Peace is made, work begins…

by Andrew Milner

This is the second of a series of blogs linked to the Let’s build peace: here and now’ conversations being organised by the Foundations for Peace (FFP) Network. Through these conversations, the FFP Network and their partners are creating a space to share the stories of peacebuilders who have been closest to the ground.

Published on June 16,2021 at 11:15

The so-called Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, ‘wasn’t really a peace accord but a political agreement that led to the cessation of violence, there’s still huge issues that divide us’, says Dawn Shackels of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI).

Dawn Shackels’ words underline what is often the case – peace agreements are little more than the end of open hostilities, an injunction to abstain from violence. It’s afterwards that the work of building peace begins and it can be a long, frustrating job – healing the wounds of the conflict, reconciling the recalcitrant, dealing with the issues that arise when the peace accord itself is a source of grievance.

The stories that peacebuilders have to tell both draws attention to this work and provides a source of inspiration for others. Spaces like the ‘Let’s build peace, here and now’ hosted by the Foundations for Peace and We Contain Multitudes are bringing together activists and peacebuilders from different parts of the world in a series of conversations which highlight these stories. What follows is principally drawn from those conversations.

The subject of peacebuilding is virtually inexhaustible. We want to highlight just a few of the issues in this article.

First is the observation made by Dawn Shackels, above. Real peace does not come with the signing of a paper. Second, it’s an oversimplification to think that conflict and its subsequent resolution is a matter just between the contending parties. There are often disagreements of principle among those who nominally adhere to the same general position as the peacebuilders. In other words, you may well find yourself fighting against those on the same side. Bassma Kodmani, whose peacebuilding work in Syria spans almost the entire conflict there, speaks of the disunity of the coalition of the opposition when the uprising started.

‘I was very reluctant to accept that there were sectarian divisions, that there was distrust between communities. We all attributed divisions just to the dictatorship, and to a very large extent the dictatorship was responsible but the result was that this was a divided country, socially.’

There is another element of this disunity which both she and Dawn Shackels have become aware of at different times –the gender issue is involved. ‘I was the only woman in the leading official positions of the opposition,’ says Bassma, ‘and it was a very hostile environment. I discovered how important it was to defend women’s participation.’

Dawn Shackels recalls with astonishment that

‘even as recently as last year – 2020 – I was in a conversation about peacebuilding and legacy issues, and I was the only woman in the room.’ She too ‘struggles with that’ and finds that ‘it can be a bit lonely at times.’ 

Only woman in the room

Bassma Kodmani (second from left) and Dawn Shackels both talk about the lonliness of being the only women in conversations about peace and stress the importance of building inclusivity in the peace processes.

So there are complexities which beggar the idea of peacebuilding being a straight issue between two sides. Atallah Kuttab produces the image of the onion to express this complexity:

‘It’s like an onion, there are layers, and sometimes we fail to define those levels of conflict, so we can’t tackle them and create peace at every level… whether it has to do with women’s rights, whether it has to do with incompetence of politicians.  There is a combination of conflicts that sometimes we oversimplify under the theme of peace.’

But the most frustrating thing, for Bassma Kodmani and which both caused and aggravated dissension, was the loss of the narrative. The clear lines of explanation and purpose become blurred as different factions arise and as different accounts are given of the issues. In Syria, she feels, the waters were muddied as support came from overseas from countries who had their own axes to grind.

‘The narrative became distorted into a global fight against ISIS and we lost it completely.’

She feels that one of the problems is that nobody wants to sift through the complex chain of causes: ‘getting to the root causes is so time-consuming and painful.’

She has learned a hard lesson both from her own exclusion as a woman and the fissures within the ranks of the opposition:

‘on my own, however smart I was, I wasn’t going to make it. …. it has to be a collective success and it needs a collective strategy.’

