The South Sudan Peace Process Archive: A Window into Mediation
The archive provides future mediators with a host of key lessons from the South Sudan experience.
As part of its commitment to learning from peace processes, the U.S. Institute of Peace is pleased to launch the South Sudan Peace Process Archive, which aims to provide South Sudanese citizens, mediators, policymakers, academics and other interested readers a window into the 2013-2015 negotiations that attempted to end the conflict that began in South Sudan in late 2013. Documents for this archive were first assembled and organized in 2016. Now, archive curators and former peace process advisers Zach Vertin and Aly Verjee discuss their motivations for assembling and organizing the documents and what they hope the archive can contribute to future peace processes.
Why did you want to create an archive of the South Sudan peace process?
Vertin: The first multi-stakeholder dialogue which sought to end South Sudan's civil war was largely closed to outside observers, and, unfortunately, to many South Sudanese constituents. While there are sometimes legitimate rationales for keeping a tight lid on negotiations, including at especially sensitive points in a difficult and protracted dialogue, it can be argued that this decision weakened South Sudan's peace process and the accord it ultimately produced. Early recommendations to open the process — via greater media engagement, town hall meetings and formal feedback loops — went mostly unheeded, the void filled by speculation, frustration and polarizing narratives. The relatively closed nature of the peace process also prevented a wider community of diplomats, policymakers, peace practitioners and observers from appreciating not only what really happened, but what worked, what did not and why. This archive is one modest attempt to help fill that gap.
Verjee: For me, the reasons for developing an archive are as much personal as professional or historical. When you are deeply enmeshed in an intense endeavor like a peace process, there is little time for individual reflection and contemplation. At the end of my involvement in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediation, toward the end of 2015, I found that my computer was one of the few to hold the many records, memos, draft agreements and correspondence of the process. There was no formal archiving mechanism within the mediation structure. I felt the weight of being the custodian of these documents, as if I was not yet free of the process. With an institutional archive now established, the danger of documents being lost to history is hopefully reduced.
What purpose do you hope the archive will serve?
Vertin: Together with other sources and narrative accounts, I hope the archive might first offer South Sudanese a window into a process that sought to preserve the project — independence — for which many had so long aspired. I hope it might help to shed greater light on the choices made by the elected officials and representatives sitting at the negotiating table — choices often made absent public accountability. Likewise, I hope it will help to illustrate some of the decisions made by the mediators and their impact on the process. Hindsight has a distorting effect on such events, as the opportunities, constraints, uncertainties and intensity of the moment cannot be recreated in our individual or collective memories, much less through a trove of documents. Nonetheless, I hope this public record will provide a baseline from which to better understand South Sudan's recent history, and to inform future processes.
Verjee: Certain narratives have sprung up about the IGAD peace process in South Sudan, including, most notoriously, that the 2015 peace agreement was imposed on the parties, by a mediation with its own narrow agenda. Careful scrutiny of these archival documents will show that that narrative, though appealing for its explanatory power, is inaccurate. This is not to say that the mediation made no mistakes or miscalculations — the mediation did err frequently. But the reality is more complicated: The documentary record shows that the negotiating parties, in their own actions and positions, were the architects of the resulting agreement and its overall framework, even if they did not lay every brick of the structure themselves. For future mediators seeking to avoid past mistakes, there are plenty of lessons in this material.
Why does documenting peace processes matter?
Vertin: Mediation is a tradecraft built on lessons learned — the strategies, processes and tools developed and deployed over time in various peacemaking efforts. No two situations are alike, but mediators, negotiators and peace process supporters can draw insights from past efforts and adapt them to current circumstances. First, future peacemaking or peacebuilding efforts in South Sudan might best begin with an examination of past initiatives, as external interventions too often ignore recent and relevant history, or worse, repeat its mistakes. And second, when confronted by a new conflict in the region, or further afield, mediation practitioners might look to South Sudan, where appropriate, to inform their own choices and scenario planning — from the design of negotiations and questions of inclusivity to considerations on power sharing, security arrangements or natural resource allocation.
Verjee: Understanding peace processes often depends on personal accounts by negotiators and mediators, which are inherently limited in perspective and sometimes offered only years if not decades after the events in question, when memories have undoubtedly faded. It is notable that despite Africa being the site of many of the world’s violent conflicts, there are relatively few well documented African peace processes. The Sudan Peace Archive at Tufts University, documenting the African Union’s leadership in the Darfur peace process and the mediation between Sudan and South Sudan, which was funded by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the World Peace Foundation, is one notable exception. This new archive continues the trend, and hopefully contributes to the norm of archiving peace and mediation processes whenever they occur. Documenting peace processes may be even more important in the digital age where future practitioners and scholars have no alternative paper trail to follow; we owe it to those that come after us to leave a clear record.
For more on the South Sudan Peace Process Archive, see: