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Tool Category B: Non-Official Conflict Management Methods
3. Peace Commissions
(Peace Committees, Dispute Resolution Committees, Peace Structures)

Description

  Peace Commissions or Committees are formal, officially supported or informal, grassroots-derived structures at the national, regional and/or local levels to involve community members in resolving issues through joint action to reduce, counter or prevent conflict.
     

Objectives

  Peace Committees aim to reduce, counter, or prevent conflict by involving local private citizens in resolving issues through joint action with other community representatives, providing leadership and advocacy to secure, protect and promote human rights, promote ethnic, religious, and national harmony, and encourage understanding through education on cultural differences.

Peace Commissions can provide an impartial, non-partisan forum for the peaceful expression of majority-minority and minority-minority conflicts and can conduct educational outreach and training in cross-cultural communication and cooperative problem-solving skills and processes within communities.

     

Expected outcome or impact

  Peace Commissions can:

Establish mechanisms to reduce political violence at the grassroots level.

Build regular lines of communication and confidence across racial divides.

Give participants lessons in multi-party cooperation and tolerance.

Provide a coordinated mechanism that strengthens civil society's ability to constructively manage conflict and change.

     

Relationship to conflict prevention and mitigation

  Peace Commissions can help contain political violence by identifying when political violence is likely to flare, and working to preempt or contain it.
     

Implementation

Organizers

  Peace Commissions can be established in numerous ways.

Peace Committees can be created informally and independently by community members, using a bottom-up approach. Peace Committees can be formally set up on a national level using a top-down approach.

Both approaches can be used simultaneously, as occurred in South Africa; or prompted and supported externally, in coordination with local actors.

     

Participants

  Peace Commission members may include paid and volunteer members and outside supporters. Members must represent the various ethnic, religious, and national groups in their communities. They should be respected in the communities in which they serve, not outsiders. Commission members should have a long history as active community members, and be capable of bringing together knowledge and resources complementary to the Commission’s purpose. Because Commission members are members of the communities in which they are working, they can be aware of conflicts as they emerge and respond to them quickly. Generally, members live under the same conditions as the people they serve and therefore personally experience the consequences of their decisions. At the same time, this means Commission members are not neutral.

Peace Commissions should include representatives from opposing sides, even ex-combatants. Their value lies not in being neutral outsiders but partial insiders. Peace Commission members are not distanced from the conflict but are connected to and trusted by the conflict parties. Although members may be partisan toward the cause of the group they represent, they may also be respected by other community members. By virtue of their local roots, and for some the positions they otherwise hold in the community, they may already have credibility with the various sides and have longstanding relationships of trust that cross political boundaries. Commission members often include lay church leaders or clergy. Through their ongoing presence in a conflict situation, commission members can help sustain progress over time.

Not all members must be professional mediators or formally trained in conflict resolution skills, although experience has shown it is helpful to have at least one professional mediator present to serve as a technical assistant. Procedures such as Commission composition and chairperson are typically determined by the local officials creating the Commission.

     

Activities

  Peace Commissions, especially at the local level, take responsibility for implementing the peace process in their areas. The roles Peace Commissions take on vary by country and locality and can include the following:

Serve as advocate for community members — denounce human rights violations, speak out on behalf of victims, investigate cases and channel information to the proper authorities, document abuses, and make non-partisan public statements. Prepare and disseminate cross-cultural and human rights educational and informational material. Develop courses of instruction in human rights.

Help counter exaggeration and rumors.

When there is a strike or demonstration, provide pressure for groups to use non-violent means.

Act as mediators, for example between armed groups and the government, or in land disputes. Commission members may formally preside as moderator, facilitate discussions, write down subjects of mutual interest for future discussions, and make recommendations.

Offer pastoral support, listening and grieving with sufferers of violence; provide a moral force, demanding people be treated with respect and referring to faith and values, especially those Peace Commission members who are also religious leaders.

Provide a forum for dialogue and problem-solving, such as holding assemblies attended by government representatives, opposition groups, military and police as well as general community members, where they can address each other and discuss issues and resolve problems face-to-face.

