Perspectives on postwar reconstruction and the purpose of theory

Kristin Gulbrandsen, Aberystwyth University, UK

Kristin completed her MA in Security Studies at Aberystwyth University in 2017 and previously obtained her BA in International Relations from the University of Leeds. She is currently a research assistant at Swansea University, where her research focusses on digitalisation and social exclusion in the European High North.


The practices around post-war reconstruction are contested in the academic literature. Distinguishing between problem-solving and critical theory, this article draws on Robert Cox’ description of the two purposes of theory to highlight different critiques of post-war reconstruction. Through a review of the literature, the article discusses liberal problem-solving, the contradictions of ‘good governance’, and governmentality approaches to the issue. The idea emerging from the discussion is that the conservative framework and purpose of problem-solving theory cannot deal with some of the inherent problems of post-war reconstruction. Thus, the role of critical theory is to reveal how current practices and logics of peacebuilding and statebuilding reproduce unequal structures of power, securing the interest of some actors at the expense of others.


Post-war reconstruction has a contested track record, partly due to the lack of consensus regarding what constitutes success or failure, and within what timeframe to measure it (Krause and Jütersonke, 2005, p.448). As a consequence, there are a range of views regarding post-war reconstruction as practiced today – understood broadly as the processes of statebuilding and peacebuilding after armed conflict – and its problems. To discuss these, the essay will engage with a number of critiques. It is necessary, in order to draw out some differences, to discuss a variety of arguments, including the stance that post-war reconstruction as practiced today is ‘working’ (Doyle and Sambanis, 2000; Paris, 2010). Between this stance and the complete rejection of post-war reconstruction are a number of critical perspectives engaging with an array of perceived problems of post-war reconstruction, of which this essay will outline two.

The essay will discuss the different strands of critique in the following order. First, in order to elucidate the liberal perspective, it will engage with the self-understanding of liberal statebuilding and peacebuilding and the problems that emerge from this. It will show how the liberal reflection on its practices is necessarily limited by its world view. Second, the essay will outline the stance that post-war reconstruction, and in particular the discourse of ‘good governance’, works to produce unsustainable arrangements wherein governments are stretched between irreconcilable commitments, and reproduce uneven power relationships that serve the interests of only a few actors. Lastly, the essay will discuss two critiques that employ the Foucauldian concept of ‘governmentality’. In so doing, the argument is that current modes of post-war reconstruction work to dispossess rather than empower local actors when overarching goals of neoliberal statebuilding are pursued.

The rationale of this essay’s discussion of both liberal and critical perspectives is that it believes this dual focus is appropriate in evaluating post-war reconstruction as practiced today. After all, 21st century peacebuilding and statebuilding practices are popularly labelled as liberal (Hudson, 2013, p.40), and we live in the age of western hegemony or dominance – though as many have noted, rising powers are exerting more influence, and power is perceived by some to be tipping eastwards (Lei, 2011; De Carvalho and De Coning, 2013). Given the status quo, it makes sense to include a discussion of liberal post-war reconstruction’s self-understanding. This makes it possible to not only address the broad scope of critiques, but also to illustrate the differences between problem-solving and critical theory.

As Robert Cox aptly noted in the 1980s, “theory is always for someone and for some purpose”; it is always contextual, deriving from a temporally and spatially situated perspective, and it is for this reason one must examine theory as ideology, to expose its hidden perspective (Cox, 1981, p.128). As such, Cox argued, theory may serve two purposes: on the one hand, “to be a guide to help solve the problems posed within terms of the particular perspective which was the point of departure”, or to offer “a perspective on perspective” through the deconstruction of its premises (Cox, 1981, p. 128). The first form of theory is problem-solving theory, which “takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action” (Cox, 1981, p.128). Its aim is to make the current order ‘work’ by solving issues that arise – since it does not call into question the prevailing pattern of relationships, it is able to narrow down its scope and parameters for problem solving without considering the broader context, while at the same time avoiding reflection on its own ideological bias (p. 129).

In the following analysis, the essay will address both types of theory. By applying Cox’s binary framework it will critique the inherent weakness of liberal problem-solving, because its purpose is conservative in the sense that it preserves the status quo, and argue for the necessity of critical examination of post-war reconstruction as practiced today.

The liberal self-understanding of post-war reconstruction 

Fundamental to the liberal stance on post-war reconstruction is the belief that there are no alternatives that do not take a liberal shape in one way or another (Paris, 2010, p. 340). Such is also the stance of for example advocates of the Responsibility to Protect principle: essentially reducing challenges to the proposed norm of humanitarian intervention to one of implementation and acknowledging that the principle is imperfect, but the best we can hope for (Bellamy, 2014, p.11). As a result, while proponents of post-war reconstruction may identify problems in the implementation of peacebuilding and statebuilding after conflict, they do not regard it as inherently problematic. It is therefore in true problem-solving fashion that Roland Paris outlines how the ‘liberal triumphalism’ of the early post-Cold War era has been chastened through the self-reflection of relevant actors upon their experience of the negative effects of liberal peacebuilding in its early phases (2010, pp. 341-342).

