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Peacebuilding and principled pragmatism


Jan Pospisil outlines the idea of the ‘formalised political unsettlement’, which he has developed along with Christine Bell. This describes how peace processes commonly result in situations whereby the conflict is not resolved, but rather is contained in reconfigured post-agreement political and legal institutions. This challenges linear approaches which assume that particular interventions will inevitably lead to particular outcomes. Formalised political unsettlement analysis helps to better understand the parameters of what is and is not possible in peace agreements and inclusive processes, and to pinpoint potential entry-points for more transformative change.

Peace agreements and political settlements

The political settlements concept can usefully assist the examination of peace processes. Instead of looking at either pure politics or broad institutional settings, a political settlement lens rediscovers an analytical middle ground which classic political science would refer to as the institutional layout of a political entity. This lens shifts attention from a normative peacebuilding framing based on state institutions, rule of law and democracy, towards a more dynamic, flexible and predominantly political approach that reflects and responds to the configuration of power. Political settlements thinking, therefore, also safeguards against actor-driven considerations predominantly focused on deal-making and accommodation. A political settlement is more than a deal.

Current mainstream thinking in peacebuilding, as spelt out, for example, in the United Nations ‘sustaining peace’ agenda (UN Security Council resolution 2282 of 2016), expects a focus on inclusion to deliver better results in forging political settlements after violent conflict. Constructing inclusive political settlements should be accomplished by making peace negotiations and peace processes more representative and participatory (actor inclusion) and by addressing broader societal concerns in the peace agreement (thematic inclusion). According to this logic, an ideal peace process sequence culminates in the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement – such as in Sudan in 2005, Nepal in 2006, or most recently the 2016 accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Identifying and addressing conflict drivers in an inclusive peace deal and properly implementing its commitments should, in theory, guarantee a successful transformation of the conflict and a return to normal politics.

However, in the ‘everyday’ of real peace processes, inclusive approaches have to face multiple trade-offs between competing priorities. Should the inclusion of groups and stakeholders in a peace process focus ‘horizontally’ on the conflict parties, or ‘vertically’ on broader societal groups? If the latter, who is representing these groups and their diverse memberships and views? Does professionalised civil society, which is often assumed to speak for the interests of more marginal actors, really have legitimacy to do so? Are societal groups prepared to sit in the same room and negotiate with conflict parties and make the necessary compromises to stop the fighting? Or will powerful conflict parties accommodate the interests of less powerful or unarmed interlocutors? Decisions regarding trade-offs between priorities of horizontal and vertical inclusion have political and ethical, but also practical implications. There is no easy and tested way to manage these, and even if navigated carefully and with the necessary emphasis, success in terms of an inclusive and peaceful political settlement is not guaranteed.

The peace negotiations in Colombia were arguably among the most inclusive to date (see conversation with Sergio Jaramillo in this publication). But, soberingly, they ultimately resulted in the rejection of the final peace agreement in a public vote. Politicking, of course, had a role to play in the negative outcome of the plebiscite. But the trade-off between short-term requests and long-term requirements played a significant role in pre-referendum campaigning – for instance, safety guarantees for the armed actors versus their accountability for wartime wrongdoings. Striking peace agreements, in most cases, demands substantial compromises which are not necessarily supported by society at large.

Formalised political unsettlement

PSRP research shows that inclusion – in terms of process and substance – works best when a violent conflict is both ripe for a solution to the fighting and favourable to reaching agreement on the terms of a comprehensive deal. However, such combinations of circumstances are rare. Most peace processes take place in climates of ongoing conflict. Sophisticated methods of confidence-building and mediation have rarely been able to resolve the political contestation at the heart of the conflict. Peace negotiations often resemble a continuation of warfare by other means. Many peace agreements thus enshrine the dispute that underlies the violence. While certainly not what many peacebuilding practitioners are aiming for, the most reasonable outcome may often be a compromise that essentially accommodates the ‘radical disagreement’ between the conflict parties.

