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Newsletter 14

Opinion

The Role of Democracy in Peace-Building: A Means as well as an End

By Eveline Herfkens, Minister for Develpment Co-operation, the Netherlands

Why is it not always possible to resolve conflicts peacefully in a democracy? What can the international community do to support democracy so that it at the same time helps countries managing conflicts? What role can International IDEA play?

Democracy and Stability

The link between conflict resolution and democratization has only recently been recognized. Achieve peace and stability first, then build a democracy -- that used to be the idea. Lately, however, we have changed our way of thinking. Democracy is increasingly being seen as a means of achieving stability.

No society is entirely without conflict. What matters is how one deals with it, how one attempts to resolve it. Does one fight it in parliament, or with weapons? This is the essential difference. Disputes arise in democratic societies too, but they are resolved openly, through debate. That is why democracy is so crucial for stability. As Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen said, we should not ask ourselves whether a country is "fit for democracy", but assume that "it has to become fit through democracy". So, democracy is not merely a distant goal, it is also a means of achieving it.

What is it about democracy that can help rebuild decimated political, cultural and social structures? Many things, such as: peaceful transfers of power, checks on the government, legal certainty, participation by all social groups, open dialogue, to name but a few.

However, I do acknowledge, as International IDEA points out in its Democracy and Deep-Rooted Conflict publication, that democracy is not a blueprint for conflict resolution. Elections can in fact cause conflict to escalate. The 1992 elections in Rwanda were a tragic example of this. Too often, a great deal of suffering has been inflicted long before the international community takes any action. But, rebuilding devastated societies and preventing new outbursts of violence is not only a challenge for the international community, it is first and foremost a challenge for the people of the country itself. They have to be convinced that peace is their only way out. International organizations and the donor community can help, however, in operations often referred to as peace-building. This requires long-term commitment from all involved. Peace-building means enhancing a society’s capacity to deal with conflicts peacefully. Two objectives are key here: restoring an effective and legitimate government and building a pluralistic civil society. Is this feasible? Perhaps not always -- we may be aiming too high. But I don’t think there is anything wrong in giving things a push in the right direction, even if only in one area. International IDEA is ideally placed to do so.

Identity and Conflict

Promoting democratization can be a complex business, particularly in societies that have been torn apart by internal conflict. I will outline, briefly, three of the most common problems.

The first problem is the relationship between identity and conflict. The ideological conflicts of the Cold War have made way for conflicts driven by identity. Tweny-Two of the 27 major conflicts in 1996 were in some way related to identity, according to International IDEA.

Why has identity become such an important factor in conflict? I believe it is because there is a close --and often underestimated and poorly understood -- connection between cultural identity and statehood. For a state to function effectively there must be communication among the public, and between government and the public. And communication is very culture-dependent. Solidarity between citizens is also essential. Without it, the state cannot fulfil its responsibility of redistributing wealth. Solidarity however is also determined by people’s cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious background. In other words, culture -- or identity -- as reflected in common values, language, symbols and rituals, is the oil that keeps the wheels of government turning. Without communication and solidarity there can be no state, and without a state there can be no democratization.

Transformation Phase

The second problem I would like raise is the transformation of the political process once a conflict is over. The military strategist Karl von Clausewitz is famous for saying "War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means". I would say that politics is the continuation of conflict by peaceful means. After a conflict, it is often a matter of controlling several transition processes at the same time: the transition from war to peace, from a command economy to a free market, and from an authoritarian regime to a democratic system.

Often, a former guerrilla movement will transform itself into a political party. They may require foreign support, unlike the party in power. In Mozambique, for instance, support from a UN trust fund enabled the ReNaMo opposition movement to become a political party and contest the 1994 elections. There is still a risk that Mozambique will lapse into a de facto one-party state again. I believe ReNaMo, with its peaceful methods, deserves our full support. International IDEA has rightly pointed out that there has been little research on financial support for political parties, which has led to a vacuum. The Institute has, however, responded to this by producing a code of conduct for political parties campaigning in democratic elections, and has also held a workshop on the availability of funds, methods of disclosure, transparency, and the role of external funding.

Justice and Reconciliation

The third problem, which is more of a moral issue, involves the balance between justice and reconciliation. Conflict is almost by definition associated with major human rights violations. Bosnia, South Africa, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia -- the list of examples is endless. Must the people responsible be given the punishment they deserve? Or is it more important to draw a veil over their crimes in the interests of reconciliation? International IDEA has added its voice to the debate with a number of publications and meetings. Not so much by adopting a particular stance, because the strength of this organisation lies precisely in its independence from national interests. Here, too, I believe its most important contribution lies in gathering and disseminating information on experience in different countries.

The international community thus faces many difficult issues and dilemmas as it seeks to promote democracy in post-conflict situations. I have mentioned just three of them, but there are many more. The key question remains: how can we effectively contribute to the cultural change that allows democracy to take root in a society?

We must exercise caution in allocating responsibilities to different actors. International IDEA must carefully consider where it can provide added value. The Institute has truly put itself on the international map in recent years with its activities in the field of electoral systems, codes of conduct for political parties, the role of women in parliament, and democracy and conflict. The added value of International IDEA’s activities in individual countries is not, however, always equally clear. I should also like to call upon International IDEA to concentrate on broadening its own support base and involve more organizations in its work.

Extracts from a speech held at the conference "Democracy and Conflict-Management: Strategies for a Sustainable Peace-Building", organized by International IDEA with the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The conference took place 18 November 1999 in the Dutch Parliament.

Newsletter 14
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