Similarly to the structure of this essay, David Chandler has identified what he terms problem-solving approaches to statebuilding, which culminate in numerous technical and depoliticised

“‘lessons learned’ reports which repeat generic nostrums of preparedness, early intervention, strategic planning, international coordination, the importance of the rule of law, the integration of military and civic agencies, the problems of relying overly on elections, the need to develop strategies to deal with ‘spoilers’ and to integrate and encourage more moderate political forces, to support civil society initiatives, establish early gains to win the confidence of people in international assistance, deal with health, education, HIV/AIDS awareness, post-conflict demobilisation, etc.” (2006, p. 5).

One ‘lesson learned’ from the experience of post-war reconstruction in the 1990s thus includes the move from shorter to longer term peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction missions, with more expansive mandates and less focus on quick exit (Hudson, 2013, p. 40). Yet this caused another dilemma regarding the strength of the interveners’ ‘footprint’, as these actors were on one hand “under pressure to expand the scope and duration of operations in order to build functioning and effective governmental institutions in war-torn states, and to avoid problems of incomplete reform and premature departure”, and on the other hand, “under pressure to reduce the level of international intrusion in the domestic political processes of the host states” as local ownership of post-war reconstruction was considered increasingly important for avoiding dependency and fostering self-government (Paris, 2010, p. 343). Indeed, operationalising principles of local ownership over peacebuilding remains a key challenge for practitioners (Donais, 2009, p. 3). The footprint dilemma, thus, on one hand regards a heavy footprint as damaging for the legitimacy and sovereignty of the state, which is seen to be undermined, and on the other, the lack of predictability through long-term strategic engagement is also seen to be damaging (Ghani, Lockhart and Carnahan, 2005, pp. 10-11); there is a perceived necessity of more intrusive and systematic approaches, as reflected in the former UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali’s ‘Agenda for Peace’ report in the early 1990s (Helman and Ratner, 1992, p. 7). The trade-offs between long and short time scales, global and local ownership, legitimacy and efficacy, and exclusion and inclusion remain critical challenges in peacebuilding (Jarstad, 2008, p. 18).

As discussed with reference to Robert Cox above, the natural tendency of “problem-solving assumptions … give birth to technocratic, depoliticised statebuilding strategies and tactics of implementation” (Hudson, 2013, p. 39) rather than reflections upon the basis of these assumptions. Consequently, the conventional approaches to post-war reconstruction “often argue that the explanation for the failure to implement multisectoral policies and programmes is to be found in a lack of holistic planning, poor policy coordination and insufficient aid and assistance, as well as inadequate understanding on the part of international organisations about the complexities of the local context” (Hudson, 2013, p 37). These priorities are reflected in the UN Peacebuilding Commission mandate (2017), whose purpose is to secure funds, improve coordination, gather advice, raise attention from the international community, and establish best practices, all in order to create a stable foundation for future sustainable development through institution-building and reconstruction.

Thus the liberal perspective – while there are a number of problems in the implementation of post-war reconstruction as practiced today – poses a challenge of reform, not of replacement with an alternative vision (Paris, 2010, p. 362). In line with Cox’s (1981) differentiation between problem-solving and critical theory, this form of reflection on the problems of post-war reconstruction can only go so far since it is intrinsically limited by its acceptance of the world as it is. As such, the liberal perspective is unable neither to go beyond existing structures nor to envision alternatives, leading to a form of determinism regarding the possibility for change. Indeed, the best we can hope for is improved management of unsolvable dilemmas (Paris and Sisk, 2009, p. 18), a hope expressed in the emphasis of problem-solving liberalism on good governance.

Contradictions of good governance 

A salient critique of post-war reconstruction as practiced today is focused especially on the intervention in and restructuring of the economic sphere of states emerging from conflict. Cooper, Turner and Pugh, for example, criticise the view that there are no viable alternatives to capitalist development despite the acknowledgement of its destabilising effects. They argue instead for non-neoliberal modes of development and growth, pointing to China’s economic success as an example (2011, pp. 2003-2004).

