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Imagineering the Post-Conflict State: International Peacebuilding as Civilising Mission

Armi Beatriz E. Bayot, University of Oxford Faculty of Law

[Editors’ Note: This is one of our biweekly ICONnect columns. For more information on our four columnists for 2021, please see here.]

Considering the far-reaching interventions involved in international peacebuilding, such as those aimed at demilitarisation, institutional reform, human rights monitoring, electoral reform, economic development, and even international territorial administration,[1] it is not surprising that many scholars have likened it to a modern-day civilising mission.[2] Indeed, international peacebuilding has been described by no less than one of its key proponents as an updated and more benign version of the mission civilasatrice. Paris says that international peacebuilders transmit “standards of appropriate behaviour from the Western-liberal core of the international system to the failed states of the periphery,” making international peacebuildingthe globalisation of a particular model of domestic governance: liberal market democracy.[3]

International peacebuilding is the imagineering[4] of a post-conflict state. Like the civilising mission of old, it seeks to re(construct) peoples and their spaces in the image of the civiliser. It is also built on the premise that old “corrupt,” “backwards,” or indeed “uncivilised” systems must be removed in favour of a new, superior paradigm. International peacebuilding operations have usually been top-down affairs, particularly when led by the UN under its broad mandate to maintain international peace and security. Through peacebuilding efforts, a conflict-affected state is remade in order to make it resistant to a relapse to violent conflict. As former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “There is an obvious connection between democratic practices – such as the rule of law and transparency in decision-making – and the achievement of true peace and security in any new and stable political order. These elements of good governance need to be promoted at all levels of international and national political communities.”[5] The liberal peace paradigm has informed the United Nations peace agenda since the 1990s.

Paris distinguishes the modern civilising mission from the old imperialist model by pointing out that international peacebuilders are not (primarily) motivated by profit or similarly sinister objectives.[6] With the profound impact that international peacebuilding can have on local communities, however, “benign” is probably too mild a word to describe it.

Even where local communities are able to mount a strong resistance to externally imposed solutions to post-conflict issues, international peacebuilding complicates the post-conflict environment. The refusal of international peacebuilders to meaningfully engage with local knowledge, as well as their tendency to privilege Western approaches, can prolong and exacerbate the impact of conflict-related destruction, disputes, and dilemmas. In their study[7] on Timor-Leste’s Ita Nia Rai[8] project, for instance, Mancino and Bose argue that this “USAID-led reform process marginalised civil society constructions of land rights that threatened liberal peacebuilding assumptions, conventions and practices.” They say that this marginalisation was a result of international actors’ preference for and adherence to Western conceptions of “best practices” for property rights institutions and land tenure.

Timor-Leste is a post-conflict state that has long grappled with conflict-related land issues. Violent armed conflicts, particularly the 1999 conflict in connection with Indonesia’s 24-year occupation (and violent exit) at the end of Portuguese colonial rule in East Timor, led to internal displacement and dispossession of land among the Timorese communities. Complicating matters is the fact that years of colonial occupation allowed multiple property regimes to be in effect at the same time in East Timor. Customary land laws and practices coexisted with the land regimes transplanted from Portuguese and Indonesian land laws. There was no easy way to address displacement, dispossession, and title disputes when the Ita Nia Rai project was launched in 2007.[9] Ita Nia Rai’s main objectives were to develop a process for the systematic collection of land claims and a legal framework for resolving past land grievances.[10]

Mancino and Bose note that while consultations were conducted among local stakeholders for the Ita Nia Rai project, international actors prioritised technical expertise over local lived experiences. Interviews with international actors show that the consensus among donors was to start from scratch and replace the traditional cultural system with a new one.[11] The proposed solutions prioritised the “formalisation” of property rights (or validation and protection under some statutory enactment), in contradistinction to “informal” property regimes covered by traditional, indigenous, or customary regimes. Formal property rights, after all, are more compatible with a liberal market economy. Mancino and Bose argue that international actors failed to meaningfully engage with the locals about the values they ascribe to land beyond pecuniary value, which alienated local stakeholders.[12]

