Expert Interview: Esra Çuhadar

Ottawa Dialogue’s Fall 2020 Newsletter features an interview with Esra Çuhadar, Senior Expert on Dialogue and Peace Processes at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), speaking on her most recent publication with USIP on inclusive peace processes. Our interview includes discussions of accountable representation, identifying and addressing resistance to inclusion, Çuhadar’s theory of inclusion as an intrinsic human need, and common mistakes in inclusion efforts. You may find the referenced publication here.

1. You’ve begun a new role at USIP as a Senior Expert on Dialogue and Peace Processes. What has some of the work you’ve done entailed/how have you enjoyed this role thus far?

I’m enjoying it very much there. I’ve always considered myself a scholar/practitioner – I’ve always had one foot in academic and one in practice. This new job gives me the opportunity to practice what I’ve studied and researched over the past 20 years or so. It’s exciting putting knowledge into practice; what I’ve been preaching as evidence-based practice. It also allows me to explore new areas, like the nexus between dialogue and non-violent action, it’s a new area for me but there are some exciting projects at the institute right now.

Q: And the subject of your article – i.e. inclusive peace processes – is this something you plan to continue to build on in your research at USIP?

Yes, I am with the Inclusive Peace Processes team unit, which allows me to use most of my previous research on inclusive peace processes, and my previous research on transfer – well, Track two dialogues more generally, but specifically designing transfer processes.

2. In your paper you use the phrase “accountable representation” (p. 6) when talking about enhancing the legitimacy of a negotiation process – are you able to briefly expand further on this and clarify what “accountable representation” means, and perhaps give some examples?

This concept references Franscisca Zanker. She uses it in a context where she argues that inclusion is more than including just a representative – more is needed in order to have an effective civil society inclusion. One of these conditions is that inclusion generates accountability – what she calls “accountable representation” – she sees this as necessary in order for civil society inclusion to increase legitimacy in a peace process.

3. When speaking about non-elite forms of resistance, it seems to be a bit of grey area. For example, you write about society as a locus of resistance (p. 17), sometimes in opposition to the elite. While this may be a value judgement, how do you bridge this divide between a valid civil resistance versus a mere deadlocked adversarial position? How do we avoid confusion between the two in cases where they are close?

This is just an empirical observation, no value judgments, looking into the data I had on where resistance comes from – who is resisting whose inclusion in the peace process. Sometimes, this resistance comes from a social group – ex. a social movement, not necessarily an organized group, but a societal group. Usually, this overlaps with an identity group. This identity group usually relies on an exclusionary narrative (ex. racism), which is used to resist inclusivity in a peace process. They often advocate a social and political system based on a social hierarchy, for example, a racial/ethnic/religious group, claiming superiority or dominance and justifying that they should have more access to resources, surplus value, interests in society than other excluded or sub-ordinate groups. They also resort to an ideology that justifies their superiority and social dominance. For example, a patriarchal narrative could be used to exclude women and claim that men are superior to women. Another example would be various Hindu supremacy groups over other religions and want to exclude others in peace processes. These groups, because of their long-lasting privileged status they enjoy, when there is a push for inclusion of excluded and marginalized groups, they push back. This is my empirical observation. As a facilitator or mediator, you may not like this resistance, but politically it must be dealt with. You have to find a way to also include groups who are resisting the inclusion of minorities or who are excluding these groups, and you have to make them heard and included in a peace process, otherwise these groups can act like spoilers in a peace process. On the other hand, it’s a difficult question, ethically – this is what you’re asking. It boils down to – for example, what would you do if a group was advocating a white supremacist ideology, and their vision for society is not inclusive. How do you deal with these groups? I think it depends on the tactics the groups advocate. It also depends on whether or not these groups are willing to change, or whether there are incentives that you can offer for them to change and be part of the peace process. But my observation has been that this is often an identity issue and these groups see inclusion as an identity threat. So, it becomes an existential threat for them. It’s a difficult question that doesn’t have a clear answer.

People may be used to have privilege, but they’re often not aware of the fact that this is putting others at a disadvantage. Sometimes people that are from these dominant groups, when they come to realize this privilege is at the expense or exclusion of other people, they are willing to change. But, even then, you will have some people resisting giving up their privilege, and sometimes to the extent that they can spoil the process.

Q: That’s an interesting point – when people are met with guilt, many people will feel immediately remorseful, but some people will immediately feel defensive and in denial of the possible harm they could be responsible for.

People like consistency. They are motivated to think of themselves as being accurate, they have a motivation for self-esteem too, for example. These motivations result in something called motivated reasoning. When you’re motivated to be correct or protect your self-esteem, you are going to be more likely to disregard inconsistent information. So, change is not easy, but it’s not impossible. The other thing is long-term cultural change. It’s not easy to overcome resistance in a peace process – just think about resistance against women’s participation. But we are also experiencing an incredible shift on this issue, compared to 30 or 40 years ago. So, there is an ideological and cultural transformation. This also transforms what is seen as possible in terms of women’s participation in a peace process and what is not, in comparison to a few decades ago. And sometimes this cultural transformation happens in the opposite direction – in a non-inclusive direction.

4. A key argument in this paper is that inclusion is an intrinsic human need, in addition to a mere norm or negotiation strategy. When drawing out this argument, evidence is drawn even from neurological studies (ex. p. 8) that prove this need for inclusion and its benefit in negotiations. Is this interdisciplinary analysis of peace processes and this incorporation of psychological research a growing trend in peace studies, or a method of analysis that should be wider practiced? What do you see as potential drawbacks, or things to be on guard for, of this trend? Is this something you plan on continuing in your work?

