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Event recap: Community engagement with armed actors

Expert Comment

Written by Almas Korotana, Gemma Davies

Hero image description: Women's peacekeeping team in Rumbek, South Sudan Image credit:Nonviolent Peaceforce

Civilian communities are not passive actors in conflict. Rather, they have agency in developing strategies for self-protection, including through actively engaging with armed actors.

In March 2024, the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) hosted a discussion on communities engaging in dialogue with armed actors to reduce violence and improve protection, and the implications this has on peace, humanitarian and protection actors.

We welcomed Kennedy Tumutegyereize from Conciliation Resources, who described how in places like the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo he has witnessed communities ‘trapped in a security dilemma’. He spoke about the proliferation and fragmentation of armed actors, how it can be difficult to distinguish between civilians and armed actors, and how it may be more useful to consider the extent to which a person is a civilian. Tumutegyereize acknowledged the important role of peacebuilding actors in these contexts, but said they must be clear about their intentions and goals, and have a long-term strategy of dialogue between armed groups and communities, governments and other groups, in order to contribute to violence reduction and conflict transformation.

Nonviolent Peaceforce’s Yohan Sashimal agreed, drawing on his organisation’s approach of working side by side local communities and armed actors to interrupt cycles of violence. He emphasised that ‘dialogue is a process’, and that Nonviolent Peaceforce works to identify existing community structures to support dialogue and mediation processes safely.

The community has the solution to their own problem

Sashimal’s colleague Nyachaya Nhial expanded on this, explaining how communities already have local structures and influential, respected actors, such as youth, religious and women leaders. ‘They’re in charge,’ Nhial said, and they are the people who protection and peacebuilding actors should be working with because ‘the community has the solution to their own problem’.

In terms of dealing with perpetrators of violence, from her experience working in South Sudan Nhial believes that it’s important to identify an entry point and to build relationships, beginning with closed-door meetings to engage with them. This way, trust can be built, which can contribute to an understanding of their needs and interests in order to deal with conflict via non-violent solutions.

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Image credit:L-R: Yohan Sashimal, Nyachaya Nhial, Rev. Peter Tibi, Gemma Davies (HPG, moderating), Kennedy Tumutegyereize & Leigh Mahew (ODI), with N’Ganan Coulibaly joining online

Rev. Peter Tibi from Reconcile spoke from his perspective as a faith leader, and had indeed recently returned from a mediation process. He spoke to the critical need to establish a mandate from all conflicting parties and to secure the necessary resources to facilitate mediation process.

Rev. Tibi’s ultimate goal in the mediation process is to create a conducive environment for communities to interact, and among the methods he uses to do so is to bring conflicting parties together in dialogue, including through ‘quiet diplomacy’, and also to develop a peace charter. He feels it’s important for peacebuilding actors to collaborate and coordinate with each other (as currently they tend to work independently), to be conflict sensitive, and to establish an exit strategy that is sustainable for the community. Importantly, he noted the critical need to ensure that mediation processes are followed up, including by addressing the root causes of violence through ‘peace dividends’ – that is, contribute to changing calculations in the use of violence through the provision of alternative (non-violent) means to the purposes violence serves.

Factoring trauma into peacebuilding processes

Rev. Tibi felt that trauma is an important factor that often gets neglected – the trauma of both civilians and perpetrators alike, which he seeks to incorporate into peacebuilding processes. Tumutegyereize echoed this sentiment, highlighting gender issues that are exacerbated by conflict and violence, and the need to factor this into humanitarian and peacebuilding activities.

We were joined online by N’Ganan Coulibaly from the Norwegian Refugee Council, who built on this, speaking on the risks associated with humanitarian mediation process, particularly for women. He explained that there is a high possibility of escalation of conflict as a result of poorly executed mediation, but this can be mitigated with measures such as adequate training and supervision, a deep conflict-sensitivity analysis, and communication and compliance with strong processes and principles.

This discussion was part of HPG’s ongoing work on community engagement, protection and peace. The project seeks to better understand communities’ agency in engaging in dialogue with armed actors to advance their self-protection, and to identify the strategies and factors that contribute to (or undermine) successful self-protection strategies.

It also explores the implications for humanitarian, protection and peacebuilding actors: how they can support community self-protection efforts through successful dialogue, and actively avoid undermining community efforts. As part of this work, HPG has published case studies on South Sudan and Central African Republic, which you can read about now. We invite you to watch this critical discussion in full:

If you’d like to be kept up to date with this work, please sign up for HPG's newsletter.