The hidden role of lawyers in giving form and structure to peace agreements

The hidden role of lawyers in giving form and structure to peace agreements: Pearson Institute & Mitchell Institute joint seminar
by Hollie ENNIS
24 May 2022

The Pearson Institute at the University of Chicago in partnership with the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast held a joint seminar: “Moving on from Conflict”. Chaired by Professor Richard English, the seminar centred on the question: “How do societies move forward once conflict has been resolved?” To discuss such a question, there were two talks: “Sounding Conflict: From Resistance to Reconciliation”, with the panel including Professor Pedro Rebelo and José Luis Falconi, and “Lawyers in Conflict and Transition”, with the panel including Professor Louise Mallinder and Professor Tom Ginsburg.

Prof. Rebelo discussed a project, “Sounding Conflict from Resistance to Reconciliation”, as an investigation of the effects of music, sound, and storytelling in conflict and post conflict communities, through evaluation of how sound is used to express experiences of violence, resistance, and peace. Evidence was gathered from three case study areas of Northern Ireland, Brazil, and the Middle East. Rebelo explained that the project was grounded within sonic theory, with our relationship with sound as fundamental to our everyday lived experience. He stressed how this is especially significant within a conflict or post-conflict context, with sound shaping perceptions and responses to the surrounding environment. 

Further, through spelling out sounds and its three key characteristics of temporality, spaciality, and modality, he emphasised how a focus on the sonic arts can enhance understanding and knowledge, as well as convey the need to rethink sound not solely as an object but rather as a phenomena, particularly within conflict and post conflict settings. Rebelo then outlined the project’s conceptual frameworks of resistance, resilience, reconciliation, and remediation, which highlight conflict conditions and are used to analyse the effects of sound on communities and their conflict narrative. He concluded by showing a snippet of an artwork created in collaboration with local Belfast-based, Tinderbox Theatre Company. The work incorporated research from the three case study places, to show sonic expressions of conflict through performative art. 

In response, Falconi proposed a thought-provoking question with regard to the issue of audience, and the issues of two audiences emerging from the work — those who contributed and those who experience the work secondhand. Rebelo acknowledged the critique that privileges do emerge in accessing and understanding the work; however, in an effort to overcome this, the work can be displayed in a variety of contexts.

Prof. Mallinder focussed on the role of lawyers in conflict and transition. The talk was based on her publication, Lawyers in Conflict and Transition, co-authored by her colleagues Kieran McEvoy and Anna Bryson (and covered previously by Shared Future News). Mallinder detailed how the research was inspired by living and working in Belfast and the context that the city provides to the role of lawyers within conflict and transition; this left them with a hunger to discover how lawyers engage in other places. Their research centred on interviews conducted with lawyers and significant commentators from six case study sites, including Cambodia, Chile, Israel, Palestine, South Africa, and Tunisia. Mallinder and her colleagues’ work is set apart from other scholarship, as their research focussed on undemocratic settings and on the experiences of domestic lawyers.  Quoting Paul Wranger, she summed up the key dilemma: “All lawyers will at some stage face a choice of whether to retreat into their role of law expert and leave consideration of justice or assessment of social facts to others. Or whether they should step outside their role as technician and engage in ethics and politics beyond the law.” Therefore, do they see themselves as solely legal technicians and drafts persons or do they have agency? Mallinder argued that such tension impacts the ability of lawyers to influence the content of any peace agreement in their jurisdictions.

Their research project interviewees highlighted advantages for purely technical lawyering, including the curation of neutral spaces that allow negotiations to come together to resolve issues in a legal language that transcends the political and social realm. Lawyers as drafters  hold influence in shaping the content of a final peace agreement, “as political leaders often provide an ambiguous ‘yes’ to the agreement it is lawyers which decide how to exactly spell ‘yes.” However, Mallinder added that such a role is limited by the ability of negotiating parties to agree on the law and meaning of legal concepts, which is often a stalling issue in conflict and transitional societies. Therefore, lawyers who work solely in technician terms are limited in their role, as law cannot always provide widely accepted answers. In contrast, other lawyers may build upon legal activism and use law as a vehicle for social change. However, despite how lawyers perceive or present themselves due to the uncertainties in domestic and international law, negotiations are not necessarily geared towards compliance with universal standards, but rather they can serve as political compromises in which power imbalances and ideology shape the law and its application.

Mallinder concluded by emphasising the hidden role of lawyers in agreements, stating that although the politicians shake hands in front of the media, “It is the lawyers who give form and structure yet they are rarely seen.”

Prof. Ginsburg built upon Mallinder’s talk by arguing that we now live in the era of the “judicialisation of politics and trade”. Law is now more present and important than ever, he claimed. Ginsburg presented the final question of the seminar — enquiring on the ethical dilemma of who is exactly the client? If you have an underlying population being disserved by two warring factions, to what degree should the lawyers collectively view their role to achieve peace or to serve the clients that hired them? Mallinder responded that this again reflects the dilemma of perception. Are lawyers there to serve the governmental institutions or act as civil servants to serve the public interest? She notes how within her research she found a variety of responses that fit into both sides of the dilemma. 

With regard to moving on from conflict, the talks and discussion within this seminar displayed how the use of sonic art can serve as a means to understand the experiences of violence and conflict. It also served to highlight the important role that lawyers play in regards to the framing and content of peace agreements and the transition process, but also the ethical and identity dilemmas which accompany their involvement. 

Image: Photo by Andrew Butler on Unsplash

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