Post-Disaster Peacemaking: Conceptual Issues

In recent years, new ideas and concepts of transforming conflict and promoting peace have emerged. Among them is the notion of building trust and overcoming conflict divides on the basis of deeply shared needs and interests among different protagonists. This includes notions of global health diplomacy, environmental cooperation, and humanitarian peacemaking in the wake of a disaster.

Disasters that strike in conflict zones may inflict suffering that cuts across the divides of conflict, prompting common relief needs and making reconciliation an essential condition for successful reconstruction and recovery. The sudden economic stress imposed by a disaster may well create considerable societal strain and even fresh disputes. Bickering over how to share and distribute disaster aid may trigger conflict. However, joint emergency aid efforts and rebuilding activities among adversaries can also be a catalyst for reconciliation. Indeed, a deadlocked conflict—where cycles of violence and mutual suspicion reinforce each other—may require an unprecedented jolt in order to make the protagonists more receptive to conflict resolution.

Post-disaster goodwill needs to be translated into fundamental political change—addressing the root causes of conflict, setting up a firm and reliable peace process, giving people a tangible stake in peace, and taking on the vested interests that benefit from a continuation of conflict. Yet humanitarianism does not automatically create peace, but merely offers a window of opportunity for conflict transformation. Protagonists may not be equipped or prepared to do so, and the window of opportunity may close quickly. On the other hand, where positive change in the aftermath of a disaster does take place, it is possible—as some analysts have argued—that such action would have occurred anyway, even in the absence of a disaster. Yet such an interpretation is overly deterministic, discounting the deeply emotional impact of a disaster.

Events in three conflict zones—Indonesia’s Aceh province, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir—all gave rise to hopes that post-disaster goodwill could assist in breaking the conflict dynamics—through initiatives that have variously been called “humanitarian peacemaking” and “disaster diplomacy.” Aceh and Sri Lanka suffered many years of debilitating civil war, and both were hit hard by the December 2004 tsunami. Kashmir likewise has been at the core of a decades-long conflict, and was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake in October 2005. These three areas have followed very different post-disaster trajectories.

Aceh has had a “silver lining” experience—shortly after the tsunami, negotiations between the Indonesia government and the GAM Rebel movement commenced, leading to a peace agreement signed in August 2005. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the post-tsunami response and infighting over aid distribution aggravated the tensions on the island and helped contribute to renewed combat. Kashmir, finally, has seen neither a breakthrough for peace nor a worsening of violence; but an opportunity for conflict transformation and building greater trust between India and Pakistan was missed.

Why such different outcomes? Below are a series of conceptual questions targeted at understanding the circumstances under which disasters and conflict dynamics intersect. They are designed to evaluate the opportunities for, and obstacles to, conflict transformation and peacemaking.

Where Disasters and Conflicts Intersect:Conceptual Issues and Questions for Peacemaking Initiatives

What is the nature of the conflict?

á International or internal conflict

á Grievance / type of incompatibility

á Protagonists: bipolar / multiple

á Duration: short / long

á Intensity: high / low

á Continuity: steady or sporadic fighting

Were earlier peacemaking efforts undertaken prior to the disaster?

á What did they achieve? (Conflict dynamics improved, stabilized, or worsened?)

á Why did they not succeed?

Who initiated, supported, or opposed these conflict resolution efforts?

á Political leaders

á Public opinion / media

á Social/political entrepreneurs

á International donors / facilitators

What type of disaster occurred?

á Onset: rapid / slow

á Duration: prolonged / short-term

á Impact: massive / moderate / small

á What is the magnitude relative to deaths, displacement caused by the conflict?

Did the disaster cut across the conflict divide, or is only one side affected?

á Yes

á Yes (but one side is far more heavily affected, potentially leading to incongruity of interests)

á No

What kinds of dynamics are being triggered post-disaster?

á Disaster unites conflict parties (shared goals), ameliorates conflict

á Disaster accentuates divides (inability to overcome distrust; new divisive issues)

Do post-disaster developments create greater trust in governmental agencies?

á Disaster aid is provided in competent & transparent manner (yes/no)

á Disaster aid helps overcome distrust stemming from conflict (yes/no)

Is humanitarian aid flowing across conflict divides in an equitable manner?

á Yes (generates good will / assists in conflict transformation)

á No (competition over aid reinforces divides; potential for fresh conflict)

á No (conscious efforts are made to withhold aid from certain areas or communities)

Are disaster survivors and conflict survivors receiving aid and attention in an equitable manner?

á Yes

á No (disproportionate aid as a possible source of future grievances)

Are aid agencies (governmental, NGO, INGO) consciously pursuing measures that may be amenable to conflict resolution?

á Yes

á No (the agencies have no crossover mandate)

á No (but there may be serendipitous effects)

Are aid agencies facilitating the growth of civil society (which in turn is critical to sustainable peace)?

á Yes (consultation, capacity-building)

á No (lack of consultation, top-down approaches, high turnover of personnel, etc.)

Is there coordination among emergency aid groups, development agencies, public health practitioners, human rights advocates, conflict resolution specialists, and others?

á Yes

á No (fragmentation, turf wars)

Is humanitarianism being translated into a new peace initiative and the political change necessary for peace?

á Yes

á Yes (but humanitarianism provided only an additional spark; other factors already made new peace talks likely)

á No (goodwill only in aftermath of the disaster)

Are the protagonists amenable and firmly committed to seeking peaceful a resolution?

á Yes (realization that conflict cannot be decided militarily)

á No (continued militarism, brinkmanship, maneuvering for advantage)

Is there a strong constituency for peace? (initiators / congruence of interests)

á Elite vs. popular interests

á Domestic vs. international interests:

· Political leaders

· Public opinion / media

· NGOs, social / political entrepreneurs

· International agencies / donors

Are there “spoilers” that derive political or material benefit from continued conflict? (If so, are political leaders taking steps to confront these forces?)

á Political parties

á Political entrepreneurs

á Military commanders / units

á Guerrillas / warlords

Do peace negotiations address core grievances/ conflict causes? And are the provisions of a resulting peace agreement being implemented?

á Yes (demilitarization & reintegration of combatants, political formula, human rights, international monitoring)

á No

Do economic developments facilitate peace efforts?

á Yes (peace dividend, reconstruction, economic revival)

á No (continued economic hardships allow hardliners to oppose/torpedo peace efforts)