Six Aspects to Consider on the Interaction Between Local and International Actors in Peace Processes

A woman holds flowers as she attends a peace march in Bogota, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

With inclusion being promoted as a key principle to lasting peace, international mediation practitioners are looking at ways to engage local actors in peace processes. UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ recent report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace has highlighted the need for inclusivity in peacebuilding processes and objectives. An important dimension of inclusion is the participation of local actors in peace processes. Drawing on my research on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Syria, I found six aspects worth considering.

First is the need to be specific with regard to what is meant by “local” actors. When talking about international-local interactions, on the international side, we usually refer to international peacebuilding actors, while on the local side, we refer to local actors in general. Thereby, we amalgamate civil society, communities, and local peacebuilding actors. Such a subsuming of local peacebuilding actors into the general category of local actors masks the important peacebuilding work they are engaged in on the ground. We should pay more attention to them and treat them as an actors’ category in their own right. At the same time, we should also more clearly distinguish them from civil society actors. The two categories may overlap, but civil society actors engage in a broad range of activities, including those that are outside the realm of peacebuilding.

Second, it is imperative to be specific about the objectives being pursued by including civil society in mediation processes. These vary depending on the context and the phase of mediation and can include goals such as showing the support of parts of the population for the peace process and thereby strengthening its legitimacy, providing civil society actors with possibilities for advocacy, putting pressure on conflict parties and holding them accountable, creating confidence and building trust among civil society, receiving information and expertise from civil society and using them as a sounding board to test ideas, or preparing them for their role in the implementation phase. Being aware of the exact objective will help in being more strategic about civil society inclusion in mediation processes.

To give an example, the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR), established by the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria in order to enable Syrian civil society actors to participate in the intra-Syrian talks, fulfills several objectives in terms of confidence-building, engaging civil society substantively on topics relevant to the intra-Syrian talks, and providing them with opportunities for advocacy with UN member states. Engaging in the CSSR also prepares Syrian civil society actors for their role in a future phase of the peace process. Being specific in what a mediation team wants to achieve with civil society inclusion in this manner helps to strategize and manage expectations.

A third aspect is that local actors should be seen as true partners and their expertise acknowledged. In the DRC, for instance, international peacebuilding actors often portrayed the thematic expertise on peacebuilding and mediation they possessed as a capacity and they offered capacity-“building” workshops on these topics to local actors. At the same time, they usually considered local peacebuilding actors’ contextual knowledge to be information, rather than a capacity. They for instance invited local actors to share their knowledge on local conflicts, but called these meetings “briefings” or “consultations,” rather than workshops to build the capacity of international actors.

Changing this downgrading of local expertise and agency is critical not least because in any peace process, and especially at times when it does not produce concrete results, there is a risk that civil society participants feel that their attendance is tokenistic. While civil society participation is an important strategic tool of a mediator—and this does not imply it is just a fig leaf—civil society presence without their real engagement is neither sustainable nor effective. This is linked to how their expertise is treated. Indeed, if civil society actors are included in formal peace processes, they should be seen as experts and not just information providers, especially if they are brought in an advisory capacity.

Fourth, one of the objectives of including civil society actors into formal peace processes is to make international actors aware of local perceptions in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the conflict context and of the views on the peacebuilding strategies chosen. In the DRC, perceptions on statebuilding often differed significantly between international and local actors. Between 2003 and the elections in 2006, the main priority for international peacebuilding actors was statebuilding. However, local actors—having lived under more than 30 years of dictatorship—saw the state as a threatening rather than benevolent actor. Peacebuilding efforts taking these perceptions into account would have been more nuanced and therefore more locally relevant.

In international mediation teams, a similar lack of awareness about local perceptions and narratives can often be observed. Not enough attention is usually paid to how mediation strategies are perceived and interpreted in the broader population. Initiatives to bring civil society actors to mediation processes, like the CSSR, contribute to changing that, but other measures, such as monitoring discussions on social media, can also increase the awareness of mediation teams to different perspectives on the conflict and to the perceived efficacy of peacebuilding approaches.

Fifth, integrating civil society actors in “track I” processes is a two-way endeavor. Bringing them to where the negotiations take place is only part of the story, mediation teams also need to go where civil society actors work. Yet often, the formal peace process is presented as the only “game in town.” However, having mediation teams travel to the region where local actors operate allows them to not only listen to and get a better sense of their perceptions, but also engages those civil society actors who may not be able to easily travel or stay away from work and family for several days. In the framework of the CSSR, for instance, the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria conducted regional consultations for members of the mediation team to meet with civil society in Gaziantep, Beirut, and Amman.

The final aspect relates to the role of the UN. The increased attention the UN has been paying to the local level is laudable. It is also crucial, however, to analyze where its involvement is beneficial and where it may distort ongoing processes. The CSSR, for instance, has brought about exchanges between civil society actors that go beyond their formal involvement in the intra-Syrian talks. Civil society actors have coordinated and communicated in preparation for discussions in Geneva, and have fed discussion results back to their constituencies. These efforts are significant and the UN can encourage them, but further involvement on their part would risk negating the organic and locally-owned nature of these processes.

Another example is when some UN agencies in eastern DRC began engaging in local conflict resolution directly, for instance by mediating local land conflicts. While initiatives were well-intentioned, they often duplicated and crowded out efforts that were already undertaken by local peacebuilding actors. In thinking about when the UN should engage, the concept of comparative advantages is of crucial importance. Each actor has specific comparative advantages. Being aware of them allows for an appropriate division of labor and hence more effective peacebuilding.

Overall, integrating local voices into formal peace processes is crucial to allowing different perspectives to be taken into account. In light of the increased prominence of attempts to link different tracks in a peace process, it is important that both the positive and negative effects of doing so are assessed, not only on the outcome of a peace process, but also on the actors involved. There is a need for more analysis on topics such as civil society fragmentation in situations where limited space for actors results in competition, on civil society legitimacy and accountability, for example when they are part of a formal peace process with no immediate positive outcomes, and in terms of the security of civil society actors and their families if the parties to a conflict put pressure on them not to attend formal talks. Such assessments will help to think of inclusivity from both the international and local perspective for the common purpose of making durable the tenuous gains resulting from a mediated peace.

Sara Hellmüller is a senior researcher in the Mediation program at swisspeace and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Montreal. This article is based off comments made within the framework of a workshop hosted by the International Peace Institute (IPI).