I think it’s important to make a distinction between track two or dialogue work and work on inclusion. Track two dialogue work and problem-solving workshops, and how this field/practice emerged, initially relied on feedback and research from psychologists. I come from political psychology – this has been my field of specialization. But coming to this debate on inclusive peace processes, the reason I wanted to bring in this perspective is because I haven’t seen anything in the literature on inclusion concerning social psychology/psychology even though these issues have been studied in the latter since 1970s. Psychology literature explains the need for belongingness as a fundamental human need. As I said, track two and problem-solving workshop often relies on this human needs perspective, too, which was developed by people like Kelman, John Burton, etc. I thought it was essential to bring in this perspective because in a lot of policy circles, there is a lot of talk about inclusive process but rarely asking the question of “why.” Why do we need an inclusive peace process? Just for the sake of being inclusive? No. We need it because it meets a fundamental human need – and where does this come from? As you said, there is evidence in neuroscience research showing that social exclusion hurts people to the same degree as physical pain – there is scientific evidence behind it. I thought this was very important to bring in and remind people why we need inclusion.

Q: Perhaps this is also the most digestible explanation for the need of inclusion too, as even if you’re not an expert, most people can understand empathy and fear of exclusion.

Another motivation was that looking at different methods of inclusion, you can see that it’s done in a way that has nothing to do with fulfilling this need. On paper, you might say you have an inclusive process, but when you look at how it is done, it’s not fulfilling this essential need. It’s one of those sub-optimal outcomes – sometimes it looks like inclusion but it’s actually assimilation, or it’s sometimes differentiation. So, it’s important to be aware of this “why” question and how we are including people. Are we including people in a way that meets their need for belonging, or are we including them but not fulfilling this need?

5. I found your writing on the securitization of inclusion (p. 23) to be particularly interesting. Could we also see the securitization of inclusion under implicit-elusive tactics in the case of participants confusing (either deliberately or unconsciously) a concern for security that they genuinely believe with an implicit bias against a certain group (ex. anti-Islamic sentiment in the West)? How do we distinguish this and guard against it; how do we prevent biases from becoming excuses for exclusion under the all-encompassing title of “Security”?

I use the term securitization in a very narrow sense, as it is used in securitization theory. There, the issue could be a real threat or not – it doesn’t matter. But, in normal political processes, you can argue and debate about this threat, and different parties will have different opinions, policy preferences etc. When you securitize something, you are taking it out of the political context, and putting it into a security context, where there is a priming that goes on for a lot of people. You don’t have a normal political debate anymore. A lot of people will treat it as above politics. How does this relate to resistance to inclusion? In some cases, it is sometimes used as a tactic by powerholders to end the implementation of an inclusion agenda in a peace process. Even though inclusion is a political issue, by securitizing it, they basically end the political debate and justify dealing with the issue as a security threat, ending the inclusion agenda. De-securitization and keeping these issues in the political realm is needed.

Q: In such contexts, for example, where inclusion is being securitized, the bias of the facilitator may show through, and it can potentially be difficult to navigate.

Yes, there is also mention of implicit resistance in my report. It’s difficult to deal with it because it’s difficult to observe. But, it’s also very widespread – in all aspects of life. It’s a human condition, including mediators. How do we deal with this? The common prescription is first becoming aware of these biases. You have to be very reflective – the prescription would be the good old reflective practitioner perspective. Ask yourself who you are most and least comfortable in a mediation setting – why is that? You have to reflect on these things. You may also need someone to give you feedback on this.

6. When speaking of ways to identify, prevent and address resistance to inclusion, you mention that hiring a third-party ombudsperson or offering anti-bias training can be helpful. Would this ombudsperson or this training be operated by the third-party mediator, or in addition to the dialogue mediator?

I was thinking of someone solely brought in for inclusion efforts – more of an inclusion ombudsperson, in a way. I was thinking of this person monitoring the process and giving advice to the mediators and facilitators or parties when they are faced with resistance in the process. But I have many ideas like that – different strategies and methods on overcoming resistance. But right now, they are just ideas that could be tried, and I don’t have any examples of this. This is the second phase of the research that I’m planning on doing now – looking more into the strategies people use to overcome resistance to inclusion (facilitators, mediators, conflict parties, organizations, etc.). I don’t want to say anything definitive because most of these ideas are in their infancy. This idea mainly came from international organizations that use this idea in their mediation processes. But the context isn’t a peace process. The context is more often public policy conflicts. They have ombudspersons, compliance advisors that ensure compliance with certain norms in a process. My intention in the second phase is participatory/action research. Including people who experience this kind of resistance in my research and using a participatory/action method and developing ideas to overcome resistance together with these practitioners.

Resources/Articles Mentioned:

Francisca Zanker, “Legitimate Representation: Civil Society Actors in Peace Negotiations Revisited,” International Negotiation 19, no. 1 (2014): 62–88.

Esra Çuhadar, “Understanding Resistance to Inclusive Peace Processes,” United States Institute for Peace (2020).

Esra Çuhadar

C. Esra Çuhadar is a senior expert for dialogue and peace processes at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Esra Cuhadar is an associate professor of political science at Bilkent University in Turkey, and a senior fellow at the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative in Geneva. She was a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at USIP in 2018, and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 2011–12.