Civil Society Roles in Conflict Zones

In an environment where peace talks are already underway and civil society has been excluded from the peace tables, it might appear that the government and insurgents are calling all the shots. While the armed actors are the ones who will ultimately sign a peace agreement, the role of civil society is nonetheless key before, during, and after peace talks.  Today’s post will look at some of the ways civil society has played a role in conflict zones across the globe.  A post more specific to Colombia will follow.

The fabric of civil society is interlaced with the diverse interests of churches and faith-based organizations, human rights and peace groups, journalists and the media more broadly, labor, professional organizations, entrepreneurs, students, intellectuals, women’s organizations, ethnic communities, peasants, cultural workers, teachers, displaced and other victims, and an endless variety of non-State actors whose interests span political divides and are impacted by violent conflicts.  The engagement of these groups early on can build social capital, strengthen relationships between citizens and their government, and increase the sustainability of peace at the local, regional, and national levels.

Civil society today has been increasingly affected by warfare.  Populations have suffered death, injury, displacement, threats to their livelihoods, sexual violence, abduction, loss of loved ones, and the traumas of violence.  It has become increasingly clear that peace agreements that address structural injustices and root causes are more sustainable, and such agreements impact societies as a whole.  In this context, civil society actors have both a need and a right to take part in peacemaking efforts, and their voices deserve due consideration.  While incorporating civil society into a peace process is not always easy and can bring complications to a process, research and experience show that the engagement of civil society impacts the quality of peace agreements, their legitimacy, and their longevity.

Ripening Conditions for Peace

Even in the midst of conflict, civil society can perform a variety of peacemaking roles that contribute to better peace outcomes.  These roles include but are not limited to highlighting the costs of war and fostering acceptance of a political solution as the best policy option.  Such activities can “ripen” a conflict for resolution, shift the balance of public opinion away from militarized solutions, and move the parties toward peace talks.

Civil society sometimes dialogues directly with armed actors to secure local or temporary ceasefires, the lifting of roadblocks, the release of kidnap victims, the safe passage or return of displaced communities, or the de-mining of communities.  Such local-level pacts between civic leaders and guerrillas can sometimes lay the ground for national peace accords, as happened in El Salvador.

Civil Society’s Role During Peace Talks

Once talks are under way, civil society may participate in negotiations at the peace table, as they did through the political parties in Northern Ireland, and through NGOs and community associations in Liberia in 2003.  Members of civil society may play a role in mediating the talks, as did the Community of Sant’Egidio in Mozambique; or may provide substantive inputs to the process from official parallel tables, such as Guatemala’s Civil Society Assembly or the forums created by the National Unification Commission in the Philippines.  Civil society may also participate through websites (as in Congo), media communications, public opinion surveys, forums, dialogues, or referendums.

Where official channels for participation in peace talks do not exist or where they are perceived to be inadequate, civil society may mobilize to be heard or create their own alternative mechanisms for participation.  In the Afghanistan peace talks in 2001, international organizations facilitated a consultation with 150 representatives of civil society and diaspora groups.  Women have created alternative options such as the All-Party Burundi Women’s Peace Conference, the Sri Lankan gender sub-committees of parties and women’s groups, and a women’s political party in Northern Ireland, which earned women a place at the peace table with the other political parties.

The inclusion in negotiations of representatives of civil society, particularly women, can ensure greater consideration of social needs and increase the legitimacy of the agreements.  In Northern Ireland, women’s inclusion provided a link between Catholic and Protestant communities, and broadened the peace agenda to include the needs of victims of violence, political prisoners, and young people, as well as provisions for integrated education and housing.  In Guatemala, women negotiators and civil society advocates inserted protections for indigenous, labor and women’s rights, as well as guarantees for a balance of power between civilian and military authorities.  Perhaps because negotiating teams often lack women and negotiators frequently lack gender sensitivity, sexual violence has been addressed in only 18 of 300 post-Cold War peace agreements.

Successful peace agreements increasingly address underlying causes of conflict and  structural injustices.  Civil society dialogues on these and other relevant issues can pressure the parties at the table to protect the public good, and provide guidance (and leverage) for negotiators on what a population is likely to accept or reject.  They can help generate and test compromise positions that might lead to agreement.   In addition, civil society can pressure the parties to reduce overall levels of violence through full or partial ceasefires or other humanitarian agreements.

