Understanding the impact of geographies and space on the possibilities of peace activism

Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Cooperation and Conflict
2018, Vol. 53(4) 431 –448
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0010836717750202
Understanding the impact of
geographies and space on the
possibilities of peace activism
Birte Vogel
Current peace research has provided scholars with a range of conceptualizations of what peace is.
Further, there is a substantial body of literature on the processes used to build peace – the how
of peacebuilding. However, there is little research that examines the question of where peace and
peacebuilding occur and how these spaces shape the possibilities of non-state actors to achieve
their objectives. This article makes a theoretical and empirical contribution to the emerging
debate by sketching out the concept of peace spaces and applying it to the United Nations’
controlled Buffer Zone in Cyprus, the geographical home of inter-communal peacebuilding. To
determine how geographies impact on the possibilities of non-state peacebuilding actors, the
article focuses on three elements, specifically, on how the physical space impacts on: (a) inclusion/
exclusion of participants; (b) protection/control through elite actors; and (c) its influence on the
discourses and solutions that can be imagined. The article finds that local and international actors
alike make a clear connection between the physical space and political viewpoints, which has both
enabling and restricting implications.
Agency, civil society, Cyprus, peacebuilding, space
The Buffer Zone that divides the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot community has
many names. It is referred to as the Dead Zone, the Green Line or No-Man’s Land. It
spans from west to east of the island for a length of about 180 km. At some points, it
covers entire villages, at others it is only a few centimetres wide. While some refer to it
as a ‘corridor of death, desolation and barbed wire’ (Butor et al. as cited in Grichting,
2014: 429), it has become a space that holds the possibility of co-operation by being
home to many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), constituting a venue for inter-
communal events and providing a ‘neutral’ ground for the internationally sponsored
peace talks on an island ridden by competing territorial claims.
Corresponding author:
Birte Vogel, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester, Ellen Wilkinson
Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK.
Email: birte.vogel@manchester.ac.uk
750202CAC0010.1177/0010836717750202Cooperation and ConflictVogel
432 Cooperation and Conflict 53(4)
Scrutinizing the so-far neglected importance of physical geographies for peace studies
(for notable exceptions see Björkdahl and Buckley-Zistel, 2016; Björkdahl and Kappler,
2017; Hancock, 2017; Henrizi, 2015), this article adds the dimension of space to the
debate on non-state agency in conflict resolution. As yet, peacebuilding actors and aca-
demics lack an understanding of the importance of where encounters between the state,
the local sphere and international actors take place and why this matters. I argue that non-
state actors need spaces in which alternatives to the status quo can be imagined, discussed
and developed to fulfil their assumed function as an agent for social change. This research
discusses three elements on how space can impact on the outcome of conflict resolution
activities: (a) inclusion and exclusion of the population; (b) how the locale impacts on the
protection of non-state actors but also presents opportunities to control them; and (c) how
the chosen space influences the discourses and solutions that can be imagined. These
categories should not be understood as setting up binaries of ‘either/or’ but help us think
about where on the spectrum a particular space can be located – and what this means for
its possibilities to influence wider debates.
I call such spaces appropriated for peace activism ‘peace spaces’. Peace spaces shall
be understood as spaces where the subaltern voice, in this case the marginalized voice of
peace, can find or create a space in which to evolve and challenge hegemonic discourses
of (ethno-)nationalism or violence prevalent in (post-)conflict societies. Busteed (2005:
906) links civil resistance and geographical spaces, arguing that spaces outside the influ-
ence of hegemonic power exist in the most extreme situations and even the most authori-
tarian state cannot prevent their formation. Peace spaces transcend the idea of physical
spaces; I understand them as networked, ideological or geographical – or any combina-
tion of the aforementioned characteristics. The concept of peace spaces will be discussed
in more detail below, but their distinctive feature is that they allow for diverse identity
expression in deeply divided societies and against dominant social norms. While I argue
that their function transcends the notion of the physical, this article will nonetheless
focus on the geographical component of peace spaces.
Empirically, this article discusses the above-described United Nations (UN) Buffer
Zone, a de-militarized zone that splits the island of Cyprus in two. The case study helps
us to understand how locations enable, shape and restrict non-state actors. In particular,
this article focuses on the inter-communal movement. Cyprus’ inter-communal move-
ment refers to ‘an idea, to a mindset and to people and activities’ (Loizos, 2006: 180) that
have created the space and context for communication across ethnic lines with the aim of
facilitating conflict resolution on the island (Broome, 2004; Constantinou and Papadakis,
2001; Hadjipavlou and Kanol, 2008; Wolleh, 2002). Today, such inter-communal activi-
ties largely take place in the Buffer Zone and range from youth sport projects, cultural
events, traditional conflict resolution workshops to local, and more lately, regional con-
ferences.1 Activists did not choose the Buffer Zone randomly for inter-communal con-
tact; historically, it has constituted the only place to meet for members of the two
communities after the division of the island caused severe restrictions on crossing
between 1974 and 2003.
To further the argument of the importance of spaces for peace and conflict studies, I
will briefly discuss why physical space matters for the perception of social realities and
how we construct a connection between physical spaces and ideological ideas. It is

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