Moving from Conflict: the Role of International Actors in Transition Management

Dr Jago Salmon examines the role of international actors in transitions from conflict and introduces his new PSRP report, Moving from Conflict: the Role of International Actors in Transition Management. The report aims to support international efforts in navigating the dilemmas of support to transitions, and reviews types of international actors, kinds of support and priority sectors of international action.

Whether as de facto arrangements after a military victory, or as legal projects in accordance with international law and norms, transitions from conflict have always demanded careful management by international actors.

During the period between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks post-conflict transitions were governed by the terms of ‘comprehensive peace agreements’, containing detailed roadmaps and milestones. In recent years, an increasing number of complex political transitions, popular uprisings and civil unrest have resulted in ‘expert’, ‘provisional’ or other forms of interim arrangements. Despite these changes in form, the challenged experiences of direct international administration from East Timor, Kosovo, and Iraq, have made ‘domestically-driven, internationally supported transitional governance … the preferred response to major conflicts’[1].

To support international efforts in navigating the dilemmas of support to transitions, the Political Settlements Research Programme has released a new report Moving from Conflict: the Role of International Actors in Transition Management reviewing types of international actors, kinds of support and priority sectors of international action.

The report emphasizes the duality of international support for transition management. Transitional periods are moments of intense work to initiate the longer-term political, institutional, social, and/or economic reforms needed to strengthen or restore stability.  At the same time, in the face of efforts to dismantle rents, institutions, and legal frameworks often established over decades, action is required on multiple fronts to build short-term confidence of national elites.

In this process, international actors are called upon as shareholders in the international system, and as partners to transition governments, to: a) guarantee transition arrangements; b) offer technical assistance and; c) provide finance. In exchange for this support, international actors seek to ensure that transitions are conducted in line with international law and ‘the national interest’ (often defined as stable pro-democracy outcomes).

In highly politicised and fluid environments, with weak civil societies, and divided populations, policy choices by international partners create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and this poses multiple dilemmas.

Ownership: International interveners must navigate questions of ownership by whom, for what reasons and for how long. Where transitions are highly internationalised, external influences can inadvertently undermine or purposely fragment the underlying political settlement. At the same time, where transitions are entirely left to national elites, there is the risk that they do not align with international law, or do little more than consolidate state capture.

Sequencing: International interveners must recognise that the temporary aspect of transitions contrasts with the long-term impact of decisions taken during transitional periods. Transitions are defined by volatility, short- term decision making, and disagreement on long-term objectives, with rarely a consensus national vision or a development strategy around which international partners can coordinate, sequence and prioritise. International assistance models need to adjust to avoid the risk that constant crises inhibit progress on structural or institutional reform.

Coordination: International interveners must mobilise and maintain support both for overarching transition management, and for specific reforms required to stabilise the country. This requires both building consensus as specific moments of international action, such as donor conferences, as well as building focused attention on specific sectors. In the absence of a holistic visioning and planning system, such as the EU, UN, World Bank Recovery and Peacebuilding Assessment Processes, there is a risk that international support leads to ad hoc, piecemeal and fragmented inputs, and limited or narrow coordination – for example, between major economic and/or political processes, impeding transitional government’s ability to balance priorities and trade-offs.

Looking at specific areas of reform, security sector, core government functions, macro-economic stability and secure livelihoods, the paper reviews accumulated lessons. Across all of these areas, this review highlights that the agendas of those who carried out violent acts are central to negotiations. However, to ensure progress and reform, these interests must be balanced against demands for accountability, the ending of impunity and reform.

The report concludes by highlighting the primacy of politics in transition management. In the absence of robust and effective mechanisms for conflict management, the balance of technical options requires political mediation.

Interventions in support of transitions are often based on an assumption that policies aimed at navigating complex security transitions, promoting macro-economic stability, governance reforms and extension of service provision are mutually reinforcing. Yet there is little evidence to support the idea of a linear transition in which all good things come together.

International partners are critical in determining how much support – and, even more importantly, perhaps, what kind of support – is made available. They are also often the only credible deterrent to ensure elite adherence to transition processes and international law.

Resisting the temptation to use this power to determine outcomes of transitions, the most constructive role for international partners has usually been to mediate space for negotiations and to build safety nets – fiscal and economic, security, human and social capacity, and/or political – to protect nascent political settlements from shocks and enable them to move forward.

[1] Day, A. and Malone, D. M. (2020). Contextualizing Conflict Related Transitional Governance Since 1989.

In: De Groof, E. H. D. and Wiebusch, M. (eds). International Law and Transitional Governance: Critical Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.19–32.

Further Reading

Moving From Conflict: the Role of International Actors in Transition Management

This report reviews the types of international actors, types of support and priority sectors of international action. It concludes by offering some brief reflections on dilemmas and trade-offs related to the ownership, burden-sharing, coordination and sequencing of international action.