How can civil society be supported and enhanced in post-conflict scenarios? Despite the recognition of their added value and importance, NGOs often come under significant strain as they guard the frontline of accountability during conflict and are often seen as the guardians of the peace agreements post-conflict.

To examine these concerns, on 3 November 2021, supported by the Gender, Justice and Security Hub a Colombia-Northern Ireland dialogue with civil society was held to discuss the role of Human Rights NGOs, both during and after conflict and external and internal challenges as peacebuilders. The roundtable also reflected on a policy document produced by Hub researchers: Insights on Sustaining NGO Participation in Post Conflict Space. This policy document studies the elements that enable NGOs to thrive and redefine human rights challenges and opportunities in transitional settings.

The conversation was convened at a time when civil society actors in both jurisdictions are experiencing enormous challenges from financial to direct violence. Colombia and Northern Ireland have both experienced lengthy and damaging conflicts. There are important commonalities and experiences in both conflicts, and exploring these patterns across post-conflict societies can enable a solution-oriented approach to addressing challenges and supporting organisations to do their work effectively and safely.

Both conflicts have been protracted and intractable, involving numerous political, social, economic, class and other dimensions. Both conflicts struggle with the legacies of recent and long-term colonialism. They both demonstrate that peace agreements do not necessarily mean there is an end to conflict: it may be better to speak of post-agreement societies, rather than post-conflict societies. And, both countries are emerging from decades of political violence in which civil society has played a central role as peacebuilders.

This blog presents the main external and internal challenges identified by the Northern Ireland and Colombian civil society organisations invited to this discussion. We have also reflected here on how civil society’s role can be supported and enhanced to face these challenges based on the previous fieldwork carried out by the Hub Researchers.

peace agreements do not necessarily mean there is an end to conflict: it may be better to speak of post-agreement societies, rather than post-conflict societies

External challenges

External factors affecting civil society organisations, include:

  1. Funding. The funding landscape changes for all organisations in post-conflict scenarios. The complexities of navigating post-conflict societies whilst remaining independent from government agendas in an environment of scarce resources provokes significant changes in the organisations’ goals, composition, and capacity. In addition to this, they face strong competition as other NGOs and indeed the state are also competing for international cooperation funds.
  2. Power imbalances. The inclusion of an integral human rights approach in peace agreements does not eliminate the role of power. The imbalance in power generated due to “new” or reformed institutions and the difficulty to navigate the changes in priorities in post-conflict settings is a common theme, as well as dealing with the politicisation of the peace agreements and their implementation depending on the political will of each government. More explicitly power imbalances are also expressed through harassment or attacks on civil society and human rights defenders. Well-organised NGOs with an international profile may be less vulnerable to threats, or more able to manage these than grassroots organisations who may suffer more.
  3. Implementation. Limited mechanisms exist to follow up the implementation of peace accords, including their human rights provisions. The organisations stress that peace agreement mechanisms do not necessarily involve straightforward ways to make the participation of civil society systematic, knowledgeable and effective. Perversely protections in peace agreements may even be used to prevent the protection of human rights. For instance, community veto rules in Northern Ireland have been abused to block measures protecting human rights and equality. This implementation gap creates challenges for organisations that seek to reorient their work and continue to be relevant in post-conflict settings.
  4. Security concerns. Post-conflict scenarios can be challenging when there is an ongoing conflict and new forms of violence are happening. This heavily affects the agenda on human rights, since security continues to be the priority and there is a stalemate, particularly concerning women’s rights. 

Internal challenges identified include:

  1. Personal and institutional fatigue. Human rights actors suffer from acute conflict fatigue. Many individual leaders leave the NGO’s and are co-opted into ‘new’ or reformed human rights and accountability institutions in the transitioning jurisdiction, leaving an unexpected ‘brain drain’ on civil society capacity. Unexpected difficulties can include the mutation of advocacy spaces or agendas, the repositioning of mandates, problems of recruitment, as well as the recalibration of relationships with other stakeholders. The result can be burnout.
  2. Changing agendas and priorities. The peace agreements change priorities regarding human rights, but they also relegate the work on certain rights. Women’s organisations in both countries highlight how the peace agenda has absorbed their resources and institutional capacity, displacing other structural issues like reproductive rights or violence against women beyond the armed conflict. This multiplicity of goals and approaches impacts mental and physical health and requires permanent (and often frustrating) institutional readjustments. As generations within organisations change, there can be new priorities, but also a risk in the loss of politically-attuned veterans.
  3. Elite capture and technocracy. The peace agreement creates opportunities for NGOs that might also weaken their connection to grassroots needs and priorities. There is a risk that organisations will succumb to be involved in technocratic and depoliticised practical process. They may be co-opted or captured by elites and diverted from their more radical or emancipatory ambitions. Organisations must adapt their practices to remain well-embedded in their communities and thereby survive and thrive in post-conflict settings.

Positive Learning from the Northern Ireland experience

The socio-economic rights and transition research team based in Northern Ireland carried out a series of semi-structured interviews with key civil society stakeholders, trade union members, women’s organisations, children’s rights organisations, NGOs, human rights activists and organisations, and community workers in Northern Ireland. Based on these conversations relevant lessons have been identified about how civil society organisations can seize, redefine and share the space in post-conflict scenarios: 

  1. Civil society organisations need strong and diverse leadership so as to retain the capacity to navigate the challenges of funding, leadership migration and changed priorities.
  2. Dynamic and flexible organisations need to retain an agile outlook and the capacity to reorient work, while retaining control over their own agenda and aims.
  3. Organisations need to remain connected to grassroots needs and well-embedded in their communities to allow them to survive and enhance their agenda. This requires them to highlight the real and pressing needs of people living in post-conflict sites, and to name the threats facing people.
  4. Organisations need to broaden their agenda and objectives, embracing the full diversity of human rights claims, and focus on the indivisibility of rights, specifically civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. A human rights framework is a relevant tool to sustain diverse communities in a permanent dialogue.
  5. Gender-mainstreaming across traditional human rights focused NGO’s, from women’s equality to LGBTQI+ affirmation, is an essential aspect of building legitimacy with, and relationships to, contemporary equality movements.
  6. Network building and solidarity are essential for civil society in post-conflict settings. Therefore, international and regional connections are crucial to maintain the organisations’ status and independence.

Across both contexts we found that the resilience of the organisations has been central in the role played by civil society generally and NGOs specifically in conflict resolution. Their strengths have included: the capacity to adapt to the circumstances, to understand the external and internal challenges, and the flexibility to rethink and restructure their work and agenda. All of these skills highlight the potential of a vigorous civil society prepared for dialogue and the role it can play in leveraging social transformation through the implementation of peace agreements. Solidarity (national and international) and a global understanding of human rights abuses also provide sources of resilience.

We come away convinced of the central importance of civil society. There is a need to reinvigorate and support civil society in the aftermath of conflict, as a strong civil society is essential for a peace agreement to survive and thrive.

Socio-economic Rights in transitions Team:
fessor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin
Professor Rory O’Connell
Dr Lina Malagón Díaz

Universidad de los Andes Team:
Profesor Angelika Rettberg
Luisa Salazar-Escalante

Image credit: Gresham Street in Belfast, Rossographer (CC BY-SA 2.0)