The Elusive Art of Negotiating Peace: Q&A with Lise Howard

Rwandan peacekeepers with the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) work with local communities on a project to build schools for children in Kapuri, Northern Bari Payam, South Sudan. September 13, 2014. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

The relatively short period from the end of the Cold War until the September 11 terrorist attacks was something of a golden age for using negotiations to end international conflicts such as civil wars, according to Lise Howard, associate professor of Government at Georgetown University.

“We had a rise, a statistical rise that’s really quite clear, in negotiated settlements in civil wars,” Howard said, contrasting this with what had until then been the more common conclusion to such conflicts—the complete political defeat or expulsion of the losing side.

Speaking with Global Observatory Editor Marie O’Reilly, the author of UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars said this new norm led to a decrease in the number of civil wars observed around the world, though the tide started to turn back after September 11, when the emphasis on eschewing negotiating with terrorists spread to other areas of conflict resolution.

“In other words, we [now] see it as normatively appropriate to seek to defeat rebels, to seek to defeat terrorists, rather than talk to them,” Howard said, noting that all peacekeeping missions were now authorized to use force under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

The conversation was part of a series of interviews done on the sidelines of the inaugural retreat of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM) on February 20-21. It followed a session on the changing nature of conflicts.

Listen to interview:

Lise, what in your view are the new threats? What’s new in the international system in relation to peace and security, and what’s actually old?

The new threats that we were mentioning just now [at the retreat]—an increase in violent non-state actors, of extremist ideologies—those two phenomena in particular are not new; they were with us during the Cold War. But what is new and difficult to confront in some ways is a growing weakness among both rebels and among governments. So governments aren’t characterized by an ability to control their territories, increasingly, and rebel groups also can’t necessarily control their territories. And when you have a combination of weakness on both sides that’s when problems—violent problems, violent conflicts—become particularly intractable.

There’s another trend that you mentioned when you were speaking about the rise of a norm in non-negotiation. Could you tell me about that please?

During the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, we had a rise—a statistical rise that’s really quite clear—in negotiated settlements in civil wars. Historically, civil wars end in non-negotiation. They end in complete defeat on the battlefield, and there are different flavors of that complete defeat. It’s either a political [conclusion], so it’s complete political defeat—expulsion of the losing side or the extermination of the losing side. That, historically, is how civil wars ended. Then in the 1990s we had a rise of negotiated settlements in civil wars, and we saw at the same time a concurrent decrease in the number of civil wars as negotiations went up. So we had a rise in the norm of negotiation and we saw a physical rise in negotiation in the real world.

After the attacks on 9/11 there was always a norm against negotiating with terrorists, but I think that norm has been strengthened to the detriment of the norm of negotiation. So we have increasingly a norm of non-negotiation with terrorists—we don’t want to negotiate with terrorists—and at the same time we see less and less negotiation as a way to end civil wars. In other words, we [now] see it as normatively appropriate to seek to defeat rebels, to seek to defeat terrorists, rather than talk to them.

How is this impacting on the use of force more broadly in the international system and in particular in terms of UN peacekeeping?

I don’t know if I can make this causal argument quite yet, but I think eventually I’ll be able to. It’s my hunch that the way in which they’re connected is the following: The means of peacekeeping, when peacekeeping was most successful in the 1990s—and there were varieties of successful cases and my first book is looking at those successful cases—we had peacekeeping resorting not to the use of force, because that wasn’t available, but rather to use innovative strategies in the field, and it was different in each operation. In each peacekeeping operation they had to innovate in the field in order to figure out how to fulfill their mandates.

Now, more and more, with the rise of this appropriateness of the use of force to solve problems, we see this rise… in robust peacekeeping, that this is the approach that the international community sees as appropriate. We see an increase in the number of mandates to use force—every single multi-dimensional peacekeeping mission now is authorized under Chapter VII. We don’t see much of a capacity in the UN to use force, but there’s still the expectation that the UN will be able to use force. And more and more the means are at the UN’s disposal to be using force in civil wars.

Tell me, in your mind, about the changing nature of conflict as it relates to an increase or a decrease in war. So on the one hand there are some who say that the consequences of war are getting more serious, but purely in terms of the occurrence of war and the different ways that’s measured, is war increasing or decreasing in the grand scheme of things?

It’s a little bit difficult to tell right now. I can tell you that across the grand arc of history, if we look back to the Middle Ages, according to the physical anthropologists, something along the lines of 40 percent of people, of human beings, died in violent deaths. So when we dig up old graves we find that people were killed with arrows and by being quartered. I mean people dying extremely violent deaths. And now under one percent of the people in the world die in violent deaths. We know that people die in different ways now, and it’s not usually by violence.

There have been three big books about the overall decline in war, and a collection of papers also, finding similar trends, but all looking at different data sets, [finding] that war is in decline. Wars between states are in decline, civil wars have been in decline especially, wars between states especially since 1945 and within states especially since the end of the Cold War. In the last three years it seems that there’s been an uptick both in the number of battle deaths and in the overall number of civil wars. We have new wars of intervention that aren’t typical wars between states. There’s been an uptick in those also, but for the overall picture it’s up for debate now whether there’s an uptick in the number of wars.

So when you spoke earlier you mentioned three forms of power in the international system: there are tools of coercion, tools of inducement, and tools of persuasion. Where do you think the UN and member states should be focusing their work on? Which tool is most appropriate?

Well, I think given the history of the UN that it’s about ending the scourge of war, we know automatically that of the main tools of power, inducement and persuasion have generally worked best for the UN. So inducement with the creation of the IMF and the World Bank—it’s inducing countries through financial means to develop and to integrate into the world economy and into the global economy. Now that’s had differing results for differing places, but that’s the basic idea. We also have sanctions, which is another form of inducement—that’s a negative form.

Peacekeeping, I would argue, has generally worked best when it’s situated in the realm of persuasion, when it is about peacekeepers talking to average citizens in the country where they are sent to keep the peace to try and understand what their needs are—what kind of institutions could work in the post-civil war setting. I’m predicating this on having a peace agreement already, and then also to understand and to convey what the UN can and can’t provide in those civil wars. So peacekeeping in my estimation—which I have argued in my book—generally works best when it relies more on the elements of persuasion and less on the elements of coercion. The basic concept of peacekeeping was [in place] when Dag Hammarskjöld talked about it or when Ralph Bunche [talked about it]. They were soldiers for peace so they wouldn’t use their arms, but they would be there in the cause of helping societies and states to resolve their differences politically as opposed to militarily.

Excellent. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

You’re welcome. Thank you.