19 October 2020

Civil Society in Peacebuilding and Peacemaking

Civil society has become a prominent actor in peacebuilding since the end of the Cold War, and its role was further accentuated by the conflation of peacebuilding with statebuilding. A chapter for the Routledge Handbook of Peace, Security and Development analyses this evolution and calls for an inductive definition of “civil society”. It is authored by Sara Hellmüller, senior researcher and leader of the SNSF project “A Child of Its Time: The Impact of World Politics on Peacebuilding” at the Institute’s Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP). 

What is the purpose of your chapter?

“Civil society” has become a widely used, but relatively ill-defined term. Moreover, the implicit definitions used often refer to a western ideal type of civil society. This chapter aims to show some basic definitional elements, but also to point to the importance of defining the term in a context-specific and inductive way. It presents the main debates in the literature and proposes avenues for further research. Thereby, it also provides an up-to-date overview of the role of civil society actors in peacemaking and peacebuilding and how it has changed in recent years. 

Can you tell us more about this evolution?

Civil society has moved from being considered an “object” to being considered a “subject” of peacebuilding. In the framework of the liberal peace paradigm in the early post–Cold War years, civil society actors were mostly framed as beneficiaries of peacebuilding programmes whose space needed to be protected and whose capacities had to be strengthened. This changed with the so-called “local turn” in peace studies and the conceptual shift from conflict management and resolution to conflict transformation in the 2000s, when civil society actors became increasingly acknowledged as peacebuilders in their own right and invited to peace talks or to partner with international actors in peacebuilding programmes. 

Did you observe this in your own field experiences in conflict situations?

Absolutely! Between 2012 and 2014, I spent a total of more than a year in eastern DR Congo, studying the interaction between local and international peacebuilders, and I conducted mandates for the UN and international NGOs, advising them on their engagement with local actors, including civil society. From 2016 to 2018, I was involved in setting up and co-managing the Civil Society Support Room, a mechanism created by the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Syria to include civil society actors in the UN-led mediation process on Syria. In both experiences, I observed the strong push towards inclusive peacebuilding and peacemaking and the difficulties of defining the actors belonging to civil society as well as other challenges that I point to in the book chapter: that civil society actors are often expected to be formalised, technical, and representative and that they are assumed to be peace-oriented and consensual when reality is much more complex. I try to shed light on this complexity in my book chapter, hoping that it will be of interest to both scholars and practitioners.

What are some of the future avenues of research on the role of civil society actors in peacebuilding and peacemaking?

I identify three main avenues for future research. First, researchers should provide more insights into how civil society actors organise in a given conflict environment and thereby provide an inductive understanding of how civil society is defined in a specific context. Second, in recent years, policymakers and practitioners have often prescriptively argued for the necessity of including civil society actors in peacemaking or collaborating with them in peacebuilding programmes. However, such normative argumentations remain quite general and are not always grounded in thorough empirical research. Peace scholars can provide the necessary nuances and empirical foundations to analyse in which contexts, at what phases of a process, with which objectives, and through what mechanisms local civil society actors can contribute most relevantly. Third, it is striking that most research focuses on international strategies, rationales, and views on civil society. I thus make a strong call for more research that examines the perspective of civil society actors themselves. 

*  *  *

Full citation of the book chapter:
Hellmüller, Sara. “The Role of Civil Society Actors in Peacemaking and Peacebuilding.” In Routledge Handbook of Peace, Security and Development, edited by Fen Osler Hampson, Alpaslan Özerdem and Jonathan Kent, 407–419. London: Routledge, 2020.

Related links:

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Lightspring/