Yet post-war reconstruction of states is concerned with the construction of a particular kind of state, one that is able to cope with the conditions of globalisation. Key to this process “is not just the creation of a monopoly over power in a territory; it is also to develop a particular form of authority that will fulfil specific, market-supporting tasks” (Robinson, 2007, p. 13). This, in Robinson’s view, necessitates a change in the preferred role of the state: development is to take place through the market, while government is reduced to ‘good governance’, a twofold function to at once facilitate stability for the private sector and provide accountability for the population through democratic institutions (Robinson, 2007, p. 11). Yet these are inherently contradictory goals, since they simultaneously seek to create stable foundations for market growth through the acceptance of the legitimate authority of the state (fostered by the promotion of good governance, accountability and transparency), all the while economic policy remains unaffectedly neo-liberal (Robinson, 2007, pp. 11-12). In effect, privatisation, cuts in welfare spending, and deregulation are seen as necessary policy changes, but in so doing weakens state-citizen relations (p. 12).

This tension between obligations of the state to its citizens and the state to implementing externally determined economic policy is a problematic aspect of post-war reconstruction which has been conceptualised as the creation of ‘choiceless democracies’ (Mkandawire, 1999) or the ‘disciplining’ of democracy (Abrahamsen, 2000). Mkandawire (2010, pp. 1159-1160), for example, has outlined how ideational, institutional, and financial strategies have been pursued to ultimately undermine the macroeconomic sovereignty of developing societies through the framing of neoliberalism as the only viable option and the empowerment of technocratic elites and institutions sharing this vision. In a similar vein, Rita Abrahamsen (2004, p. 16) argues “that development is an intrinsic part of the technologies of power employed in international politics, and that the way in which it constructs democracy is central to the maintenance of contemporary international relations and structures of power”, in so doing legitimising some practices and interventions while delegitimising others. She further argues that the discourse of good governance works to produce unstable democracies partly due to the dilemmas posed by the simultaneous pursuit of political and economic liberalisation, creating two ‘constituencies’ for governments which are irreconcilable in their demands: external donors and its citizens, none of which can be satisfied at the same time. The ultimate political consequence becomes its maintenance of existing structures of power; while subjecting some states to democratic scrutiny, others are exempt and their role as interveners is legitimised, while at the same reproducing an undemocratic world order (Abrahamsen, 2004, pp. 39-41). Another case that exemplifies this is the noted hypocrisy of prescribing economic policy in the global South that would be deemed politically unacceptable in the home constituencies of the interveners – as well as the framing of the ‘free’ market as free of government management in the form of subsidies and other interventions (Cooper, Turner and Pugh, 2011, p. 2004).

In short, the imposition of specific forms of governance and economic policy in the image of the liberal state has contributed to the creation of ideologically hollow states, caught between contradictory obligations and without any real choice. This critique offers a “perspective on perspective” (Cox, 1981, p. 128) in that it highlights the relations of power that work to reproduce instability, lack of choice with regards to domestic politics, and undemocratic international governance. The deconstruction of the liberal discourse on post-war reconstruction reveals the political consequences of the current framing of good governance and the relationships of power that underpin it. This will be further demonstrated in the following discussion of governmentality critiques.

Governmentality critiques 

Another strand of critical engagement with the practices and logics of post-war reconstruction is one concerned with the Foucauldian concept of governmentality. Governmentality, as used conceptually to explain the projection of Western power, sees these interventions as taking “forms which appear to be consensual rather than coercive, through which the technologies and practices of domination simultaneously produce or constitute the subjects being dominated through the discursive practices and frameworks of knowledge, meaning, norms and values” (Chandler, 2006, p. 15). Scholars such as Jabri (2010) and Campbell (2011) make use of this framework of analysis when theorising peacebuilding and statebuilding. Though there is debate in the literature regarding how appropriate it is to apply the concept of governmentality to non-western, non-liberal contexts, there is also the view that seeking to better understand the “mentalities or rationalities of government” is a fruitful exercise (Gabay and Death, 2012, p. 2). For example, “even for those using Foucauldian governmentality, differences of emphasis exist between those who regard governmentality as a historically specific rationality of rule associated with neo-liberal free market economics, and those for whom governmentality provides more of a general framework for analysing many historically and ideologically specific rationalities of rule” (Gabay and Death, 2012, p. 3). Jonathan Joseph (2010, p. 243), in his examination of how the concept of governmentality has been applied to International Relations, distinguishes between governmentality as a method of international institutions (globally) and governmentality as a reality (locally): “while these institutions may push governmentality, local conditions on the ground may not be conducive to such techniques”. As such, Joseph suggests that researchers using the governmentality ‘lens’ must remain sensitive to this distinction and to the possibility that governmentality may not apply in the neoliberal sense, and rather that other types of power are at play.

