My research seeks to explain international peace building failures in civil wars through an analysis of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s transition from war to peace and democracy (2003 – 2007). In the Congo, why did international peace builders succeed in imposing a settlement only at the international and national levels and not at the subnational level? Why couldn’t a lasting peace and security be achieved despite intense peace building efforts? More generally, why are peace builders often unsuccessful in addressing the local failures of peace processes? Based on over 300 interviews, field observations in the Congo, and document analysis, I argue that, in the Congo like in many other post-conflict environments, international actors erroneously perceive the presence of local violence as unrelated to the success or failure of peace processes.
Research finding #1: Political and military interventions should address tensions not only at the national and international level, but also at the local level – the level of the family, the clan, the village, or the district.
International peace builders involved in the Congolese transition should have addressed local violence for two main reasons. First, the humanitarian cost of local antagonisms that turned violent was staggering. Second, the neglect of local issues could lead only to incomplete and unsustainable peace settlements. Local manifestations of violence, although often related to national or international struggles, were also precipitated by distinctively local problems. These included conflict over land, mineral resources, traditional power, local taxes, and the relative social status of specific groups and individuals. Even issues usually presented as international questions (such as the problem with Rwandan Hutu militias) or national ones (such as ethnic tensions with Congolese Rwandophones) had significant local components, which fueled and reinforced the regional and international dimensions.
Local, national, and international dimensions of violence remained closely interlinked in most of the eastern Congo. Local agendas provided national and regional actors with local allies, who were crucial in maintaining military control, continuing resource exploitation, and persecuting political or ethnic enemies. Local tensions could also jeopardize the national and international reconciliation: for example, by motivating violence against the Rwandophone ethnic minority or allowing a strong presence of Rwandan Hutu militias in the Kivus. In addition, during the transition, some local conflicts became autonomous from the national and international tracks, most notably in the provinces of South Kivu and North Katanga. There local disputes over political power, economic resources (especially land and mining sites), and social status led to clashes that no national or international actors could stop.
Research finding #2 – The international peace builders’ representations of the conflict, the peace process, and their role in a peace process, combined with the way diplomats and high ranking UN staff members are trained and socialized, explain why international actors failed to design an appropriate strategy to address local tensions.
During the Congolese transition, international peace builders constructed their role as pertaining exclusively to the national and international tracks. They perceived local violence in Hobbesian terms: it was due to the lack of state presence; it was irrational, barbaric, criminal; and it was a humanitarian problem, not a political one. Diplomats and United Nations staff saw elections as the most appropriate tools for state building (and therefore for peace building); national representatives as the only legitimate partners (as opposed to local militias and other warring parties); and humanitarian actors as the best counterparts for local armed groups. This conflict-resolution strategy was not successful: massacres and massive human rights violations continued throughout the transition.
I suggest an alternate analysis of violence, which accounts for this peace building failure. As detailed in research finding #1, during the Congolese transition, just as during the war, violence was motivated not only by top-down causes (international or national) but also by bottom-up, micro-local agendas. International peace builders under-estimated the consequences of continued local conflict and the need for intervention for several reasons: they perceived the conflict from the Congolese capital Kinshasa; they were trained to work on super-structures, such as state and international negotiations; and they were socialized in focusing on predefined tasks and performance guidelines that fail to take local violence into account. The usual explanations for international inaction on the face of violence, that international actors faced massive constraints, that no major power had any national interest in the Congo, and that United Nations staff had an organizational interest in overlooking local conflict, accounts for the peace builders’ reluctance to update their strategy even in the face of obvious failure. As a result, only the occurrence of particularly shocking events managed to overcome the habituation to violence, the apathy, and the feeling of powerlessness, and to determine intervention.