These circumstances are widely recognised. But the common misperception still persists that a signed peace agreement represents the broader settlement of the conflict, and that a sophisticated power-sharing arrangement combined with substantial external support through post-conflict transition will eventually result in a restoration of normalcy. In practice, the hope that power-sharing arrangements will induce conflict transformation has rarely been fulfilled. Contestation over a state and what form it should take defines many violent conflicts and distinguishes them from ‘normal’, non-violent competitive politics. Power-sharing in the form of a compromise on power but not on a shared polity is likely to be ultimately perpetuated through a peace process. Referring to a seminal article by Neil Walker, Christine Bell and I have called such situations of ongoing contestation ‘formalised political unsettlement’.

The reasoning of ‘comprehensive peace’ also suffers from two more recent shortcomings. Significant changes in international relations and the prevailing global condition of ‘fluid multipolarity’ have severely compromised established channels of multilateralism. The international system has become what Thomas Carothers and Oren Samet-Marram call a ‘global marketplace of political change’. Secondly, against this background, many peace processes today exist in contexts of ‘amplified hybridity’ (such as Syria), that combine international, national and local layers to an extent that international conflict resolution in the traditional sense becomes impossible.

Formalised political unsettlements comprise some overarching elements. Political and legal institutionalisation takes place in a form that contains and thus protracts the conflict rather than resolving it. This core characteristic of unsettlement tends to stick long-term. Nonetheless, as explained in more detail below, the nature of the formalisation is often fluid, resulting in a sense of permanent transition and open-endedness. Even though constitutional visions and principles may have been agreed upon in a peace deal, no settled end-state of the contested polity evolves. In most instances, situations of formalised political unsettlement are essentially hybrid, with international, national and local actors permanently interacting and negotiating in various contexts and at various levels, often with changing alliances rapidly forming and later dissolving. Crucially, it is this fluidity that opens up opportunities for transformative change and entry points for external engagement and support.

The term ‘formalised political unsettlement’ is not intended to add yet another label to post-conflict environments. It offers practical value to challenge linear, solution-based approaches to conflict resolution that assume that particular interventions will inevitably lead to particular outcomes. It enables a pragmatic but also optimistic approach that deals with the reality of post-conflict transitions and the possibilities they offer for more transformative change. It also describes the reality of conflict resolution where no better deal is available. Rather than simply bemoaning the unpleasantness of this reality, formalised political unsettlement analysis helps to dissect and understand the parameters of peace processes over time, and so to identify practicable pathways to more genuinely inclusive futures: potential openings, loopholes and entry points for change.

Engaging with formalised political unsettlements: principled pragmatism

The core challenge presented by situations of formalised political unsettlement is that reaching a more consensual settlement is likely to remain elusive. While current peacebuilding policy debates argue that inclusion is, at least in part, the answer, the very notion remains vague and ambiguous and therefore hard to apply.

PSRP research suggests some ways that inclusion can best be ‘navigated’ in peace processes to become more practicable. A starting point for international actors looking to support peace processes is to assess the trade-offs brought to the fore by common ‘inclusion tactics’ of consultation and participation, and in particular the implications of decisions about who should be included or excluded. International actors need to accept the severe limitations they face when attempting to support peace negotiations. Seemingly rational decisions on who should participate in peace processes are based on a range of different interests – related and unrelated to the conflict itself – and may in fact undermine peace talks or simply be rejected by key protagonists. In Syria, for example, Western powers’ refusal to negotiate with the Assad regime has resulted not in a more dynamic process but in their loss of influence over its direction.

In contrast to a prescriptive actor-based approach, structural or thematic considerations have more chance of remaining relevant to a peace process – notwithstanding the political conditions of their perceived value to the negotiating parties. Supporting creative methods of redesigning peace processes is probably the best contribution international peacebuilding can make – for example to reduce emphasis on traditional configurations of formal peace talks, or to ‘demystify the negotiation table’, as Kristian Herbolzheimer describes it.

Peace processes also need to accept and work within the parameters of what (to use Alex de Waal’s term) the local ‘political marketplace’ can support. Transitions are unlikely to happen against the political logic institutionalised in a conflict or a post-conflict setting – the local configuration of power determines the extent and nature of change that is possible. This reality has ambiguous and at times seemingly contradictory implications. While not simply capitulating to the realpolitik of the existing political arrangement, it is necessary to acknowledge the limitations of external influence to change it. What, then, is the appropriate mix of methods to achieve progress within these restrictions?

