Peace Building. Can external agents contribute to the aim of restoring a society's capacity to manage its own conflicts?

The conflict in Sierra Leone

Essay, 2017
13 Pages, Grade: 3.6


The aim of peace building is to restore a society’s capacity to manage its own conflict. Assess whether external agents contribute to this aim or overwhelm it.

Helen Keller once wrote “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”. The concept of peace building1 is to work together for long-term sustainable peace. Following extensive periods of violence, war torn societies face challenges that often require assistance from external agents. These societies lack institutional and financial resources necessary for peace building (de Zeeuw, 2001). Since the end of Cold War developing countries have faced more intrastate conflicts than interstate wars (Busso, 2007). In other words, conflicts have become more complex and more multidimensional which has reflected on the way peace-building missions have been carried out (Kaldor, 1999, p.g 8). The United Nations (2010) stated that promoting justice and reconciliation is necessary in the long term “establishment or reestablishment of effective governing administrative and justice system founded on the respect on the rule of law and the protection of human rights”.

Peace building operations witnessed a new kind of challenge in the 1990s when the idea of “failed states” or “collapse states” was identified as a bigger threat to international peace and security than aggressive states (Sesay, 2007). The international community agreed that it was necessary to build effective and legitimate liberal states to combat against such threats. African continent has been in the focus since the end of Cold War because of the frequent armed conflicts, which took place in various African societies. African countries such as Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and South Africa that have witnessed violent civil wars share post-conflict strategies set out by external agents known as Transitional Justice (TJ) and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC). This essay will assess whether external agents have contributed to the aim of restoring a society’s capacity to manage its own conflict. The essay will draw from several case studies in Africa. The approach the essay will take is a critical analysis of TJ and TRC.

The first part of the essay discusses the international academic argument on the use of TJ and TRC and the possible application of the two concepts simultaneously for a more effective outcome. The second part is divided into three parts; a) expectations of TJ and TRC, b) Truth telling and victimhood, c) root causes of conflict and Western style TJ and TRC. The reason why the essay is divided in smaller parts is to demonstrate the different angles and approaches of TJ and TRC. The last section is the conclusion where the essay will answer the essay question.



External agents are often called in during the early post conflict period to create foreign led Tribunals and Commissions because domestic courts and assemblies lack the resources, competence or the neutrality to form suitable processes. TJ and TRC are thus established to substitute for domestic judicial processes. Originally TJ was the juridical process of pointing out human rights violations by oppressive regimes that were in transition to democratization. In the more recent terms, TJ is used to address massive human rights violations committed during violent conflict (Fischer 2011). On the same note, the fundamental purpose of TRC is “building relationships of trust and cohesion’ at multiple different levels, from the individual, inter-personal and communal to the national and international levels” (Quinn, 2009). TJ and TRC have been endorsed as alternative methods to prosecutions. Scholars such as Pricilla Hayner (1994), arguing that TRC provides remedy for victims and can even contribute to individual and collective healing. On the same note Ilan Lax (2001) defines the role of reconciliation system as a form of “first aid kit” or a “guide” for peace building. Toshihiro Abe (2014) writes that some scholars talk of TJ and TRC as a “catalyst for new social effectiveness” for the promotion of deliberative democracy. In addition, several scholars claim that societies recovering from violence need both legal and restorative approaches which address different stages and dimensions of truth and justice.

TJ scholars have debated on the contradiction of peace versus justice and truth versus justice (Thomas et al, 2008). On the side of the peace versus justice debate there is the argument for the legalistic approach of criminal justice to support peace building. Criminal justice can stigmatize perpetrators of conflict and thus help separate individuals from collective guilt, which leads to the breaking of the violent cycle (Minow, 1998). The truth versus justice debate argues for the importance of TRC and the argument goes as far as to suggest that TRC could be an alternative to prosecutions because of the important mechanisms that help to work against the culture of denial. Divided societies need truth telling mechanisms in order to begin building a functional and collective society. Sierra Leone is an example of a post conflict society that has had both truth and justice processes working simultaneously alongside one another. Sierra Leone was "privileged" having been able to experiment with two types of processes, one being the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the other being the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). The simultaneity of the two processes was more of an accident than done by design and international institutions and researchers debated on how to make these two processes more compatible (Schabas, 2003). However, their collective effectiveness was not as smooth as expected but it was not only the fault of the dual process. William Schabas (2003) writes that the two processes were very similar and have much in common; both addressed impunity and provided reparation for the victims as well as examine the historical account of the conflict. He does acknowledge that there were some mismatches between the two processes but advocates for the dual process as a whole to have been a positive experience. For justice and reconciliation to be effective the two processes should be applied simultaneously together in the future (Schabas, 2003). However, the task of the two processes must be clearly laid out. As TJ and TRC missions have increased so has the criticism towards these processes.



During the 1990s a lot of expectations were placed on the TJ and TRC. The two processes have become tedious and the same practice has been applied without analyzing context. Many post conflict societies and international institutions call for the establishment of TJ and TRC without a clear understanding of what such institutions entail. Policy and law of TRC and TJ are “usually based not on research but on instinct” (Kritz, 2009). There is still much debate on the purpose of these two. Researchers such as Wendy Lambourne urge for the importance of TJ and TRC programs while researchers such as Megan Bradley argue that too much emphasis is placed on these processes and that these processes alone cannot make miracles to achieve long-term peace. There is a great amount of studies done on the focus of policymaking process but not enough research is done on the micro-level engagement and social responses of Transitional justice. David Backer2 (2010) states that research on the success of TJ has “too little concern for assessing the extent to which these processes affect people”. On the same note, Eric Brahm (2003) claims that studies which have been done and measured on the “success” of TRC often look at whether or not TRC has fulfilled its mandate or not but it does not examine the impact it has had on the society. The current literature on TJ is based primarily on assumptions, which leads more to ideology than empirical findings (Backer 2010). In other words, with the absence of systematic assessment of the impact, the international community assumes that TRC has positive effects.

