In depth


Civil society and conflicts: Many worlds and many nuances

Aida Guillén
Managing director of the Human Rights Institute of Catalonia
Javier Alcalde
Research expert at the ICIP
Aida Guillén i Javier Alcalde

Aida Guillén and Javier Alcalde

This issue of the magazine Per la Pau - Peace in Progress looks at the different roles that civil society plays (or should play) in various phases of conflicts. We define this civil society on a plural basis, in terms of both geography and the organisations themselves, i.e. it consists of much more than the NGOs in the countries of the North. Civil society is made up of organisations, associations, but also the media, trade unions, the academic world and non-organised citizens. The influence or role of all these actors in a specific conflict may emerge in all its phases, from its preparation and the evolution of the armed phase, to reconstruction, peace processes and the consolidation of peace, among others.

From this perspective, the articles we have selected aim to represent the various visions of the potential of this plural civil society, as well as the limits of cooperation and activism in these contexts. They are therefore critical perspectives, which as Rafael Grasa says in the editorial, aim to focus on roots, and attempt to diagnose the structural causes in order to learn the lessons that enable us to work better and more effectively on the ground and at home.

One of the recurring themes in the various perspectives presented here is the need for social reconciliation, which is often the major issue pending resolution. It is necessary to demand an active role for citizens in all phases of the conflict, because without social mobilisation there will be no opportunities for positive transformation of conflicts. The cases of Peru, Georgia and Basque Country are good examples of this.

And when we think of the Basque conflict, we often forget an important factor. As Paul Rios says, the majority of public opinion in recent decades has constantly been against violence and in favour of dialogue, and this is visible in organisations like Elkarri o Gesto por la Paz. However, this potential reaches its limits when the political parties appropriate the discourse advocated by organisations in civil society, when civil society has to adopt a secondary role in some situations (such as direct negotiation between the parties involved) or when it is necessary to overcome apathy after a period when the hopes placed in a peace process have been dashed.

The case of Chiapas is also useful for understanding these limits, as Anaïs Franquesa explains to us. Unfortunately, the presence of individuals acting as human rights observers continues to be useful and necessary in Mexico, as it acts as a deterrent and prevents aggression. However, it is necessary to foresee attitudes that may endanger local communities. Anaïs gives us some ideas, ranging from improving the training of aid workers and raising awareness of the consequences of their actions, while bearing in mind that their stay will be a short one, and that the members of the community will remain after they have gone.

Another idea involves acknowledging the importance of the struggle of indigenous peoples. If local communities are not organised, building autonomy and fighting for their rights, the work of aid workers makes no sense. Francesc Mateu stresses this point during his interview. As a result, sometimes we start to build structures without taking into account the people who have to live in them, when what we should do is work through the citizens, who must have the right to define their future as they wish. The aim is therefore to reinforce local civil society, even in a situation like the present, in which despite the economic crisis, the world has not stopped being global - quite the opposite. Specific initiatives for reducing inequalities must therefore be designed as part of this global world in which we live.

A global world therefore requires solidarity that is also global. On this topic, Manuel Tapial warns us of the dangers that may be involved in the relationship between NGOs and the so-called peace missions carried out by armies. He also reminds us of the need for innovation in the range of civil society's activities, highlighting as an example the opportunities for action by the Gaza aid fleet to raise awareness among international public opinion of the serious breaches of human rights in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some of these issues are taken up and expanded upon by José Luis Gómez del Prado in terms of mercenaries, or in other words, the use of private military and security companies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The risks involved in the work done by these military and security companies in terms of human rights can be seen at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In one of the opinion pieces in this issue, José Luís warns us of the need for civil society to play an active role in confronting the interests of the security sector, which often run in parallel with the votes of the western states (including Spain, a member of the Human Rights Council).

Two human rights activists in Georgia take us into moral territory that has been given little consideration from the classical perspectives of civil society. As Ucha Nanuashvili and Tea Topuria remind us, asking for forgiveness is not easy, and neither is accepting apologies. Trust and recognition of one's own responsibilities are needed in these processes, even when it is clear (as the authors of the piece acknowledge) that the results will not be apparent until the medium or even the long term.

We said at the beginning of this introduction that the role of civil society in conflicts is a world in itself. Or to put it another way, it is many worlds with many nuances. This idea is highlighted in the article by Sonia Paredes on political violence in Peru. Despite the fact that it mainly takes place in the rural areas of the country, the difficulties experienced by the victims' organisations are enhanced by the fact that the majority of the leaders are from an urban backgrounds.

The Sáharacciones collective also reminds us of a very specific context - the difficult situation in the Western Sahara. This issue is one that affects us directly, due to the decolonisation of the Spanish colonies, which in the opinion of the authors should receive a larger proportion of our solidarity.

Finally, the contribution by David Llistar in the second opinion piece in this issue considers the aspects that pacifist and antimilitarist movements have in common with environmentalist movements. Perhaps we should include the rules of the culture for peace in environmentalism and environmentalist rules in pacifism, such as accepting the arguments of biophysical contraction as a necessary prerequisite for a positive peace.

We hope that the thoughts expressed on these pages will inspire you to work better and more effectively on conflict transformation and achieving peace; a peace that is constantly progressing and in which civil society, in all its facets, must play an active role.