Challenges in State-Building

Post-conflict state-building is here to stay as a rule to follow when resolving and reconstructing a war-torn area. Regional organizations in cooperation with the United Nations (UN) are a promising division of labor to utilize in state-building. When any organization, be that state or non-state actors intervene in a conflict, it presents numerous challenges. This essay, using punitive and reconciliatory measures as a focus, highlights the challenges to sovereignty, the use of force, and accountability inherent to state-building as a norm in the international community.

State/nation-building as a term to describe the resolution of conflict and reconstruction of an area post-conflict is an oversimplification of the variables at play. However, for the sake of clarity, the term state-building will be used in this essay. James Dobbins et al. (2003) underpins this when describing other conflict resolution terms by saying, “we believe it comes closest to suggesting the full range of activities and objectives involved” (p. 1). Other names that include similar activities found in state-building are occupations, peacekeeping missions, as well as stabilization and reconstruction missions.

Punish and Reconcile

State-building absent military intervention, can loosely fall into the two categories and actions of punitive and reconciliatory measures. Arguably, the use-of-force can be a part of punitive measures. However, in this essay discussion on the use-of-force is contained in a separate section.

Punitive measures often take the form of tribunals or trials post-conflict. A more common term to grapple with would be the term disciplinary action. An instantly recognizable disciplinary action is the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals following WWII (Dobbins et al., 2003, p.4). Punitive measures have the specific desire to bring to justice those who have committed atrocities in a conflict. Implicitly punitive measures can act as a deterrent against continued fighting in a particular conflict, as well as a general deterrent against future conflicts. Tribunals along with trials also help to reinforce humane practices in conflict as a global norm (Ramsbotham et al., 2005, p. 241).

Reconciliatory measures are not disciplinary like punitive action and are much harder to achieve. They are more concerned with reconciling those in conflict and exposing the truth. Truth commissions are a fitting example to use for explaining reconciliatory measures. The most important factor to consider is that truth commissions do not hold trials (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2009, p. 153).  Jonathan Tepperman (2002) defines truth commissions further in saying they “allow newly democratic nations to investigate the crimes of the past, overturning the lies told by previous regimes to cover up their abuses” (p. 130).

The absence of trials is an integral part of truth commissions and has been used to both criticize and warrant their efficacy. Numerous concerns regarding how they are set-up, conducted, and reexamined plague the processes but are correctable (Tepperman, 2002, p. 144). Truth finding and reconciliatory processes are ripe with difficulties that are not easily correctable. Michael Humphrey (2003) warns that the actual victims are often hard to identify and that the state often lacks the agency to implement a commission’s recommendations (p. 178).

Even with concerns about efficacy, numerous truth commissions ranging from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996 to the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) in that same year here have taken place. Before South Africa and Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and El Salvador underwent similar commissions (Tepperman, 2002, pp. 134-139). The CEH in Guatemala was not considered a success and highlights the issues of efficacy inherent in truth commissions.

However, there is a growing dialogue showing that truth commissions do aid in reconciling those in conflict. As of 2002, Tepperman states, “racial violence is almost nonexistent” in South Africa (p. 135). The benefits of the TRC in South Africa might not be the entire reason why there is an absence of violence, but it most certainly has contributed to the reconciliation of South Africans (Tepperman, 2002, p. 136). Jacob Bercovitch and Richard Jackson (2009) solidify the importance of these measures in saying, “there is broad agreement in the literature that some kind of reconciliation and/or justice is a necessary ingredient in post-conflict reconstruction” (p. 152). As this section has shown, punitive and reconciliatory measures vary considerably and are often hard to achieve with great success.


Military interventions do occur by both state and non-state actors, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or a coalition of countries. However, collective action as Francis Fukuyama (2004) states, “has been extremely difficult to achieve” (p. 116). Using force in any conflict is risky. That risk is to a much greater degree when an outside actor intervenes militarily (Fukuyama, 2004, pp. 115-116). Thinkers like Fukuyama do opine that using force to pacify the aggression in a conflict is warranted in many situations. Ramsbotham et al. (2005) even suggest that violence must come to an end before reaching any justice (p. 241). The acute concerns with military intervention are rooted in when to execute action and the degree to which it should be applied. Equally important is the legal framework that prosecutes criminals of war.

Fukuyama argues that the Balkans would not have simmered down without the decisive intervention of the United States (US) and Croatia and that the European Union (EU) had missed the opportunity to end fighting (2004, p. 116). This highlights the strain with collective action on top of the critical concern in timing. In further detail, Fukuyama (2004) states, “European peacekeepers contributed to the problem by not being willing to fight; in places like Srebrenica, they were held hostage and needed to be rescued” (p. 116). Arguably, the EU had a much great need to act as the leader in pacifying the Balkans than the US; the Balkans are in Europe, and as a regional organization they should not have relied on one single nation.