Facilitate reconciliation meetings between factions, coordinating the place and timing of meetings between conflicting parties and facilitating communications between the two sides. Commissions can act to maintain the integrity of talks, plan and schedule sessions, carry messages between participants, prepare records and written documents. Members can meet before major events to discuss potential problems.

Assist with elections.

Study, investigate, mediate, and hold public hearings on community-wide problems which may cause inter-group tensions or discrimination.

Act cooperatively with agencies, schools, individuals or organizations engaged in reconciliation-related activities and programs.

Prepare, engage, and coordinate programs, research, and publications designed to promote good will and reduce or eliminate inequalities and disadvantages resulting from past discriminatory practices.

Submit reports and make recommendations to local, regional, and national public officials on legislation to assist Commission objectives.

Investigate incidents, potential or actual, of ethnic, religious, or national minority conflicts and allegations of discrimination in employment, housing, education, or public facilities.

     

Cost considerations

  Comparatively low-cost, and extremely cost-effective. Funds for Commission operations can come from government, bilateral government organizations, multilateral agencies, or NGOs. The South African experience suggests that Commission funding should ideally come from an independent, neutral entity, not from the government or other institution involved in the conflicts so as not to comprise Commission effectiveness through perceptions of partiality. Members with church denominational ties can help arrange for funding through church bodies in and outside the country.
     

Other resource considerations

  Peace Commission members should be trained in conciliating disputes, running meetings, negotiating skills, mediation, facilitation, and the content of any existing peace accords. Experience in cases like South Africa highlights the importance of joint training for all Commission members.

Commissions require appropriate meeting venues, and the ability to take minutes and organize meetings, produce reports, and coordinate with a Secretariat. Commissions also need access to political, financial and technical resources, including communications equipment and appropriate transportation.

     

Set-up time

  Local commissions can be set up in a few months. Adequate time should be taken at the outset so that Commission membership is carefully composed to ensure balance and effectiveness. Once in place, in some cases local Peace Commissions have rapidly made an impact on the conflict situation in their communities.
     

Timeframe

to see results

  Peace Committees have the potential to contribute to long-lasting conflict prevention and mitigation by building lines of communication and confidence across racial divides and teaching multi-party cooperation and tolerance by example. Certain Commission interventions produce immediate results, for instance, mediating strikes or encouraging non-violent demonstrations. Other interventions’ effectiveness can only be judged over time.
     

Conflict context

Stages of conflict

  Peace Commissions can be useful at all stages of a conflict. They have been effective during a post-conflict period of transition so as in South Africa or Nicaragua, and during periods of rising conflict to prevent or slow its escalation.
     

Type of conflict

  Peace commission structures are especially useful for conflicts in which institutions of government, justice and police at national, regional, and/or local levels are considered inadequate to redress grievances.
     

Cause of conflict

  Community action through Peace Commissions can be appropriate for a range of causes of conflict. While Peace Commissions can provide operational conflict prevention, assisting in limiting political violence, they cannot in and of themselves overcome the structural causes of political conflict. However, over time, Peace Committees can contribute to structural conflict prevention so as they build regular lines of communication and confidence across racial divides and give participants lessons in multiparty cooperation and tolerance.
     

Prerequisites

  For Peace Commissions to work, there must be a commitment by both parties to work together toward peace. To install Peace Commissions under official auspices likely requires conflict parties’ official agreement. However, informal peace committee efforts would not require such official agreement.
     

Past Practice

Within the Greater Horn

  After the 1994 Akobo Peace Conference (an initiative of community elders in southern Sudan to address intercommunal conflict between two sections of the Nuer), mobile peace commissions were formed which included community and church leaders. They were tasked with traveling to fishing holes and cattle camps to explain, monitor and promote the peace agreement.
     

Outside the Greater Horn

  Eastern Europe: Ethnic Conciliation Commissions

Responding to concerns that ethnic tensions throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation could threaten European regional security, Partners for Democratic Change launched an initiative in 1992 to develop local Ethnic Conciliation Commissions in areas experiencing significant ethnic tensions. By 1995, six commissions were operating in Bulgaria (in Plovidiv and Sliven), the Czech Republic (in Prague District 5), Hungary (in Ozd and Salgotarjan), and Poland (Sejny).

