Peace cannot be imposed

April 9, 1999

A peace process is impossible unless protagonists in a conflict want it, say Roger Mac Ginty and John Darby

Nato may be able to bomb Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic into accepting the Rambouillet peace accord, but it will be an entirely different matter to get him to implement it.

A peace accord is only as strong as the will to implement it. An embittered Milosevic and a sullen Serbia are likely to have little incentive to implement any deal. At the core of most peace processes is the voluntary involvement of the conflict's protagonists in an effort to end fighting. This voluntary aspect is missing in the Kosovo case. A credible and sustainable peace process is not on the horizon.

There is a limit to what outsiders can do to start or maintain a peace process. Without a significant input from the main protagonists, a peace process cannot last. All of this points to some sort of international protectorate for Kosovo, requiring ground troops - an option few Nato leaders want.

The 1990s has been a decade of peace processes and accords. The Coming out of Violence research project has identified 38 accords agreed between 1989-99. Most of them have ended in failure. The factors militating against a successful peace process are legion. Lack of trust and incompatible constitutional goals aside, peace processes are often derailed by single incidents of violence, vested interests in the perpetuation of violence or feuding within governments or militant groups. For a peace process to reach a point at which the former combatants are about to govern jointly a state that they had previously fought over is an exceptionally good outcome.

Sometimes the transition from a peace process is the straw that breaks the camel's back. A transition plan that appeared palatable on paper may be indigestible in reality. This may prompt hasty attempts to renegotiate the peace accord or even trigger a return to violence. The South African transition, often hailed as the great success of recent peace processes, was marred by increasing levels of violence. Post-apartheid crime has soared to frightening levels, and popular expectations of a peace dividend have been mostly unfulfilled.

In the Middle East, Palestinian celebrations of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority have been tempered by the reality of economic hardship. Israel seems intent on strangling the Palestinian economy, while the Palestinian Authority is hampered by a mixture of kleptomania and incompetence that seems to be the hallmark of the ruling clique around Yasser Arafat.

A different transition approach was used in the Basque Country; major powers were transferred from Madrid before a peace process was under way. Substantial political, economic and cultural powers now rest with new Basque institutions. Basques now have a large input into security issues, with their own police force operating alongside the national police.

The high level of autonomy has been a big factor in sapping support for extreme nationalists and contributed towards the separatist terrorist group ETA's ceasefire call in September 1998.

Viewed in the context of other peace processes, there has been substantial progress in Northern Ireland. The economy is growing, the Good Friday deal won strong support in island-wide referendums, and the ceasefires by the main paramilitary groups remain intact. But new problems have emerged. Violence by breakaway paramilitary groups is never far from the surface.

The splinter groups have been limited more by community pressure and mainstream paramilitary groups than by police action. This "co-option" of paramilitaries in keeping the uneasy peace is not without pitfalls.

There is surprisingly little debate on constitutional issues. Gerry Adams and David Trimble rarely speak of a united Ireland or strengthening the union with the United Kingdom. Instead, most debate is on a series of emotive and security-linked issues. In no other peace process has the issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons been as problematic as in Northern Ireland. The issue has been inflated to the extent that it is no longer just about weapons. It has been turned into a bizarre battle for the moral high ground.

Even if the decommissioning impasse is resolved, it will be replaced by other contentious disputes including police reform and the running sore of parades. Early prisoner releases are also proving controversial, especially among the victims of violence. A halt to the releases would jeopardise the ceasefires.

Few of Northern Ireland's 108 new assembly members have experience of drafting legislation, managing budgets or wielding power, while the Northern Ireland budget is under severe pressure. Hospitals and training schemes that escaped Tory cuts are now falling under Labour's axe. So far, signs that politicians are ready to bury old differences and cooperate on bread-and-butter issues are sparse. New-found political responsibility and fiscal realities may change that.

A peace process is not like a convoy moving at the pace of the slowest ship. It needs momentum and constant re-energisation. There may come a time when the Northern Ireland peace process must leave behind some participants. But a key calculation has to be made. Do those left behind have the capacity to wreck the process from without? If they do, beware. Between 1973-92 there were seven attempts to "solve" the Northern Ireland problem by fostering agreement between centrist parties and excluding those on the political extremes. All seven attempts failed. This is not a lesson we should forget in a hurry.

Roger Mac Ginty and John Darby of the University of Ulster are joint coordinators of Coming out of Violence, a comparative study of peace processes with academic partners in South Africa, Israel-Palestine, the Basque Country, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland.

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