Counter-Peace: Dominant Patterns of Blockages in Peace Processes

Dr Sandra Pogodda, University of Manchester
Prof. Oliver Richmond, University of Manchester, International Research Professor at DCU
Dr Gëzim Visoka, Dublin City University

Challenges to the International Peace Architecture

Over the course of the 20th century, a multi-layered framework of interventionary practices,  international law, multilateral institutions, donors and civil society had emerged to support peace processes and local peace activism. This represents an international peace architecture. Yet, there have been few success stories, and most outcomes are mixed at best. Illiberal and authoritarian, deadlocked and frozen outcomes have long been noted in peace processes and peacebuilding, as in Cambodia. In some cases, peace processes have become more important than a settlement (e.g. Cyprus), or just as loathed as open conflict (e.g. Palestine and Colombia), while reform processes have been halted (e.g. Bosnia).  

A comparative examination of different cases points to common patterns: peacemaking processes are often designed to end the conflict rather than address the root causes and drivers of the conflict, and weak civil society networks have been overloaded with responsibilities to reform conflict-affected states. Elites remain wedded to war objectives, while international support for peace processes tends to be limited or undermined by geopolitical interests. This pattern is common across failing or deadlocked peace processes around the world. 

Blockages and Counter-Peace

The international peace architecture ironically provides opportunities for systematic blockages of peace processes: top-down statebuilding and peacebuilding interventions in ethnically divided societies have resulted in elite peace capture which exploits power-sharing arrangements to obstruct reconciliation. The control of state institutions and resources for elite or identity groups tends to survive peace processes, the reformist intent of social and revolutionary movements, and peacebuilding. Caught between conflicting and competing agendas of national elites and foreign donors, civil society struggles to promote local needs, rights, and sustainable peace. 

These blockages and counter-processes have become more dominant. Contemporary revolutionary agency fares even worse than peace agency: Despite its sophisticated understandings of justice, legitimacy and reconciliation, it cannot overcome its marginalisation in the face of counterrevolutionary processes that are connected across all scales. Counter-peace displays a similar relationship to peace processes. Its constituent blockages may well add up to an overall counter-peace architecture.

Accordingly, the most obvious tactics to thwart emancipatory movements involve mobilizing coercive state institutions, media, and other influential social and political structures. However, counterrevolution and counter-peace both cover a spectrum of political responses to societal and international pressure for change, which expands well beyond oppression, restoration and war. Instead, both processes are most effective, if they do not constitute the opposite of revolution and peace, but represent watered-down alternatives to them. Peace agreements, for instance, harbour within them the seeds of a counter-peace. While the Ta’if and Dayton Agreements stopped further bloodshed in Lebanon and Bosnia and Herzegovina respectively, they also constituted the institutional framework for stalled peace. Former warlords turned into political powerholders, preserving ethnic or sectarian power structures. Like the oppressive forces that contain the emancipatory potential of revolutions, peace agreements’ initial success of ending violence gave way to exclusion, segregation and marginalisation, pre-empting reconciliation and progressive forms of peace. 

Counter-peace ranges from unmitigated forms (e.g. wars, dictatorships and military occupations) to the more subtle forms of political stalemates. Counter-peace and counterrevolution both capture the institutions of the state in order to control state formation processes. Elites and their criminal networks can continue their state formation project without war by controlling the state institutions. Since foreign governments work with and through state structures, this state capture allows aid and the counter-processes to align themselves: Foreign aid after conflict builds the state (especially its coercive power) and thus ironically may strengthen counter-peace forces. In the contemporary nonviolent revolution, a similar process occurs, in which external support reinforces the oppressive and exclusionary structures of the state.

Stalemate Pattern

At the heart of the stalemate pattern lies a formalised political unsettlement, in which a radical disagreement between the conflict parties cannot be resolved. War has been ended either through the separation of former conflict parties by continuously contested borders (e.g. territorial divisions in Cyprus, Kosovo, India / Pakistan) or through power-sharing agreements (e.g. BiH, Lebanon, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Burundi). The conflict parties remain fully committed to their incompatible positions but the conflict remains ‘frozen’ as long as neither dares to attempt resolution through accommodation, withdrawal, or military conquest. This dynamic has implicated peacemaking in extended deadlocks (as in Cyprus since 1963, or Bosnia since 1995), and is perhaps now the norm.

Limited Counter-Peace

This pattern is characterised by surface stability in some parts of the country, dispersed by pockets of warfare. In some of these contexts, incomplete peace agreements have ended wars but fell short of including all regions or conflict actors. Political and economic marginalisation has fuelled localised insurgencies and organised crime. Hence, the state formation process remains violently contested by non-state actors, who destabilise or govern parts of the country. In Africa, insurgencies have long been predominant (currently most prominent in the jihadist insurgencies in the Sahel region), while in Latin America criminal governance structures the lives of tens of millions of people in urban centres. At the heart of the continuous conflict in this pattern lie the deficiencies of the quasi-state. Influenced by the colonial and post-colonial arbitrary settlement of borders, identities, resources, and power structures, statehood in the post colony remained incomplete and exclusionary, yet it was central to every peace process.  Since 09/11 pacification strategies have become prevalent, in which external intervention reinforces the coercive capacity of the quasi-state without expanding its service infrastructure. In order to retain access to political elites or uphold the image of an effective peace process, even UN peacebuilding missions in places such as Burundi, Angola, the DRC and Mozambique have indirectly abetted oppressive governments. 

 Unmitigated Counter-Peace 

Unmitigated counter-peace is characterised by severe oppression, in which human rights are systematically violated across the country (i.e. dictatorships, military regimes and civil war). Counter-peace forces in such contexts are operating largely unchecked and have taken over the state and become a modern Hobbesian Leviathan. Power asymmetries between elites and the population are stark. Between the state and society lies not a space for civil society, but a vacuum. Participatory features (if they exist at all) are rigged in a way that they are unable to generate power shifts away from the incumbent regime. Peace processes could only end conflicts in the unmitigated counter-peace pattern, if a multitude of tools of the international peace architecture are aligned and simultaneously deployed. Instead, UN-authorised peace interventions are often ineffective single-track missions: mediation without peacekeeping, effective arms embargoes or no-fly zones (e.g. Syria); stabilisation without democratisation or security sector reform (e.g. DRC); reconstruction and humanitarian aid without building a state, democratisation or peace negotiations conducted on the basis of international law (e.g. Israel / occupied Palestinian Territories); sanctions without a wider peace process (e.g. Belarus, Myanmar). 


All three core blockage patterns are difficult to tackle since the epicentre of the counter-peace also constitutes the core of geopolitical, state,  and social order. In the stalemate pattern, the peace process itself has been captured by counter-peace elites. In the limited counter-peace pattern, an effective peace process would need to balance out the lopsided nature of the quasi-state. By contrast, contemporary pacification approaches render the quasi-state unable to regulate social processes peacefully. It might even propel the slippage of conflicts from limited to unmitigated counter-peace. In the latter, limited peace interventions are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Hence, the preliminary observations presented here point to a combination of ad hoc linkages between blockages and deliberate coordination between counter-peace forces.

Dr Sandra Pogodda is Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester, UK.


Prof. Oliver P. Richmond is Research Professor in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester, UK. He is International Research Professor at Dublin City University, Ireland; Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Tubingen, Germany; and a Visiting Professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal.


Dr Gëzim Visoka is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland.

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