Peace referendums', which seek to manage conflict between warring groups, are increasingly common. Yet they remain erratic forces—liable as often to aggravate as to resolve tensions. A new book – Deliberative Peace Referendums, OUP 2021 – argues that, despite their risks, referendums can play useful roles amid armed conflict. Drawing on a distinctive combination of the fields of deliberative democracy, constitutional theory and conflict studies, and relying on comparative examples (eg, from Algeria, Colombia, New Caledonia, Northern Ireland, Papua New Guinea, and South Africa), the book shows how peace referendums can fulfil their promise as genuine tools of conflict management.
Launch of Deliberative Peace Referendum book
The appeal of constitutional referendum as legitimating tools revolves around their participatory promise. Recent work has also argued in favour of referendums’ potential as deadlock breaking and even peacemaking tools in divided and post-conflict societies. This paper investigates a not uncommon scenario that plays out in such instances: referendum boycotts. One or several of the key players in the polity may call for a referendum boycott in order to block or delegitimise the peacemaking or constitutional change reform process. The international community itself may see a boycotted referendum as evidence of the process’s lack of democratic credentials. This paper draws on comparative practice to investigate the questions raised by boycotted referendums and options to avoid or manage boycotts, as well as how boycotted referendum results are to be interpreted. The backdrop to this investigation is a possible ‘border poll’ on Irish unification and the risk of a boycott therein.
Referendums are regularly defined as being directly democratic. Indeed, the term ‘direct democracy’ is often used synonymously with referendums. The label ‘direct democracy’ is used to make two different types of claims about referendums: (i) descriptive claims about what referendums are; and (ii) normative claims about how their use is justified. This article challenges the treatment of referendums as devices of direct democracy both in theory and in practice. I argue instead that referendums should be theoretically and practically understood as processes that provide direction to representatives. Indeed, one consequence of my argument is the broader claim that the term ‘direct democracy’ is generally misleading. In a contemporary context, all democratic processes are—at least in part— representative.