Can peace and democracy co-exist?

New book shines a light on complexities of international relations

Former UN peacekeeper Dr Izabela Pereira Watts shares her academic expertise and firsthand experiences from the field

Why do countries torn by civil war rarely emerge as robust democracies with sustainable peace? It is a question that Dr Izabela Pereira Watts has been grappling with for most of her career.

A former peacekeeper with the United Nations, Dr Pereira Watts’s experience covers the length and breadth of international relations. She brings more than 15 years’ experience in international development with several international organisations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States as well as in the public sector for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brazil. She has been on the ground during conflicts and natural disasters in Haiti, Colombia, Timor-Leste, and Ivory Coast, among others, helping to promote peace and development.

Since 2020, Dr Pereira Watts has brought her professional-academic approach to the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in subjects of Politics and International Studies. She has published a new book that shines a light on the complexities and contradictions of peace and democracy in modern times. Its scope is “very recent history”, Dr Pereira Watts explains, encompassing the post Cold-War period from 1989 to 2022.

Titled Peace or Democracy?: Peacebuilding Dilemmas to Transition from Civil Wars, Dr Pereira Watts’s book focuses on the paradoxes in democratic peacebuilding, post-conflict recovery, the challenges facing interim governments, and the role of the international community.

Izabela Pereira Watts sitting on a bench holds a copy of her new book. Photo: Michael Gray

The book tries to answer two main questions: What are the main dilemmas in seeking to mutually achieve peace, democracy, and a functional state? And what role do United Nations operations play in bringing simultaneously peace and democracy to post–civil war countries? To prevent failing states, the book proposes a tool for better decision-making by identifying probable dilem­mas between peace and democratisation in any modern post–civil war context.

“Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been an explosion of formal democratic systems, but if democracy is good for peace, why are we not living in conflict-free times?,” Dr Pereira Watts says.

“In a globalised world, the ‘fight for democracy’ cliché can also be lethal and a tool to legitimise the abuse of power or instigate potentially violent communities. Moreover, the transition phase is inherently tumultuous. It can exacerbate social ten­sions, challenge an elite’s powers, and undermine the prospects for stability in the politically fragile conditions typically existing in countries emerging from civil war.

“Promoting democracy in post-conflict or transition countries often does not prove to be successful. Not all good things go together.”

Based on an analysis of more than 40 countries and more than 60 UN peace operations, Dr Pereira Watts presents critical issues that commonly need to be addressed: elections and political parties; the Constitution; checks, balances, and power-sharing; transitional justice; human rights, amnesty, truth commissions and war crimes tribunals; disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration; and media reform and civil society.

“As if we engineer the perfect mechanic of different gears, solving any of these dilemmas leads to others that shape a complex apparatus for restoring peace and installing a new political regime in fragile states,” she says.  

With a foreword written by Nobel Peace Laureate and President of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos Horta, and endorsed by a member of the Parliament of Kosovo and UN High Officials, Peace or Democracy? cites examples such as Cambodia in the wake of the Khmer Rouge and Rwanda following the genocide as examples of nations that have attempted to rebuild after devastating conflict and dictatorships.  

“When a civil war ends, what do we put in place? How can we bring political stability and democratisation out of chaos?” asks Dr Pereira Watts.

“We have been witnessing a 16-year consecutive decline in the levels of democracies worldwide, including in the so-called consolidated democracies. But there has also been a rise in civil wars. Among several consequences, we have witnessed a rise in violence in civil wars such as in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo recently. We have reached an unprecedented number of 103 million people forcibly displaced.

“We know that in a perfect world we want to build democracy and peace. The issue is that looking closer into civil conflict, inevitably, those two forces will meet at crossroads. Thus, difficult choices must be made between peace and not-so-democratic or theoretically democratic but a resurge into violence like South Sudan. The transition period is where those dilemmas reside the most, and therefore, is the most peril. Only 20 per cent of the world’s population lives in ‘free countries’. That means that 8 in 10 people live in ‘not free’ or ‘partly free’ states, according to Freedom House. Put into perspective, this book concerns at least 1.5 billion people who live in countries of fragility and conflict.”