PSRP’s work points to ‘principled pragmatic’ interventions. These accept the realities of the formalised political unsettlement in post-conflict environments and the power dynamics that underpin it. They pinpoint opportunities for transformative change within such environments, using the potential openings these provide in the prevailing circumstances of discontent and institutional fluidity to promote dialogue or other forms of peace practice. Such a pragmatic approach still needs to rest on a strong normative foundation to provide a principled framework within which to take the necessary political decisions. Norms are always established locally and incrementally. More importantly, their substance emerges through everyday practices in peace processes. When means of interventions can no longer be justified by their predicted outcomes, the means themselves ought to represent values in their own right.

Modes of engagement with formalised political unsettlement

The one certainty about transitions out of war is their unpredictability. ‘Hooks’ in peace agreements can provide footholds to leverage change at strategic points in a transition process. Hooks, in the form of formal or informal institutions or references to legal or other normative frameworks or demands, do not necessarily play an obvious structural role in a formal peace process. However, they can be used by actors to advocate or influence change when needs or opportunities arise. For example, reference to international legal frameworks in peace agreements may provide such a hook if applied in a smart way – avoiding dogmatic top-down enforcement of a norm and instead using it to enable further relations between interest groups.

Some institutional structures allow for more inclusive politics on specific issues – for example, committees representing minorities, or parallel forms of informal governance such as councils of traditional leaders. It is impossible to know in advance precisely what roles which institutions are going to play to facilitate inclusive change in the long run. For example, stipulations on guaranteeing women’s representation in a reform commission on an issue that at first seems comparatively uncontested may become more significant at a later stage in a transitional process. Unfortunately, no evidence or recipe can point towards which hooks may become significant in the course of a process.

Another option is to accept and use ‘constructive ambiguities’ in agreements and processes, and to choose not to try to resolve certain intractable underlying issues. The counter-claim to this suggestion is that substantial contested issues left unsolved are potential trigger factors for a relapse into violent conflict. But, at the same time, attempts to resolve issues of what Oliver Ramsbotham calls ‘radical disagreement’ among interest groups that are not likely to be resolved through dialogue or accommodation in the short or medium term can themselves also risk escalating violence. Especially when a peace agreement has addressed a thorny issue through ambiguity or deferment, more concrete subsequent steps to try to resolve it can become triggers for escalation. Creative non-solutions or deferrals may be the best way to deal with potentially violent contestation, allowing space for progress on less contentious issues, whereby creativity, on the one hand, refers to innovation, but on the other hand also to the practice of non-implementation, which can effectively create more favourable circumstances for transitional processes.

Enduring postponements are one such non-solution, which might provide the wiggle-room needed to keep a transitional process going. Challenges relating to territory, self-determination and citizenship provide some illustrative examples. The delay in deciding on the status question of Abyei, a region on the Sudan/South Sudan border, during and after South Sudanese independence is one case in point. A settlement on the final status of this territory by a mutually accepted referendum as agreed in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) might have exacerbated tensions and possibly armed fighting. This problem has effectively been institutionalised through a ‘flexible freeze’: inhabitants of Abyei are entitled to be citizens of Sudan and South Sudan, while the rights of migrating populations are annually renegotiated in local peace conferences. This may be the best way to ensure the continuity of the post-CPA transition process. Territorial blurriness and flexible citizenship rights have similarly been used to enable freedom of movement in the ‘frozen’ conflict between Moldova and the non-recognised entity of Transnistria. Promoting innovative ideas like multi-national autonomy might assist in softening state boundaries in ways that help to mediate territorial contestation. For instance, this was discussed in the southern Philippines concerning the Bangsamoro autonomy and the potential inclusion of the Malaysian Sabah archipelago – although this option ultimately did not materialise.

In conditions of formalised political unsettlement, a thorough examination of the ‘everyday’ of peace processes suggests prioritising options which keep the transition going. Rather than focusing on problem solving, this means thinking in terms of enduring transitions that allow for flexibility and adaptability in order to be prepared to exploit opportunities for influence that might open up in a fluid context. Productive engagement means providing tools that may become beneficial, but without knowing precisely when or how. It is about taking risks and making political decisions based on a clear and open normative position. Pragmatic transitions are a continuous process of mutual learning and experimentation. While the opportunities are rich, no recipe and no evidenced knowledge can guarantee success.

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.