In her critique of what she terms the “liberal peace project”, Vivienne Jabri (2010) argues that the practices of governmentality associated with liberal interventionism and post-war reconstruction aimed at transforming postcolonial states fundamentally strip the intervened societies of agency. Indeed, Jabri calls it a “project of dispossession”, since these violent interventions are premised on a cosmopolitan understanding of universal human rights, an understanding that is necessarily a reflection of Western institutions and European Enlightenment, thus precluding political self-determination (Jabri, 2010, pp. 47-48). It is through the imperative of human security, she argues, that interventions in which the ultimate goal is to achieve the security of populations by way of transforming postcolonial societies into liberal states are justified: a goal which is achieved through implementing structures of governmentality – “a complex assemblage of policing practices and their associated knowledge systems” involving the employment of both pedagogical and military-carceral power (Jabri, 2010, p.54). For this reason, she argues, post-war reconstruction as practiced today cannot be emancipatory, since it reinforces a hegemonic, western conception of the self “as against others whose modes of articulation remain ‘other’”, and in so doing banishes the ‘right to politics’ (Jabri, 2010, p. 43). In practice, this means that the particularity of societies is reduced to a universal dichotomy of culprits and victims, simultaneously empowering the former by recognition as political threats, and the depoliticisation and deagentification of the latter by their transformation from potential forces of emancipation into masses to be protected (p. 56).

A further analysis of peacebuilding and statebuilding framed through the governmentality concept is provided by Stephen Campbell (2011), who argues that the co-option of peacebuilding from the bottom-up by local actors can best be understood through this framework. Campbell specifically looks at governments’ attempts to co-opt mechanisms for conflict resolution on the community-level to achieve “specific finalities [that] deviate from the expressed interests of those being governed”, often manifested as the “implementation of particular neoliberal policies which exacerbate the economic inequalities that lie at the heart of so much contemporary armed conflict”, thus seeking to (re)construct a neoliberal order in societies emerging from conflict (Campbell, 2011, p.  40). The governmentality analysis thus works to expose how “community peacebuilding, as one tactic within a broader post-conflict (re)construction programme, functions as a technical intervention aimed at ensuring social stability and acceptance of the larger project of neoliberal statebuilding” (Campbell, 2011, p. 45). It may however be that the practices of ensuring ‘local ownership’ should not be considered as mechanisms purely for the purpose of enforcing Western interests. Chandler suggests that these practices also function as ways for powerful actors, specifically international institutions and Western states, “to deny the power which they wield and to evade accountability for its exercise” (2006, p. 1).

Further, Campbell (2011, p. 54) argues that bottom-up community based peacebuilding strategies pursued today fail to live up to their transformative agenda, are anti-democratic in their outcomes, and exclude the potential for any transformation that would radically address the inequalities at the root of violence. In a similar vein, Chandler (2013, p. 284) argues that the discourse of resilience, framed as a bottom-up alternative to externally determined interventions, is in reality void of agency: the “framework is problematic in that it remains entirely within the world of superficial appearances and ideologically erases structural constraints and power relations from the picture”.

In summary, the analysis of post-war reconstruction through a governmentality framework outlined above show two critical insights into the workings of the neoliberal state. One is that liberal interventionism and post-war reconstruction in the western image has dispossessed local actors of political agency and the potential for emancipation, instead creating the need to secure populations. The other is that the practice of bottom-up peacebuilding has not empowered communities as much as it has facilitated the co-option of community practices for the broad project of constructing a neoliberal state, thus fundamentally failing to transform underlying conditions for conflict.


This essay has outlined three critiques of post-war reconstruction as practiced today in order to critically engage with different perspectives on peacebuilding and statebuilding, as well as to examine their purpose in accordance with Cox’s distinction between problem-solving and critical theory. First, it outlined the liberal self-reflection on post-war reconstruction, showing how it attempts to ameliorate the problems of peacebuilding and statebuilding, but does not go beyond this to acknowledge inherent problematics. Rather, it sees these problems as challenges for reform, since it cannot conceive of other viable alternatives and thus works to legitimise and reproduce current post-war reconstruction practice. Second, it outlined a critique focused on the contradictions within the concept of good governance, and its production of economic and political choicelessness, resulting in the creation of ideologically hollow states that are caught between irreconcilable obligations to the constituency at home and the international ‘constituency’. In so doing, this approach goes further than the liberal reflection in identifying the causes of inconsistencies within post-war reconstruction, found in the uneven power relations of international governance, and whose interests these serve. Lastly, the governmentality critiques outline how post-war (re)construction of neoliberal structures dispossess populations of their political agency through the discourse of human security on one hand, and the co-option of community practices on the other. Instead of empowering, these practices are seen to take away a community’s right to politics and particularity, subsuming it to the current agenda of peacebuilding and statebuilding in the image of the West.

In conclusion, this essay has shown how different perspectives on post-war reconstruction conceptualise and help understand its problems. What emerges from this discussion is that post-war reconstruction as practiced today has inherent problems that do not come to light through problem-solving theory because of its conservative framework and purpose. As such, it can only address problems within the frame of the status quo. It is therefore down to critical theory to elucidate how current practices and logics of peacebuilding and statebuilding reproduce unequal structures of power and work to secure the interest of some actors at the expense of others.


