Rebuilding after Conflict

Terrence Lyons 

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: ...In post-conflict area where there has been a lot of violence is it more important to have stability or justice? And what is the trade off and then what is the implication of conflict resolution?

A: It is a key question that I struggle with because the answer, as with many complicated issues is not all of one and none of the other. The way that I have come to think about it is that it is a sequence of priority questions. Both are necessary in the long run. To get justice in the context of continued instability is extremely difficult so long as there are armed factions and gun fire, displaced people, and people who are afraid even to leave their homes or to join civil society organizations or to engage in normal social and economic behavior. Then creating systems of justice is extremely difficult. So establishing order and ending the violence must be first in terms of both sequence and priority. The peace studies people ??? and so on tell us quite correctly that this can be a trap, that you can get stuck in negative peace or stability at the expense of justice in the long run.

My feeling of the agenda in the post-conflict transition is that you by no means end, but you start with trying to build a stability and ending the violence so that over the medium term, people are able to organize themselves in such a way that they can sustain long term peace building -- justice, social harmony over a much, much longer period of time. But what worries me and many of my friends in the conflict resolution field and the human rights field, see social justice as the first step. Then you can get stuck. In other words, as we have been doing this interview, Charles Taylor has just left Liberia for exile and many people are quite appropriately saying that he should go to the War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone to account for his involvement in that horrific civil war.

In the short term, the imperatives of ending the violence in Monrovia and allowing the people not only in Liberia, but the people of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire, the sort of constellations of conflict around Liberia, required putting justice on the longer-term time horizon. That is the first step, getting Taylor out of Monrovia and the peacekeepers in Monrovia beginning the process. Again, my friends in Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International will tell me that that just builds a culture of impunity and you do not get conflict resolution. But I don't see how you get justice so long as fifteen year olds with kalashnikovs control the streets of Monrovia. You need to deal with that in the immediacy of the short run, but keeping your key on the longer run.

Q: So, how then in creating stability and order do you ensure that there is not a return, just short of a latent power struggle, where there is a strong man, kind of like Pinochet, who sort of just takes over Chile one day. Okay, you have order but you also have death squads and a horrible regime for the next five years. People might argue that you had a terrible regime for twelve or fifteen years but now there is democracy and everything is okay in Chile now. Is that what you have to go through? Is it worth going through a dictatorship like that or are there better ways?

A: I certainly think that there are better ways but I wouldn't want to argue a certain linear causality that you must have authoritarian order to make the transition to democracy. In fact in many parts of the world democracy has come up in other ways. There are multiple models towards democracy. An image that I think is useful in trying to understand these transitions is that particularly immediately after a civil war, remember that my main area of focus is some of the most difficult protracted violent conflicts, Liberia, Mozambique, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Bosnia, where clearly you are not going to get to democracy as it would be recognized in the US for many years.

It is unrealistic to expect you to go from state collapse to thriving democracy in a matter of years. It is going to be many, many years, perhaps even generational change. But there is a question about do you want to increase options; you want to provide the context so that new groups can emerge once there is stability. Once there is stability, not to freeze people in the kind of polarized attitude that they had during the war, where the kind of organizations that developed during the war, mostly war lords, militias, and armed groups. Rather to provide something that allows other groups to come up, civil society groups, none military political parties, women's associations, human rights groups, peasants associations. And when you see that the structure is allowing that fluidity rather than locking in place the institutions and the structures of the conflict, but allowing peace time institutions, institutions that can sustain long term peace building are arising, then I think you are on the right track.

In Liberia after the 1997 elections, it was frozen that the only actors with power were military organizations despite the fact that the war was over and that there had been an election. Charles Taylor transformed his military organization into what he called a political party, but it really derived its power from the same kind of behaviors and networks that sustained it during the war. So how to make those institutions transform themselves is the challenge.