While a draft land law produced through the Ita Nia Rai program was ultimately vetoed by then President Jose Ramos Horta in 2012 (allegedly in part due to lobbying and pressure from civil society organisations), a new land law building on the results of the project was enacted in 2017.[13] Meanwhile, Almeida notes in his analysis of proposed legal solutions to the land issues in Timor-Leste that many Timorese continue to live under customary land tenure systems. These self-organised systems have proven resilient despite the waves of external interference – even providing for their own processes of transitional justice regarding land grievances. Further irresponsible interventions, however, (including interference from the state itself) could undermine this very resilience and exacerbate land-related problems.[14]

Through the imagineering of post-conflict states in the mould of Western liberal democracy, international peacebuilders seek not only to replicate the virtues of liberalism and market-oriented economics worldwide, but also to promote the idea that liberal democracy is the only valid way to exist in the international community. In the years that have passed since the end of the Cold War, the liberal peace paradigm has become much less persuasive. Many of the assumptions underlying the liberal peace have been critiqued, questioned, and even disproved.[15] But the ineffectuality of the liberal peace paradigm is not the only reason why top-down, aggressive international peacebuilding ought to be rejected.

As illustrated in the land reform issues in Timor-Leste, international peacebuilding can invalidate locals’ own ways of being in favour of an externally endorsed formula. Whether this formula remains to be liberal peace or whether it is replaced by another in the future, the pattern will be the same as long as peacebuilding remains a top-down, externally driven project designed as a modern civilising mission. The pervasive thinking that international actors’ expertise always trumps local knowledge is deeply disrespectful of the populations that peacebuilding claims to help. It also impoverishes the discourse on peace – it limits the universe of possible solutions to those already known to the international peace technocracy. Peacebuilding must be reconstructed by seriously considering how international actors can support, rather than supplant, local stakeholders as they themselves take the lead in creating “structures for the institutionalisation of peace.”[16]

Suggested citation: Armi Bayot, Imagineering the Post-Conflict State: International Peacebuilding as Civilising Mission, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 11, 2021, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/08/imagineering-the-post-conflict-state-interntional-peacebuilding-as-civilising-mission/


[1] See UNGA ‘Supplement to an Agenda for Peace: position paper of the Secretary-General on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations’ (1995) UN Doc A/50/60

[2] See for instance Peter Finkenbusch, ‘Liberal peace: from civilising mission to self-doubt’ (2021) 33 Global Change, Peace & Security, 163 for a survey of critiques against peacebuilding as civilising mission

[3] Roland Paris, ‘International peacebuilding and the ‘mission civilisatrice’ (2002) 28 Review of International Studies 637

[4] Imagineering, derived from “imagination” and “engineering,” is the term used by the Walt Disney Company in relation to its research and development process for its theme parks and other attractions. See Craig Causer, ‘The world of Walt Disney Imagineering’ (2019) 38 IEEE Potentials 4

[5] UNGA ‘An Agenda for Peace, Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking, and Peace-keeping’ (1992) UN Doc A/47/277 – S/24111

[6] Paris Roland, ‘Saving Liberal Peacebuilding’ (2010) 36 Review of International Studies 337

[7] Maxim Mancino and Srinjoy Bose, ‘Land rights in peacebuilding discourse: domination and resistance in Timor-Leste’s Ita Nia Rai program’ (2021) Australian Journal of International Affairs 1

[8] Meaning “our land” in the Tetum language

[9] Mancino and Bose (n 7)

[10] Bernardo Almeida, ‘The Law and Its Limits: Land Grievances, Wicked Problems, and Transitional Justice in Timor-Leste’ (2021) 15 International Journal of Transitional Justice 128

[11] Interviews conducted by Richmond and Franks in Oliver P. Richmond and Jason Franks, ‘Liberal Peacebuilding in Timor Leste: The Emperor’s New Clothes?’ (2008) 15 International Peacekeeping 185 cited in Mancino and Bose (n 7)

[12] Mancino and Bose (n 7)

[13] ibid

[14] Almeida (n 10)

[15] Finkenbusch (n 2)

[16] ‘Supplement to an Agenda for Peace’ (n 1)

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Published on August 11, 2021
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