15. August 2017

Peace and Conflict Studies: 5 Urgent Questions of the Discipline

The interest in peace as an academic pursuit originally evolved in 19th-century America and Sweden, and is now well-established in the social sciences. But what exactly do we know about peace and the lack thereof? Here are five important issues about the modern concept of peace and the controversy surrounding it.

A Q&A by Janna Hartmann


1.  How is Peace Defined?

According to the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, we should distinguish between positive peace and negative peace. While the latter describes the absence of overt violence, the former stands for the ideal state of a world without any violence, overt or covert (structural). Social injustices would be entirely absent in a world of positive peace, so that everyone is able to achieve their full potential. He postulates that negative peace is always unstable and will eventually result in violent conflict.

Within this definition, it is certainly difficult to identify the borderline between peace and non-peace, because the vast majority of modern societies fail to display the characteristics of positive peace. The lack of conflict is therefore rather seen as a transformative process towards the state of positive peace. Since the 1970s, Galtung’s distinction has not been fundamentally challenged and remains the most commonly used peace definition in contemporary peace and conflict studies.


2.  What is the Responsibility to Protect?

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty developed the concept of R2P in 2001 and subdivided it into three pillars. First and foremost, every state carries the responsibility to protect its citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Secondly, states have the duty to help one another if one state is not able to comply with the responsibility to protect its citizens. When a government is not able or unwilling to protect or even determined to harm its citizens, the world community shall take the necessary steps and defend the affected population from willful destruction.

Following the 2005 World Summit, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the resolution on R2P, which gave the Security Council the authority to vote on interventions. That implies the duty to intervene if a state fails to protect or endangers its own people.


3. Why is the Concept of R2P Controversial?

It is important to state that R2P was developed as a reaction to the failed efforts in Srebrenica and Rwanda and was later, in 2005, anchored into internationally binding law. R2P-critics believe it to be nothing more than an euphemism for regular peace enforcement practices that have existed long before, but developed a dreadful reputation after Rwanda and Srebrenica.

Additionally, the Moral Hazard hypothesis was put forth: oppositional movements risk a certain number of victims on their own side as they expect the UN to intervene. In other words, they take an unreasonable risk to achieve their political goals, which they would not have taken without the prospect of international support. The responsibility to protect might thus fuel conflicts in the long run. R2P-advocates, on the other hand, understand it as a powerful tool for peace that has just not been applied as doughtily as necessary so far. Key research results of long-term effects of humanitarian interventions are yet to be released.


4.  What is Mediation?

Mediation denotes the “[…] conflict management […] where those in conflict seek the assistance of, or accept an offer of help from, an outsider”. If conflict parties are open to negotiate, the practice of mediation can prevent conflicts from further deteriorating. But when it comes to the aspects that lead to successful mediation, academics are divided by disagreement. The Swedish peace researcher Peter Wallensteen, for instance, discussed the question whether a mediator should be neutral or rather involved to really understand both sides. Also, there is no agreed-upon way of measuring the success of mediation. As peace agreements are rarely achieved anyway, changing conflict dynamics on a smaller scale could be seen as a desirable goal for all parties involved.

Furthermore, mediation includes regional institutions, but it is not yet known how the interests of regional institutions affect the success of mediation. Concurrent events in the world can be highly important to the development of effective mediation, still the impact on mediation is largely blanked out in the research on mediation.


5.  Do Peace Researchers and Practitioners Work Together (Enough)?

The Swedish scholar Håkan Wiberg states various reasons for the lack of cooperation between peace researchers and policy makers. Not only does it prove extremely difficult to reach clear-cut recommendations. It is also difficult to decide “whose policies” should be targeted. Should it be national governments (and if so which one?) or rather NGOs or international organisations such as the UN?

He also claims that institutions cannot act upon uncertainty, so that they tend to ignore the existing gaps in knowledge. “Decision situations of governments and similar bodies are often characterised by […] ‘precarious ignorance’: they know that they know too little, at the same time as whatever decision is made may have disastrous consequences. […] those that are officially consulted tend to be selected in such a way as to produce […] unanimity.”

Honest joint efforts between researchers and practitioners evidently lead to more balanced decisions, and provide academics with more expertise and data in order to continue to analyse the nature of peace and conflict, and eventually give clearer answers. Too much affiliation, however, may limit the neutrality of the academic discipline itself. Any party involved in an ongoing conflict might be too biased to actually continue the research process. Practitioners should, for that reason, rather make their insights and data available to researchers. In return, analysts should work independently of any government, NGO or international organisation.


The Programme Peace and Security invites you to its second Teatime of the Series Mediation in Africa! Over the course of the next months and together with international experts, we will discuss and analyse challenges and opportunities of (emerging) structures as well as actors on the African continent, that aim at preventing and transforming conflicts with the power of mediation.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image source: „Poppies Left by Visitors to The Australian War Memorial“, Public Domain Photography, http://bit.ly/2hNePFI, lizensiert unter Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.


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