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Shaky foundations? Political settlements, peace agreements and the road to stability

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Kieran Prendergast - British diplomat and a former Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the United Nations

Nicholas Haysom - Director of Political Affairs, Office of the UN Secretary General

Alex de Waal - Programme Director, Social Science Research Council
Sara Pantuliano - Research Fellow and Programme Leader, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI


Sara Pantuliano opened the fifth meeting of the fragile states series outlining the main themes of the previous four fragile state meetings and emphasising how this event brings together a number of themes from the previous meetings. She followed with an introduction on the importance that political settlements and peace agreements play in paving the road to stability, particularly in countries emerging from conflict and asked the speakers to reflect on how international actors can better support these processes. 

Kieran Prendergast (British diplomat and a former Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the UN)

Kieran Prendergast started his presentation by highlighting the general disconnect between the theory of how things should be done and the way in which they are done in practice. He referred to the case of Guatemala to explain his point. In 1996, the peace accord commitments in Guatemala remained largely unfulfilled due to the discrepancy between the extensive nature of the accords and the four year transitional period during which they were meant to be implemented. It became evident shortly after the process had started that it was impossible to accomplish the tasks set forth in four years and that the peace accords were actually a blueprint for the transformation of the entire country long term.

At the other end of the spectrum, Iraq’s peace settlement in the spring of 2003 was marked by excessive haste, the effect of which was destabilising. In particular, elections were held too soon and work on the transitional constitution was rushed. Extensive time for consultation and very wide debate are essential in peace settlements. In Iraq, elements of the constitution were denounced by various parties almost immediately after the document was signed.

A successful peace settlement, in theory, should include the following elements:

  • There has to be an internal dynamic towards which external efforts can be harnessed. Without an internal dynamic no amount of external effort can make a difference, as in the case of Israel/Palestine.

  • There needs to be a real effort to understand the issues at play. In this regard, academic analysis can be extremely helpful. It is important to understand the issues as they are, without caricatures or stereotypes and not be moved by external forces towards an over-simplification of the situation.

  • A careful identification of the actors is central. An assessment of who the players are, who the spoilers are, who will support peace, who has an interest in the status–quo, etc. is necessary.

  • It is imperative to understand what the realistic and achievable options are in any situation. Sometimes one cannot solve a problem, only minimise it.

  • Respect is fundamental: the more vulnerable the country, the more important respect for its culture and people is.

  • The importance of patience and persistence cannot be overestimated. Quick fixes very often work against stability in the long run.

  • Impartiality is vital, although sometimes impossible.

  • Coordination among external players is necessary. ‘Forum-shopping’, the enemy of progress towards a settlement, will occur without coordination.

  • An understanding is needed that peace-processes don’t stand still, but advance or go backwards at different junctures. Once you get a negotiation going, it is key to continue to drive it forward. It is important to ‘not let the thread break’.

  • Finally, the peace settlement needs to be ‘their peace’ not ‘your peace’. Although there are differences in technique on how intrusive you want to be -for instance sometimes you need to provide encouragement while other times its better to take a step back - if its ‘your peace’ its much less likely to last.

Reality, however, falls short of these requirements. Peace agreements often leave very serious issues unsolved and unaddressed. World Bank figures show that 50% of countries fall back into conflict within five years of the signing of a peace agreement, due to the failure to address underlying issues. There is a tendency for the international community to rest after the peace agreement is signed, often just when support should be intensified, as seen with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan.

Sir Kieran concluded reemphasising that quick fixes don’t work. The modern habit of summits, where differences are papered over, works against the requirements of patience, persistence and longevity. When there is a peace agreement, it is obligatory to always ask yourself: ‘what is the unfinished business?’

Nicholas Haysom (Director of Political Affairs, Office of the UN Secretary General)

Nicholas Haysom addressed how to practically look at peace agreements and expand their potential benefits in order to provide the most solid foundation for a country in post-conflict recovery. In fragile states, the flawed nature of peace agreements is multiplied and the effects are catastrophic. Moreover, there is an incorrect assumption that peace agreements are self-implementing. It is often the case, as in Sudan, that after substantive negotiation is complete, there is a rush to signature and the implementation is left unaddressed.

Nicholas proceeded by highlighting the peace agreement issues that require specific attention. Firstly, it is very important that peace agreements do not contain commitments that parties cannot meet. While this is a general truism, it is particularly important when it comes to how institutions will be paid for, who will man those new structures, and what those institutions can manage. It is also essential to provide for the empowerment of women in post-conflict recovery; experience has shown that women have a particular interest in the peace agreement and the best way to include this interest is to bring them to the negotiations table, a task that can often be very difficult.

The financial viability of the state needs to be tackled in considerable detail, especially in fragile states.  In addition, the concept of creative ambiguity can be highly problematic. Although ambiguity can be a useful tool to find agreement between parties, i.e. in the case of religion versus the state, it can also have tragic consequences, particularly when dealing with the details of a ceasefire.

It is vital to establish mechanisms that deal with divisive issues. Unless a peace agreement foresees that a time will come when parties will differ and has a mechanism to deal with those differences, a deadlock will occur. Moreover, peace agreements must provide for both a political process and an end to the violence.

In theory, no agreement is sustainable unless the parties are willing to sign on and implement it. However, all peace agreements to one extent or another are due to the pressure the international community places on unwilling parties.  A degree of stakeholding in the peace agreement is necessary to build an inclusive process. In practice, no cease-fire is possible unless the peace agreement starts with the belligerent parties and those parties can either broaden the process to an extensive range of players or insist it be confined to the major combatants. An agreement needs the opposing qualities of depth and breadth of support, and mechanisms to reconcile these tensions should be laid out in the peace agreement. 

