No Justice, No Peace: Why Peace Deals Fail

The refrain “no justice, no peace,” chanted proudly by Black Lives Matter activists, has become ubiquitous for media consumers in the United States. Yet today, as negotiations to end several conflicts around the world move forward, one cannot help but wonder how, and if, this mantra applies more broadly. For example, in early April, South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar returned to Juba, his nation’s capital, ushering in a temporary cessation in hostilities between Machar’s ethnic Nuer and President Salva Kiir’s ethnic Dinka that had raged since December 2013. For the first time in years, reports out of South Sudan cite political progress rather than unrest. Similarly, due to a newfound shared willingness to compromise, the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government have inched closer of late to an agreement that would end a prolonged conflict that has fueled and been fueled by the country’s longstanding involvement in the bloody transnational drug trafficking industry.

Though separated by geography and underlying causes, these conflicts have been similar in statistical impact; conservative estimates put the conflict’s deaths tolls at 50,000 each, and estimates for internally displaced persons are much higher still. Yet in both cases, where punitive measures are no doubt appropriate, parties have displayed a preliminary reluctance to address such matters, instead directing their energy toward ending violence. For many reasons, such an approach is admirable. As the World Humanitarian Summit convenes in Istanbul, we are reminded that in places like South Sudan, Colombia, and other active conflict zones around the world, the minimization of death and human suffering can, should, and must remain the international community’s top priority.

The reality, however, is that justice deferred achieves only fragile peace destined to crumble, and history offers several anecdotes in support of this claim. Take, for instance, the case of Rwanda in the early 1990s. After years of sporadic fighting, the majority Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and majority Hutu Rwandan government forces began peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania in July of 1992, and a tentative ceasefire went into effect two weeks later. From these preliminary negotiations sprung the 1993 Arusha Accords, a power-sharing agreement that created an ethnically blended transitional government in Rwanda and brought a temporary end to the prolonged dispute.

The very existence of this agreement was a success in itself, and thus the two parties carried on in a state of uneasy truce. Yet the Accords addressed neither how the crimes committed by soldiers on both sides would be addressed nor how the men would be fully demobilized and inserted back into society. The agreement stipulated that the Rwandan government and RPF would coexist without adequately defining the societal or legal terms, conditions, and contingencies of this coexistence. Simply put, the deal was so concerned with peace—that is, the immediate cessation of hostilities—that it failed address challenges that would inevitably impede efforts to lawfully reintegrate those who just months previously had traded battlefield blows. Residual tension left over from the recently active conflict boiled over in April 1994: Hutu President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, mass killings began, and within three months nearly 1 million Tutsis had fallen to the machetes, clubs, and other crude weapons wielded by Hutu extremists.

As one catastrophically deficient peace deal crumbled in Rwanda, another was being conceived thousands of miles and an ocean away. Decades of fighting between the Marxist Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) and Guatemalan government military forces had left hundreds of thousands (many of them civilians) dead, and international pressure finally succeeded in bringing the two sides to the bargaining table in 1991. The first three years of talks saw little progress, and in 1994 the United Nations was brought in to force an agreement. Two years after that, on December 29, 1996, the “Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace” was signed, signaling the official end to a thirty-year period that witnessed some of the most egregious human rights violations ever perpetrated in the Western Hemisphere.

Though this agreement did not end in full-blown genocide like its Rwandan counterpart, it has similarly failed to take hold and deliver the peace and unity it initially promised. In the case of Guatemala, international condemnation and threats of economic isolation strong armed the government down the path of peace. Yet once combatants laid down their arms, global attention was diverted, and efforts at long term reconciliation ceased. The government of Guatemala failed to implement any significant human rights or justice sector reforms, and today, though the civil war has ended, the culture of impunity persists. A 2011 State Department report on the Guatemalan criminal justice system claimed that only 3 percent of the country’s crimes are prosecuted. Today, Guatemala consistently ranks among the countries with the world’s highest rates of homicide, and the population subgroups that the 1996 agreement was designed to protect—poor, rural civilians caught in violent exchanges in which they had no stake—continue to suffer as much as or more than they did at the civil war’s peak during the second half of the twentieth century.

Of course, not all peace agreements are destined for utter failure. If they were, international governing bodies would not continually put such a premium on brokering and implementing these agreements in places like South Sudan and Colombia. But international actors and parties to each of those conflicts must ensure that their respective peace agreements are more than just Band-Aids laid desperately over gaping socio-ethnic rifts. In Colombia, the FARC and government representatives should maintain open channels of communication even after a deal is reached. And while compromise is essential, the government, which has already agreed to reduced jail terms for FARC commanders who acknowledge their role in the conflict, must not make any more concessions that would add further fuel to claims from Colombians and international bodies that the government is letting rebel leaders off the hook. To do so would contribute further to the culture of impunity enjoyed by former fighters and breed distrust of the government among average Colombian citizens, and these ingredients would likely lead to further unrest in the not-so-distant future.

In South Sudan, though ethnic tensions were largely responsible for the outbreak of violence in 2013, the personal vendetta between President Salva Kiir and his once and future deputy Riek Machar was also a central driver of conflict. Accordingly, the two leaders must find ways to show domestic and international observers that their efforts to establish legitimate co-governed institutions are genuine (assuming, of course, that they actually are); support punitive measures for combatants on either side in cases of the most heinous atrocities, many of which are detailed in a 2015 African Union report; and push for reconciliatory dialogs between and within the two major ethnic groups.

In short, though peace deals may suspend wars, few succeed in resolving the conflicts that underlie them.  In Colombia, South Sudan, and around the world, leaders should heed the words of black American activists by blending peace and justice to ensure both short- and long-term success for any brokered agreement. Peace deals that do not attend adequately to matters of reintegration and/or processing of former combatants and the structural drivers of violence promise only further unrest, not calm. As the saying goes, no justice, no peace, regardless of the conflict or country in question.

Image: Oxfam water stations for refugees at the UN house in Juba, South Sudan (credit: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam East Africa/Wikimedia)


Kirby Neuner

Kirby Neuner is a Program Assistant at a political development and research firm Democracy International (DI), where he provides programmatic and administrative support to DI’s political party strengthening program in Bangladesh. He focuses primarily on issues of transitional justice, humanitarian and citizen security, and peacekeeping operations in active and post-conflict states. Kirby graduated from Williams College in 2015 with a B.A. in History and is currently a student in Georgetown’s SFS Security Studies Program. You can connect with him on Twitter @KirbyNeuner.
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