Dilemmas in peacebuilding

  • Does the principle of “do no harm” also mean “take no risks”?
  • Is it possible for external mediators (external or internal) to be truly impartial?
  • Can you build peace without politics?
  • How are “peacebuilders” perceived by “ordinary people”?
  • Who are “peacebuilders” and what motivates them?

These are some of the questions that conference participants were invited to grapple with at a conference on ‘Dilemmas in peacebuilding practice in the South Caucasus’ earlier this year.

As the closing conference of the three-year EU-funded South Caucasus Mediation and Dialogue Initiative, held in Brussels on 28 February, the agenda aimed to draw together some of the more profound dilemmas thrown up during the process of reflection and study within this initiative; to have an honest conversation about how the perceptions of peacebuilding hinder its effectiveness; and to discuss what can be done to resolve the dilemmas faced not only in order to “do no harm”, but to actually “do some good”.

Peacebuilding – in all its guises – has failed to meet the inflated expectations that were built up for it, either for political or financial expediency. Combined with political sensitivities, this has resulted in increasingly cynical attitudes towards the true motivations of those initiating and participating in such initiatives. This leaves the stage of peacebuilding open to manipulation by those whose interest is in maintaining the status quo, often equating “peacebuilders” with the “enemy”.

Impartiality, neutrality and politicisation

Most mediators pride themselves on their impartiality, but building peace is inherently political, and the mediators come from organisations or countries that have political objectives. Even if a peacebuilder is genuinely impartial, they can still be perceived as carrying certain values and (double) standards associated with his/her nationality or organisational affiliation.

Papers written for the conference by Liana Kvarchelia on the ‘Politics of non-recognition’, Arda Inal Ipa on ‘Perceptions of peacebuilding’ and Ivlian Haindrava on ‘Politicisation of neutral mediators’, articulate this well. Maria van Ruiten talks about the different dilemmas faced by unofficial and official mediators, and how civil peacebuilding could be more effective if it were more linked-in to official peacebuilding. Yet civil peacebuilders also face the risk of politicisation by getting too close to official processes. So how do civil peacebuilders find the balance? Phil Champain distinguishes between impartiality in processes and output. Peacebuilders must have a vision of peace in order to move towards it (output), but that vision is not neutral – it is imbued with values (such as respect for human rights) and a worldview. However, this worldview cannot be forced onto anyone. Therefore, the process for achieving that vision has to be inclusive and reflect an impartial approach.

Changing and manipulating worldviews

That peacebuilding is inherently about changing worldview may seem controversial – tantamount to importing “foreign values” – until one understands that conflict itself is perpetuated by manipulation of worldview. Anar Eyubov talks about the deliberate use of history teaching as a propaganda tool, promoting a specific worldview and fomenting a specified set of values and attitudes to world events among its audience. This involves cultivating enemy images deep in the public consciousness and encourages an absolutist approach to the “enemy” and problem solving in general. To describe this way of thinking he uses a Russian synonym for enemy, nedrug – literally ‘non-friend’. In other words, if you are not my friend, you must be an enemy. This brings us back to the concept of impartiality. It is not uncommon for civil peacebuilders to be told there is no such thing as impartiality – “either you are with us, or against us”. Working on transforming these attitudes and prejudices is very challenging indeed and often goes against the grain of public opinion.

The new dissidents – creating scandals for peace?

Risk taking versus “do no harm” was another major theme of the day. If you want to make progress in any kind of social or political transformation, it is essential to take risks. The skill is in calculating those risks in a way that avoids harming progress towards peace. Gevorg Ter Gabrielyan argues that, in general, peacebuilders are too risk-averse, and advocates more ‘positive scandals’ that could challenge the ‘prevailing myth or the boundaries of the discourse ...’ Calling peacebuilders ‘the new dissidents’, he states that ‘if a bolder approach to peace work is adopted, one cannot escape the possibility that, in the beginning, it may generate larger and more prolonged resistance’. But at the same time he warns against creating scandals motivated by self-promotion under the guise of stimulating debate.

Motivations and perceptions

The question of motivation is elaborated by Jana Javakhishvili, who proposes a useful framework for understanding what drives peacebuilding at different levels. She differentiates between three motivational clusters that: a) meet basic human needs, or are driven by b) civic values or c) political/national interests. These generally relate to peacebuilding at a micro-level (people to people contacts), meso (civil society) and macro levels (official processes). But it often happens that motivations get mixed up between the levels, and this is when you get politicisation of civilian peacebuilding, or “professional” peacebuilding primarily for income, where moral and ethical values take second place. This naturally contributes towards cynicism towards “peacebuilders”, leading to questions of in whose interests they are working.


A self-critical approach to peacebuilding was the theme of the day, putting difficult dilemmas normally discussed only behind closed doors into a public forum to get a shared understanding of why we are not being more successful in building peace. Self-criticism indeed was the hallmark of the three-year South Caucasus Mediation and Dialogue Initiative, the main aim being to contribute towards a qualitatively different discourse, and to raise the bar of critical thinking towards the conflicts and create some tools to build resistance to the manipulation of the conflict identity.

Peacebuilding interventions must be designed based on sound analysis, reflection and self-reflection, and understanding of all the dynamics. Otherwise interventions will be based on false assumptions and inertia, resulting in more of the same. From this perspective, we believe that this project has contributed to enhancing the analysis of the network of peace activists engaged in it, forming a sound basis for future peacebuilding programming in the region.

You can read the full conference report, including articles, in English and Russian at the bottom of this page.

This project was funded by:

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