Nicholas concluded with the issue of democracy. In fragile states, peace agreements typically provide for a competitive electoral contest. However, Paul Collier’s research has shown that competitive multi-party electoral contests are most likely to provoke a slide back into conflict. Nicholas explained that he had arrived to the same conclusion on the basis of direct observation from the various peace process in which he has been involved. Elections are dangerous in a post-conflict setting as they bring the fault lines of society to the surface. However, it is not the elections that cause the violence, but the prize of capturing the state with an ethnic constituency, turning the electoral process into group politics, where group belonging determines votes. His answer to Collier is not to do away with the electoral contest, but to redefine the prize, whereby the process is integrating as opposed to segregating. Doing this will not only lessen the possibility of violence, but emphasise accountability and participation and should allow for a migration away from group-based decisions to interest based politics.

Alex de Waal (Programme Director, Social Science Research Council)

Alex de Waal responded to the presentations in a theoretical turn by addressing the nature of stakeholding in power and the issue of understanding the situation ‘as it is’, arguing that we have a tendency to understand the situation ‘as it is not’. The root of much of the failure of peace related efforts, from peace-making to peace-building, is based on an intellectual failing to understand the situation ‘as it is’. 

In large states characterised by weak governing institutions, anthropologists and historians can tell you in empirical detail how the country functions but are not able to theorise a template or create a mechanism for peace-building, whereas those with a more general background are able to come up with templates, but the templates do not work. It is possible to marry the two skill-sets based upon the observation of how these countries work and by being aware of what negotiators and interested parties are discussing in the vernacular.

One can begin to analyse the functioning of countries, large ones in particular, where state institutions have been captured by patronage networks. When international actors build institutions within a country, they are building them within the pre-existing patronage systems, thereby strengthening the power that already is present. One of the paradoxes we are faced with begins with the fact that any agreement that is signed is not enforceable because it is only as good as the political market conditions that prevail. The paradox, therefore, is that the more heavily we intervene the less stable the outcome. In other words, the more we do, the less sustainable is the peace.

The solution to this paradox is a much smaller and more sustainable international presence. If there is a responsibility to protect, there is a responsibility to remain until the problem is resolved.

If the institutions can only be built when there is a settlement within the existing patronage-based systems and political market places, then we should take seriously the vernacular definition of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, which is that everyone is present at the table and everyone has a chance to have a fair share of resources. If we design a constitutional system where the election is not just for the legislature, but for the executive power and the resources that come with it, then it is possible to stabilise the system. Having stabilised the system, you can then make a distinction between legitimate patronage and corruption, thus not dismissing functioning systems as renegade or labelling an entire nation’s political culture as illegitimate. With this in mind, one can then build institutions that actually make a difference.


The main issues that emerged from the discussion were:

Timeframes of Peace Settlements

An increasing feature of international life is that there are summits, and these summits have to be successful, which leads to quick fixes and ultimately, instability. The expectation that the peace process is a failure if it falls short on any point of the agreement, i.e. justice, democracy, is not realistic. The process of getting to peace won’t be quick and won’t be easy, but the key point is that we have to start from what is there. It is important to not pull out, but rather pull back with smaller missions in place.

Use of Force

There is an assumption that conflicts are brought to an end by political dialogue. Without the peace agreement, the cease-fire will ultimately break down. It is rare that you can solve a problem just by the use of force. On the other hand, there are circumstances when physical international pressure is necessary to pressure a regime to move towards resolution.

Role of the International Community

The international community should be engaged where there is war, the destruction of life, and the killing of civilians. However, when you are dealing with the constitution of a country, the international community should play a more limited role. It is important that the citizens of a country should come to an understanding themselves to how they should live together. The international community can bring an ‘expanded imagination’ and ideas based on previous experience, but we cannot ‘twist the arms’ as to how people can live together. Moreover, it is very important that the international community speaks with one voice and works together.

Role of Regional Players

Although it is extremely difficult for regional actors to take a prime role in a negotiation due to a possible lack of trust, it is important to take on regional players. Support to the peace process by the immediate neighbours is vital to its success. Moreover, there should be increased power to regional players in the law making process, thus implicating the ‘periphery in the centre’. One of the phenomena we see in Africa is that there are direct patronage relationships between neighbouring states.

Peace Settlement in Pre-conflict Societies

In many developing countries, the first constitutions were essentially proclamations of national identity and expressions of the oneness of their nation against the other. However, constitutions often disguise the deep divisions within a particular society. There is a trend now to re-evaluate these former social contracts, arguing that they do not accurately account for the differences within the country. Much of the third world is suspicious of the idea of conflict prevention, seeing it as a euphemism for ‘intervention’ after Kosovo.


The importance of the nature and evolution of political settlements and peace agreements as a key determinant of stability in war to peace transitions is increasingly acknowledged. Political settlements are central to promoting effective peace-building and state-building processes as they determine the framework in which the state can enhance its legitimacy and capacity, and ensure the peaceful contestation of power and resources. In countries emerging from conflict, peace negotiations provide a key opportunity to develop a more inclusive political settlement, shape the institutional and governance framework and open the door to societal dialogue.

Peace agreements, if well constructed, can provide a roadmap for subsequent peace-building and state-building processes in the transition period. Peace processes that incorporate marginalized groups can lead to a more inclusive and therefore resilient settlement in the future, as they can foster a political dialogue between former belligerents and help build trust between the parties. In practice, however, short term prerogatives often lead to peace agreements between certain elites that can consolidate weakly legitimate regimes and fail to address the underlying conflict system, undermining the sustainability of peace.

In this meeting, the fifth of a series on fragile states, the panel, based on experience from Sudan, South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and other contexts, discussed the nature of political settlements, the role of peace negotiations and agreements in forming these settlements and what needs to be done to improve the efforts of international actors in these processes.