Reflections on the Meaning of “Sustaining Peace”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hosts a dialogue on sustaining peace. New York, January 24, 2017 (Manuel Elias/United Nations Photo)

In June 2015, the Advisory Group of Experts on that year’s Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture (AGE) presented its findings to the presidents of the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council.

The review was not limited to this so-called “peacebuilding architecture”—a term referring to the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) and its subsidiary bodies, the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), and the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), which were established in line with recommendations of the UN’s 2005 World Summit Report. Rather, the terms of reference called for “recommendations on the functioning, resources, and modes of engagement of the Peacebuilding Architecture and on its links with the United Nations system entities that engage with it.”

This turned out to be prophetic, because one of the crucial findings of the AGE was that the shortcomings of the UN’s peacebuilding work were not limited to the institutions created in 2005, but rather were of a systemic nature. Indeed, the members of the group of experts found that the “unrealized hopes” that many delegations held regarding the peacebuilding architecture originated in “a generalized misunderstanding of the nature of peacebuilding and, even more, from the fragmentation of the UN into separate ‘silos.’”

On the “misunderstanding” front, the AGE went on to argue that up to the present, peacebuilding was limited to interventions after the guns fell silent in violent conflicts, and thus peacebuilding interventions were treated as an afterthought; under-prioritized and under-resourced. As an alternative, the AGE recommended treating peacebuilding as the principle that flows through all the UN’s engagements; before, during and after potential or real violent conflicts. But treating peacebuilding as a holistic concept that required inputs from all three intergovernmental organs—the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Security Council—ran counter to the rather rigid fragmentation that characterized the UN. This, in turn, became an obstacle to meaningful coherence at the intersection of interventions that involved peace and security, human rights, and development.

To highlight its concerns, the AGE even questioned the use of the term “peacebuilding” because of the connotation that it only led to interventions after violent conflict had occurred, and proposed that a more fitting terminology for its proposals, which included preventive measures to avoid violent conflict from taking place, would be “sustainable peace.”

Building on its conceptual framework, the AGE organized its recommendations around the following three pillars:

First, the imperative of bridging the UN’s work in peace and security, human rights, and development through a more coherent approach on the part of the principal intergovernmental organs, each from the vantage point of their UN Charter responsibilities, as well as on the part of the Secretariat. This is another way of saying that the present fragmentation of the organization’s work must be overcome or at least greatly mitigated.

Second, to recognize that peacebuilding occurs in all stages of a potential or real violent conflict—before, during, and after—and therefore that the UN needs to undergo a major shift in focus, from managing violent conflict to preventing them from occurring in the first place.

Third, while strategies and policies are formulated at UN headquarters, the real business of sustaining peace occurs in the field, at national and sub-national levels. For this to occur, it is essential to promote broad and inclusive national ownership in each situation.

In short, according to the AGE:

“if the central goal of sustaining peace is to be achieved, it needs to be understood as a key shared responsibility across the entire United Nations Organization: a thread that must run strongly through all the UN’s work in prevention, peacemaking, peace enforcement and peacekeeping, as well as through post-conflict recovery and reconstruction.  Improving UN performance in sustaining peace is truly a systemic challenge, one that goes far beyond the limited scope of the entities created in 2005 that have been labelled the ‘Peacebuilding Architecture.’ It requires the engagement of all three principal inter-governmental organs, as well as the Secretariat, the UN’s programmes and specialized agencies, and, of course, UN operations on the ground.”

Subsequently, the General Assembly and the Security Council completed the second stage of the review on April 27, 2016, by respectively adopting resolutions 70/262 and S/2882.  These readily embraced the term and general concept of “sustaining peace,” which appears 26 times in a text of 31 operative paragraphs (which set out actions agreed to by member states).

Some aspects of the AGE’s understanding of the term were accepted very explicitly, as in operative paragraph 2, which “Emphasizes that sustaining peace requires coherence, sustained engagement, and coordination between the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council, consistent with their mandates as set out in the Charter of the United Nations.” In recent times, the term “sustaining peace” has appeared frequently in various resolutions and statements, both on the part of member states and on the part of Secretary-General António Guterres.

