accord issue on Nepal, for example, described how development donors supported inclusion of marginalised groups in the peace process, but quickly found that this cut across their relationship with the Nepali state and efforts to partner for development.

Inclusion challenges

The inclusion project offers a new consensus on the importance of inclusion that is very welcome. However, time and again, the communities that our research has connected with encountered daily struggles in seeking to influence peace processes, as they tried to engage with formal ‘top-down’ peace processes to influence questions of who was to be included with what consequences for the agenda for change. These struggles are reflected in the contributions to this Accord publication.

The peace process in Nepal, for example, saw an innovative attempt to make broad forms of social inclusion of all excluded constituencies key to the peace agreements. However, it proved very difficult for the broad and inclusive Constituent Assembly to deliver agreement on a new constitution which would also address the inclusion agendas of the main political and military actors. The new constitution was only achieved when the key political and military actors narrowed the agenda to cut a deal with each other. While this narrowing enabled the new constitution to be agreed, it had a cost in selling-short the wider inclusion agendas of some of the most socially excluded groups. Key to resisting some of these claims for inclusion was the relationship of India and China to ethnic and indigenous groups in Nepal’s border regions (see the Nepal section of this publication).

In Colombia, the peace process brought women, victims and other groups to the peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in Havana, in an innovation in peace process design (see Colombia section of this publication). However, in a context where many peace agreements have been signed over several decades often with limited success, the ‘deal’ between the ‘main’ parties was reached without either any wider settlement of the ideological divisions central to conflict, or the social inclusion that could have helped carry it through the resultant predictable opposition to the deal. To the shock of a celebrating international community, Colombians narrowly voted against the 2016 peace agreement in a referendum which had been designed to signal wider social endorsement for the deal, triggering an element of renegotiation.

Sectoral approaches to inclusion have not been any easier. Take, for example, the inclusion of women, which has been heavily promoted as a result of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. While it is not difficult to get agreement in principle that ‘women should be included’, which women, in what way and how remain difficult questions. Despite over 18 years of effort since UNSC 1325, in practice it remains very difficult for women to get a place at the negotiating table in fragile peace talks, or if they are there to get those at the talks to listen and respond to their concerns. Consequently, the inclusion agenda is now being framed as requiring ‘meaningful’ inclusion.

Where women are accorded access to peace talks, the question quickly arises as to which women should be at the table, in what capacity and with what agenda. Women are of course just as much political actors as men and their views (as with those of men) will be diverse and reflect all sides in the conflict divide. Questions as to the ‘how’ of inclusion are often politically fraught, including among women themselves.

The Women’s Advisory Board established by the mediator in Syria, and previously the Women’s Coalition in Northern Ireland, had to defend their existence and right to be there – not just against the opposition of key parties to the talks, but also at times against a wider social challenge that they could not presume to speak for all women. Any attempt to broker a ‘cross-political sectoral’ women’s position risked selling out the positions of women within political groupings (see article by Close, O’Rourke and Yousuf in this publication). Other sectoral inclusion strategies, such as those which focus on inclusion of victims, similarly find it difficult to take account of the deep division that often arises in relation to who is a victim, and the deep ambivalence victims might feel towards the peace process itself (see work by Astrid Jamar).

When it comes to inclusion, consensus about its importance can paper over the significant disagreements as to whose inclusion matters and why, what constitutes ‘meaningful’ inclusion, and what to do when some forms of inclusion create new forms of exclusion. If the inclusion project is to be more than the new fashionable mantra, it has to engage with the politics of inclusion in complex conflict contexts. Inclusion struggles are about power: who holds it, how it can be redistributed, and what carrots and sticks will persuade those in power to share it.

Conclusion: what have we learnt - from inclusion mantras to inclusion strategies

The PSRP brought together a range of organisations of different types, a range of country case studies, and peace process research ‘practice labs’ to explore the inclusion project in practice.


What are the most startling lessons we have learnt about inclusion in the course of our journey?

There are clear tensions between the different inclusion projects which cannot be eliminated but must be managed. Tension between different forms of inclusion and different agendas for change are inherent to the process of peacebuilding. We suggest that no single inclusion project can be prioritised at the expense of others because both the buy-in of those actors at the heart of the conflict and the broader social agendas for change will be critical to building sustainable peace.

The difficulties of resolving conflicts continue to mutate to produce a new uncertain global context. Our research on peace processes has revealed how intractable conflicts are increasingly multi-level, with forms of local, national and international conflict nested in each other. Each of the inclusion arenas tackles different conflict levels – all of which need addressing. We suggest that it is increasingly important to recognise that development actors, peacebuilders and norm-promoters are working in a context in which both the nature of intra-state conflict and normal ways of doing ‘peace processes’ are being challenged.

For nearly 30 years, peace processes and their inclusion projects have focused on national conflict and the relationship of the state to one or several large armed opposition groups. The most intractable conflicts today involve both geopolitical conflict and diffused local armed actors that, rather than having fragmented, were never formed into a large and coherent opposition but always operated as small groups in loose and changing alliances. PSRP work relating to Afghanistan indicates that understanding how we might produce multi-level peace processes to address nested conflicts is critical to peacebuilding. It might even hold new opportunities for using inclusion projects at a local level to build an island of peace in moments which see national peace processes struggling (see 2018 Accord publication on Afghanistan).