The degree of intervention and the legal framework of prosecuting war criminals go hand-in-hand. As well, the timing of the start of the post-conflict phase is important. Kenneth Roth (2004) loosely refers to these three interchanges as the blurry lines of war and peace. When do combat-rules no longer apply and when should law-enforcement rules kick in post-conflict? The answer might seem straightforward, but it is not.

In the post-Cold War world, even what constitutes war is often of debate, let alone what is a war criminal, and when to stop prosecuting them as war criminals. The lines between law-enforcement and war are not well defined and are not typical decided upon through their public policy implications (Roth, 2004, p. 3). A classic example is how the Bush Regime post-9/11 flipped-flopped on applying law-enforcement principals and war rules depending on which suited their case in apprehending alleged war criminals throughout the war on terror (Roth, 2004, p. 5). Conversely, terrorists often do not follow agreed upon combat-rules in their practices of conflict. An excellent example of this fact is that unlike a state, a terrorist organization does not have defined borders and they are highly fluid through internationally recognized borders.

Terrorism and the post-9/11 climate has shed a bright light on old practices of war and the punitive measures implemented throughout conflict and post-conflict. Is fighting terrorism a war? Should a terrorist be prosecuted under war rules or law-enforcement rules? Are the nations where a terrorist organization reside at blame, and therefore their sovereign rights in check? The arguments on preemptive action have not been settled.

The Nation

State-building at its most basic is the intervention of an organization into a sovereign state to stop and reconcile a conflict to the benefit of the people of that state and the international community. Whether the conflict is a civil matter or an international engagement is irrelevant, other than it taking that civil war to spill over borders, be that with terrorist or refugees, to garner a reaction. However, since the end of the Cold War conflict is decidedly civil in nature.

Sovereignty has been breached numerous times in the name of state-building (Fukuyama, 2004). Moving past 2004 we have seen engagements in states like Pakistan, Ukraine, Libya, Syria, and Yemen to name a few. Humanitarian intervention by the international community is as Fukuyama (2004) says, “not just the right but the obligation to intervene” (p. 97). This is sound logic but becomes more critical having the use-of-force coupled with humanitarian intervention. Fukuyama (2004) pushes further by placing self-defense and humanitarian concerns as equals in the legitimacy for intervention (2004, p. 98).

Twelve years later, with terrorism at everyone’s front door, preemptive self-defense as a means to breach sovereignty, and implement state-building processes seems fanciful. Terrorist organizations are highly adaptable; they are high-tech, and they are fluid across borders (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2009, p. 6). As well, the international community cannot fix every failed-state or harbor a terrorist organization finds. State-building faces numerous challenges moving forward in regards to sovereignty. In fact, our entire international system has many questions on sovereignty that need new answers and not that of the Westphalian system.


Issues of responsibility in state-building arise post-conflict when the fighting has stopped and those accused need processed. This is now when the categories and actions of punitive and reconciliatory blend into concrete policies by those intervening. Accountability is a long process and in summarizing Laura Dickinson (2003) typical falls into four categories. First, legal trials and tribunals. Second, non-legal truth commissions. Third, international accountability efforts aimed at the apprehension of criminals. Finally, even through the Alien Tort Claims Act in the US allowing claims of human rights to proceed (p. 295).

Since this essay focuses on state-building and as such an intervention from outside actors, the norms, identities, and geography of players is important. At this crossroad of sorts is where external actors face the most challenges regarding accountability. The TRC in South Africa was a success, but this came to fruition only with carefully picked wording. Humphrey (2003) explains the criticism in carefully selected words by saying, “all victims to be folded into the inclusive narrative of everyone being a victim of apartheid” (p. 178). That strict wording could easily eschew the nuance and depth in ethnic identities and is arguably a form of white-washing out the details.

Norms and location are as equally important as identities when it comes to state-building. When using a court like the International Criminal Court (ICC) the site of those holding the proceedings and that of the locality of conflict are often vast. This creates numerous challenges to understanding the norms and identities of those in conflict. Dickinson (2003) backs this up by saying, “it is unclear how far this body of norms has actually penetrated both the local jurisprudence of the countries affected, and, just as importantly, the popular consciousness of local populations. Because the work of the international courts is physically remote from the countries in question.” (p. 305) Seth Kaplan (2010) continues this though when discussing the conflict in Somalia and the numerous attempts at intervention. He says, “the UN, Western governments. . . have tried repeatedly to build a strong central government. . . in reality the Somali people are divided by clan affiliation” first and foremost (p. 82).

Regardless of how far we advance as a people, distance will always distort perceptions and understanding. Particular care by those intervening in a conflict at understanding the norms and identities of the population in question is critical. There is no one method or correct answer, as unfortunate as that may be. Kaplan (2010) mentions the United Kingdom’s (UK) Department for International Development (DFID) undertaking the daunting task of understanding norms and identities. He says of this, “it increasingly seeks to understand countries through nontraditional lenses such as history, culture, power dynamics, political landscapes, incentives analysis, and institutional analysis” (p. 95). This is a gallant attempt and bridging the distance that causes distortion in understanding.

