Data for Peace: Charting 30 years of human ingenuity in ending conflict


The road to peace is long and arduous, paved with pitfalls, but mapping how people have previously steered a path can inform ongoing quests for reconciliation.

An initiative charting 30 years of human ingenuity in ending conflict is impacting significantly on global efforts to shape a more secure future for thousands of citizens.

Tracking the progress of over 150 peace processes since the end of the Cold War, a database – called PA-X, a Peace Agreement Access Tool – is proving an invaluable resource.

A team of researchers at the University’s Global Justice Academy created PA-X to analyse over 1500 agreements that those processes produced – be it a ceasefire, a pledge to enter talks or a willingness to implement earlier accords. Regions riven by strife are beneficiaries of this collective wisdom.

“Any quest for peace will inevitably involve setbacks,” says Postdoctoral Research Fellow and team-member Kevin McNicholl, “and PA-X can help address these. To bring about a settlement, you need not just time and patience, but an awareness of what has worked, and failed, elsewhere.”

Scrutiny of the PA-X database shows that resolution is more likely to be achieved by taking small steps rather than one giant stride. Peace processes typically include at least three ceasefires – there were 44 in Bosnia between 1992 to 1995 alone and, in Northern Ireland, 11 deals were struck prior to the Good Friday Agreement and 21 followed it to ensure implementation.

Most deals address conflict within states – only 14 per cent are linked to inter-state strife, though settlements in Afghanistan have involved several nations and international bodies.

“We hope that PA-X will resource political imagination for emerging peace processes in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts,” says Programme Director Christine Bell.

Yet, if peace is hard to achieve, so too is defining an agreement. No formal definition exists and so – just as case law influences legal verdicts – past outcomes can shape future deals.

Professor Bell identifies three types of agreement: the first is between two warring nations, either in a single deal or a series of linked settlements, which offers a framework for peace; the second is a deal that resolves a regional conflict; and the third establishes an interim government that oversees reforms, prepares for an election and then hands over power.

“We were surprised to find that this last mode of making peace is very common and does not work very well,” says Professor Bell. “People in the interim government seldom enter it with a commitment to hand over power at the end of a pre-defined transition period.”

Uncertainty is guaranteed, but this is an endeavour born of experience. Professor Bell, previously at Queen’s University Belfast, was part of the Northern Irish peace process when she began collating agreements from around the world to inform its progress.

On arrival in Edinburgh, Professor Bell enlisted strong IT support to make these agreements easily searchable online. It was a step change that saw the fledgling Political Settlements Research Programme secure funding to study inclusion in peace processes worldwide.

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) – which sees inclusive political settlements as a vital development goal – is the programme’s main funder. Edinburgh researchers also collaborate with other mediators, governments and peacebuilding bodies while cooperating with a range of organisations within the United Nations.

“To maintain peace,” says researcher Laura Wise, “all citizens may need to be involved, not just combatants. This requires us to look beyond the central deal, to the broader opportunities for supporting inclusion at all stages of a peace process.

There is mounting evidence that broad social inclusion beyond the warring parties is paying dividends. Edinburgh research shows that a UN Security Council resolution which demands a gender perspective in negotiations will lead to more provisions for women in agreements.

With only 21 per cent of the 1500 peace deals reached since 1990 mentioning women or gender, this is pioneering work. Edinburgh researchers are also focusing on the minority groups that territorial solutions often overlook, leaving them at risk of further exclusion.

The team uses statistical analysis to identify factors that support previously excluded groups, and to identify wider trends in peace agreement data. They also use qualitative methods to gauge the value of key features such as power-sharing as a means of resolution.

Yet peace deals can only legislate for so much. “Economic factors are vital,” says Dr McNicholl, “but so too is awareness of conflict beyond the battlefield. This includes domestic violence and other gender-based violence so often ignored in peace processes.”

Analysis also reveals that settlements are increasingly multi-level, demanding that peace is reached in local, national and international contexts – an approach adopted in the wake of recent conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan.

Such scenarios are not simply rebels fighting the state, but more complex with global forces enacting so-called proxy wars at the same time. Peace deals are, necessarily, more nuanced.

These outcomes show that local agreements – until now, largely undervalued and often overlooked –  are increasingly vital. Where a national agreement is not possible, local deals can create so-called islands of peace that act as a catalyst to facilitate wider negotiation.

Yet even comprehensive deals unravel. Eleven times since 1990, agreements have come unstuck – when fighting has re-ignited, or key groups have not been included. A new database, made up solely of local agreements, will seek to address this shortcoming.

“We’re interested in two kinds of reconciliation and inclusion – between leaders who were formerly opponents, and between rulers and those they rule,” says Professor Bell.

Other projects on the horizon include a quest to explore when, and how, outside states sign agreements to support peace processes in a third country.

Researchers are also in discussions with the University’s School of Informatics to provide new, interactive visualisations of data that will help them to reach new audiences.

Whatever the future holds, the programme’s global impact has been a cause for great satisfaction; a product of refined interpretation and relentless hard work.

“No one ever just lifts clauses from another country’s peace agreement,” says Professor Bell, “but experience has taught us that settlements can inspire solutions in other contexts.”

Pa-x is publicly available at

The team of researchers involve include: Sanja Badanjak, Christine Bell, Robert Forster, Astrid Jamar, Kevin McNicholl, Kathryn Nash, Jan Pospisil, Laura Wise,  Rachel Anderson and Sean Molloy.

About the Author: Ronald Kerr is a journalist and the Head of News at the University of Edinburgh.

Image credits: Global Justice Academy/Hu Ye, Fiona Steel, Gu Ying. All Rights Reserved.