Recently, I pulled a childhood book off my shelf – The Giver by Lois Lowry. The book is one of my favorites, and since I hadn’t read it since the seventh grade, I decide to re-read it. In the context of my studies now, the book took on a whole different meaning for me which had me asking: What does post-conflict reconstruction look like? Should democracy always be the goal? Or put more simply, is there such a thing as a utopic society?
The aftermath of war, be it civil or international, is almost as bad as the fighting itself. Yes, the violence may have stopped – the result of a victorious party, a peace agreement, or an international intervention – but the battle has not yet been won. The conflict is frozen, balancing on the edge of a knife; a sudden movement in either direction could cause the process to unravel. It is at the moment, when a country is most vulnerable, that post-conflict reconstruction begins. The goal is to rebuild the country from the ground up, putting in place the necessary infrastructure and institutions, with all the checks and balances to hopefully ensure that such violent conflict does not reoccur. The traditional formula has been the institutionalization of democracy, but is this the most viable option? Can this create an enduring peace in and of itself?
There are two characteristics of democracy that are pertinent to this discussion: competition and choice. Democracy is competitive by its very nature. An election is a competition between competing parties for control of the government. Sounds simple, civil; people go to the ballots, cast their vote, one party wins, and there you have it, a new government. And in a developed democratic system this might be the case, but in a newly formed, or rather forming, democracy, the situation is quite different.
Imagine this: the multiple competing factions in a civil war have managed to come to a peace agreement, by way of an international intervention, have agreed to participate in national elections to determine the next legitimate government. In preparation for these elections, the former conflict factions each form their own political party. As, resources are scare and corruption is high, the only way to ensure one’s interests is to control the access and distribution of both resources and power. Thus, the elections have become a power struggle between the former competing factions. In support of this claim, Soth Plai Ngram, an expert on peacebuilding in Cambodia wrote in his M.A. Dissertation, “democracy is a competing terrain for political parties to win their power by controlling military forces, money and resources, rather than by winning the hearts of the people by improving their lives” (p.53). Consequently, rather than foster peace, democracy could actually create another means by which these parties continue to fight, pushing the fragile peace off the edge of the knife and sending it back into the chaos of violence.
Democracy is also characterized by choice; the capacity of each individual to have a voice in the process, to make their choice, and to cast their vote. But choices also create differences. They distinguish us from one another. The creation of differences between people, can be the source of future violence is a fragile state if these differences are not addressed or if there are not mechanisms in place for the reconciliation of such difference without resorting to violence. The construction of an identity based on differences is one of the foremost sources of conflict. Take, for example, the Rwanda genocide (rooted in construction of Hutu/Tutsi identities), the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (rooted in different religious identities), or the conflict between the two Sudans (rooted in a conflict between Arab/African identities). Democracy helps to facilitate the capacity of choice, but could it be possible for this capability to actually be detrimental to post-conflict reconstruction? How do we reconcile this? If not by democracy, then what?
There is a quote from The Giver that fits perfectly here, and attempts to define an alternative to democracy:
“We don’t let people make choice of their own…We really have to protect people from wrong choices…It’s safer” – Jonas to the Giver (Lowry p. 99)
The community in the giver is supposed to amply a utopic society; however, it is anything but a democracy and is rather more akin to a dictatorship. There is no suffering or pain, no bloodshed or tear, but there also is not choice or freedom. The society has a prescribed set of rules to which its citizen must adhere and the citizens are constantly monitored by camera to ensure compliance. The society has a predetermined number of births and deaths (referred to as ‘releases’) per year and each family unit has two children (one male and one female). A Committee of Elders matches husbands and wives, children to their parents, and jobs to the children at the age of 12 based on their individual characteristics and personal attributes. There are not differences. There is no colour, only shades of grey, emotions are suppressed with medicine, and there is an emphasis on uniformity and conformity. This system is functional and it seems to works, at least in the short term. The problem here is that it is like a teeter-totter; it can be a stepping-stone to something greater or a system needing just the right straw to entirely collapse.
So where does this leave us in terms of post-conflict reconstruction. What I have just described represents the two chasms between which peace balances: democracy, by nature of choice and competition, resulting in reoccurring conflict at one extreme, and dictatorship resulting in conflict when its authority is shaken or threatened at the other extreme. And in between we have a peace, fragile and fleeting, but nevertheless struggling to exist. The goal of post-conflict reconstruction should be neither democracy nor dictatorship, but rather the expansion of the space in which peace can be created; a widening of the tightrope to a more manageable size. It should begin with dialogue among the parties involved, but should not move too quickly towards any particular goal. A strong foundation needs to be built otherwise the system will collapse once more. If democracy is the answer, then the progress towards it needs to be slow. It needs to be built up brick by brick, not thrown together with fingers crossed hoping that it works. A democracy in a post-conflict situation needs to be continuous supported – one election does not create a democracy. It is a process. It may come with initial elements of dictatorship – highly centralized power, lacking in rights and freedoms – but these elements do not spring up overnight. Yes, the ultimate goal should be an open, democratic society, but this takes time.
So, can we create a utopia? Is a post-conflict situation the opportunity to sculpt a utopia society? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it. If we are taking utopia to be synonymous with peace, reconciliation, the absence of violence, human rights, sustainable development, and the dignity of human beings, then it is a goal that we must continue to work towards. However, it is a project that never ends. There is no perfect system, no perfect democracy, no perfect society; it can constantly be improved. Although utopia will never be reached, striving towards it is what helps to create a lasting peace, one step at a time.
Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. Currently she is in Arusha, Tanzania, working as a Legal Intern for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @joleneh340