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Abrahamsen, R. 2004. The World Bank’s Good Governance Agenda: Narratives of Democracy and Power. 24. Roskilde.

Bellamy, A. J. .2014. The Responsibility to Protect: A Defense. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, S. 2011. ‘Construing Top-down as Bottom-up: The Governmental Cooption of Peacebuilding From Below’’’, vis-à-vis: Explorations in Anthropology11(1), pp. 39–56.

De Carvalho, B. and De Coning, C. 2013. Rising powers and the future of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Oslo.

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Chandler, D. 2006. Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building. London: Pluto Press.

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Cox, R. W. 1981, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies10(2), pp. 126– 155.

Donais, T. 2009. ‘Empowerment or Imposition? Dilemmas of Local Ownership in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Processes’, Peace & Change34(1), pp. 3–26.

Doyle, M. W. and Sambanis, N. 2000. ‘International Peacebuilding: A Theoretical and Quantitative Analysis’, American Political Science Review94(4), pp. 779–801.

Gabay, C. and Death, C. 2012. ‘Building States and Civil Societies in Africa: Liberal Interventions and Global Governmentality’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding6(1), pp. 1–6.

Ghani, A., Lockhart, L. and Carnahan, M. 2005. Closing the Sovereignty Gap: an Approach to State-Building. 253. London.

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Hudson, H. 2013. ‘Looking In or Transforming Up: Conceptual Dilemmas of Liberal Peacebuilding and PCRD’, in Neethling, T. and Hudson, H. (eds) Post-conflict Reconstruction and Development in Africa: Concepts, role-players, policy and practice. New York: UCT Press, pp. 37–60.

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Filling the doctrinal gap? Challenges in UN peacekeeping operations

Dr David Curran, Coventry University, UK

Dr David Curran is a research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations at Coventry University. His primary research interest is in developments in UN peacekeeping. Since completing his PhD at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, David has undertaken research into a range of topic areas including the role of conflict resolution in training programmes for military peacekeepers;  Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping; the United Kingdom and the UN; the evolution of rapid-reaction peacekeeping and peacebuilding forces such as the African Union standby brigades, EU battlegroups; and the potential of specialized UN rapid reaction capabilities.

It is a pleasure to be invited to contribute to this special edition of the R2P Student Journal on the topic of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Papers within this special edition speak to a number of important debates in this field, from doctrinal and policy evolution, to the actions of personnel deployed in operations, to the larger theoretical norms and assumptions which guide the activity. This reflects a vibrancy of research in this area from a new generation of scholars.

From a conflict resolution perspective, peacekeeping operations have the potential to contribute to processes of de-escalation of violent conflict, with the aim that space and stability is provided for peacebuilding actors to undertake their activities (Ramsbotham, Miall and Woodhouse, 2011, p. 170). This sounds like a tough assignment, which of course is true. Peacekeeping operations, if anything, are fundamentally demanding on those who undertake them. Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs that peacekeeping has played a positive role in reduction of violent conflict (Fortna, 2008).

In the context of the R2P, peacekeeping, through the development of Protection of Civilians (PoC) mandates, represents an important function in protecting vulnerable populations, and possibly preventing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing unfolding in deployment areas (Curran et al., 2015). Although serious difficulties persist, it is important to recognize how far the UN’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding functions have travelled regarding civilian protection since the catastrophes in Rwanda and Srebrenica. Protection also serves an important peacebuilding function, as it is communities of peacebuilders who are often amongst the civilian population. This links to broader cosmopolitan goals, as argued by Lorraine Elliott, whereby interventions can

Restore civil society especially in areas where it is under threat from criminal activities or various destructive forms of particularist politics, and to engage in rebuilding local legitimacy and pluralist democratic practices (Elliott, 2004, p. 25).

Nevertheless, although the UN has expanded its policy functions in new areas, challenges remain throughout the organisation’s systems in peacekeeping and peacebuilding. This essay shall focus on three interlinked areas: training, guidance, and strategic leadership.

The training dimension

The first challenge is the extent to which the UN has access to well-trained peacekeepers acting with a broad awareness of conflict dynamics, the use of – and impact of using robust force – in a conflict zone, and a considered understanding of the principles and dynamics of UN peacekeeping operations. These aspects of peacekeeper performance have been highlighted in UN Security Council Resolutions, UN policy, as well as in academic study (Fetherston, 1994; Goodwin, 2005; Curran 2016). Moreover, training is increasingly significant in how member states are engaging with UN peacekeeping. The training aspect was specifically outlined in the communiqué which came from the September 2016 London Defence Ministerial on peacekeeping which outlined the necessity to set out in a single place a comprehensive list of the minimum requirements and standards for all pre-deployment training (UK Government, 2016). Moreover, the 2017 Ministerial (this time to be held in Canada) will focus on training and capacity building in UN operations.