Inclusion mantras tend to hurt rather than help the underlying inclusion projects that they seek to serve if not accompanied by practical strategies for meaningful inclusion. The example of the failed peace agreement referendum in Colombia, unfolding as it did within our research timeframe, provided a working example of how a gap between the rhetoric and forms of inclusion on offer in the peace process, and people’s lack of confidence in the agenda for change created by the final peace agreement, can undo the results of an apparently successful negotiation process.

Unexpected forms of complementarity mean that dividends in one aspect of the inclusion project lead to unexpected dividends in others. Research by Jessica Doyle and Monica McWilliams on domestic violence, for example, shows that if political and military elites can agree on radical programmes of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration and police reform, violence against women in their intimate relationships can decrease as a result of better policing and reduction of weapons in homes.

At the end of this phase of our work, what have been some of the most interesting ideas that we have encountered and generated? Two main points shine through.

Inclusion and radical disagreement. Peace processes should perhaps be understood as creating political and legal institutions as spaces of ongoing negotiation to address what Oliver Ramsbotham calls ‘radical disagreement’ on the basis of identity, interests or ideology. Radical disagreement in this sense refers to fundamentally opposing claims to ‘the truth’ that are understood to be beyond a matter of political choice. We suggest that the inclusion project is often one which finds a way to create agreement by ‘agreeing to disagree’, rather than attempting to reach a new ‘normal’ political settlement. PSRP examination of peace processes and settlement terms in the Peace Agreements Database (PA-X) has revealed tremendous innovation in finding ways to ‘leave disputes open’ rather than ‘resolve’ them. Often viewed by international actors as ‘imperfect’ and needing to be developed and resolved into more ‘normal’ political and legal institutions, we suggest that it is now important to understand better how to work with ‘unsettlement’ as often the only way to deal with radical political disagreement. The attempt to include some groups by agreeing to disagree will open up some forms of inclusion but at the same time create new exclusions which then must be addressed.

Traditional modes of ‘settling’ conflicts are running out of steam and multi-level conflicts need a peace process ‘design refresh’. As already alluded to, the idea of a ‘national conflict’ between a state and its non-state opponents capable of being addressed by a peace process increasingly fails to reflect the complexity of dynamically connected local, national and international conflict processes. Complex inter-connected local, national and global political marketplaces mean that there is a new and pressing need to ‘coordinate the coordinators’ across the three inclusion arenas.

The PSRP work has revealed the complexity of this new world, and how contexts as varied as Colombia, Nepal, Syria and South Sudan often have multiple overlapping local, national and international peace processes as a result. Yet, the idea of the ‘national peace process’ focused around the state and a dominant armed group or groups still remains the default image of the ‘peace process’. Future peace process design needs to move more firmly to construct peace processes as multi-level, and indeed to develop better strategies for addressing parallel ‘competing peace processes’ in which external intervenors compete to ‘mediate’ in a bid to shape the terms of settlement in their own preferred image.

Epilogue: a personal reflection

Over the four years of the PSRP, I have had two dimensions to my work. One as Programme Director of the PSRP, focused on addressing inclusion in violent conflicts as a ‘development’ project. The second as Professor of Constitutional Law at University of Edinburgh, expected by virtue of my position to offer insights into domestic constitutional legal developments in the UK, which have included the aftermath of the Scottish referendum and the Brexit referendum.

Curiously, during that time it has become striking how the concerns and phrases that emanated from communities and researchers engaged in the PSRP within developing countries seemed to be coming to characterise Western states and institutions. Whether one looked to the US, the UK, Spain or the European Union, all seemed to be facing accentuated forms of radical disagreement over who the state existed to serve. Disagreement over questions of inclusion has moved beyond the realm of ongoing political disputation in ways that have proved difficult to respond to, and threatens fundamental destabilisation of their political settlements.

Phrases such as ‘stable instability’ (emanating from PSRP work in the Democratic Republic of Congo) as a perpetual condition of states, or ‘constitutional or formalised unsettlement’ as a new institutionalisation of a never-ending political transition (PSRP conceptual work), or the ‘political marketplace’ to characterise ways in which political support is literally bought and sold (emanating from Alex de Waal and the Conflict Research Programme and its predecessors), increasingly seemed to have salience with regard to political developments in settled Western states.

Our unsettled times raise profound questions for the future direction of the inclusion project, which seems to have consolidated at the point when we have crossed over the top of ‘peak liberal peacebuilding’. Political and legal institutions and constitutions rooted in rule of law norms no longer seem to have the power they once did to ‘settle’ politics and produce consensual political communities capable of building over time. Politics responds to constituencies which are fixed in their ideological or identity differences, rather than able to be constituted and re-constituted between elections on the basis of what policy choice political parties offer. Disagreements over the nature of the state appear to be radical and difficult to transcend. Radical disagreement over the state’s project of inclusion, and the incapacity of democratic institutions to adequately address it, is fast becoming the global dilemma of our time.

In our research on some of the world’s most contested and conflicted societies, people know this politics of uncertainty very well, and have fashioned imperfect but practical ways to assert inclusion as a way of bridging across deep social divides. With the PSRP’s programme commitment to North-South partnership, understanding the ‘whos, whys, hows and whats’ of the inclusion project, now – more than ever – requires us to take lesson-learning much more seriously as a two-way street.

Issue editor

Andy Carl


Andy Carl is an experienced peacebuilding practitioner with a career of leadership in the NGO sector. Andy currently works as an independent writer and advisor to individuals, groups and organisations engaged in working on peace, justice and social change processes. He helped establish International Alert in 1989 and in 1994 he co-founded Conciliation Resources where he was Executive Director for 22 years.