The conference explores the potential of referendums as a means of de-escalation within violent conflicts.

Between 1948 and 2020, the United Nations conducted 71 peacekeeping missions. 13 of these missions are still active. In many of these cases, a plebiscite was held as part of the peace process, with very heterogeneous outcomes. Also, in other violent crisis situations that did not require intervention on the part of the United Nations or other external actors, ad hoc use is made of popular votes (PV) as peace-making or pacifying instruments. So far, no systematic approach can be discerned, neither at which point in the conflict process recourse is made to the instrument, nor under which conditions this leads to a sustainable pacification of the conflict.

The general point of departure of the conference is the use of PV in cases where damage to the legitimacy of the state constitutional order as a whole can be ascertained due to internal or external influences. In this context, the concept of legitimacy in the sense of Max Weber is used as a starting point: “[The] belief in legality: the docility to statutes that are formally correct and have come into being in the usual form” (Weber, 1976). In contrast to the far better researched application practice of PV within constitutional orders recognised as legitimate (such as Switzerland or the US states), little research has been done on PV as a tool to (re-)establish the belief in legality.

The aim of this conference is to identify variables that allow for a classification of when PV have been effectively used to pacify conflicts and under which conditions, if any, the conflict has been exacerbated as a result.  Specifically, this means gaining a deeper theoretical understanding and develop hypotheses regarding suitability and requirements for the implementation of PV along different variables: first the existing types of conflict issues and social cleavages, second the configuration of political actors and their resources, which enable them to promote conflicts and third a way to reach a conflict settlement by applying a framework of legitimate procedures and procedures with the ability to gain legitimacy.

An interdisciplinary approach is being pursued to holistically assess the use of PV for pacifying violent conflicts. To grasp the research question as comprehensively as possible, the conference integrates various fields of expertise including jurisprudence (especially international law), political science, peace and conflict research, as well as historiography.

Leading questions:

  • Which international legal and international framework conditions are relevant for these conflicts?
  • Under what conditions does the use of a PV as a means of conflict transformation occur within conflicts?
  • Which stakeholder constellations influence the chances of pacifying the conflict through PV?
  • Which conditions can be identified that contribute to a acceptance of the outcome, i.e. that lead to a (re-)established belief in legitimacy.

In summary:

  • Can the use of instruments of direct democracy serve as a means of pacification or peace-making? If so, under what conditions and in what form?