Dr Pereira Watts, who lectures at UOW’s Wollongong and Liverpool campuses, has spent her life immersed in the world of international relations. Born in Brazil, Dr Pereira Watts relocated to Prague, at the time Czechoslovakia, as the Velvet Revolution swept the nation. The daughter of a diplomat and Army colonel, she was surrounded by the intricacies of international relations and human rights, and had a front row seat to the changes taking place all around her.

Izabela Pereira Watts wears a blue dress against a leafy background. She is leaning against a pole. Photo: Michael Gray

The experience was incredibly formative for Dr Pereira Watts, who would go on to study a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations in Brasilia, followed by a Master in Economics and Political Science, and a second Master degree in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution from Universidad del Salvador, Buenos Aires. Her PhD by Charles Darwin University in International Relations was the genesis for Peace or Democracy?.

“My aim, as a lecturer and an author, has always been to produce and transfer knowledge to this young generation of peacebuilders. The book brings together all my research from my PhD and updated with the dynamic event of international relations, as the War in Ukraine,” Dr Pereira Watts says.

Is enforcing democracy with “guns and votes” an illusion to end wars? One of the fundamental concepts that underpin the book is the notion that democracy and peace do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Dr Pereira Watts points to the Arab Spring, the anti-government uprisings and rebellions that engulfed the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. While originally welcomed as a chance to usher in democracy, the Arab Spring instead has left a legacy in which citizens’ freedoms have been further restrained and authoritarianism has been further entrenched.

Dr Izabela Pereira Watts, wearing a blue United Nations helmet, talks to a young boy while working as a peacekeeper in Haiti. Photo: Supplied Dr Izabela Pereira Watts during her time as a United Nations peacekeeper in Haiti in 2010, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Photo: Supplied

“The past decade has offered an extended, tragic reminder of the fact that forcible state-building simply cannot be accomplished by outsiders in any sustainable or authentic way,” Dr Pereira Watts says.

“Western governments – by a messianic fantasy of bringing democracy to the world – are complicit in and culpable for an imperialist endeavour that has brought disaster to some nations, including Iraq and Libya, while liberties at home are being gradually curtailed.

“On the one hand, democracy and peace might be interrelated through consensus-building and respect for the rule of law instead of the use of force. On the other, democratic transitions are highly prone to violence and rarely result in a ‘velvet revolution’.”

While Dr Pereira Watts has always been passionate about democracy and peace, she brings a perspective that balances the humanitarian with the pragmatic.

“This is not about white doves and rainbows as an idealistic view of peace. This is not just about humanitarian aid or financial assistance for other problems.

"This is about how we can make democracy actually work and establish practical peace and vice-versa in conflict-affected nations. The world is incredibly complex and there are many contradictions. Although not a cure-for-all, the book seeks to provide an answer to those questions.”

Peace or Democracy? is an essential resource for decision-takers, policymakers, international analysts and practitioners in the field of peacebuilding that will also be of great value to students of international relations and peace studies as well as anyone interested in peacekeeping, democracy-building, and state-building.

Are democracy and peace worth dying for?

“With conflicting objectives, not all good things come together. Neither democracy nor peacebuilding are panaceas. Importantly peacebuilding and post-war democratization are simultaneous tasks contingent on the direct influence of the elites. This understanding helps to shed light on why peacebuilding missions often bring some peace, but rarely democracy, to war-torn countries,” says Dr Pereira Watts.

After civil war, law enforce­ment institutions must be developed concurrently, such as the creation of an effective police force and a criminal justice system. Similarly, political institutions, for instance, a depoliticised judiciary and an electoral commission, must also be established. Without these institutions, democracy will fail as the promise to obtain security for citizens or political rights for the warring factions will be only fallacies.

Dr Izabela Pereira Watts, wearing a blue dress with gold buttons, stands in front of a building smiling at the camera.

“From war to peace, how to bring political stability and democratisation it is not an obvious exercise. Undoubtedly, it requires an alignment of interests and factors to avoid falling into the trap of ‘electoral authoritarian regimes’ without conflict resolution. And this is precisely the essential aim of this book: to assist with an integrated approach when peace and democracy are at the crossroads,” Dr Pereira Watts says.

“Hopefully, it can also contribute to making peacekeeping a more robust, more effective, and comparatively more cost-efficient conflict resolution tool for current conflicts and avoiding failed transitions and fragile states.”

Peace or Democracy? Peacebuilding Dilemmas to Transition from Civil Wars (2023) is published by Routledge-UK.