Can New Sustainable Development Goals Add Firepower to the War on War?

A solider shakes hands with a man at a vegetable garden irrigated with funding from the French army. Gao, Mali, May 30, 2015. (Phillipe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the last few years, the war on war (to borrow a phrase coined by scholar Joshua Goldstein) has moved in the wrong direction. After decades of progress, the last three years have seen an upswing of both armed conflict and violence against civilians around the world. This has been accompanied by an unprecedented crisis of global displacement and significant deterioration of human wellbeing in conflict-affected areas. To address the challenge, the international community needs to find the energy, strategy, commitment, and resources to prevent armed conflict, and protect populations and rebuild states and societies when it does occur.

By including the reduction of all forms of violence among the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations’ member states might well be laying the groundwork for doing just that. Like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them, the SDGs don’t provide all the answers, but they do signal the world’s priorities and expectations, set benchmarks against which we can judge progress, and sound the starting gun for a concerted global effort. Reducing violence is now one of those goals.

The relationship between development practice and armed conflict has long been vexed. On the one hand, peace and development are intrinsically linked. Not only is armed conflict perhaps the single greatest inhibitor to economic development—so much so that it is sometimes referred to as “development in reverse”—sustained economic growth is closely associated with significantly higher chances of peace.

In that context, it is hardly surprising that East Asia has performed relatively strongly in implementing the MDGs given its “long peace” stretching back to 1979, in which time it has experienced no interstate conflict and sharp declines in both civil war and one-sided violence. At the same time, equally unsurprising is the fact that the lowest performing countries on the MDGs are either conflict-affected (e.g. the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Afghanistan) or experience endemic societal violence (Papua New Guinea).

Since 2011, Syria has moved from being among the better performers to being among the worst, thanks entirely to the civil war there. Empirically speaking, then, there is no doubt whatsoever that winning the war on war is an essential component of winning the war on poverty—and vice versa. Simply put, achieving the MDGs has exerted significant downwards pressure on armed conflict, while reducing armed conflict significantly increases the chances of positive movement on development. This relationship has been well understood by the UN Development Programme, the World Bank, and other leading development agencies for at least two decades.

Yet, despite this, there has traditionally been strong political resistance, especially in the UN context, to linking international development efforts to the pursuit of international peace and security. In the context of negotiating the SDGs, which will be adopted this September, states such as Brazil, India, and China argued that including a “peace goal” would blur the lines between economic development and security and encourage the UN Security Council to interfere in General Assembly business. They also conveyed that the connection between peace and development was spurious since there was no direct causal link between underdevelopment and any specific conflict and because many underdeveloped nations are peaceful. China and Russia also objected to including “peace” in the SDGs, but on the somewhat different grounds that it would potentially expand the Security Council’s agenda, something that both are keen to guard against as far as possible.

While recognizing the connections between peace and development, some development analysts have also questioned the wisdom of including “peace,” in some form, as an SDG.  They worry that it might draw financing away from core economic and social goals to national security-related objectives, such as counterterrorism. But bitter experience has shown us that investing in economic development without also investing in peace is simply throwing good money after bad. Critics also contend that international peace and security is already well-served by the Security Council and does not require the additional impetus of the SDGs. Sadly, the council’s lamentable record on Syria suggests that it does not always serve international peace and security well. It surely makes much more sense to mobilize the whole UN system to the service of peace—that was, after all, the entire organization’s founding purpose.

Because of these, and other, objections, to date the international community’s development goals have been pursued without specifically related action to tackle arguably the most significant barrier—armed conflict.  The SDGs promise to change all that.

In its May 2013 report, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons established to lay a pathway to the SDGs and chaired by the heads of government of Indonesia, Liberia, and the United Kingdom, concluded that armed conflict “must be tackled head-on.” It suggested that a commitment to building peace was among the five transformative shifts needed to advance efforts to eradicate poverty.

“Peace” and good governance should be recognized as “core-elements of well-being,” the panel argued, and not seen as optional extras. The panel insisted that “freedom from conflict and violence is the most fundamental human entitlement, and the essential foundation for building resourceful and prosperous societies.” To achieve this, it recommended that the General Assembly adopt, among 12 proposed SDGs, the goal of ensuring stable and peaceful societies. Crucially, the panel suggested that this include reducing the number of violent deaths per 100,000 people by a specific number and a commitment to eliminating all forms of violence against children.

