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Are peace and democracy worth dying for?

This article appears in: Humanitarian, Disaster and Emergency Management, Humanities and Social Science
CDU Dr Izabela Pereira Watts at work with small children in a war zone

We have all seen the images on our television screens: lifeless bodies of women and children, and their menfolk strewn through battle-scapes from the Balkans to Sudan and Somalia to Rwanda, and more recently in the humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Yemen and Syria.

But what happens when, inevitably, the guns fall silent and the blades are returned to their sheaths? When the red mist recedes, and some form of non-violent rationality raises its weary head above the bloodied parapets.

Over almost four years of research, supervised by Charles Darwin University Political Science Professor Wayne Cristaudo, Dr Izabela Pereira Watts contemplated the post-Cold War rebuilding of nations torn apart by internal conflict, which culminated in her PhD thesis titled “Peace and democracy at the crossroads: 14 peacebuilding dilemmas after civil war”.

“Civil wars represent contemporary challenges, not only to a state’s stability and legitimacy but also to regional and international order and security, so they often become ‘global civil wars’,” Dr Watts said.

“My research addresses contemporaneous paradoxes related to civil wars, fragile states, peacebuilding, democratisation, state-building and the role of the United Nations (UN) in mediating outcomes that might lead to better decision-making through awareness of probable dilemmas that are faced in any post-civil war situation since 1989.

“Beyond understanding the causes and consequences of civil wars, more research is required to foresee the challenges after modern civil war to achieve pathways towards sustainable democratic peace, state-building and, perhaps, even nation-building.”

Peace and democracy?

Dr Watts said that despite an unprecedented number of UN interventions “to enforce peace and build democracy” since the end of the Cold War, rarely do war-torn countries transition to peace and democracy.

“Either they are trapped in an endless cycle of conflict or achieve stability only through non-democratic rule,” she said, citing the Cambodian reconstruction after the disastrous reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

Within Dr Watts’ research – and extrapolating to present-day fracturing of “traditional” internal and external alliances – warning bells exist for those in the world’s most prominent post-industrial democracies who were complacent about the stability and sustainability of established democratic governance.

“Much of the literature on civil wars focuses on the role of ‘elites’ who manipulate information and create ‘phantasmagorias’ of potential rivals and enemies in order to obtain popular support for their concentration of political and economic power,” she said. 

“We can see this in failed states like Haiti, and in the civil wars that overwhelmed Somalia and Sudan where a peaceful resolution is not in the self-interests of the leaders who triggered the chain of violence.”

Insight from the field

Dr Watts has an up-close-and-personal relationship with internecine conflicts and their repercussions, having spent years as a political and strategic advisor to peak organisations including the UN and the Organisation of American States (OAS).

“From 2010 to 2014, I worked with United Nations Development Programme as a project analyst officer for international cooperation aid programs with the Brazilian Government in Haiti, Timor-Leste and Angola, managing a portfolio of about US$12 million in project impact value,” she said.

“In the field of peacekeeping operations, I had the chance from 2008 to 2010 to be part of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste as a democratic governance and political affairs officer.

“I have also collaborated with the OAS in Nicaragua, Colombia and Peru on electoral missions, and have assisted UN Women in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire with gender empowerment and policy implementation under the umbrella of the ‘Women, War and Security’ agenda for post-civil war countries.”

A major focus in Dr Watts’ research is the role “democracy” plays in post-civil war rebuilding processes.

As former British prime minister Winston Churchill, in 1947, ruminated: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”

“Is democracy or peace worth dying for?” Dr Watts asked.

“On the one hand, democracy and peace might be interrelated through consensus-building and respect for the rule of law instead of the use of force. On the other, democratic transitions are highly prone to violence and rarely result in a ‘velvet revolution’.”

The so-called “Arab Spring” – openly welcomed by some Western democracies – was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across North Africa and the Middle East in late 2010. The aftermath saw an even greater entrenchment of authoritarian rulers with totalitarian tilts.

“The past decade has offered an extended, tragic reminder of the fact that forcible state-building simply cannot be accomplished by outsiders in any sustainable or authentic way,” Dr Watts said.

“Western governments – by a messianic fantasy of bringing democracy to the world – are complicit in and culpable for an imperialist endeavour that has brought disaster to some nations, including Iraq and Libya, while liberties at home are being gradually curtailed.

“The notion that all countries must be brought, by will or by force, into the democratic fold after civil war is an invitation to belligerence.”

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