A New Agenda for Peace

We live in a world in which violent conflict is pervasive. Shocking statistics demonstrate the destructive impact of armed conflict: 60 million refugees and displaced people around the globe; conflict, terrorism and political instability costing the global economy 13.6 trillion US dollar, that is more than 13 percent 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. Against this background, and quarter of a century after UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 Agenda for Peace, the question arises what a new agenda for peace is in a world that is both hyper-connected and yet dangerously fragmented?

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.

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. Recently 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.

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 UN’s 1992 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.

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 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.

Furthermore, we need to recognise that supporting capacities to prevent and respond to conflict is 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.

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. 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. 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 arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe is a potent demonstration of this, as is the fact that we are witnessing tensions between counter terrorism policies and conflict prevention policies.

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. It is NOT from technical advancement alone, 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.

Jonathan Cohen is Executive Director at Conciliation Resources.

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Jonathan Cohen, Conciliation Resources

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The impulse-article is based on the keynote speech Jonathan Cohen delivered at FriEnt’s 15th anniversary on 14 September in Berlin. The full speech can be found here.