When the road gets rocky and parties threaten to leave the table, a well-informed, engaged public can mobilize its collective resources to urge the parties to persevere until a peace agreement is signed.  This was the case in Liberia, where women surrounded the compound in Kenya during the peace talks and barricaded the negotiators in until they reached a peace agreement.  (Watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” in the PBS documentary series, Women, War, and Peace).  Similarly, when peace talks stall, academics and experts in civil society can continue to generate ideas and produces draft papers that can assist the negotiators when they return, as happened with the Geneva Accords between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel.

Civil Society Peace-Building

Once agreements have been reached, civil society roles will shift toward new “peacebuilding” tasks, including socializing and  implementing agreements, monitoring compliance, and holding signatories accountable to their commitments.  Beyond the particulars related to the agreement, however, there are a range of other civil society roles related to post-accord recovery and reconstruction.  These measures simultaneously look to past, present, and future concerns.  Civil society can contribute to  a collective understanding of the nature and causes of the violence and establishing the truth of past crimes through the construction of inclusive historical memory narratives. They can help create conditions for restitution, reparations, healing, and reconciliation by  advocating for and implementing a variety of reforms in the educational, security sector,  judicial, and legislative sectors.  In many cases, prosecutions will help to establish the rule of law, provide a modicum of justice to victims, and serve as a deterrent to the repetition of the crimes in the future.

The sustainability of peace in the post-accord phase can be enhanced to the extent that civil society has already been engaged during the peacemaking phase.  Waiting until a peace accord is signed for civil society’s role to be sanctioned threatens to squander the resources and capacities that civil society has at their disposal to prepare for the long, hard work of social, psychological, and physical reconstruction.

Further Reading

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
This entry was posted in Bouvier, Churches, Civil Society, Colombia, conflict, El Salvador, Guatemala, Latin America, Peace, Peace Initiatives, peace processes, peace talks, Spanish America, U.S. Institute of Peace, Virginia Bouvier, War, Western Hemisphere and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Civil Society Roles in Conflict Zones

  1. gloria tobon olarte says:

    La sociedad civil creo que no ha sido excluida de las negociaciones. Para ello se habilitaron foros y mesas regionales que recogen las propuestas. De otra parte las organizaciones vienen haciendo sus eventos independientes para formular sus agendas y presentar ante la mesa de negociacin o de cara al posconflicto que es la fase mas importante para la participacion

    En la mesa de negociacin solo estan las partes, porque la agenda es restringida y compete fundamentalmente llegar acuerdos pronto. Necesarios!!!! Es importante alimentar la mesa de negociacion incidiendo con los temas que no deben en ese marco, quedar por fuera.

    Las mujeres hemos insistitido que haya mujeres hay solo suplentes, una por las FArc y dos por el gobierno, sinembargo nuestra exigencia es que ambos sectores pongan muejres en la mesa principal. No de la sociedad civil en la Mesa




    • Gloria–Estoy elaborando un post sobre el papel de la sociedad civil en los dialogos. Me cuesta, porque hay tanta actividad, pero creo que hay algunos ejes de trabajo importante que se puede destacar.
      Es importante visibilizar lo que estan reclamando las mujeres. Es que la sociedad civil es un microcosmos de Colombia, y dentro de la sociedad civil tambien se nota las mismas exclusiones y discriminaciones. Te puede interesar un programa que hicimos en el Instituto de Paz sobre el papel de las mujeres en las reformas del sector de seguridad: Ver


  2. James C. Jones says:

    A thoughtful blog. The argument for involving civil society in a peace process is compelling. In the Colombian case, civil society seems to be at the door of the negotiating room shouting its concerns. One sees those concerns in the media, or in sundry reports. The “how” and “when” of civil-society involvement–beyond shouting at the door–seems to be the challenge in Colombia. The official attitude at the negotiating table in Havana seems to be that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Given the depth of the hatreds in Colombia, the profound lack of trust, and the longtime perverse special interests, one might well argue that silencing the guns–silencing them, not laying them down–is the first order of business.


    • Hi Jim- Did you see the statement by Colombian negotiator Humberto de la Calle that there is a “guerra civil verbal alrededor del proceso de paz”? (El Espectador, 19 abril 2013) A verbal truce, as Cong. Ivan Cepeda requested a few weeks back, may be what is needed as a first step.


      • James C. Jones says:

        Good point, Ginny. Cepeda is right: a verbal truce would do much to clear the air, and clear a few muddled, but passionate minds.


  3. Justin Matherson says:

    Hello – just wanted to tell you that the link below is leading to an error page.



  4. BeltranMartinez, Marta says:

    The links on this post are not working. Please help!

    Martha Beltrn-Martnez



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s