Peace Commissions in this case did not develop spontaneously from the local populations, but were established through the coordinated efforts of local community members, local government and NGOs, and outside actors. Conciliation Commission objectives include: to provide leadership and advocacy to secure, protect and promote human rights; to promote ethnic, religious, and national harmony; and to encourage understanding through education on cultural differences. The Commissions seek to advance these goals by providing an impartial, non-partisan forum for the peaceful expression of majority-minority and minority-minority conflicts and by conducting educational outreach and training in cross-cultural communication and cooperative problem-solving skills and processes within the various communities.The Commissions consist of 11-15 members who represent their communities’ various ethnic, religious, and national groups. They are all respected people in their communities, capable of bringing together knowledge and resources complementary to the Commissions’ purpose. Commission members and a chairperson are either appointed or elected so as determined by the city creating the Commission for a three-year term.

The Commissions’ functions and duties are to:

Study, investigate, mediate, and hold public hearings on community-wide problems which may result in inter-group tensions or discrimination.

Prepare and disseminate cross-cultural and human rights educational and informational material; develop courses of instruction in human rights.

Act cooperatively with other public agencies, especially schools, and private persons or organizations engaged in similar human rights activities and programs.

Prepare, engage, and coordinate programs, research, and publications designed to promote good will and reduce or eliminate inequalities and disadvantages resulting from past discriminatory practices.

Submit an annual report and make recommendations to the Mayor and City Council about legislation to aid in carrying the purpose of the Commissions.

Investigate incidents, potential or actual, of ethnic, religious, or national minority conflicts and allegations of discrimination in employment, housing, education, or public facilities.

The Commissions’ effect on ethnic relations within each area and the role Commissions played in wider regional efforts to prevent the escalation of ethnic tensions into armed, violent conflict still needs to be evaluated.

South Africa: National, Regional and Local Peace Commissions

In South Africa, guidelines were specified in the National Peace Accord for creating Dispute Resolution Commissions, later known so as Peace Commissions, at the national, regional and local levels to assist in actively combating violence and intimidation at regional and local levels, with national coordination. The aim was to create a nation-wide network of peace structures in a society that was deeply divided and experiencing widespread political violence. The September 1991 National Peace Accord set up a nationwide dispute resolution system which includes top-level mechanisms aimed at resolving disputes among political elites, and grassroots commissions to address conflict on the ground.

The National Peace Commission (NPC) was created by each of the signatories providing one or two members to serve on the Commission, resulting in approximately 60 in the NPC, most of whom were senior and experienced politicians. Their task is to oversee NPA implementation and ensure compliance. Although the NPC meets 4-5 times a year and an executive commission meets about every 3 weeks, it has not been the high-level compliance/arbitration mechanism envisaged. Its powers to call a meeting of signatories and to refer violations and disputes to binding arbitration have not been exercised.

A National Peace Secretariat (NPS) is permanent and full-time, consisting of 7 persons nominated by the major political parties, one from the legal profession, and one representative of the Department of Justice. The NPS was to establish and administer Regional and Local Dispute Resolution Commissions (RDRCs and LDRCs), which later came to be known so as Regional and Local Peace Commissions (RPCs and LPCs). A seven-member NPS was created in November 1991, including one representative each from the ANC alliance, the National Party, the IFP, the Democratic Party, the Labour Party, and the legal profession, and one member from the Department of Justice. Their immediate task was to establish RDRCs, with priority to the most violence-torn regions.