A work in progress

A further question is how to address the grievances of those communities who, while welcoming the end of hostilities, are dissatisfied with the peace. Dawn points out, while it’s politicians who make agreements, others bear the brunt of both conflict and the fallout from those agreements and explains how this is most acutely felt, ‘in working class communities who suffer the worst effects of deprivation and discrimination’ and underlined the need to support ‘grassroots activists, because as we’ve seen time after time, whenever we’re in a crisis, these activists are the backbone of our communities, they’re the ones that need the help and support.’Bassma Kodmani argues the need for pragmatism. Any peace agreement is unlikely to give all shades of contending opinion what they want, particularly when division has been aggravated to the point of hatred by violence, bitterness and contempt so an important job of peacebuilders is to stress to their constituents the need to work with an unsatisfactory compromise. She and her colleagues had to tell frontline activists in Syria that ‘they probably wouldn’t be happy with whatever agreement was finally reached and that we would have to deal with that.’

Peace – at what price?

It’s often the case that peace activists like Bassma and Dawn appeal to something beyond a just peace, to a sense of affinity with a place or a community which needs to be preserved even at the expense of an unsatisfactory peace.

Talking about communities can distract from seeing that the wounds created by conflict are felt and harboured by the individuals involved, even if they are played out at community level and the traumas don’t end in as cut-and-dried a fashion as the signing of a document. ‘Some communities feel the pain and the injustices today as strongly as they did 20, 30 or 40 years ago,’ says Dawn Shackels. In fact, these traumas extend beyond the lives of the individuals who were actually part of them. She talks about children who ‘never saw the Troubles, but they recount stories that have happened to others as if they were there at the time, ‘so there’s a lot of generational trauma, and a lot of conflict within families as well. We haven’t done enough there to try and break that down.’ In short, conflict creates a sort of collective sense of grievance which is transmitted not only from one individual to others but even through time.

This can be reinforced by segregation, whether externally or self-imposed, which has an important bearing on a continual state of hostility and discrimination. Dawn Shackels speaks of how for many years, communities in Northern Ireland, have been educated separately with leisure, health and social amenities generally replicated in each community. In some ways, it’s a natural response. ‘People feel safe,’ she says, ‘staying and commuting within their own space, it is changing, but is a slow process.’’ The Dalits in India face an imposed segregation which they have themselves assimilated. As Martin Macwan notes, when Dalit children go to school, ‘they face discrimination, for example they sit separately, or are served food separately.’ This state of affairs enshrines the idea of distinctiveness and contributes to keeping individuals from different communities apart.

The difficulty of reaching across these divides is exacerbated by the existence of those unreconciled to peace. Even for those who desire an end to violence, there will be times when retributive justice which focuses on culpability and punishment seems like the only satisfactory conclusion. Eventually, however, a more restorative form of justice must be accepted, if peace is to be more than abstention from open hostility. At a further extreme are the groups, as Dawn Shackels describes them, who ‘still feel that conflict is the way to achieve their objectives,’

Yet, it is crucial to bring them into the process.

‘Those hard-line organizations and individuals [are] particularly important to engage with, because if we isolate them from our discussion, we’re not bringing all of society along with us and we’re storing up problems for future generations.’

Martin Macwan says something very similar:

‘if some of the citizens of your country are not treated as citizens, then the whole country cannot grow.’

Dawn Shackels sums it up:

‘You can’t achieve peace if you exclude those voices that are most on the margins. That’s not peace.’

This can pose yet another dilemma for peacebuilders. Like Bassma Kodmani, they can

‘feel closer to the moderates on the other side, than to the hardliners on my own side. Do I have to talk to them? Do I still have to engage their hopelessly sectarian, conservative, backward thinking? Is it not better to put my energy into building the moderates at the centre, [because] I feel the only way forward is to create a coalition of moderates on both sides.’

The sense of frustration evident in her words will resonate with other peacebuilders who can find themselves vilified by the more intransigent on their own side for betrayal of principles. The siege mentality among groups who feel themselves oppressed and discriminated against can create what amounts to its own tyranny of opinion, Martin Macwan, too, describes how some Dalits have accused him ‘of trying to destroy the community by talking about equality and breaking the internal structure.’