Training of UN military peacekeepers has developed significantly. There has been a rise in regional and national training initiatives, geared towards training uniformed personnel in a range of issues from civil-military coordination, to the impact of gender based violence on post-conflict environments. Additionally, bilateral initiatives, such as the British Military Advisory Training Teams (BMATT) have significantly developed capacity amongst troop contributors. Under the UN’s umbrella, a dedicated team at the headquarters works on developing new lines of policy, and a train-the-trainers centre has recently opened in Uganda.

However, there are challenges associated with the training dimension. Primarily, there exists limited capacity for UN peacekeepers. Partly this is a numbers issue. For instance a 2013 report stated that there are 19 members of staff working on training within UN headquarters (Center on International Cooperation, 2013). Although this is to be complemented by mobile training teams, and in-mission training, the number is considerably small. Therefore, the peacekeeping training architecture relies on the support of Troop Contributing Countries, with a ‘recurring emphasis’ on terms such as ‘partnership’ and ‘networks’ in the UN strategy (Cutillo, 2013, p. 6).  Such a structure can obviously hamper attempts of instigating a rigorous training regime, as it means that there is greater variance in the quality and depth of training across the board. Moreover, member states will have differing perspectives as to what is an important requirement for peacekeeping.

The guidance for peacekeeping and peacebuilding

With such an array of differing perspectives on what peacekeeping and peacebuilding should achieve, the second challenge concerns the extent to which the UN can be guided by a coherent centralized doctrine that explains the key concepts of peacekeeping operations. Modern day peacekeeping, or more broadly termed ‘peace operations’ is a broad church of concepts and ideas. Although the traditional operations of the Cold War era still exist, they have been superseded by expansive operations which incorporate a myriad of responses to violent conflict.

As stated above, the UN has since 1999 developed PoC to such an extent that 95% of all peacekeepers are deployed under PoC missions. Yet it has taken up to ten years for operational guidance to appear and to be agreed upon (Curran, 2017). Additionally, the UN currently has deployed ‘stabilisation operations’ in Mali, Central African Republic, the DRC, and yet there is no broad understanding of what the term ‘stabilisation’ means in the UN context. Added to this, the concept of robust peacekeeping is ongoing in operations, but there is little reference to the concept in the last attempt to codify UN doctrine. Similar can be said about the emergence of intelligence gathering in UN operations. Yet, in UN fora, the key principles of peacekeeping – impartiality, host state consent, and non-use of force apart from self defence and defence of the mandate – are constantly highlighted as the bedrock of UN Peace operations. At times, these principles are tested to their limits with the actions and policies of UN missions (De Coning, Aoi and Karlsrud, 2017).

With this in mind, therefore, a question exists as to the extent that the UN can either reinforce a coherent approach to UN peacekeeping operations (through doctrinal coherence), or whether we accept that the concepts that drive missions will forever be developed through policy responses to particular situations. Both options contain both positive and negative effects, but it is a significant question to ask when considering the effectiveness of peacekeeping in building sustainable peace.

Strategic guidance

Overarching doctrine and training is the role of strategic leadership – particularly in the UN security council. With such flexibility in design of mandates and tasks, peacekeeping has been termed the ‘swiss army knife’ of conflict management tools (von Gienanth, Hansen and Köppe, 2012, p. 58).

Therefore, coherence at a strategic level is important. This is a theme which was evident in the HIPPO report which advised that mandates be realistic and linked to wider political approaches (United Nations, 2015). Moreover, members of the Security Council have debated recently the form and function of a number of peacekeeping missions. This reflects the necessity to understand the contexts in which consent-based impartial UN missions with limitations on use of force can be used, where they may not survive, and where there may be other, more appropriate models of intervention (such as unarmed civilian approaches).

Added to this is reform of working practices to ensure dialogue between the significant troop contributors to operations, the Council and the UN secretariat are essential in ensuring that mandates for peacekeeping operations reflect the realities of what can and cannot be achieved in mission. That the C34 committee report from 2016 makes little or no mention of new aspects of peacekeeping such as stabilization indicates that it is yet to conceptually catch up with the other cogs of decision making in the UN.

As said at the beginning of this article, UN peacekeeping operations have the potential to open space for peacebuilding, providing a valuable avenue towards conflict resolution. However, the challenges outlined above, as well as those identified in the articles in this journal, demonstrate that the practice still has complications. The role of academic research is key in investigating these complications, particularly in debating the extent to which the UN can problem-solve its way through these challenges, and exploring the potential of alternative models of third party intervention in violent conflict.


