Resolving conflict through the human dimension

Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee believes conflict resolution should be people-centred. (University of Stellenbosch)

Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee believes conflict resolution should be people-centred. (University of Stellenbosch)

Also Management  and/or transformation. There have been many conflicts that have ceased or are on pause because of some of these interventions. Examples of these conflicts and their current state can be seen in Liberia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Srebrenica.
What is important to note is that these resolution processes in most cases - although they may be successful - have failed to address the human dimension of these conflicts.

 A common feature in communities where most of these conflicts have been rated successfully resolved is the struggle by people to cope with the traumas brought on by the war but that have been forgotten as a major part of transformation, the issues of relationships that were broken (reconciliation) and provision of basic social services to ease the burden of poverty.

<strong>Superficial solutions? </strong>
Most reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts tend to address these issues superficially. Although billions of dollars and countless hours are spent on demilitarising communities, efforts on trauma healing, reconciliation and social services are time bound, with little or no resources and political will to ensure these processes are implemented effectively.

Rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts in these communities are more focused on structures than the humans who are supposed to benefit from the structures. Victims and survivors constantly observe with dismay the sidestepping of human issues for quick-fix political and economic solutions that do communities more harm than good.

The question that we constantly get from community dwellers is: What is peace if the conditions that led to the war in the first place are still alive and well? Do we really have peace? My native Liberia is a country that has been in conflict with itself since its "founding". Liberia's history begins at the arrival of free  American slaves. Little is said about the life of the indigenous people prior to the freed slaves' arrival. Freed slaves arrived and treated indigenous people as they had been treated on the plantations in the United States. Oppressive and suppressive laws and the politics of exclusion were the hallmark of the freed slaves' rule.

A coup in 1980 brought an end to rule of the freed slaves. Thirteen of the most powerful men (descendants of freed slaves) were publicly executed by the coup organisers, who where predominantly native Liberians. Ten years of native rule saw similar politics of exclusion and witch-hunting. In 1989, Liberia plunged into one of the deadliest civil wars Africa has seen. Close to 10% percent of the population was killed, over 20% fled into exile and half of the nation's infrastructure was destroyed. Today, electricity and pipe-borne water remain luxuries for ordinary Liberians. All of these are compounded by social problems that may take decades to address.

<strong>Failed recipe</strong>
Many stakeholders and international partners were involved in finding an end to Liberia's protracted problem. In 2003, after over 10 failed ceasefires and peace agreements, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed. A recipe for sustainable peace was laid out:

  •    Maintain a ceasefire;
  •    Establish a transitional government(paying war lords for unleashingterror on the ordinary civilians through the provision of jobs);
  •     Demobilise, disarm, rehabilitate and reintegrate fighters;
  •     Advance voters' civic education;
  •     Reform the elections process; and
  •     Establish a truth and reconciliation commission.

The intention of the checklist was to ensure that the country never reverted to conflict. A lot of care and resources were put into achieving the The intention of the checklist was to ensure that the country never reverted to conflict. A lot of care and resources were put into achieving the ceasefire, establishing a transitional government, demobilising fighters and reforming the elections process; however, the other processes were rushed and, in most cases, failed to produce the desired result.

The human part of disarmament is not in the taking of the guns; rather it is helping fighters to work their way through the trauma they experienced - like many other members of society - and bringing them back into community where they can contribute and feel a part of the rebuilding efforts. What we see in many communities today is a group of young men who fought and are still struggling with the memories of their involvement.

Their way of life is begging for money at storefronts while abusing drugs ceasefire, establishing a transitional government, demobilising fighters and reforming the elections process; however, the other processes were rushed and, in most cases, failed to produce the desired result. The human part of disarmament is not in the taking of the guns; rather it is helping fighters to work their way through the trauma they experienced - like many other members of society - and bringing them back into community where they can contribute and feel a part of the rebuilding efforts. What we see in many communities today is a group of young men who fought and are still struggling with the memories of their involvement.

Their way of life is begging for money at storefronts while abusing drugs and alcohol and being reminded daily by community members about their roles in the conflict. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process was supposed to bring Liberians to a place where we could collectively begin the journey of reconciliation. However, from its very inception, the process was flawed. It wasn't internally driven and structured like what we saw both here in South Africa and in Rwanda with the Gacaca process. There were too many players both external and internal with conflicting political interests.

The many political interests drowned the voices of ordinary Liberians. Today, we have a nation that is struggling to deal with the horrors of the past while meeting the challenges of the future. These challenges include, but are not limited to, unemployed youth, our biggest threat to security; poor education; teenage pregnancy and prostitution; communities re-establishing their  relationships; and many more. My own brief consultations with communities as part of the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative revealed the lingering issues of Joseph Kollie, the ubiquity of rape and girls' access to education. Start afresh A summary of the challenges is that we need to backtrack and start the process of nation-building by making it people-centred.

We have experienced the ineffectiveness of the one-size-fits-all nature of the processes and the global community's failure to learn from its unsuccessful initiatives. I am told that the definition of madness is "doing the same thing over and expecting a different result." There is a critical need for the peace process to be reviewed and revised to be contextspecific, moving beyond the political and economic solutions towards finding solutions that fits all those affected. Women must be at the decisionmaking table not as observers but as participants, because they too are affected and they too have insights into the political history of the wars.

Rebuilding and reconstruction efforts must also consider the human dimension if billions are placed in infrastructure rehabilitation at the expense of emotional and psychological rehabilitation; failure to do so amounts to building on a lame foundation that can collapse at any time. Examples from many nations that have gone through wars show that

emphasis must be placed on trauma healing and relationship-building of reconciliation and forgiveness and dignity, if stable societies must emerge. Failure to spend time and money on these will lead us to constantly living on edge as we have seen in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire and other parts of the world. Community peace initiatives

have shown us that people-centred approaches to war and peacebuilding are the most efficient and effective way of ensuring stability and peace. If wars are fought because

of people's dissatisfaction, peace must be sought by ensuring that people are central to all process aimed at resolving or transforming the conflicts. There can be no wars without people; therefore peace efforts without people are fruitless efforts.

This is an edited version of a speech  delivered by 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah R Gbowee at the 25th International Association for Conflict Management Conference, hosted by the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement of the University of Stellenbosch Business School

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