Security progress in post-conflict contexts: between liberal peacebuilding and elite interests

Research reports and studies
March 2015
Craig Valters, Erwin Van Veen and Lisa Denney
This report synthesises findings from two country case studies, which focus on how security improvements have been achieved in the challenging post-conflict contexts of Liberia and Timor-Leste. It also draws on wider literatures on liberal peacebuilding and the role of elites, which have polarised debates over how countries achieve peace. Using the two case studies, as well as examples from other post-conflict contexts, this report maps out potential ways of overcoming these contrasting approaches. This starts from the reality of how security progress has actually been achieved in post-conflict countries, but also maintains a focus on moving towards more inclusive security in future.

Of course, security progress in both Liberia and Timor-Leste has been limited and tentative, coming from low starting points. Citizens in both countries continue to face various forms of insecurity. Nonetheless, it is important not to underplay the significance of the security improvements that have been achieved, given the multitude of competing priorities post-conflict countries contend with, as well as the many threats to the peace they face. These progress stories are thus necessarily relative and modest, but nonetheless important in helping to deepen our understanding of how states emerging from conflict build peace.

Much of the existing literature and donor practice supports (either explicitly or implicitly) a liberal peacebuilding approach, in which democracy, economic liberalisation and rule of law are promoted as the foundations for peace. Yet this overlooks the fact that elites may reject change and be incentivised to retain the capabilities for violence, and that historical processes of state formation have tended to be violent. An examination of the drivers of security progress in our case study countries reveals a more nuanced picture, in which factors at the international, national and sub-national levels have contributed to varying degrees to improved security. Of these, domestic political factors emerge as the most important in creating an enabling environment for peace. Key factors include the credibility and legitimacy of leadership personalities, as well as their ability to use patrimonial networks to buy elites and potential spoilers into the peace. At the sub-national level, local security providers support conflict-resolution that can prevent minor disputes from escalating, thus contributing to stability. And finally at the international level, peacekeeping forces can provide a window of stability, on which national leaders can capitalise; and security sector reform (SSR) processes can facilitate early improvements in security providers. However, despite these important contributions to security progress, peacekeeping and SSR are unlikely to exert a strong influence on peace in the longer term, with national and local factors playing a much stronger role. These international factors have thus played a more limited role in building security in Liberia and Timor-Leste than is often assumed. Yet while these drivers have enabled improved security in the short-term, they have not fundamentally addressed the underlying causes of conflict and there are concerns about whether they can lead to more inclusive, and thus more sustainable, peace.

To address this, the report sets out three approaches to help overcome the tension between how security progress is achieved in practice in the short-term and the kinds of equitable and inclusive security that are more sustainable in the longer term. These include:

  1.  Working with, but not for elite interests.
  2.  Viewing support for security institutions as long-term processes of change.
  3.  Incrementally increasing the inclusivity of development processes from the outset.

While these do not resolve the impasse between the liberal peacebuilding and elite-focused approaches, they provide some ideas as to how to bridge them in a way that is realistic about the role of elites and yet aspirational about what can be achieved for citizens in future.