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Disaggregating the “peace vs. justice” debate: breaking the silos and moving towards greater coherence

Posted on January 8, 2019

By Jacqueline J.Y. Cho

Jacqueline Cho is currently interning with the African Union Partnership Team at the United Nations, and was an intern at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time of writing. She is also working as a research assistant for Dr Gyda Sindre and helps coordinate the Politics After War Research Network. She recently graduated with a BA (Hons) degree in Politics and International Relations from Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge in 2018. Her areas of interest include conflict prevention and resolution, African politics and refugee studies. 

The question of how to deal with a difficult past is one that confronts every society emerging from a dark history. Since the mid-1980s, many such societies have chosen to address the legacies of pervasive human rights abuses, often with extensive international support. The pursuit of justice, with dominant forms being through trials and truth commissions, are said to be in tension with peace; much of the literature has framed this as a question of “peace versus justice” (see Baker, 2001). What is important to note, however, is that in practice, this dilemma is not as stark of a choice as presented and, more fundamentally, the notions of peace and justice that are in play in these settings are questionable. The current hegemonic understandings of both peace and justice are inadequate as guiding principles of policies concerning ex-combatants. In particular, the emphasis on ‘extraordinary’ forms of violence shapes perceptions of justice in a way that marginalises gender and structural injustice, which may undermine even the most minimal objective of these policies: the cessation, or at least the reduction, of direct violence. International actors should refrain from the tendency to design one-size-fits-all policies targeting ex-combatants with a preconceived end-goal of either peace or justice. Rather, the policies should be context-driven, which may take very different forms from case to case and involve addressing the structural injustice that preceded and contributed to the conflict.

Emergence of the dilemma 

The question of whether investigating and prosecuting war crimes may trigger a return to violence traces its origin back to early 1990s as the United Nations began setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) while the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict was ongoing (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.283). Scholarly debate surrounding the issue subsequently framed this tension as a question of “peace versus justice”. What had been an ad hoc problem with the ICTY then became a permanent feature of the international judicial system after 2002, when the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court entered into force. The potential clashes between creating accountability for international crimes through justice measures and laying the foundations for peace concerned not only the leaders who might be disincentivised from making peace if they were indicted for war crimes, but also resonated throughout civil society. One early example of this was the instrumentalisation of ICTY’s findings into politics of ethnized collective narratives, hardening inter-ethnic boundaries and generating tensions.   

However, what quickly becomes clear in studying the policies targeting ex-combatants is that the option is seldom either peace or justice, and that the division is not always so clear in practice. Despite the dichotomy of peace and justice often portrayed in the literature, it is difficult to clearly delineate this distinction, especially given that activities under the title of “justice” spill over to what have been traditionally “peacebuilding” activities, not least the restoration of the rule of law (Sriram, 2007, p.585). Similarly, peacebuilding practice often involves initiatives usually labelled as justice, such as support for criminal tribunals or truth commissions. For instance, the fact that many “traditional” peacebuilding agencies, including the UN and the World Bank, supported the justice processes in Colombia highlights that the two notions are not necessarily in opposition, and that it is possible to transcend the deemed polarity (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.289).

Achieving both peace and justice? 

The complementarity of peace- and justice-seeking mechanisms under certain circumstances further calls into question the binary framing. It has become unavoidable to overlook the question of justice and accountability altogether following a violent conflict, and the question today is no longer whether something should be done after atrocity but rather how it should be done (Nagy, 2008, p.276). At the same time, DDR programs have become key components of peacebuilding efforts. These two initiatives – one focused on justice and accountability for victims and the other on peace – therefore coexist in many post-conflict settings today. It is often argued that there is an inherent tension between prosecution mechanisms and DDR programs since the latter requires cooperation from ex-combatants whereas the former may trigger resistance. In fragile security environments, however, prosecution can in fact contribute to the success of DDR by physically and politically sidelining particular leaders who are bent on conflict (Witte, 2010, p.2). By demonstrating to the bulk of ex-combatants that wartime commanders have no viable future, prosecution mechanisms can shift the loyalty of ex-combatants away from wartime commanders and break the command structures, making it more difficult for ex-combatants to organise violence. Prosecuting leaders can also help the reintegration process by drawing a distinction between those who have the greatest responsibility for international crimes and the rank-and-file ex-combatants (Witte, 2010, p.3).

