5 Questions: Peacebuilding with Political Scientist Séverine Autesserre

The 20-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed an estimated 5.4 million people since the 1990smaking it the deadliest since World War IIand armed attacks by different groups occur every week. Séverine Autesserre (SIPA‘00), a member of Columbia's Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and a political science professor at Barnard College, is an authority on international intervention, conflict resolution, and Central Africa who has researched Congo and visited the nation often since 2001.

Eric Sharfstein
September 17, 2015

Q What is the scope of the conflict?

The international and national wars started in 1996, but there was already extensive local violence in the eastern part of the country from 1993 on. Millions of Congolese have died and the country has remained one of the poorest in the world. Since its outbreak, the conflict has destabilized most of Central Africa, including Congo’s immediate neighbors Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda.

Q Have there been any peacebuilding efforts?

Congo hosts the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world, which attempts to protect the Congolese population from various armed groups and maintain, or enforce, a ceasefire. There are numerous donors, international organizations (such as the African Union), and non-governmental agencies working in Congo, as well as plenty of diplomats. All of these people organize international and national peace conferences, and they try to help the Congolese state reform and train its army, modernize its bureaucracy, and organize free and fair elections.

Q Why haven’t those efforts worked?

Violence in Congo is in large part driven by local conflicts that international peace efforts have not properly helped address. And by local, I really mean at the level of the individual, the family, the clan, the municipality, the community, the district, and sometimes the ethnic group. For instance, there is a lot of competition over who can be chief of a village or a territory under traditional law, who can control the distribution of land and the exploitation of local mining sites. This often results in localized fighting, and can escalate across a whole province and even at times into neighboring countries.

International peacebuilders view local conflicts as “simply” the result of national and international tensions, insufficient state authority, and what they view as the Congolese people's “inherent penchant” for violence. So they consider intervention at the national and international levels as their only option. As a result, there is very little international support for local conflict resolution efforts in Congo.

Q Is there an effective way to resolve conflict and build lasting peace?

Because many conflicts have such local stakes, national and international peace initiatives need to be supplemented with micro-level efforts. You cannot enact national legislation or impose international law adjudicating who can be the appropriate chief of each local village, or who among five parties in a conflict has legitimate ownership of a piece of land. You need to look at these disputes on a case-by-base basis and find the specific solution for each one.

Q Are there signs that give you hope for peace there?

Congolese elites and ordinary citizens have been engaged in bottom-up peace efforts since the violence started more than 20 years ago, but they often lack the resources required to be effective. Support from international donors can be crucial, and can lead to the implementation of successful local peacebuilding initiatives. For instance, in the provinces of the Kivus in eastern Congo, the Life and Peace Institute and its Congolese partners have set up inter-community forums to discuss the specifics of local land conflicts, and these forums have found solutions to help manage the violence.

In the past few years, an increasing number of donors, international agencies, and non- governmental organizations have starting paying more attention to resolving land conflicts and promoting inter-community reconciliation – two issues that are absolutely key for bottom-up peace. So there is hope that this will lead to concrete action in support of Congolese local peacebuilders.

This is the focus of my new research project, which examines how international organizations can do a better job at supporting local actors and initiatives in peacebuilding processes, particularly in Congo.