A New Agenda for Peace

by Jonathan Cohen, Executive Director of Conciliation Resources

Presented to FriEnt 15th Anniversary “Together for Peace and Development”
14 September 2016, Berlin

Ladies and Gentlemen, we live in a world in which violent conflict is pervasive. You are no doubt familiar with the shocking statistics that demonstrate the destructive impact of armed conflict, let me cite just two: 60 million refugees and displaced people around the globe; conflict, terrorism and political instability costing the global economy $13.6tn, that is more than 13% of the gross world product. We all know that violent conflict impedes sustainable development, exacerbates extreme poverty and inequality, violates human rights and undermines justice. Violent conflicts breed societies in which the value of an individual life is degraded. This pushes us to ask how are we going to get to a place of conflict transformation and peace if we don’t regain an appreciation for our common humanity? We struggle with idealism and realism in undertaking our work, but we risk being desensitised to the scale and severity of the problem of violent conflict.

What, therefore, is a new agenda for peace in a world that is both hyper-connected and yet dangerously fragmented? In which the dissatisfaction with the status quo within the EU, as evidenced by the rise of left and right wing movements such as Syriza, Podemos, UKIP and Alternative für Deutschland, is dangerously accompanied by a tendency to scapegoat the other? A world in which the consequences of Western foreign policy decisions over the past decade and a half mean that foreign policy is coming home in ever more direct ways - the million people Germany has generously received this past year demonstrates this in an extraordinary way. Violence inspired by radical ideological and religious ideas, and the fear of it spreading into Europe through acts of terrorism, challenges us to ask what it means to be secure and insecure. And our relative affluence is a stark contrast to that of most people globally who have to ask questions about security in much more fragile circumstances. We should not forget where insecurity really lies - almost 80% of deaths from terrorism last year occurred in only five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.

This is indeed a good time to ask what a new agenda for peace could look like. So I would like to thank FriEnt for the invitation to present my thoughts on this.

I would like to suggest five elements that our agenda for peace should encompass – and in truth this is not a new agenda for peace, these are things we have long known:

  1. Firstly it should be an agenda for peace that addresses the root causes of violent conflicts that perpetuate insecurity, 
  2. Secondly, one that does not allow peacebuilding to become a hostage to securitisation; 
  3. Thirdly, one that finds coherence in how multiple peacebuilding actors – in governments, multilateral agencies and civil society - use the diverse tools at our disposal in more coordinated and complementary ways; 
  4. Fourthly, it should be an agenda that finds a creative and empowering balance in the relationships between those who experience violence directly and those, like us in this hall, who seek to work with them in preventing violent conflicts and transforming conflicts into opportunities for development.
  5. And finally it needs to be an agenda that moves beyond short-term crisis response and short-term investment. Meaningful peacebuilding and conciliation requires long-term commitment to both processes and to people immersed in conflict, not one-year grants. It also requires a commitment by us to be reflective practitioners, open to learning from our experience and being changed by it ourselves.

Allow me to recall that it is almost 25 years since UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali launched the UN’s Agenda for Peace. With the Cold War ending it was a time of hope that humankind could achieve the fundamental objective of the UN, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The Agenda for Peace was a powerful statement, seeking to define preventive diplomacy, peace-making, peace-keeping and post conflict peace-building in an era initially characterized by optimism and possibility.

Conciliation Resources was established soon after the Agenda for Peace. The organisation has framed its work around the notion of accompaniment to those engulfed by violent conflicts, those who are striving to chart multiple paths to peace. Like many we have had to evolve and respond to shifting conflict challenges and developments in our understanding of peacebuilding.

As Director of a peacebuilding NGO supporting local actors living through violent conflict I ask what does an agenda for peace look like to the people with whom we work in such societies? These are courageous people exploring peacebuilding opportunities in a world that is more connected but also working in contexts where governments are frequently reducing the space for civic action. Two days ago I sat with colleagues from Kashmir, where for the past two months a curfew has been in place. They are working across the Line of Control that divides them in areas of trade, education and political dialogue to build confidence that a different future is possible. They reflected that their agenda for peace is predicated on solidarity and the partnerships that give them the space to work for peace. Furthermore, they eloquently stated that without addressing the social and political aspirations of people affected by violent conflict, lasting peace cannot be achieved.

Acknowledging what civic actors, not to mention affected people, do and could do to promote peacebuilding was not something one found in the 1992 Agenda for Peace. It was a statement of its time. Conflict was defined as between states, indeed usually between two parties, not as it has more often been experienced since, within states and among multiple parties; mediation was patriarchal, to be undertaken by “an individual designated by the Security Council, the General Assembly of the Secretary General”. It saw the challenges in a sequential light and defined a linear response that belies the messiness of conflict and its transformation with which we are increasingly familiar. And while the Agenda for Peace defined the multiplicity of challenges to be addressed by States, societies, communities and the contribution of non-state actors were absent.

