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A Leap of Faith: Effective Engagement between Religious Actors, Humanitarians, and Peacebuilders

Joint Digital Series Contribution to Geneva Peace Week 2021

A Collaboration between the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, Inclusive Peace, United States Institute of Peace, the Centre for Applied Human Rights, and Geneva Call

The following article is written by: 
Alex Bramble
, Researcher/Analyst, Inclusive Peace  
Dr Ioana Cismas, Reader, York Law School & Centre for Applied Human Rights    

Focusing on Religious Actors at Geneva Peace Week

This digital series contribution uses a range of multimedia formats to provide evidence-based guidance to practitioners – including humanitarian actors and mediation support actors – policymakers, and donors, on the effective roles of religious actors in armed conflict and formal peacemaking efforts. It showcases stories of religious actors from Colombia, Mali, Northern Ireland, and Yemen reflecting on their experiences of humanitarian engagement, peacemaking, and peacebuilding. 

Because of the significant influence – both actual and potential – that religious actors can exert in generating compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and in shaping peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts, these actors should receive systematic attention from practitioners, policymakers, donors, and researchers. 

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This is the premise and genesis of both the Generating Respect Project and the Religious Actors in Official Peace Processes Project, which systematically document, categorise, and analyse the roles religious actors (can) play during armed conflict and in post-conflict settings. Through their activities and outputs – including the present digital series for Geneva Peace Week – the two projects aim to provide a solid empirical evidence-base and the conceptual foundations for engagement between religious actors, humanitarians, and peacebuilders. First, our objective is to show how religious actors can most effectively engage in and influence humanitarian action and peacemaking efforts. Second, we provide guidance for how humanitarians and peace practitioners, as well as policymakers and donors can adopt a more inclusive, legitimate, and thus effective approach to generating humanitarian norm-compliance and making peace by engaging with key interlocutors beyond the direct parties to an armed conflict, such as religious actors. 

Our projects’ endeavours are particularly relevant for International Geneva, as one of the major hubs of the global human rights, humanitarian, peacemaking, and peacebuilding communities, and as a space that has historically and contemporaneously hosted a wide range of religious actors. International Geneva is thus an auspicious context for the coming together of these communities to explore synergies.  

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Explaining the Influence of Religious Actors

in Conflict and Transition to Peace

Whilst the two projects are at different stages of implementation, both their findings emphasise that religious actors can be a significant asset to humanitarian norm-compliance, peacemaking, and peacebuilding. The Generating Respect Project found that engagement with religious actors has resulted in concrete instances where parties to armed conflict agreed to stop violations of IHL (by, for example, releasing hostages) and the facilitation of humanitarian access and aid. The Religious Actors in Official Peace Processes Project has shown that the inclusion of religious actors in peace and political transition processes can result in greater buy-in for these processes, increase the likelihood of successfully reaching a negotiated settlement, and augment the chances of achieving sustainable, positive peace. 

The research has demonstrated an inclination and willingness of some religious actors to support humanitarian norm-compliance and peace-making, drawing on their religious values, norms, and convictions. It should nonetheless be noted that there are other reasons why these actors may support these processes, including political and economic ones. Importantly, their ability to influence such processes stems, among others, from their relevance as powerful societal actors; their ability to draw on vast networks, organizational capacity, and resources; their intimate understanding of and sensitivity to the constituencies and contexts in which they are embedded; and their legitimacy. 

The pronounced legitimacy that religious actors enjoy vis-à-vis their followers – whether these be members of communities or of armed actors – is one of the primary sources of religious actors’ influence, and a principal rationale for humanitarian and peacemaking actors to systematically engage them. Particularly in societies where religious belief is widespread, religious actors are likely to receive support from a broader proportion of the population, including the conflict parties, because of their perceived neutrality, due to a more general belief in and respect for the religious tradition these actors embody, or their charismatic personality. This in turn means that religious actors can be powerful influencers of both States armed forces and non-State armed groups’ behaviours and of public opinion. When religious actors support humanitarian norms or a peace process, they may shift popular opinion towards norm-compliance, conflict resolution, and peace. With a longer-term focus, religious actors can play important roles in socializing both their constituencies as well as broader segments of society in the values of human rights, peace, and democracy. 

Conversely, it should be noted that when religious actors oppose a humanitarian norm or peace process, they can also be powerful influencers in the opposite direction, legitimising violations of IHL and IHRL, and derailing peace agreement negotiations or implementation. Their socialisation potential also cuts both ways. These findings, however, should not lead us to reject engagement. Indeed, engaging with ‘process-spoilers’ is a well-established tradition in both the humanitarian norm-compliance and peacemaking fields. Efforts of initial engagement may lead to ongoing dialogue, to incremental changes of religious interpretations, and possibly ownership of norms and processes. 

Finally, it is important to observe that ignoring religious actors in the spheres of norm-compliance and peacemaking is a defeatist strategy – whether these actors are or have the capacity to influence armed actors positively or negatively. In the former instance, humanitarians and peacemakers are likely to miss an opportunity; in the latter, non-engagement will not stop violations of humanitarian norms and conflict, whereas engagement provides some hope. A measure of self-reflection among the humanitarian and peace-making communities is in order as to why and how such engagement should occur. Our respective projects aim to assist them in this endeavour.  

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The Geneva Peace Week Digital Series: A Leap of Faith

The Leap of Faith Geneva Peace Week digital series contribution comprises two sets of digital outputs drawn from our two ongoing projects:

The Generating Respect Project is a three-year project led by the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, and developed in close partnership with the humanitarian organization Geneva Call.  The research examines how religious leaders influence the behaviours of State and non-State parties to armed conflicts and whether their religious interpretations (can) generate greater respect for humanitarian norms. 

Two of the digital outputs draw on data from fieldwork conducted by this project in Mali in August 2021. These outputs visually instantiate our aim as researchers, that of providing a bridge between the humanitarian sector and religious leaders by documenting the roles of the latter in times of armed conflict and harnessing the potential for norm-compliance generation through humanitarian engagement with them.

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The Religious Actors in Official Peace Processes Project is undertaken by the United States Institute of Peace, Inclusive Peace, and the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. It aims to provide evidence-based guidance to religious actors, their supporters, and mediation support actors on the effective roles religious actors can play in formal peacemaking efforts and the factors that affect the influence exerted by religious actors. 

The Digital Story presents the personal experiences of religious actors in Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Yemen, profiling the individual religious actors and documenting how they have been involved in peacemaking efforts, particular concerns that have arisen from their involvement, and the results of their work. 

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