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Negotiating peace the same old way doesn’t work. Here’s what does.

Over 20 years of research, these three things emerged as key to building a lasting peace

- March 21, 2021

Afghan peace talks have taken on new “urgency” for the Biden administration ahead of the May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops, which the United States may not meet. So has the Yemeni peace process, amid increasing violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

But even if these peace negotiations eventually produce agreements, they are unlikely to end violence and suffering on the ground. Nor have the recent peace deals in Colombia, Iraq and South Sudan, to name a few. This is because our standard approach to peace and peace-building is misguided, my research finds.

Here are three surprising discoveries I made while researching my new book, “The Frontlines of Peace.” They grow from more than 20 years of experience investigating topics related to war and peace, including on-the-ground research in 12 conflict zones around the world.

1. Even in the most violent war zones, you’ll find pockets of peace

This month, residents of Panjwai, a remote Afghan district, negotiated a cease-fire between the army and the Taliban. It worked only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it was a good start.

In Congo, the island of Idjwi has remained a “haven of peace” for more than 20 years — even as one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II raged around it, claiming several million lives.

Similarly, you can find a fascinating contrast between Somalia, which sees bombings and terrorist attacks weekly, and its northern autonomous region called Somaliland, where there’s been little violence or terrorism for the past two decades.

In dozens of communities throughout Colombia, such as in San José de Apartadó, residents protect themselves nonviolently from the killings, kidnappings and extortions that their neighbors so often face.

I have found places like that all over the world. There is even a village in Israel, Wahat Al Salam-Neve Shalom, which was founded to demonstrate that Palestinians and Jewish Israelis can live in peace together. They do.

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2. Ordinary people have a lot more power to decrease violence than we believe

These pockets of peace do not result from the kind of high-level peace talks that the Biden administration is using to end the wars in Afghanistan and Yemen. That’s the usual approach, which focuses on handshakes between presidents, abstract peace agreements and negotiations between government and rebel leaders.

In “The Frontlines of Peace,” I show that Idjwi is peaceful because of the everyday involvement of all its residents, including the poorest and least powerful. They keep violence at bay by fostering what they call a “culture of peace.” They organize in grass-roots associations and local structures that help resolve conflicts. And they draw on strong beliefs that help deter violence by insiders and outsiders, such as blood pacts (traditional promises between two parties who agree never to hurt each other).

Likewise, there are many reasons for the difference between Somalia and Somaliland. But what’s key is that in Somaliland, citizens themselves led sustained grass-roots peace-building initiatives — while the rest of Somalia relied on the usual top-down, outsider-led approach.

In every country where I have conducted research, I have found examples of ordinary citizens and grass-roots activists who used their personal connections to convince the leaders of surrounding armed groups to come and negotiate. So have other researchers. It’s not only the residents of Panjwai in Afghanistan, Idjwi in Congo, Somaliland in Somalia, or San José de Apartadó in Colombia. It’s also the inhabitants of many zones of peace, from Bosnia to Indonesia and Iraq. Even during World War II, ordinary citizens made countless efforts to build everyday peace around them. Some of them did succeed in disrupting conflict.

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3. There’s an alternative to the way we try to build peace — and it works much better

The good news is that foreign peace-builders like U.S. diplomats can support these kinds of efforts without falling into the same old tired relationships between outsiders and insiders and without destroying local peace efforts, as interveners so often do. Indeed, there are role models they can learn from.

In “The Frontlines of Peace,” I describe many original, out-of-the-box approaches by foreign peace-builders who manage to effectively support local people and actually make a difference on the ground. These model interveners come from all over the world. They work for very different organizations in very different countries. But they have a few things in common.

They respect local residents. They listen to them and understand that other people may have different priorities or different understandings of peace, democracy or development. They know the local contexts well. They speak at least some of the local languages and have extensive local networks. And they stay on-site for years, sometimes decades.

Of course, supporting governments and elite negotiations remain crucial because real peace lasts only when built both from the top down and the bottom up. But one thing is clear: To decrease violence, we need to fundamentally change the way we view and build peace.

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Here’s the best part, which is perhaps what most surprised me in my research: All these ideas can help us address not only tensions in war-torn countries, from Afghanistan to Congo to Yemen, but also conflicts in ostensibly peaceful places, such as racial, ethnic, religious and political divides in the United States.

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Séverine Autesserre is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of “The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World” (Oxford University Press, 2021).