The peacebuilding potential of local people in conflict contexts is one of the most significant lessons of Conciliation Resources’ twenty years’ engagement in supporting peace, yet the Agenda for Peace made only one passing reference to this.

Clearly the Agenda for Peace’s top down approach perceived engagement in peace through a much narrower lens than we perceive it today. And it was blind to the gendered nature of conflict and to the roles women play and could play in building peace – UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was several years off. Our work in the Philippines, where a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2014 after 40 years of war in Mindanao has shown the major contribution of women peacebuilders, as well as the value of applying a gender lens to understanding the conflict, to address some of the power structures and imbalances that underpin the conflict dynamics.

The peace agreement in the Philippines, notwithstanding its fragility, is one of a number of agreements reached through negotiation rather than military victory since the early 1990s. Agreements in Northern Ireland and Nepal, Myanmar and Colombia give hope that complex conflicts can give rise to negotiated political settlements. They demonstrate that peace processes are neither a quick fix nor a panacea, after all a third of peace agreements break down and relapse into violence. These achievements remind us that the quality of an agreement is only as good as its implementation.

As peacebuilders we can learn from such contexts, but we must also learn from contexts that demonstrate the persistence of conflict. Major interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have not achieved their aims and are part of a litany of long standing conflicts that experience persistent violence - South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestinian territories, Kashmir, southern Thailand to name a few. And other contexts that were presumed stable – such as Syria and Ukraine - have broken down and are unleashing forces and dynamics that are spilling across regions and might well define the next half-century. The reality is that despite many successes we are still struggling to frame how to support sustainable peace in ways that go beyond temporary stabilisation.

In this light if we want the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals to be meaningful and not confined to paper there are indeed many challenges that have to inform our renewed commitment to an agenda for peace. I see three key peacebuilding challenges to be addressed:

  1. Firstly, the capacity of people affected by conflict is too often ignored, yet models developed and supported primarily by external actors have been shown to be inadequate. Let’s not romanticise the local, but let’s also recognise that pioneers of peace come from communities experiencing violence. Working in the Central African Republic over the past four years we have seen Local Peace Committees take on roles as mediators and provide spaces to resolve inter-communal conflict amidst extreme violence and insecurity. The Nobel Prize-winning Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet that established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war is a striking example of people driving a process to prevent escalation. What is our role in enhancing the efforts of such actors to build peace? 
  2. A second challenge is that peace interventions are too narrow – official negotiations are essential to end fighting but they are never sufficient to secure and sustain the peace. Elite talks produce exclusive outcomes. Complementary tracks and paths are needed to facilitate more inclusive political transition out of violence. Inclusivity has rightly become a critical dimension of the work of peacebuilders and development practitioners alike. The agreement signed last month in Colombia is an example of innovative approaches to inclusion, for example in the way it brought victims to the negotiations table. But we should consider whether the classic design of peace talks is inherently excludes issues and people who are not wielding arms. Can we consider different formats, multiple and interconnected paths to peace?
  3. Thirdly we face the challenge that prevailing responses to armed conflict remain reactive and securitised – they prioritise military or overly technical statebuilding approaches. The rise in ‘violent extremism’ only increases the temptation to resort to and rely on security, military and counter-terrorism strategies. Yet the more we do so, the more we undermine painstaking conflict prevention efforts and inhibit space for negotiated political solutions. And the more we constrain the space to include groups like the FARC or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, from Colombia and the Philippines respectively, from the struggle for peace.

These are not challenges that the UN, states or societies alone will resolve. Connecting our engagements across levels and actors is critical to our success. 

As we await a new UN Secretary General we must acknowledge that however enlightened the UN architecture becomes, and following various reviews it has greater capacity and potential, it will continue to be caught between the often irreconcilable national positions of its member states that in turn lead to a persistent erosion of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN system in general. The UN must unite nations and people as well as states to be a truly effective force for peace; but states must live up to the responsibility that membership bestows upon them.

Tensions that bedevil the UN system are played out in our comprehension of what peacebuilding offers. While it might seem evident that building peace in any context is a political endeavour, the peacebuilding field has in many ways developed apolitically. Since the Agenda for Peace the focus has all too often been on supporting institutional and individual capacities for building peace through training and skills development, of actors within contexts and also those coming from outside, such as mediators, government employed conflict advisers or non-governmental practitioners. This is important but we need to recognise that supporting capacities to prevent and respond to conflict is also very much about the relationships between key stakeholders in a conflict setting. Paying attention to these in how we design capacity building programmes matters. Strong states and societies are not just about the technocratic capacity of their institutions but are shaped by the relationships and interests that underpin them. This requires honest engagement with domestic political realities and being realistic and aware of where power lies. It means ensuring that there is sufficient political and conflict analysis within our programming.

