Post civil war research at La Trobe University

Post civil war research at La Trobe University


So, my research looks at why peace processes
often fail to establish lasting peace after civil wars, so why it is that in the 10 to
15 years after a peace agreement is signed you wouldn’t necessarily call the situation
that people live in peace, because their lives are still characterised by insecurity, instability,
fear, mistrust, and there’s a sense that given the right trigger points people might actually
start killing each other in the streets again and a civil war might re-erupt. My research is really informed by my personal
experience of having survived the war in Bosnia and what I do is collect narratives of fellow
ordinary Bosnians, and in those narratives are trace memories of pre-war Bosnia. So, essentially I create a little mosaic of
stories about life in Bosnia before the war. One of the biggest challenges to the establishment
of lasting peace after a peace agreement is that everyone has very high hopes that that
piece of paper where groups have signed and said, ‘We’re going to put down our weapons’,
there is a peace settlement, that actually doesn’t mean a lot. It means that for a moment there is an agreement
to put down the weapons and to work towards establishing a new post-war system of governance
and security and justice and so on, but those processes of designing new constitutions,
of holding elections, of holding people accountable for war crimes, they’re deeply political and
they’re deeply controversial, and one of the challenges is that people see the peace agreement
and hope that that controversy won’t be there and that people will be committed to peace,
that everyone in the community will be working towards peace, and that’s just not the case. Treaties do not solve the bigger complex issues. The piece of paper in – in the Bosnian case,
and in many cases, has done nothing for the people who are – who have experienced the
conflict. The international community tends to see them
as very much top-down processes. There’s a piece of paper that says people
are going to put down their weapons under certain conditions but they don’t necessarily
address those individual dynamics or the incentives that make people choose to use violence or
choose to support the peace process. So we can’t separate the politics in post-conflict
societies from the everyday realities of simple, ordinary folk because their lives do not exist
outside of the political discourse, their lives are dictated by the political discourse. So, the poor person has got nowhere to go
because they don’t have a job, they’re very hungry probably, they’re trying to just survive
the everyday, there is no time in that space to think about bigger pictures, that is a
privilege. The levels of mistrust and fear that persist
in post-war societies are greatly underestimated by the international community. There is an assumption that when a peace agreement
is signed, everyone will work towards peace because everyone should want peace, but actually
everyone doesn’t want peace. There are many people in post-war situations
who actually have more to gain from ongoing insecurity or ongoing violence and have a
lot to fear from peaceful systems. They may fear, for instance, that their interests
are not going to be looked after in the new system if a member of one of the groups that
they were fighting against is in charge of the country. So, one of the biggest reasons why peace processes
fail is that they don’t address those dynamics within communities – the political factors,
the social factors, the economic factors – that mean people don’t trust peace and might actually
benefit more or decide that their interests are better-served by ongoing violence. I don’t know what peace means and what it
looks like, and I think that no one who has had peace taken away from them can really
know what it feels – what it should feel like again, because once the trust is broken and
the peace is taken away, it’s actually really difficult to articulate it. Re-establishing trust between formerly warring
communities is really difficult and it requires a very dynamic political process which can’t
just be led by the international community. It really has to be led by the community leaders,
religious leaders, political leaders in the society that’s actually transitioning from
war to peace in order to be effective. If we look around the world, there are civil
wars raging throughout the Middle East, there are civil wars reigniting in countries that
have been peaceful, nominally peaceful, for a number of years. There’s no sign that civil wars are abating. We need to try something different, because
obviously what we’re doing is failing big-time. It’s not working, because the statistics speaks
against us – speak against us, both academically, politically, socially, so time to do something
different. I hope that my research gives policymakers
and practitioners a better understanding of how they can contribute to lasting peace and
how they can better build lasting peace in the environments in which they operate. I hope also that that means that the people
who have lived through civil wars who’ve suffered enormously as a result of living through civil
wars can enjoy lives where they feel safe, where they feel like they can pursue their
interests, where they can do the things that they’re passionate about, and where on a really
basic level their children can go to school safely. I think that it’s possible for research to
have those impacts and I also think that it’s our responsibility as researchers to create
that sort of positive change in the world.

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