Not surprisingly, the recommendation proved controversial. Several governments voiced their concerns. Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement indicating that it strongly opposed what it called the “artificial politicization” of the post-2015 agenda “by including items that do not belong to the sustainable development concept,” including “peace-building” and the rule of law. China also voiced its concerns, arguing that peace and governance were political rather than economic goals. But China was less adamant than Russia. Indeed, Chinese leaders have frequently recognized the interconnectedness of peace and development. In 2013, foreign minister Wang Yi told the General Assembly that “In advancing the development agenda, we must cherish peace as we do our eyes. War has made tens of millions of people homeless, reduced infrastructures to rubble, and brought decades of hard work to nought. To uphold peace is the purpose of the UN Charter as well as the precondition for the MDGs.

The idea of including peace as an SDG was supported, though, not just by the global North, which recognized that aid effectiveness was conditioned by peacefulness, but also by a coalition of conflict-affected (such as Timor-Leste), least developed countries (led by Benin), and sub-Saharan African countries. If anything, the African Union’s common position on the post-MDGs development agenda contained an even stronger commitment to peace and security than advanced by the UN’s High-Level Panel. Not only did AU governments recommend that the agenda “give adequate attention” to “peace and security,” they also make two specific commitments: (1) to tackle the root causes of armed conflict, and (2) prevent the outbreak of armed conflicts. Other pivotal governments, such as Indonesia, also supported the move.

The substantial support for the inclusion of peace in the SDGs prevented its opponents from painting the issue as a “North-South” issue and ultimately ensured that peace would be included among the goals. Thus, SDG 16, agreed by state delegates earlier this month, is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

As often happens, the process of negotiating the SDGs led to the addition of more issue areas and the fine-tuning of language. Unsurprisingly, the High-Level Panel’s recommendation for a clearly worded commitment to “ensure stable and peaceful societies” had to be revised to secure consensus. Most obviously, the nature of the commitment was somewhat downgraded from “ensuring” to simply “promoting” and the phrase “stable and peaceful” was equivocated as “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.” The other emendation added to the final agreed text—“provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”—may help to strengthen the goal. Looking beyond armed conflict, it is worth noting that both of these goals—justice for all and accountable/inclusive institutions—have featured amongst the Secretary-General’s list of recommendations for the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, to shield populations from atrocity crimes.

The devil is often in the detail, but in this case much of the virtue that is in the detail. What has been agreed by member states through the SDGs could signal a transformation in the way the UN approaches conflict and development. For, among the agreed sub-goals are the two principal aims proposed by the High-Level Panel: (1) significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere, and (2) end the abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.”

The reference to “all forms of violence” is especially significant and welcome, for that encompasses all forms of violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence. Indeed, Goal 5 includes the specific objectives of ending “all forms of discrimination against women and girls” and eliminating (yes, eliminating) “all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres.”  Returning to Goal 16, on “peaceful societies,” it is also important to note that the two headline goals are supported by other specific goals: to promote the rule of law and, more directly, ensure equal access to justice for all; to significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows; to strengthen national institutions to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime; and to promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws.

The SDGs have already been criticized for being too expansive and ambitious. But that is precisely their objective—to set aspirations and challenge the world to accomplish what many think cannot be done. If the MDGs’ capacity to galvanize international action can be carried over into the SDGs, the agreement to include the attainment of peaceful societies could be a significant step forward for the war on war. Not only should it help orient the whole UN system towards the goal of reducing violence, but it also promises to marshal the energy, expertise, and resources of member states to the goal as never before.

In the coming weeks and months, officials will begin work on the measures that will be used to monitor progress—violent deaths per 100,000, all forms of violence against women, all forms of violence and abuse against children, and the progress of measures designed to achieve these headline goals. From there we will need plans to achieve those goals—analysts and organizations like the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P and the International Peace Institute have important parts to play there.   Then we will need the resources and political commitment to follow through and the analysis and advice to monitor progress and shape changes of course when required.  Agreeing the goals is only one small, but significant, step. We all now have a responsibility to work together to achieve these goals and important parts to play.