Regional Organizations

Throughout this essay, there has been loose mention of regional organizations. This section will expand upon those thoughts and make an argument for their advantages. Regional Organizations have their mandates and missions. However, the composition of the UN acts as the general model or guide to regional organizations. Bercovitch and Jackson (2009) carry this on in saying, “regional organizations – as form of international organization (IO) – have many of the same strengths as the UN” (p. 129). That would mean they suffer from similar deficits as the UN. However, outside of national organizations, there is not a body that can get as close to a locality as a regional organization. This holds true unless we reorganize societal structures.

Sarah Ancas (2010) postulates further on the benefits to regional organizations in saying they “may include previous experience in peace management in the region, already established mechanisms for conflict management, and proximity, which leads to better understanding” (p. 138). She continues in mentioning that organizations rarely align cooperation around the previously mentioned advantages (p. 139). This does complicate the efficacy of regional organizations, but it is a matter that has possible solutions.

Regional organizations also hold the potential to bridge the distance between a body like the ICC and those they seek to prosecute and protect. Alternatively, at the very least, they could alleviate much of the caseload within the ICC. Dickinson (2003) theorizes a hybrid model of international legal proceedings where external and internal legal professionals work together (p. 307). A logical place to formalize a hybrid court model is within regional organizations as they are relatively local.

Elizabeth Pond (2008) creates a novel explanation of the benefits in behavioral changes required by states seeking to enter the EU (p. 104). She says of this, “the trump card is that the Kosovar Albanians, like everyone else in the Balkans, yearn to join the EU of peace and prosperity and must be on their best behavior to qualify.” Indeed, checking the colonial aspects of behavioral changes that Pond (2008) mentions as “supervised sovereignty” is imperative (p 102). However, with a proper balance the national and regional benefits are clearly present. Arguably, a regional organization is better suited to maintain the fine line between local identity and regional norms and standards than the UN or any one particular state without falling into outright imperialism.

The premise of this essay and particular section is not to disregard the UN or undermine its authority. As well, the premise is not meant to undercut national sovereignty. Regional organizations need the foundation and legitimacy found in the UN. If we were to see another world war like that of WWII, a regional organization would have a substantial deficit in efficacy. It is true there is no agreed upon hierarchy between regional organizations, states, and the UN. It is just as true that public momentum could bring about an agreed upon hierarchy. Admittedly, that momentum is missing in the international community.


State-building is a rule of thumb when it comes to intervening in conflict of intra and interstate varieties. The challenges an outside actor face are far and wide but center on punitive and reconciliatory processes in trying to close out a conflict. Trials, tribunals, and truth commissions go far at reconciling those in conflict but have obvious faults and cautionary tales. Using force is increasingly risky and ripe with unintended consequences, such as when to stop utilizing the rules of engagement and instead use law-enforcement standards. Sovereignty, accountability, and what is war is becoming increasingly hard to achieve and understand in a world of terrorism that sees no national boundaries. The UN, Western powers, and the Westphalian model of States is in crisis and has been since the end of the Cold War and even more acutely since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Looking at conflict and conflict resolution through a regional lens will provide new alternatives that respect the norms and identities of a local population while still respecting state sovereignty and the legitimacy of the UN.


Ancas, S. (2011). The effectiveness of regional peacemaking in Southern Africa – problematising the United Nations-African Union-Southern African Development Community relationship. African Journal On Conflict Resolution11(1), 129-152.

Bercovitch, J., & Jackson, R. (2009). Conflict resolution in the twenty-first century : Principles, methods, and approaches.Ann Arbor: University of Michigaess.

Dickinson, L. A. (2003). The promise of hybrid courts. The American Journal Of International Law97(2), 295.

Dobbins, J. (2003). America’s role in nation-building : From Germany to Iraq.Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Fukuyama, F. (2004). State-building : Governance and world order in the 21st century.Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Humphrey, M. (2003). From victim to victimhood: Truth commissions and trials as rituals of political transition and individual healing. The Australian Journal Of Anthropology14(2), 171.

Kaplan, S. (2010). Rethinking State-building in a Failed State. The Washington Quarterly33(1), 81.

Pond, E. (2008). The EU’s Test in Kosovo. Washington Quarterly31(4).

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., & Miall, H. (2005). Contemporary conflict resolution: The prevention, management and transformation of deadly conflicts (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Roth, K. (2004). The Law of War in the War on Terror. Foreign Affairs83(1), 2-7.

Tepperman, J. D. (2002). Truth and Consequences. Foreign Affairs81(2), 128-145.

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