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The Critical Role of Civil Society in Peacebuilding

High-level peace negotiations involving official national and international actors are frequently the focus of efforts to end global conflict. Yet, peace negotiations and peacebuilding efforts can take place at the governmental (or Track I), the civil society (Track II), and the grassroots (Track III) levels. Civil society actors--consisting of non-governmental organizations, professional associations, clubs, unions, faith-based organizations, and traditional and clan groups--have an important role to play in peace efforts at all levels. Formal Track II dialogues involving civil society can be crucial to laying the groundwork and building support for high level Track I peace processes, or can be used in parallel to Track I to build stronger linkages with grassroots peacebuilders. At the same time, civil society can play a number of other important functional roles outside of official peace negotiations and peacebuilding efforts, including protection; monitoring and early warning; advocacy and public communication; socialization; social cohesion; intermediation and facilitation; and service provision.

Beyond official Track II negotiations and broader roles in unofficial community peacebuilding efforts, research suggests that the involvement of civil society in official peace negotiations may result in more effective, representative, and sustainable peace agreements. However, civil society actors still struggle to secure inclusion into most official peace negotiations. We have seen this play out in Afghanistan and in many other countries.

Transformative Peace strongly believes in the value of opening official peace negotiations to non-state actors, and our capacity-building activities are designed to support the involvement of local actors in high-level peace processes. Here are six key reasons why the active participation of CSOs in high-level peace-building is beneficial to all:

Six Reasons Why CSOs Must Be Included in High Level Peacebuilding Efforts

  1. The high or moderate involvement of CSO actors in peace negotiations is strongly correlated with the greater sustainability of peace. A study by Wanis-St. John and Kew reviewed the involvement of civil society in more than 20 peace negotiations around the world, as well as their outcomes, and found that all peace processes in which civil society actors were highly involved resulted in sustained peace, while the majority of cases where civil society had low levels of involvement saw a resumption of warfare.

  2. The direct presence of CSOs in peace negotiations has been suggested to result in greater accountability of combatants when transitioning from the negotiation to peacebuilding phases. By serving as a counterweight to elite actors who may have been involved in sustaining the conflict, civil society can ensure that peace agreements are realistic and that they are implemented on the ground in the post-negotiation phase.

  3. The involvement of civil society in peace processes has been shown to result in higher-quality agreements characterized by provisions that addressed a wide range of underlying conflict drivers. This is because civil society actors have a broad and diverse set of tools at their disposal to address more diverse conflict factors than official actors alone.

  4. CSOs serve as a channel between high-level decision makers and diverse groups of constituents, both contributing to the representation of different social groups in peace processes and ensuring the presence of consultative mechanisms. The involvement of CSOs in peace processes can therefore ensure the adoption of a “people focused peace agenda” by influencing the topics or processes of negotiations to ensure they are driven by actual concerns rather than political interest.

  5. Civil society may have greater influence than national and international actors on highly localized, grassroots conflict dynamics. Certain armed conflicts may be more amenable to bottom-up resolution than top-down resolution. Civil society are trusted actors and may have more legitimacy to work within communities to achieve resolution. Even in official negotiations, civil society actors may have greater access to sensitive places and information that is not available to official sources.

  6. The involvement of civil society actors can enhance the perceived legitimacy of peace agreements in the eyes of constituents. The direct participation of civil society actors in peace negotiations contributes to the perception of a more open, democratized process. Moreover, civil society actors can play a key role in preparing communities for peace agreements with political, financial, and technical support from Track I actors.


Lessons from the Ground: Civil Society in Libya’s Peace Process

The Libyan Civil War has seen the involvement of a wide range of foreign actors, including more than twenty thousand foreign mercenaries, and the current ongoing peace process is also reflective of this high level of international involvement. The UN-led intra-Libyan dialogues, which consist of separate political, economic, and military tracks, have yielded tangible gains, including a ceasefire in 2020 and, more recently, agreeing on December 2021 as the date for national elections.

In preparation for official talks, the co-chairs of the Berlin process Working Group on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights (UNSMIL, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) held consultations with Libyan civil society organizations from the human rights, legal, and social sectors. Civil society has also played a role through advocacy to key official stakeholders on specific issues, such as the prioritization of human rights principles. On June 23, the Second Berlin Conference on Libya convened high level actors as part of the peace process’ political track. The Libyan and international NGO Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) called on official actors to ensure that the national elections set for December 2021 could take place freely and fairly, which would require putting in place protections for freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The case of Libya illustrates that while efforts to include civil society in official peacebuilding efforts have yielded some gains, much more inclusion is needed to ensure that civil society has a stake in advancing sustainable peace in Libya.


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