This requires us to rethink formulas for transitions to peace. It does not follow that peace will flow from a peace agreement. It does not follow that democratic and accountable governance will flow from national elections. It does not follow that armed groups will disband following a DDR process. Understanding the politics that can undermine any of these formulas (and revisiting the formula themselves) is needed.

Yet, current donor frameworks and approaches are not necessarily equipped to deal with the implications of this. In part they are too inflexible. But we also need to be more aware of how donor interventions themselves have political impact – and how different agendas can be contradictory. For example, work seeking to engage armed groups and find pathways out of violence for them, has demonstrated that we need to review the effectiveness of a sanction such as proscription - this is counter productive as a tool to pull coercive actors away from violence. We need to be conscious of the side impact on third parties supporting peace processes and addressing the humanitarian needs of affected populations as well. The utter confusion of Syria amply demonstrates this contradiction.

We need to recognise how foreign policy driven by domestic political considerations can sometimes be at odds with laudable and on-going conflict prevention and conflict resolution efforts by one and the same government - if one is not to counteract the other, there needs to be coherence between political and technical approaches. One recent example has been the controversy in the UK over its support to Saudi Arabia and the latter's role in Yemen. I mentioned how foreign policy is coming home; well the tension between counter terrorism policies and conflict prevention policies demonstrates this.

In attempting to transform a critique into a renewed agenda I am conscious that there is a wealth of knowledge, ideas and practice to draw on. In the last two years alone, Conciliation Resources, like many others and in collaboration with others, has drawn on it peacebuilding experience to put forward oral submissions to the UN high level review on peace operations; made a submission to the Global Study on Women Peace and Security; contributed to and endorsed a multi-agency and civil society 'peace promise' ahead of the World Humanitarian summit this year; contributed to European Peacebuilding Liaison Office’s submission on the EU Global Security Strategy and most recently to the Mediation Support Network’s letter to the incoming UN Secretary General.

Reviewing the many good ideas in these messages brought home to me that there is no shortage of cumulative learning, knowledge and technical proficiency. We can never be complacent that we as a community of actors know enough. Certainly we can continually improve – deepening our comparative experience of what works and what doesn’t in peace processes and peacebuilding more widely should be an integral part of what we all do. We need to get better at measuring and understanding our results and impact.

But this in itself is not a new agenda for peace; this is the responsible conduct of any profession. What does provide a new agenda for peace is not the technical competence, but the way we apply it, the spirit we bring to our work, the awareness that cumulative and significant change demands individual and collective endeavour that is bound by generosity and solidarity; endeavour that is both challenging and open to challenge; that is patient in the painstaking accompaniment of change and impatient that it is too slow; that draws on compassion but is bold in the execution of vision; that pays microscopic attention to the quality of the relationships involved in our work.

Above all we must be cognizant of the personal qualities that we as outsiders as INGO representatives, lawyers, researchers, officials and diplomats, mediators, police advisers, consultants or deployed experts, bring to building peace. We are stakeholders and we influence conflict dynamics in contexts of fragile relationships and broken trust. Do we have the patience, humility, empathy and emotional intelligence to undertake the work that needs doing? Do we pay sufficient attention to how our organisations operate and contribute to transformation? Or are we too often chasing funds and meeting new donor criteria?

If we want an agenda for peace to be impactful we have to navigate the politics of the contexts in which we work; we have to convince our donor partners of our independence and that we are not implementers; and we have to be attentive to the bureaucracy of donor demands, which rightly strive for accountability. At the same time we must not lose sight of the aspirations of those people whose experience of conflict is most intimate and whose need for change is most urgent. We have to be humble about our roles as enablers and supporters of change, conscious of our own status, influence and responsibility, as well as realistic about the degree to which we as outsiders can “build just, inclusive and peaceful societies”.

So let me leave you with this thought: that it is NOT from technical advancement, that a new agenda for peace will emerge. If we want to reach the aspiration of goal 16 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, we do need to improve our technical approaches and ensure that these are sensitive to the political implications of our engagement as civil society and government actors. But let me suggest that we look in the mirror, and ask ourselves what it really takes to be effective peace builders ourselves. The answer to this question will decide and define an agenda for peace that contributes to just and sustainable development around the world.

Thank you!