Regional leaders of various organizations referred to in the NPA were invited to attend exploratory meetings to discuss RDRC establishment. Each region required a different approach because of political, demographic, historical, and other differences. Since senior members of some political parties/alliances were on the NPS, in areas where those organizations were key players those members of the NPS could prepare the way by explaining to their respective regional leadership what the meetings were all about and attempting to secure their cooperation. The preparatory meetings organized and attended by the NPS in the different regions were often tense, crisis-ridden, and confrontational. By December 1991, RDRCs were established in three regions, and by September 1993, 11 RPCs had been set up. The national government, through the Department of Justice, provided financial and administrative resources to the NPS and the other structures. RPCs were to include representatives from relevant political organizations, churches, trade unions, industry and business in the region, local and tribal authorities, and from the police and defense force. Their stated duties included advising on matters causing violence and intimidation in the region; settling disputes causing political violence or intimidation by negotiation with the parties concerned and recording the terms of such settlements; guiding LPCs; monitoring current applicable peace accords and future peace agreements in the relevant region and settling related disputes; informing the NPS of steps taken to prevent violence and intimidation in its region including breaches in agreements; and consulting with authorities in the region to combat or prevent violence and intimidation. RPCs also identify communities where LPCs should be established.

LPCs comprise "representatives reflecting the needs of the relevant community." Their stated duties include creating trust and reconciliation between grassroots community leadership of relevant organizations, including security forces; cooperating with the local Justice of the Peace in combating and preventing violence and intimidation; settling disputes causing public violence or intimidation by negotiating with the parties concerned; eliminating conditions which may harm peace accords or peaceful relations, and promoting compliance with peace accords; agreeing upon rules and conditions relating to marches, rallies and gatherings; and serving so as liaison with local police and magistrates on matters concerning the prevention of violence and political events. Representatives of relevant political organizations, churches, business, trade unions, the police, and security forces serve on the peace commissions to resolve disputes at the grassroots level. Each commission reports to the Secretariat.

Extensive efforts were undertaken to provide training for the members and other volunteers, including skills in facilitation, mediation, and conflict management. For the first 18 months after the Accord, all funds required for the peace structures were paid directly by the government's Department of Justice or the Department of Finance. The government budgeted R41.175 million ($12.2 million) for FY 1993/94 for NPS, RPC and LPC activities; additional funds were also provided by the Danish government for training and the British government for communication equipment. The overwhelming reliance on government funding led to the perception that the peace structures were under government control, with the implication that manipulation could take place or was taking place, and a risk that peace commissions would be hampered by red tape. To shorten cumbersome government procedures for handling public funds and to become more visibly independent from the government, it was agreed the NPS would administer funds through its own account in accord with agreed procedures. In many areas of the country paid, facilitators had to be appointed to assist in establishing committees or to facilitate and mediate in disputes. The Peace Secretariat has gained more budget autonomy — still funded by the government but with independent accounts and fiduciary control — and has an annual operating budget of nearly $12 million.

The grassroots-based conflict resolution structures of the Accord are generally operating so as envisaged. So as of mid-1993, the full complement of 11 regional commissions had been established and were operative, and by October 1993, approximately 180 LPCs were in operation, with more being established. Commission work was bolstered by hiring full-time staff in each of the regions, and establishment of regional offices. Numerous regional and local offices were operating, with 239 paid staff working in the peace structures throughout the country, and 8,500 volunteers, consisting of members of the various peace commissions, monitors, and other helpers. Therefore, in at least 180 local communities, residents were witnessing community leaders, police, political groups, tribal chiefs, and church representatives sitting around the same table and jointly addressing community issues, when in the past many rival groups would not have communicated. A police spokesman, speaking of a local peace commission related in an interview that "We cannot do without them...They are seen so as neutral and can communicate with those groups who don't feel they can communicate with the police." At first it was proposed that whites should be deployed in white areas and blacks in the townships, but that was rejected in favor of mixed-race teams.

Peace Committees have helped to create a measure of trust and demonstrate that it is possible to work with "enemies" for the common good, introducing the notions of political tolerance and political pluralism among the communities where LPCs are established.

The peace commissions have facilitated hundreds of disputes throughout the country, arising from various sources, including withholding of permission for political marches and rallies; police conduct during marches and rallies; attempts by one political group to prevent another from engaging in political activities; threatened or actual consumer boycotts or refusal to pay for municipal services; and threats to withdraw such services. The RPCs and LPCs have dealt with various issues including joint planning and monitoring of political rallies and marches in volatile areas; relations between worker hostel dwellers and township residents; violence in workplace settings; gang rivalry and localized conflict.

