Ulrike Lühe, Laurie Nathan, Isabel Bramsen and Anine Hagemann unpack issues around mediation, research methods and the academic-practitioner gap in the study and execution of conflict resolution.
As violent conflicts are on the rise in different parts of the world, it is increasingly important for peacemakers, international organizations and researchers to work towards sustainable and lasting peace.
In this blog symposium, we bring together contributors to International Affairs’ September 2023 special section on knowledge production on peace to highlight six common pitfalls in peacemaking and tangible ways in which they can be avoided. From methodological biases and rushed peace agreements to research–policy gaps, the authors provide key insights for scholars and practitioners alike to refine their approaches.
1. Quantitative data being assumed as ‘neutral’
Ulrike Lühe: A common pitfall is to assume that quantitative data can give us a more objective view of conflict-based situations than qualitative data, thus providing ‘neutral’ evidence for how we can improve transitional justice for survivors. On the contrary, many studies employ quantitative methods in ways that actually entrench the discipline in existing norms of liberal peace rather than challenging them.
Thinking through the political stakes of research methods can help us be more cognizant of how research and practice mutually reinforce the field’s normative commitments. It can also potentially allow us to challenge established ways of doing things in more radical ways.
2. Narrow measures of success
Ulrike Lühe: A second pitfall is having a narrow measure of what successful transitional justice looks like. Often, a transitional justice process is deemed successful if it achieves its own objectives or broad, normative goals such democratization or reconciliation between conflicting parties. These are certainly important considerations. However, whether the needs of people most affected by violence are met is rarely considered as a basis for impact assessment. Changing this, and weighing success not only against the broad goals of the field but also against those of the people, can help make transitional justice more relevant to those it ought to serve.
Ulrike Lühe is a Post-Doc Fellow at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.
Her article titled ‘The politics of methods in transitional justice knowledge production’ is free to access until November 2023. Read it here.
3. Forced peace agreements between conflicting parties
Laurie Nathan: In violent conflicts, mediating organizations and other international actors often try to pressurize the conflict parties to conclude a peace agreement quickly. While this approach is understandable, given the severe humanitarian impact of large-scale violence, it can also be harmful.
Spurious peace agreements are not only unsustainable, but they also reduce the parties’ confidence in mediation, thereby diminishing the prospect of achieving real and sustainable peace. An essential skill of mediation lies in cultivating the parties’ genuine ownership of agreements they sign. Mediators should refrain from forcing the parties to sign agreements under duress. Examples of this problematic approach include the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement and the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan.
4. Neglected relationship building between conflicting parties
Laurie Nathan: In armed conflicts, mediating organizations tend to obsess over the substance of negotiated settlements. They push the conflict parties to accept liberal norms, power-sharing arrangements and security reforms. They imagine that the ‘magic’ of mediation lies in the quality of the text. But the real magic lies in changing the parties’ relationship from moral enmity to political cooperation and non-violent competition. If this kind of reconciliation can be achieved during negotiations, the parties will be able to find their own substantive solutions to their conflict.
Laurie Nathan is Professor and Director of the Mediation Program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.
His article titled ‘The customer is always right: the policy research arena in international mediation’ is free to access until November 2023. Read it here.
5. Researchers’ lack of engagement with practitioners
Isabel Bramsen and Anine Hagemann: While peace researchers ask difficult questions of ‘why war’ and ‘how peace’ and teach students to think in these terms, there is room for increasing impact. Researchers often ‘act as if there is some sort of metaphorical wall which they throw their papers over, with some responsible person on the other side taking the output of their disinterested scientific study and translating it into policy’. In other words, researchers can increase the impact of their work by directly engaging with practitioners.
6. Strict compartmentalization between scholarship and practice
Isabel Bramsen and Anine Hagemann: In the early days of peace research, there were blurred lines between scholars and practitioners, with researchers engaging in direct efforts of dialogue and mediation. Today, research and practice have become siloed, and it is increasingly difficult to change between positions in research and practice due to professionalization and structural constrains. Some of the few scholars who have transitioned between research and practice describe how their understanding of peace research dramatically changed with their experience of practice.
Greater mobility between research and practice would significantly improve the quality of peace research as well as the reflectiveness of practice. The institutional set-up of research institutions and practice organizations could, to a greater extent, support and enable academics and practitioners to engage in co-creation. This could be done by engaging over critical issues and ‘translating’ research findings to a policy context.
Isabel Bramsen is Director of Peace and Conflict Studies and Associate Professor at Lund University, Department of Political Science.
Anine Hagemann is a Post-Doc Fellow at University of Copenhagen and a diplomat at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Their article titled ‘How research travels to policy: the case of Nordic peace research’ is free to access until November 2023. Read it here.