On the other hand, the more general effort of defining exactly what is understood by “sustainable peace” was relegated to preambular paragraph 8, which states:

Recognizing that “sustaining peace”, as drawn from the Advisory Group of Experts report, should be broadly understood as a goal and a process to build a common vision of a society, ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account, which encompasses activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict, addressing root causes, assisting parties to conflict to end hostilities, ensuring national reconciliation, and moving towards recovery, reconstruction and development, and emphasizing that sustaining peace is a shared task and responsibility that needs to be fulfilled by the Government and all other national stakeholders, and should flow through all three pillars of the United Nations engagement at all stages of conflict, and in all its dimensions, and needs sustained international attention and assistance.

Unpacking this text minimally satisfies the different vantage points from which the “sustaining peace” term has been interpreted. Clearly present are the idea of interventions at all stages of conflict as opposed to only post-conflict situations; the idea of inclusivity; the idea of addressing root causes; the idea of shared responsibility between governments and civil society (“national stakeholders”); and the idea of interventions that flow through all three pillars of the UN’s work. That is quite close to the essence of the proposal of the AGE.

But what is perhaps lacking is a more coherent and clearer definition that everyone can subscribe to. This is not particularly surprising when considering the process of consensus-building on specific texts in large multilateral settings. Plainly, the less than clear definition reflects the fact that the text is the product of a prolonged negotiation of different delegations that also differed in how their respective governments interpreted the term “sustaining peace,” and what it implied to them. This is also unsurprising, and should not be worrying. Both the spirit and the letter of the sustaining peace resolutions offer abundant general and specific orientations to the UN Secretariat and member states on how to proceed on what the General Assembly chose to call “Review of the United Nations peacebuilding architecture” and the Security Council called “Post-Conflict Peacebuilding.”

What is somewhat worrying, though, is the fact that there still is an ongoing debate over what is meant by “sustainable peace.” Periodic efforts have been made to further refine the definition, although, as stated above, the resolutions sufficiently spell out how to support policy decisions and concrete actions on the part of the UN system. In fact, it could be argued that focusing on the definition of “sustainable peace” is a distraction, when the general guidelines for action are not questioned. It is the substance of the resolution that is important, and its policy implications are abundantly clear.

But the ongoing debate conceals two sets of concerns that continue to fuel the discussion. The first is whether “sustaining peace” is a universal goal or only applicable to conflict-prone countries. The second is perhaps more serious, since it reflects lingering suspicions on the part of different UN member states on the unforeseen consequences of taking “sustainable peace” seriously.

The first concern can be easily dispatched; in fact, member states have already decided that one of the universal goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development…” It could be argued that “peaceful and inclusive societies” is not the same as “sustainable peace,” but the two concepts certainly overlap in a significant manner. Further, it makes sense to convert sustainable peace into a universal goal, since arguably no society is immune from the risks of localized grievances or disputes spilling over into violent conflict, although clearly those societies with strong and inclusive institutions are much better equipped to avoid such eventualities. Further, the sustaining peace resolutions explicitly recognize that the term “should be broadly understood as a goal…” A major shift in the UN’s work toward prevention of conflicts should, by its very nature, be of universal concern and application, even though in practice the actual breaking out of violent conflict will be limited in scope.

It is, then, the second concern that needs to be addressed. A few Security Council members continue to perceive “sustainable peace” as a potential encroachment of the General Assembly on the Council’s mandated purview—a sort of sneaking in through the rear door to influence on the outcome of deliberations. Other General Assembly members continue to perceive “sustainable peace” as a menace—as the “securitization of development,” or, stated differently, as a new form of dominance on the part of the more powerful actors over their weaker brethren. Both these attitudes aim exactly in the opposite direction of the proposed bridging of the work of the three inter-governmental organs (ECOSOC included), and, if taken to extremes, could nullify the highly positive intentions expressed in the resolutions.

The AGE report insisted on the importance of changing attitudes to overcome the fragmentation of the UN. While some progress has been achieved in this regard, including more frequent interaction between the Security Council and the president of the Peacebuilding Commission, there still seems a long road ahead to make sustaining peace work.  It is to be hoped that the forthcoming reform agenda which Secretary-General António Guterres has announced will lead the way in promoting a more coherent approach to both sustainable peace and sustainable development, which are two sides of the same coin.

Gert Rosenthal is Former Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the United Nations and Chair of the Advisory Group of Experts on the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture.