The Guatemala peace negotiations (1991–96) offer a good illustration of this challenge. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the notion of such a peaceful settlement faced outright hostility from the powerful economic and military establishment. Guatemalan elites were convinced that the continuation of the then very limited military conflict was a safer option than negotiations with the guerrilla leadership, which would entail precisely the legitimisation of its struggle and its political agenda.
Under these circumstances, the peace process could not thrive unless it made itself attractive to a wide spectrum of interests, and established itself in the eyes of the public at large as a legitimate and viable endeavour. And to a large extent, over a period of six years the negotiations did succeed in this, not least by availing themselves of three classic sources of domestic legitimacy: representation, participation and performance. From 1994–96, the peace process also made ample use of a fourth source – international support and endorsement – to which I will return later.
In relation to representation, by the end of 1994 both parties to the negotiations had defined their process no longer as a bargaining exercise between government and insurgency over the settlement of their conflict, but rather as a joint effort to develop a broad national agenda covering a gamut of interests and issues, and in particular those ethnic, social and economic fractures that had plagued the formation of the Guatemalan society and state.
I recall a situation in 1996 when an observer cautioned against the excessive scope of this national agenda, only to be told by a member of the government delegation that the peace negotiations offered a unique opportunity to overcome long-standing obstacles to national development, and this opportunity could not be missed. In the same spirit of maximum representation of social interests, in late 1996, at the specific request of women’s organisations, the parties included in their agreements a provision for the establishment of a Women’s Forum as part of the implementation process.
With regard to participation, the parties agreed to the creation of a Civil Society Assembly under the leadership of the Catholic Church that brought together a wide spectrum of social, economic and religious organisations, including indigenous organisations, trade unions, churches, women’s organisations, journalists and many more. The assembly was asked to put together consensus papers on each substantive issue on the negotiating agenda, and present them to the negotiating parties ahead of their own consideration of these agenda items. Further, it had the power to accept or reject the outcome of the negotiations.
The assembly had limitations in terms of participation – the powerful private sector and conservative organisations boycotted it – but its very existence consolidated the national credentials of the negotiations.
With regard to performance, the Guatemalan negotiations adopted a “gradualist” strategy, not unlike the South African peace process, through the implementation, well ahead of the finalisation of the negotiations, of a sequence of measures that served as a demonstration of the willingness and ability of the two parties to address their mutual concerns.
These measures served to build confidence between the two sides, but they also served to build public confidence in the peace process. Most notably, this confidence-building process included the 1994 deployment of a UN human rights verification and institution-building mission that was active throughout the country for over two years before the peace accord was signed. Thanks to this very tangible presence, which captured the attention of public opinion from its very inception, the peace process no longer appeared confined to distant hotels where negotiations were held, or to debates among non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It became a fact of life in the country, and generated a widespread perception that a watershed had been reached and the transition from war to peace was now irreversible.
The benefits of participation and representation in terms of legitimisation of a peace process are well covered in the literature on peacemaking; less so, the need for a protracted peace negotiation to perform in the public eye without waiting for the conclusion of the peace talks. This can be critical to public support, always threatened by the inevitable setbacks, delays and impasses that are common in any civil war settlement.
Performance legitimacy is one area where the international community can be particularly helpful. Negotiations between a government and an insurgent group ordinarily face a predicament when it comes to confidence building on a larger scale, beyond such narrow measures as an exchange of prisoners. There are only so many concessions a guerrilla group can make, particularly if it is not prepared to declare a truce or a ceasefire. And for its part the government, whose palette of confidence-building measures is obviously larger, cannot appear to be making unilateral concessions and bear alone the burden of demonstrating good faith.
Agreeing, during the negotiations, to the immediate deployment of the UN human rights mission enabled the government to give a powerful demonstration of its commitment to human rights. It was for the guerrillas a way of demonstrating their recognition of the state institutions the mission was mandated to strengthen. With the conflict ongoing, both demonstrations could hardly have been made otherwise. And, as mentioned earlier, the mission’s deployment was a public demonstration of the peace process’s viability that the parties to the conflict could never have accomplished on their own. When field conditions permit, there is a gamut of such international measures that can be harnessed to that end.