North Africa, West Asia

What peace? State disorders and non-state orders

For many, peace is just a long and complex process that will deliver very little if at all, and will mainly benefit the political and business elite.

Alaa Tartir
25 November 2016

A Palestinian protestor sticks a sign on the gate of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) offices during a demonstration marking the anniversary of Balfour Declaration organized by Intifada Youth Coalition, Palestine, in Gaza City, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. Picture by Adel Hana AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Everyone is interested in peace, but very few are interested in what type of peace. Peace became almost equivalent to sustaining the status quo, to compromises, to security concerns and needs, but hardly ever about lasting justice and equality. The notion of peace became one of those ‘slippery’, if not ‘dirty’ concepts, and for many people, peace is just a long and complex process that will deliver very little if at all, and will mainly benefit the political and business elite.

This ‘pessimistic’ take on peace is driven by a failure after another in putting an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which remains a key issue for the world (dis)order. It is also based on my real-life experience as a human being who grew up and lived under a brutal Israeli colonial occupation for 30 years, and my experience of living in the shadow of failing peace and failing state building processes. Multiple levels of tension at this intersection can be explored as far as peace is concerned, but fundamentally, for the right world order, it is crucial to ask and answer the right questions such as: What peace?

Going beyond Palestine-Israel, and as far as the global (dis)order is concerned, could a real global political inclusive agenda shape the new world order, or is it too late and are we just moving in the other direction, towards further fragmentation in the global political scene? The answer could be that if we had effective and inclusive state and non-state structures in place, structures that would provide a space for everyone and accommodate different views, then the Islamic State would most likely not be here today. If we had functional global accountability mechanisms and institutions focussing on ‘checks and balances’, maybe the invasion of Iraq and its political ramifications that we are seeing today would not have taken place either. These two indicators point out to the argument that there is an utmost need to reinvent global governance institutions that ‘run’ or dominate the global order, such as the Security Council, in order to address the structural deficiencies in our world order today.

Everyone is interested in peace, but very few are interested in what type of peace.

Let us deconstruct this conclusion by looking at elements of the complex dynamics that exist between the state and non-state actors commonly blamed for the world (dis)order.

Empirical and historical evidence suggest that non-state actors emerge and eventually dominate in fragile settings where a security and leadership vacuum exists and where the state actors are weak, corrupt, or unable to deliver effectively. This is when non-state actors start to pose a serious threat to pre-existing authorities and slowly replacing them. In most cases, non-state actors are seen as security threats to the state-actor and to regional stability. They are also seen as competitors in the realm of governance and challengers to political representation. But here we have two unresolved tensions: one is related to the notion of statehood, and the other is related to the nature of non-state actors. Most of our current understandings assume the centrality of the statehood and sovereignty as the key pillar in the global political system. Yet, this might be outdated as the nature of the state has evolved. Absolute sovereignty hardly exists, and for a new global world order to emerge, there is a need to re-conceptualise the role and nature of states.

Furthermore, there is a need to scrutinise the nature of non-state actors. These actors can be political actors, social movements, armed groups, armed resistance factions, gangs and criminals, and many others. Yet, we don’t sufficiently understand the evolving character and the transformative capacities of these non-state actors. They are not as rigid and unchangeable as the current global order perceives them. Let us take the example of Hamas or Hezbollah.

Could a real global political inclusive agenda shape the new world order, or is it too late?

In the eyes of many global actors these organizations are simply ‘terrorist organisations’. Period. However, this does not reflect the complex reality. Such non-state actors were excluded and criminalised because the ‘world order’ does not speak to the ‘terrorists’. By doing so, this ‘world order’ refuses to see or acknowledge how entrenched these organizations are in their societies, and maybe how legitimate they are. It also refuses to see the transformations and shifts that these organizations went through over the decades, and therefore refuses to understand their evolving character.

Meanwhile such non-state actors challenged this condition of exclusion and criminalisation by expanding and further entrenching themselves locally, almost building parallel institutions to those of the state, gaining more legitimacy especially as a result of effective public good and service delivery, and eventually winning elections. This tension is alarming as clashing systems (or parallel avenues discussed above) will continue to be re-born, which does not allow for an organic convergence between the realms of ‘order and disorder’.

Consequently, and in this highly securitised world, the dominant powers and actors view non-state actors mainly as ‘security threats’ and as competitors to the state’s exclusive legitimate use of violence. Therefore, the magical solution was a top-down security governance reform that mainly aimed to integrate these non-state actors in the state structures, disarm them, force an ideological change, and when needed use violence against them. However, this is by definition a forced mechanism, and it must come with some serious consequences. Think here of places like Libya or Palestine.

The security sector reform processes took place as key pillars of the state-building projects, but they effectively resulted in two things: either further fragmentation, or criminalisation of national liberation projects. When resistance is criminalised, and when fragmentation get further entrenched, then world disorder should not come as a surprise.

Order vs. disorder is not a black or white dichotomy, and the complexity of this world necessitates having them both. The challenge, however, is how to strike the right balance, and agree on the actors who will decide on this right balance. Setting the parameters and reference points is a key task that we need to engage with seriously.

Accordingly, to understand peace, we need to better understand the political economy of conflict and fragility. Most often, fragility is understood by the current world order in technical and apolitical terms, and this is a deep problem that we need to address. I argue that only by bringing the dimensions of political economy to the domain of fragility will we be better placed to understand the dichotomy between state and non-state actors. Indeed, the ‘fragility gaps’ translate and extend into the security domain. But more importantly, these ‘fragility gaps’ extend to questions of political representation, economic and human security, sovereignty, border dynamics and the social contract.

Order vs. disorder is not a black or white dichotomy.

A better understanding of conflicts and fragility will eventually lead us to put the people -particularly in conflict areas - at the centre, before state and non-state actors. And this is the core of the matter. In fragile and failed contexts, the focus tends to be on state and non-state actors, but hardly on the people (unless it is in reference to a humanitarian or refugee crisis). Yet, I argue that if we have a different starting point (the people and their dignity), then we will have different dynamics to deconstruct (both intellectually and in policy) in relations to the world (dis)order.

Finally, world disorder is not only coming from weak, fragile and failed states that are unable to govern themselves effectively. Indeed, in such contexts, gaps in political representation, legitimacy, effectiveness and efficiency, as well as dignity do exist. These gaps can also be seen as ‘political opportunities’ that can be used, abused or misused by the different actors in the global world order. However, only with legitimate, functioning and effective global accountability mechanisms and institutions, can we move a step further in the direction of striking the right balance between the world order and its disorder, and to better understand the complex relationship between the state and non-state actors.

A version of this article was presented by the writer at a panel discussion on ‘State Disorders and Non-State Orders’ at a conference on What Peace? Which World Order? organised by the Geneva International Peace Research Institute (GIPRI), 8 & 9 November 2016, Geneva.

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