The real question for the countries of the MENA region, believes Bassma Kodmani, is

‘how to bring together the positive ones who have the will and the means to make peace and structure them other than in a political party because they’re reluctant to get involved in a political party that immediately has a hierarchy? How do they organise to become a collective and be heard as a collective, talk to a government, engage in a dialogue. This is our biggest challenge – today and for the years to come – to confront the radicals, the ones who are against peace, the ones who want a conservative exclusionary society.’

How do you address these conundrums? Dawn Shackels stresses the importance of relationships:

the ‘need to take time and space to build those relationships, to understand what’s happening within the community and to help them build the confidence to advocate for themselves and then together develop a programme that they think is going to provide some of the solutions to the issues that they’re facing.’

Creating trust under difficult circumstances

The relationships are crucial because the conversations you have with communities on these issues are difficult ones – and impossible without that basis: ‘trust and confidence that people have in you allows you to start addressing some of the hurt that has been caused, within and between communities.’

In the meantime, Avila Kilmurray reminds us that others are unreconciled too and their voices are not heard, even in anger – informers who were shot by members of their own community, women who formed relationships with British soldiers. They are left out of the account. We should not avoid telling unpalatable truths in the interests of being conciliatory, she counsels and urges the creation of a people’s history unfettered by existing notions of what is and what isn’t fit to tell and that some things should be left unsaid in the interests of agreement.

What can funders learn?

At the start of the latest FFP conversation, Barry Knight remarked on what he called the peacebuilding deficit:

‘that funders and philanthropists in particular did not really understand the social processes that drive conflict, and their connection with social justice’

and there are important implications for funders in what peacebuilders are saying here. One corollary, for example, of Dawn Shackels’ plea for building trust and confidence is that you shouldn’t try to fit the issue round funding criteria –

‘we’re [CFNI] saying “Forget about the criteria, tell us what the issues are and we will see how we can best support you and work through those”.’ 

Bassma Kodmani says something very similar:

‘Never mind what they want to do, we are supporting the right people and they know best what is needed in their community.’

And support for grassroots activists, in particular, doesn’t have to be about money, As Martin Macwan points out, support is ‘more about holding hands. The Dalit Foundation not only trains activists, but also supports the fellowship programme, where people in their local area are funded and helped to develop the kinds of skills which they then carry forward.’

The key here for those supporting peacebuilding is to be flexible enough to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. This is so to a degree for all funders, but especially for those working on peacebuilding and conflict resolution because changes can be dramatic and rapid and you need to be responsive.

‘If you’re not flexible in allowing for that, then you miss out on the possibility of a much richer project.’

An imperative

Lyra McKee mural

A mural of slain journalist Lyra McKee painted by artist Emma Blake in the heart of Belfast. Murals are a popular expression of post conflict public art and culture in Northern irelald.  Dawn Shackels says that this one painetd in 2019 gives her hope. ‘It makes me think that things are, can and will get better.’ Photo credit:

This article has been more about the problems and dilemmas faced by peacebuilders than about their triumphs and their motives. The obstacles seem formidable and often frustrating and none of those we have heard from make light of them. Martin Macwan’s comment that the work of the Dalit Foundation consists of trying to ‘move from two steps forward and four steps back, to three steps forward and four steps back,’ seems an apt summary. But while peacebuilders are fully aware of the difficulties, they persist. Strikingly, for many of them, the work is either a moral imperative or is bound up with their identity – or both.

‘I could never get away from the feeling that I have of, “If you can help then you should help”, and that’s really what drives me,’ says Dawn Shackels.’

Bassma Kodmani describes it as

‘the meaning of my life…. I was involved personally and emotionally.’

Similarly, Atallah Kuttab:

‘we don’t have the option not to work on this. It’s part of who we are, so whether we like it or not, we are pulled in because for me, as a Palestinian, it defines my life. I cannot accept that my end identity is being second class, or in our case 10th class in my homeland.’

But behind that compulsion, there is also a sense of conviction which all of them share that change is possible and that even moving forward at the halting gait described by Martin Macwan is worthwhile and attainable.

Andrew Milner is a freelance writer, researcher and editor specializing in the areas of philanthropy and civil society. He is a consultant to Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace. He is also a regular contributor to, and associate editor of, Alliance magazine.