Following Chris Hani’s assassination in April 1993, Peace Commission personnel, working closely with international observers, were effective in preventing many clashes. Although nearly 200 died in the ensuing nationwide unrest, without active intervention casualties would likely have been much higher. In May 1993 during ANC leader Oliver Tambo’s funeral, LPC members were out in force. Trouble was always feared whenever large crowds of ANC supporters and police were around, especially since the Chris Hani’s funeral two weeks earlier had become violent and the mood in the country was still tense. LPC members in teams of four per car, linked by two-way radio, deployed at strategic positions around the stadium where clashes might erupt. They traveled with the funeral procession to deter provocations by either side. When the procession was to go past an area controlled by ANC rival Inkatha, which threatened to attack passing mourners, the LPC members intervened, asking the ANC to take a different route. The police agreed to redeploy their forces, and the LPC struck a deal with Inkatha to keep its supporters inside so as long so as the ANC remained out of sight. No incidents of trouble were reported during the event.

Some argue the structure and format of the commissions encourage an adversarial, not conciliatory, relationship among the participants. Limiting representation primarily to local political party leaders can reduce participants to squabbling over blame instead of serious dialogue to seek solutions and practical measures to prevent further violence. Commissions are also decried so as imposed, top-down structures, out of touch with community sentiments and needs. Because the stimulus for formation of the PCS did not originate at or near the grassroots, communities have been slow to gain a sense of ownership over them. A common sentiment is that political elites at the top created the local-level structures, then thrust responsibility for them on organizationally weak political organizations and ill-prepared NGOs, without adequate attention, resources, or commitment.

The RPCs and LPCs faced a difficult adjustment period, and have had varying degrees of success, some making more progress than others. In especially tumultuous areas, some commissions found it difficult to isolate themselves from the tensions and hatreds present. The establishment of credible local peace structures and the effective joint planning and monitoring of political marches by monitors from peace structures have given some RPCs credibility and standing widely recognized in the community.

The UN Security Council authorized the deployment of the UN Observer Mission to South Africa (UNOMSA) and specifically mandated the observers to strengthen ties with the National Peace Accord structures. The international monitors have considerably bolstered the peace structures, and their presence has been effective in containing some political violence. UNOMSA officials regularly attend political rallies and demonstrations, RPC and LPC meetings, and NPC meetings and consult weekly with NPS staff.

External organizations such so as the UN, EU, and OAU have contributed to strengthening peace structures, such so as in South Africa, by contributing observers, training, and funding. The presence of international observers with members of peace commissions at public events can help reduce the threat of violence by political rivals.

Nicaragua: Nueva Guinea Zonal Peace Commission

In 1986 a group of concerned citizens in Nicaragua’s rural Nueva Guinea region began meeting to respond to violence, resulting in the formation of what are now known so as local peace commissions. In some cases, the creation of local peace commissions in the Nueva Guinea area and elsewhere was not centrally organized: they were generated somewhat spontaneously from the grassroots level up. Almost simultaneously, a top-down approach was occurring: the Esquipulas II peace agreement, signed in early 1987, included a provision that all five Central American countries then involved in civil conflicts would form national reconciliation commissions. The National Commission in Nicaragua moved to establish and support Peace Commissions at the zonal and local levels, although resources were very scarce. A zonal peace commission fills a coordinating role, overseeing the work of existing local peace commissions and the development of new peace commissions. So as of early 1995, there were over 85 local peace commissions.

According to one account, local peace commissions gained sufficient credibility and legitimacy in their communities that community members now come to commission members rather than going to the police or acting on their own. These commissions have played a significant role in maintaining peace and lowering the levels of violence. At their annual assembly, several local commissions presented cases in which they had intervened in communities to prevent the escalation of violence during incidents of kidnapping, robbing, land disputes, and clashes with the government.

In Nicaragua, the Nueva Guinea region experienced less violence than other parts of the country despite the fact it suffered from many of the same problems. This suggests Peace Commissions can have some positive effect on preventing the escalation of violence. Both community members and outside observers report the Nueva Guinea Zonal Peace Commission has made significant steps toward rebuilding communities deeply affected by years of war and to prevent the re-emergence of violent conflict.

