Soldiers marching in dust

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The role of data in ending conflict

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When violence and fighting erupt in society, humanity’s attention turns to how to end it and save lives. Gathering data might not seem an obvious pursuit but without it the peace process may never begin.

An elderly woman, bombed in her home, flees falling debris and wreckage. A youthful soldier goes on public trial for shooting an unarmed civilian. Such are the shocking nightly scenes in our living rooms, as we watch the evidence of war crimes unfold live on our TV screens.

For the University’s Professor Christine Bell, the gathering of data from the world’s war zones has been central to her work for the past three decades. Christine Bell is Professor of Constitutional Law and Assistant Principal of Global Justice at the University, where she also leads PeaceRep, an international research consortium dedicated to rethinking peace and transition processes in war zones across the globe.

Christine Bell

While the people behind PeaceRep come from myriad institutions and backgrounds, they are all committed to the same thing: ensuring that their data and analysis improves the lives of those living under the most harrowing conditions. PeaceRep’s latest findings are informing actions for charting paths towards peace in Afghanistan; understanding how local actors interpret the effects of non-Western actors in the Libyan crisis; and informing policy on how to bring about peace in Ukraine.

Building an evidence base

This type of monitoring and reporting of atrocities is crucial when it comes to war crimes for Professor Bell: “Many people are thinking and talking about this in Ukraine just now and trying to monitor for example women’s rights there. During the Bosnian conflicts even though people could not stop the conflict, strong monitoring was put in place, which produced reports with some accuracy. That monitoring became very important down the road, to the global commitment to establish international tribunals. If that monitoring hadn’t been done at the time, when justice seemed impossible, that evidence wouldn’t have existed. Sometimes it’s important, even in the middle of conflict, to keep hold of the ideals of what a peace process should deliver.”

Professor Bell notes that a large part of PeaceRep’s success is having access to PA-X Peace Agreements Database, a repository of almost 2000 global peace treaties since 1990, established by Edinburgh researchers and designed to be accessible to mediators and civic actors as well as researchers.

“It’s a unique – and massive – peace and transition agreement database that really tracks peace processes,” Professor Bell explains. “It captures not only a set of

documents, and the armed actors who signed them, but it creates a way of comparing peace and transition processes. Since 1990, there have been about 150 peace processes across the globe, and we have data on all of them.”

Words and numbers

However, the ability to explain the complexities of war and mediation plays just as big a part as the data, in bringing about any sense of resolution.

Delivering a lecture at Queen’s University, Belfast a few years ago, Professor Bell began with some devasting figures: 160 million people killed due to wars in the last century;100,000 people killed and 2.2 million displaced by war in Bosnia. But such statistics are hard for people to fully understand. So instead, she focuses on people.

In this case she shared with her academic audience the enduring consequences of a Ugandan war crime, carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) against a young woman who had been brutally attacked. While the woman thankfully survived, her injuries meant she was an outcast, rejected by her community, her life permanently altered by the acts of boy soldiers of the LRA. Years later, when the commander of the attack was brought to court, he also claimed to have been recruited as a boy soldier. The judgement in this case posed a delicate balance between the demands of peace, forgiveness and justice.

UN Indian peacekeeper unit position in North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Finding this balance, for Bell, comes down to a stark choice: “The root causes of conflict are very hard to address, and they are impossible to address until you get the violence stopped,” she explains. “Often the choice on signing a peace agreement is for an imperfect peace or a perfect war.”

Who should be at the table?

One significant aspect of the work of PeaceRep has been to provide important evidence that where women and non-dominant minorities are included in peace negotiations, the peace settlements last longer.

Association Alliance Meeting Seminar Conference

However, the under-representation of women among the ranks of high-level mediators is well documented, believes Professor Bell: “The stark figure that only 2.4 per cent of chief mediators in peace processes between 1992 and 2011 were women, highlights the scale of the challenge,” she states. “A further study by the Centre for International Co-operation in 2013 found that only three of 52 envoys appointed by multilateral organisations were women.”

Influencing the United Nations

The work of PeaceRep was instrumental to a 15-year review ‘Women, Peace and Security’, carried out by the UN. PeaceRep’s data showed that women need to be included both in early-stage ceasefires, as well as in later implementation agreements, which led the UN Secretary General and the UN Security Council to adopt new recommendations in this area, which continue to shape practice.

“A peace process raises new opportunities for women to have their concerns and experience of conflict heard and to play a part in their country’s reform,” Professor Bell explains. “If successful, a peace process can influence the entire political and legal framework of the country. For this reason, international legal standards now provide that women should be involved in peace negotiations and that peace agreements should incorporate a gender perspective.”

The pain of conflict and war is always personal as well as political.

“I was of the generation that was born at the start of the conflict in Northern Ireland,” comments Professor Bell. “I grew up in a very strong culture of ‘don’t mention the war’, it was the real elephant in the room.”

A British Army patrol arrives in the aftermath of a bomb blast in Belfast, Northern Ireland, circa 1972.
A British Army patrol arrives in the aftermath of a bomb blast in Belfast, Northern Ireland, circa 1972.

She continues: “When studying Seamus Heaney at school, to us, back then, his famous poem ‘Digging’ wasn’t about Northern Ireland at all – yet it’s right there in the first lines: ‘Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun’.”

Professor Bell’s own desire to use her academic qualifications to ‘dig’, to try and understand, to shed light on war and its causes – and to resolve them – may have its roots in her upbringing. She remembers a night in Belfast in1992, when she was a young academic: “I’d been in my post for around eight months when a group of us went out to a bar to have a quick drink and chat before going home. Just as I got up to leave a man walked in, started shooting and killed a female student. She died at my feet.

“Later, I decided to write about the events of that night. I went to see her family, and I think I began a little bit of a truce process of my own. I don’t know whether I would have gone on to work in the role of law in international peace processes, had that not happened. Somehow, I think that I would have.”

For us non-experts still, nightly, in Seamus Heaney’s words, ‘channel surfing over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery’ and trying to understand what the answer is, the work of Professor Christine Bell and her colleagues in researching and attempting to find peace resolutions in the face of war and its atrocities is our best hope, however imperfect the peace.

Image credit: soldiers – Frank Rossoto Stocktrek/Getty; UN helmet – Eddie Gerald/Getty; Association Alliance Meeting Seminar Conference – Rawpixel/Getty; Belfast – David Lomax/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.