Governments and international organizations engaged in peace mediations across the world are frequently confronted with the dilemmas of whether the public should be consulted at critical junctures for the peace process and if so how. Conventional wisdom assumes that the people should be directly engaged in peace processes whenever they face important decisions. By extension, peace settlements should be more effective and sustainable when bolstered by widespread expressions of public support. Successful referendums are described in the peace and conflict literature as adding legitimacy and durability to a negotiated settlement. In the cases of South Africa (1992) and Northern Ireland (1998) referendums have been viewed as facilitating peace settlements by engaging broader segments of the society and limiting the role of violent opposition groups. Moreover, successful peace referendums could be special moments in the development of peace settlements–a litmus test of a society’s capacity to overcome deep divisions and to bring forward new political dynamics.
At the same time, evidence from conflict-ridden societies suggests that the merits of referendums should not be overstated. Referendums could fail, even under promising conditions, as in the Colombian peace process or inflame already unstable ethnic relations as suggested in East Timor and demonstrated in the cases of Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, and Crimea. Empirical evidence suggests that only a handful have so far been successful while “illegitimate or wrongly designed” referendums could inadvertently turn into conflict-inducing rather than conflict-mitigating opportunities (e.g. Iraq). Even when they aim to facilitate positive political transformation, referendums might have unintended side effects by excluding important groups (e.g. minorities, vulnerable groups or the diaspora) or by creating opportunities for protest vote.
The two-day conference in Nicosia will aim to address these debates and to present a new conceptual map in the study of referendums and their impact in peace mediations drawing on experts’ views particularly in the comparative analysis of public opinion surveys, communication strategies and alternative institutional designs. Quintin Oliver, the event’s keynote speaker, is a leading international conflict expert and the director of Stratagem International www.StratagemInt.com. He has previously served as the Chairman of the “YES Campaign” during the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement referendum in Northern Ireland.