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When Wars End: Professor Explores Strategies for Peacebuilding


Melissa Labonte, Ph.D., says that just war theory should be rethought in lieu of the advent of peacebuilding.
Photo by Patrick Verel

War is as old as humanity itself. Peacebuilding is much newer, at least as an institutionalized endeavor.

Melissa Labonte, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science in Fordham College at Rose Hill, is devoted to analyzing this urgently needed activity, which was formalized by the United Nations only six years ago.

“It’s been a condensed learning curve for the U.N. with regard to both peacekeeping and peacebuilding, because during the Cold War, the Security Council was largely paralyzed by the Cold War agendas of the U.S. and Soviet Union,” she said.

Another reason for the increase in international attention on peacebuilding is that conflicts globally are ending at a faster rate than they are starting. As conflicts began winding down, the U.N. realized it needed a mechanism to facilitate sustainable transitions toward peace. So it created the Peacebuilding Commission in 2005.

“The challenges of turning a formerly warring state into something other than a fragile state is, in many ways, more complex than resolving the initial conflict,” she said.

Last year, Labonte spent 10 days in Sierra Leone, which was embroiled in civil war from 1991 to 2002 and is working toward reconciliation. In papers such as “Same Car, Different Driver? The Impact of Peacebuilding Partnerships and the Chiefdom System in Sierra Leone” (Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, March 2008), she examines programs there.

In particular, she tackles the debate over what is more effective: dependent partnerships, in which humanitarian organizations establish programs without the input of local leaders; or active partnerships, in which local voices are taken into account and aid programs are developed organically.

Dependent partnerships typically lack legitimacy with the local population and are not continued once the aid group departs. This problem has led to a recent emphasis on active partnerships, though they can backfire as well.

“In asking, ‘Why do we see outcomes in both cases that are not necessarily positive?’ my research proposes that by failing to take into account the political and economic dynamics driving key actors on the ground—whether partnerships are dependent or active—you fail to understand the motivations of the actors you’re trying to assist.”

For example, consulting with a village development group in Sierra Leone might seem like an effective way get in tune with the needs of the community. But a closer look at the group might reveal that it is made up of the local chief’s family. Taking cues from this group in peacebuilding may result in further marginalization of other groups and leave root causes of conflict unaddressed.

“Are you willing to allow some marginalization to occur in order to give communities a voice? Or are you going to try to force communities to create equality among all citizens in terms of how they participate in the project?” Labonte said.

Another aspect of peacebuilding under consideration by Labonte is where it fits within the context of just war theory. In “Jus Post Bellum, Peacebuilding and Nonstate Actors: Lessons from Afghanistan,” a chapter in Ethics, Authority, and War: Non-State Actors and the Just War Tradition (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009), she argues that just war theory needs to be rethought in light of the advent of peacebuilding.

“Just war theory deals with two parts of the process: how states justify entering into war and how they conduct wars,” she said.

“What happens after the fighting stops should also be informed by just war theory. I’ve been exploring the idea that peacebuilding, which is highly practical and operational, is an under-theorized set of activities linked to the just war tradition, whereas Jus Post Bellum (“justice after war”) is an over-theorized but under-empirically implied discussion. I wanted to marry the two and see what we could learn.”

Finally, Labonte is determining what constitutes an effective peacebuilding mission. “Measuring it as the absence of direct physical violence or open conflict, Sierra Leone is a success. If you talk about economic sustainability, it’s a complete failure.

“Sierra Leone perennially ranks in the bottom 10 countries in the world based on development measures like literacy, life expectancy, child mortality, access to medicine, clean drinking water, education, GDP per capita and purchasing power parity,” she said. “Most people in Sierra Leone still live on less than $2 a day.”

There’s a growing consensus that this is the best the international community can do, though. In the nine years since the end of the war, Sierra Leone has had two national elections, one peaceful change of leadership, and will hold another election in 2012.

“It’s a disservice to think that returning a state to stability could take anything less than generations to accomplish. War destroys more than just infrastructure,” Labonte said. “It destroys social fabric and disrupts a cultural narrative. It creates loss for people in terms of where they think they are in their lives and in relationship to others.”

In addition to pursuing a fellowship this fall that will entail another trip to Sierra Leone, Labonte plans to volunteer as an elections monitor there in 2012. She is hopeful for the nation’s prospects, in part because people there embrace what’s known as a “cool heart,” which means they don’t cling to painful memories.

“Most people are not interested in dredging up the old Sierra Leone. They want to move forward. That, coupled with resilience and finding ways to surmount hardship, holds the greatest promise,” she said. “Even if the international community walked away tomorrow, I don’t think Sierra Leone would revert to war.”


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