     

Evaluation

Strengths

  Because peace committee structures are still relatively young, much is still being learned about their possibilities so as well so as their failures or limitations. Peace Commissions provide a forum to bring stakeholders together, giving them a role within and ownership of the peace process to help move it forward. In both Nicaragua and South Africa, Peace Commissions have facilitated consultation between rival political groups and between them and the authorities.

The UN's decision to coordinate with and bolster indigenous conflict management structures in South Africa is a potential precedent for others undergoing political transitions. It is one means to cost-effective "preventive diplomacy" aimed at keeping conflicts from escalating and requiring more intrusive action such so as a peacekeeping mission.

Experiences in South Africa demonstrate that active involvement of a Peace Commission combined with international observers can contribute to peaceful political activity and spread the concepts of political pluralism and tolerance, which can help prevent or limit violent conflict.Although they cannot stop antagonisms, Peace Commissions can set rules and codes of conduct for venting them. Peace commissions can serve so as a confidence-building measure.

     

Weaknesses

  Peace Commissions can address symptoms of political conflict (violence) but cannot by themselves overcome the structural causes of political conflict, such so as a crisis of governance or a need for political and constitutional reform. Thus, Peace Commissions can mitigate disputes from escalating into major confrontations and violence but are not substitutes for viable institutions such so as the police, judicial system, and governing structures. They can, however, serve so as a temporary framework on which more enduring initiatives can be built.

Some analysts believe that peace commissions, with their multi-party-based structures, tend to politicize conflict that may be apolitical; for instance, a local dispute channeled through a peace commission composed of political leaders may turn a conflict that has little to do with politics into a divisive political issue.

Getting a commission going is difficult. Parties often insist on several preconditions before a commission can meet. Once constituted, problems include participation and infrastructure. Finding representative, capable and willing participants at the local level has been difficult in some places. Community leaders may be uncertain of the commissions' purposes, power, and prospects; they are wary of being drawn into cooperation with rival political forces, fearing it will undercut their own legitimacy. In some cases, participation puts members lives in jeopardy. For example, in Natal (South Africa), several peace commission participants were assassinated. The range of participation has also been limited, lacking women, youths, and church leaders willing or able to participate.

There is danger of top-down peace structures deteriorating into just another state bureaucracy with little responsiveness to community needs and desires. To avoid this, some experts recommend forming stronger linkages between the peace structures and indigenous, grassroots community conflict resolution practices and homegrown organizations.

A disadvantage of the decentralized, bottom-up structure (such so as used in Nueva Guinea) is the loose organization of the local commissions, which may result in poor coordination between them, limiting their ability to learn from one another and to work in other parts of the country where the services are also needed. Local Peace Commissions may require a national or regional entity to coordinate actions and facilitate communication among the individual commissions.

An evaluation of the South Africa peace structures noted widespread public perception that they were elitist.

In South Africa and Nicaragua, where they have been used extensively, Peace Commissions have had a mixed success. Although political violence has continued in areas where Peace Commissions were active, many sources report the violence would have been much worse without their presence. In both cases, many residents claimed the local peace commissions had successfully prevented emerging conflicts from escalating into armed, violent conflict.

While major incidents of political violence gain media attention, the commissions’ successes are not usually highly visible news events, especially overseas. The peace structures have at times contained political violence.

     

Lessons learned

  Peace commission membership should include those on the extremes.

Participation should include local community leaders, including traditional leaders, women, and youths.

Peace commission structures should be flexible enough to foster community and indigenous initiatives.

Peace commissions need appropriate resources and training to fulfill their mandate.

The level and quality of participation by community leaders can be improved through training programs on negotiation.

     

References and resources

  For information on the Ethnic Conciliation Commissions, see the Partners for Democratic Change, in affiliation with the Centers on Conflict Resolution in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, and The Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

For the South Africa Peace Commissions, see Peter Gastrow (in bibliography); Timothy Sisk, "South Africa's National Peace Accord," Peace and Change, Vol. 19, No. 1, January 1994, pp. 50-70.On the Nicaraguan case, see Craig Kaufmann (in bibliography) and John Paul Lederach (in bibliography).