Legalistic approach to justice 

The “peace versus justice” dilemma not only fails to reflect the reality, but the dominant understanding of justice in this debate is particularistic and narrow, which in turn, skews the meaning of justice. Just as the notion of peace, justice is an inherently contested concept, with an intellectual history and a developmental trajectory. The interpretation of justice therefore varies between socio-cultural contexts and its meanings will always be contested (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.291). Nagy (2009, p.275) convincingly argues that justice is a discourse and practice imbued with power, and notes with alarm the tendency of the international community to impose an ‘one-size-fits-all, technocratic and decontextualized’ concept of justice. This can be seen by what Nagy (2009, p.275) identifies as ‘predominant institutions of justice’ – trials and truth commissions –  being rolled out in post-conflict contexts around the world. Figuring out how to implement justice first requires a determination of the problem, and given the resource, time and political constraints, the trials and truth commissions adopt a fairly narrow conception of violence and its remedy, justice. The primary focus of these donor-funded justice institutions are the direct perpetrators and direct victims of violations of international criminal law. This reflects the heavy influence of the international legalist paradigm, which, inter alia, focuses on generating elite and mass compliance with international humanitarian norms (Nagy, 2009, p.276). In such a light, it is difficult to deny that justice in this context reflects the concerns and constructions of justice found amongst its key – Western – donors, which may be alien in certain cultures that emphasise community identity.

Neglecting ‘ordinary’ gender violence? 

The privileging of legalistic approach can also counterintuitively produce zones of impunity, which is clearly demonstrated by the treatment of gender-based violence. The international legalistic paradigm places emphasis on what are considered as “extraordinary” violations of civil and political rights, and this construction disregards and treats as ‘ordinary’ the private violence that women experience in both militarised and post-war societies (Nagy 2009: 280). Similarly, while sexual violence committed during conflict has now gained a central role in international criminal law, trials and truth commissions, accountability mechanisms remain predominantly focused on “extraordinary” times and violence. This marginalisation of gender injustice from the current framework of ‘justice’ is acutely disturbing, given the ‘post-war backlash’ many women experience (Pankhurst, 2007, p.293). Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, often persists, or even increases beyond pre-war and sometimes even wartime levels, precisely at the period when everyone expects life to be improving. It is alarming that such ‘post-war backlash’ is perpetuated not only by ex-combatants but also state-actors, such as the police (Pankhurst, 2007, p.263). Until very recently, considerations of such gender-based violence have been glaringly absent from transitional justice programmes, often resulting in an absurd and alarming situation where gender injustice is further entrenched when so-called “justice” measures abound.

Dismantling structural injustice  

The framing of the “peace versus justice” debate further deflects much-needed attention from structural injustice that neither of these notions, in its currently hegemonic understanding, addresses. Mamdani (1997, p.22) identifies this problematic emphasis on the individual as ‘today’s agency theory’ and explains that the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice in the form of criminal justice at the expense of social justice. The pursuit of the latter is essential given that ‘yesterday’s perpetrators and victims – today’s survivors – have to confront the problem of how to live together’ in these post-conflict contexts, and that the narrow, somewhat artificial and culturally-inappropriate pursuit of criminal justice leaves intact the pervasive everyday violence that predated and may have contributed to the conflict itself (Mamdani 1997, p.21). This problematic exclusion of structural injustice from the dominant “justice” mechanisms today is vividly apparent in the South African experience. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recognised apartheid as a crime against humanity, the Commission’s mandate narrowly defined perpetrators and victims in terms of ‘egregious bodily harm’ (Nagy, 2009, p.284). As a result, apartheid featured only as the context to the crime rather than the crime itself, overlooking the everyday violence of poverty and racism. It is for such reasons that the TRC, despite its laudatory status, largely failed to dismantle the pervasive structure injustice – racialised socioeconomic inequalities and ongoing political violations of human rights, political violence – and left a ‘de facto geographic apartheid’ in the ‘new’ South Africa (Nagy, 2009, p.280). Such serious limitations of the Commission that was carried out under the hegemonic understanding of “justice” urgently calls for a fundamental review of the notion itself. In this light, it is essential that policies targeting ex-combatants move away from focusing on particular individuals or groups but are better integrated into other initiatives that address structural injustice.


Having discussed the underpinning assumptions and the limitations of the “peace versus justice” dilemma, it is clear that this framing of the debate obscures more than it reveals. This dichotomy overlooks the fact that the choice is not as differentiable in practice and deflects attention from the ways in which so-called peace- and justice-oriented activities could reinforce the success of one another and achieve its shared long-term aim. More fundamentally, the narrow and heavily Western-influenced concept of justice that is currently dominant under the framework of ‘peace versus justice’ leaves intact structural injustice that may have contributed to the violent conflict. The creation of areas of impunity, especially with regards to gender-based violence and the real risk that unaddressed structural injustice may trigger a spiral of renewed violence, adds to the urgent call to shift the policy framework guiding ex-combatants. Standardised approaches that seek to impose either a particular normative vision of peace or justice must be avoided, and responses must be shaped by the particular economic, social and political fabrics of specific settings. These context-driven policies will vary widely and may include approaches that do not fit neatly into the “peace versus justice” framework but ones that nonetheless contribute towards the minimum overarching objectives of these policies: cessation, reduction and prevention of direct violence.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.


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