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A peace process is a series of persistent diplomatic and political initiatives to negotiate a resolution to a protracted conflict between political entities. The term was first used consistently during the 1970s to describe the efforts to negotiate peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Its use has spread since, both geographically and across social categories. Peace process today, thus, can refer to an interstate conflict (e.g., India and Pakistan); to a conflict between a state and some politically defined group within it, such as an ethnic (e.g., South Africa and its black population), religious (e.g., Sudan and its Christian south), or ideological movement (e.g., Guatemala and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity); or to a conflict between two such opposing groups within a state (e.g., Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland).
Aside from the protagonists, other actors are often involved, in various roles, in peace processes. Third parties in peace processes can be divided into two types. The first are weak and, at least ostensibly, neutral actors. These actors could be states (e.g., Norway in its role in the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as in the negotiation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers), nongovernmental organizations (e.g., the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is often involved in negotiations, though usually with regard to cease-fires and interim measures, not comprehensive peace agreements), or even some individuals (e.g., former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former South African president Nelson Mandela). Although such actors are not necessarily devoid of self-interest (in boosting their prestige, for instance), they are usually perceived as nonpartisan, and therein lies their strength as peace facilitators. Weak and neutral third parties are most likely to succeed in cases where the main task involves coordination of the protagonists and supply of “good offices” (i.e., the venue for talks, facilities needed, and the diplomatic channels).
Weak actors, however, are limited in their ability to foster peace when the protagonists’ positions are far apart and where mere coordination is not enough. In such cases, the involvement of the second type of mediator—a global or regional power—is often needed to enable a successful peace process. The role of the United States in the Egyptian-Israeli peace is a good example of a global power involvement, and Syria’s centrality to negotiation of the 1989 Taif Accord among the warring factions in Lebanon is an example of the role a regional power has played in peacemaking. A power-wielding international organization can also play a similar role, although it usually requires the backing of strong states in such an effort. NATO in the Balkans and the Organization of American States in El Salvador have both played such a role.
Powerful third parties usually have more tools at their disposal than do weaker ones when it comes to peace negotiations, because they can bring to bear their own resources and power in order to pressure the sides towards agreement and, if necessary, to enforce their compliance with the agreements (by creating, funding, or manning verification mechanisms, or by involving their own prestige and supplying security guarantees for the agreement’s implementation). To be sure, global or regional powers are less likely to be neutral in conflicts, as their more immediate self-interests are more likely to come into play, but neutrality is not always a necessary condition for successful third-party mediation. Instead, it is very important that third parties are willing to invest time, energy, prestige, and sometimes money in the peace process. They also should be willing to pressure both parties, including their allies, to make compromises and comply with agreements.
A peace process typically involves four phases. The first phase, prenegotiation, often held secretly, deals with setting the agenda for the negotiation. The second phase usually involves a cease-fire and perhaps other acts of good will, such as prisoner exchange or a return of forces to a status-quo-ante position. The third phase is the negotiation phase, which, ideally, ends in a formal peace accord. In the last phase, the parties to the agreement are required to implement their share. Although this schedule is useful for analytical purposes, the reality, of course, is much more complicated. Phases are often mixed or overlap. Whereas the Egyptian-Israeli peace process more or less followed this classic program, for instance, the Palestinian-Israeli process has a more complex structure, with many phases of negotiations and interim agreements.
Time is a crucial factor in a peace process, as the gradual pace of the process allows for construction of “confidence building measures” in order to increase mutual trust. It also allows both parties to climb down from their war-inciting rhetoric and start educating their people about the possible dividends of peace. In practice, however, the record of success of peace processes is not too encouraging: At least as many processes fail as succeed, and it is hard to distinguish a success from a temporary truce.
In a sense, this relatively poor success rate for peace processes is to be expected. Most of the cases in which a peace process is tried are very protracted and complex conflicts that are, by definition, hard to solve. There are also reasons intrinsic to the idea of the peace process that make it vulnerable to failure. First, the mere term peace process raises expectations in the protagonists’ populations, and when progress is slow (e.g., if violence continues or the economic dividends of peace are not forthcoming), it can be difficult to secure the support of a frustrated population. Second, in order to gain approval for the process in their respective communities, leaders often exaggerate the benefits and gloss over the pitfalls of the process. Finally, another major reason for the failure of peace processes is the role of “spoilers,” those actors in the two opposing camps who see peace as a threat to their positions or their interests. Spoilers are able to sour the peace process by playing on the public’s frustrations. Moreover, the structure of negotiations, especially in cases that postpone the final accord to the end of the process, is such that the leaders often have strategic incentives to cooperate with their own spoilers as a way of pressuring their opponents to give up more concessions.
None of these problems should suggest that peace processes should be abandoned altogether, but just that they should be approached carefully, with caution not to raise expectations too high, and with a structure that minimizes the opportunities for the spoilers. One option would be to establish an accord about the final shape of the peace early on in the process, while designing a gradual and verifiable implementation to allow for trust to rebuild.
- Darby, John, and Roger MacGinty, Contemporary Peacemaking: Conflict, Violence and Peace Processes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Quandt, William , ed. 2001. Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1976. Washington, DC & Berkeley, CA: Brookings Institution & California University Press.
- Zartman William, and J. Lewis Rasmussen, eds. 1997. Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods & Techniques. Washington, DC: United State Institute of Peace Press.
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