Obioha (1999) argues that in order for Westerners to assist in conflict management scholars in African issues and Africanist should examine the elements that make modern Africa. Obioba (1990) continues by saying that Western style of conflict management and peace building have not saved or resolved any African situations. In cases where Western style peace building processes such as TJ and TRC are applied they have only acted as management rather than a means to resolve the conflict. Obioba’s (1990) argument might have some truth to it, but at the same time external agents who manage TJ and TRC are not all-powerful entities. The fact is that a lot of importance is placed on the TJ and TRC to “perform almost magical functions” (Sesay, 2007). The reality is that TJ and TRC processes often face limited resources, time and restricted mandates, which means that external agents who create these processes have to prioritize their missions.


Truth telling is one of the key missions of TJ and TRC because it is the only way for victims to have their story heard but in several cases talking about past atrocities is painful and often reconciliation institutions do not have enough resources and time to assist in the aftermath of truth telling; helping with psychological trauma. And example of this is South Africa where victims who had the possibility to testify did not receive enough psychological assistance after their hearing. There was not enough follow-up mechanism to deal with trauma, which lead to re-traumatization. The locals called this phenomenon the post circus syndrome3.

However, a concern for TRC is its application in societies where not everyone is committed to peace building processes of truth telling. An example of an undesired placement of TRC is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where TRC was built against the framework of ongoing violent hostilities. The commission in addition included warring parties that made it impossible for TRC to establish truth. Each party had a different version of the truth and need for reconciliation. Under these circumstances TRC lost its credibility. In DRC, external agents “overwhelm” the process more than assisted the society to manage its conflict. This was because DRC was not yet ready to transition from war to peace. The need for TRC is mostly in societies that have gone through a course of ethno political conflict where there has been a loss of trust, intergenerational diffusion of trauma and grievances, polarization and negative interdependence (Fischer, 2011). Thus, TRC can only be created “where [...] a robust civil society remains intact” (Kritz, 2009). The case study of DCR brings into question the timing of TJ and TRC programs. Fletcher et al (2009) argue for a cautious and go-slow approach to retributive justice. They make the argument that where TJ applied too quickly in cases where conditions are not ready for it, it could backfire and create negative implications for democratic consolidations.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is not the only example of a post conflict society refusing to commit to the process of truth telling. Sierra Leone is another example where locals were unwilling to participate in the TRC program. In her research Shaw (2007) noted that people preferred to heal and reconcile through forgetting. This meant that in some community’s people mutually agreed not to give statements on what had happened to them. Many in Sierra Leone felt that the TJ and TRC process were too public and took too long time to start that by the time the processes were enforced people had already “forgotten and forgiven”. In a statement that Shaw collected from a victim who said, “When you talk about what happened, you feel worse, not better” (Shaw, 2007 pg. 198). In this sense, talking about the past did not bring any healing. But the international community was very set on their mission to have Truth and Reconciliation. This eventually led external agents to forcefully collect statements from people. The mandate demanded for “total community participation” however, it failed to take this direction when people were unwilling to give statements. In principle the concept of “total participation allows everyone to have their say in a collective manner. Similarly as in Sierra Leone, in Rwanda the concept of “total community participation” had some setbacks. The Rwandan government took an initiative to discuss the past atrocities in local juridical system. Research has however shown that the Rwandan Gacaca was not successful in brining locals into the conflict resolution procedure (Thomson & Nagy 2011). In both cases many locals disagreed with the Western framework of TJ and TRC. The processes were thought to be incoherent, politicized and culturally inappropriate. In other words, the Western process did not respect local values, sense of justice and healing. Too much emphasis was placed on “forgiveness” too soon. International academics have a different take on TRC and forgiveness. Scholars such as Lederech (1995) and Rigby (2001) emphasize heavily on the concept of TRC as a forum of forgiveness. On the same note, Hannah Arendt (1958) notes that without forgiveness victims will forever remain as victims and there is no collective “moving on”. However, forgiveness is easier done in theory than in practice. The notion of forgiveness separates people into categories of victim and perpetrator. Human Rights Watch (2011) reports that there was fear from certain groups in Rwanda to come forth to denounce their activities during the conflict in fear of not being able to defend themselves. This then brings out the division of who is a victim and who is a perpetrator?


1 The term “Peace-building” was coined by Johan Galtung in his article Three approaches to peace: peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building. On the same note, John Lederach (1995) discusses peace building as a way of conflict transformation. In other words, Peace building is about transforming negative to positive relations, attitudes, structures and behaviors.

2 He has done extensive amount of cross-national comparative studies that deal with TJ mechanisims all around the world in 58 countries.

3 It is the idea of ”the circus comes to town and the circus leaves - and then what” (Hayner, 2001)

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Peace Building. Can external agents contribute to the aim of restoring a society's capacity to manage its own conflicts?
The conflict in Sierra Leone
University of Kent
Conflict Resolution
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Sierra Leone, Conflict Analysis, Inequality, Peace building
Quote paper
Nora Sundberg (Author), 2017, Peace Building. Can external agents contribute to the aim of restoring a society's capacity to manage its own conflicts?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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