“Let bygones be bygones”. “No justice, no peace”. These two phrases encapsulate just two of the varied approaches and principles to peacemaking. Some advocate for the need to let go of the past, even if it means letting go of the idea of holding culprits to account, while others believe no long-lasting peace is possible without justice.
History has a very mixed record of which of the two approaches are best for long-term peace and stability of a country emerging from conflict. In theory, trying perpetrators of crimes and holding them to account should ensure justice, and can achieve closure for victims and societies. However, in practice, this can become a laborious, costly and politicised exercise, further polarising societies that are already scarred by conflict.
One example is the trial of Saddam Hussein in Iraq after he was deposed in 2003. The trial should have been a moment for Iraqis to come together around the just trial of a tyrant. Instead, the judicial process and execution in 2006 was so badly handled that it deflected from the crimes committed.
The US decision to target every single member of the Baath party in 2003 and banish them from public life and employment led to widespread resentment and a hollowing out of Iraq’s public sector, rather than holding to account those who were responsible for the crimes. The list of errors goes on and on, but at the heart of them was a politicised approach to target all those deemed guilty, without seeking peace or justice.
Any number of books have been written on how wars can be won and political transitions can be bloodless, but rarely does a country offer an example that can be replicated. Lessons, however, can be and should be learnt by any nation emerging from conflict.
The Iraq example is unique, as is the South African one. Nelson Mandela was able to spare his country much destruction and bloodletting because of his ability to prioritise peace and a prosperous future. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, says: "Without forgiveness, there's no future". While justice is an essential foundation for nation states, ultimately it is forgiveness that can heal the rifts of the past.
From Afghanistan, to Syria, Libya and beyond, intractable conflicts go on year after year, often due to the fact that some people benefit from the conflicts and have a vested interest in their continuity. But there are also lost opportunities for peace, as some sides refuse to compromise.
In her book, Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan notes that as diplomats worked to end the First World War, "the peacemakers had to deal with reality, not what might have been". That is true of all peacemakers. There is always the pressure to ensure the peace deals are perfect, but often the best that can be achieved is "good enough".
Saying a peace deal is “good enough” is like asking “how long is a piece of string?”. It is all relative. For some, the urge to end wars and violence trumps all other considerations.
In a conversation I had with Fatima Al Gailani, one of four female negotiators in the Afghan negotiating team attempting to make peace with the Taliban, Ms Al Gailani said: “there must be peace; we must make it happen”. Her insistence is laudable. In our conversation, hosted by York University, she said that despite strong disagreements with the Taliban, there had to be an agreement. However, for others in Afghanistan, the insistence on peace at any cost means giving leverage to the Taliban, as they can force more compromises from those wanting a peaceful settlement.
The push for peace, without disarming fighting forces, can be framed as a weakness. There are always concerns that armed groups, like the Houthis in Yemen, agree to enter peace talks with the intent of continuing their military push on the ground. Biding time to force a military solution by entering talks with ill intent is always a danger. This is one of the primary challenges facing peacemakers.
In some cases, like in Syria, there were figures who, despite their decades-long opposition to the regime, refused to endorse violence and continued to push for peace. Among them was veteran opposition leader Michel Kilo, who passed away on Monday, who insisted that being true to the cause of a free Syria mandated a rejection of violence.
As intractable conflicts in countries like Afghanistan, Syria and beyond reach inflection points, peacemakers must be given a chance. The reality of how peace in any country could emerge may be grim, and will require compromise, but it is undoubtedly better than the continuation of war year after year.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National