National dialogues have been used in one form or other for several centuries, but recently there has been a profusion of public consultations or political dialogues that go by this name. National dialogues and constitutional change processes are today taking place or evolving in Nepal, Burma, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco and Jordan, and are gradually emerging in Libya, the Basque Country and Syria.
Several forms of national dialogue have developed from change processes. The Yemen and Burma processes discussed in this section are formally mandated national dialogues. As two of the most significant current examples of such processes, they emerged after civil wars, successful people’s uprisings or resistance, a ceasefire (13 signed agreements in the case of Burma), or a peace accord (the Gulf Cooperation Agreement in the case of Yemen). These formal processes are mandated to develop constitutional frameworks as a basis for a new constitution to be adopted by their countries’ parliaments. The third case in this section, from the Basque Country, can be described as an informal national dialogue that has been incrementally building foundations for change and will hopefully result in a formal process that can effect desired constitutional and political reform.
In all three cases the existing constitutional frameworks and mechanisms were not acceptable or were defective and needed to be changed through inclusive extra-constitutional decision-making mechanisms that represented parties both inside and outside the constitutional representative bodies (parliament and government). A major challenge that each of these processes has faced has been how to link change processes to existing constitutional bodies and stimulate real structural reform.
Looking at the issues on the agenda and the work of the various committees and bodies, mandated dialogue structures have not only provided new constitutional frameworks to address the root causes of conflict or constitutional failures, but have also served a much broader function: to provide spaces and instruments for reconciliation, developing joint visions between former enemies, and slowly evolving an understanding of the needs, perceptions and perspectives of the “other”.
We have seen in the case of Yemen and other historic examples such as South Africa and Nepal that dialogue structures are by their nature vulnerable and imperfect instruments. In Yemen some of the key issues were not yet resolved as the National Dialogue Conference reached the end of its mandated period at the end of 2013. The outstanding disagreements will require a restructured mechanism.
In South Africa, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa – the formally mandated multi-party forum for negotiations – failed twice before it delivered a final framework at its third attempt. And in Nepal, although multi-party talks were chaotic and unstructured, senior leaders from all parties nevertheless negotiated directly for weeks until they reached agreement on the challenges they faced. To the leaders in these transformative dialogue processes who carry the burden to deliver peace on behalf of the people or the ideals they represent, peace and dialogue structures are temporary symbols of hope and an alternative to armed conflict.
To ensure formal dialogue structures function well, and to create a conducive environment for breaking deadlocks, generating options and jointly creating innovative solutions, a number of safety nets or peace support structures have been developed to backstop national dialogue processes. In Burma the stakeholders established joint ceasefire monitoring and peace structures; in South Africa they developed the National Peace Accord structures; in Nepal the parties and government created a Ministry for Peace and Reconstruction and an informal dialogue forum – Nepal Transitions to Peace; and in Lebanon the parties created the Common Space Initiative as a permanent knowledge-based dialogue structure to address root cause issues and advise the formal National Dialogue process.
The case study on the Basque Country in this section describes the role of the Social Forum as an informal dialogue structure formed initially to resolve immediate issues, but which has also created the foundations for a future formal dialogue and which would be ideally placed to function as a safety net for any ongoing process.