By Nancy Kolsti
The longer a civil war lasts, the less likely either side is to win. T. David Mason, Johnie Christian Family Peace Professor at the University of North Texas, says past statistical research on more than 140 civil wars finds strong evidence for this.
In a study published in the June 2012 issue of Civil Wars applying the findings to the war in Iraq, Mason points to the possibility of a negotiated peace settlement among insurgent groups, militias and the Iraqi government, encouraged and enforced by a multinational peacekeeping and peace-building mission.
"However remote the prospects for negotiating an end to the conflict and building sustainable peace, there are far more precedents over the last 20 years to give us hope for this option," he says. "And a well-crafted peace settlement would be preferable to the alternative outcomes to that war."
Mason is one of nine UNT faculty members who are using statistical and computational methods to identify factors that influence political violence and human security. They conduct their research as part of the Castleberry Peace Institute -- the only peace science research institute in the southern U.S.
Directed by Mason, it was founded in 2010 with the nonprofit organization Peacemakers Inc., created by retired journalist Vivian Castleberry. It sponsors research and educational programs on the causes and consequences of war and peace, democratization, economic development and respect for human rights.
The emphasis on peace studies in UNT's Department of Political Science goes back to 1998, when the university created the Johnie Christian professorship. Christian was a peace activist whose estate endowed the position.
The late Steven Poe, the first political science faculty member to hold the professorship, created the department's interdisciplinary minor and certificate programs in peace studies in 2000, making UNT the first university in Texas and the Southwest to offer the minor. Graduates work in foreign service, international and human rights law, the Peace Corps and other organizations promoting human rights and conflict resolution.
To build on its existing strengths in peace studies, UNT formed the Human Security, Democracy and Global Development research cluster, housed in the Castleberry Peace Institute. The cluster also includes economics and geography faculty who study poverty, economic development, global health and international trade.
Their work puts UNT among the top 10 U.S. universities for peace science research when considering faculty quality and number of articles in peer-reviewed journals, says Idean Salehyan, associate professor and coordinator of the cluster. In 2011-12 alone, cluster faculty published 36 articles.
Many of the researchers study factors that lead to the onset of civil and international war and factors that contribute to an earlier, less destructive resolution and more durable peace. Faculty also create research tools to statistically analyze these factors.
For example, Salehyan and former faculty member Cullen Hendrix developed the Social Conflict in Africa Database to study the link between environmental factors and political instability in African nations.
Their research is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, which they received as associates of the Climate Change and African Political Stability Program at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. The database provides information on more than 8,000 incidents of political instability from 1990 to 2012.
Salehyan and Hendrix discovered that changes in rainfall influence the prevalence of social conflict in African nations. In recent decades, conflicts -- from small disputes between citizens over land rights to full civil wars -- were more common in either extremely wet or extremely dry years rather than in years with normal rainfall. Violent social conflicts, such as riots and civil wars, have been more common in extremely wet years.
Salehyan notes that forecasts predict more rainfall variability for Africa in the future, raising the possibility of an increased number of conflicts. The research was published in 2012 in the Journal of Peace Research.
Associate professor Michael Greig used a different database -- 46 post-war peacekeeping missions since the end of World War II -- to understand conditions that affect the length of peacekeeping missions. He discovered that peacekeepers are likely to stay longer if the conflict resulted in a large number of refugees, and peacekeeping missions with security mandates and set objectives also tend to be longer term.
"Peacekeepers are more likely to continue the mission as the costs and risks of peacekeeping diminish. If major powers in the U.N. are not supportive of a peacekeeping mission, it is likely to end quickly without the objectives being reached," says Greig, who charted and analyzed mediation efforts for post-World War II conflicts for the book International Mediation, published in 2012.
The research of UNT's peace studies faculty has attracted students from across the country. Doctoral student Angela Nichols was an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University when she read UNT professor James Meernik's research on societal peace in Bosnia and the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, or ICTY. Nichols worked as a Serbian and Croatian linguist in the U.S. Army from 1999 to 2004.
"Although I wasn't deployed to the region, I worked on military intelligence missions related to the conflict," she says. "I was planning to be an international human rights attorney, but after I read Dr. Meernik's research, I wanted to work specifically with him."
For her doctoral dissertation, Nichols is researching the role of transitional justice in post-conflict societies. In 2009, she visited the ICTY in The Hague, Netherlands, as part of the International Law, Peace and Justice class taught by Meernik and associate professor Kimi King.
Meernik and King have been conducting research on the ICTY since 2001. They are currently working with the ICTY Victims and Witnesses Section to examine the impact on the witnesses of testifying at an international tribunal, through interviews with 200 to 250 ICTY witnesses.
"Many believe the experience of testifying has a healing effect on victims and witnesses, but that has never been tested with rigorous empirical analysis so we don't know for certain this is the case," Meernik says.
"We also want to investigate the opinions of those who have testified before the ICTY regarding its impact on peace, justice and reconciliation in the region."
In addition to working with Meernik, Nichols researched women's roles in post-conflict societies with assistant professor Jacqueline DeMeritt and Eliza Kelly, who was then an undergraduate international studies major.
The research received financial support from the Boone Family Foundation of Dallas as part of DeMeritt's 2011-12 fellowship with the Texas Project for Human Rights Education. Salehyan was named a fellow of the prestigious program for 2012-13.
Specifically examining the impact of female political leadership, women's presence in the labor force and the ratio of female-to-male literacy rates, DeMeritt, Nichols and Kelly looked at the duration of peace following civil wars in 76 nations from 1975 to 2003.
The analysis showed that nations with greater female representation in legislatures and more equal male-to-female literacy ratios are less likely to relapse into civil war than other nations.
"We know from other studies that women tend to prefer peaceful policies over violent ones. When women are elected, they represent the women in their constituency, and they appear to stand up for what those women believe," says DeMeritt, who next plans to examine the effect of female representation on ongoing genocides.
Mason says providing international leaders with evidence-based solutions to prevent political violence, improve governance and address global poverty is the goal of peace science research at UNT.
"We're not in the advocacy business, and we're not philosophers for peace," he says. "We're committed to peace studies as a science, and government organizations are paying more attention to what we're discovering."
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