Why Do We Need Sustaining Peace? Examining the Vision That Ties the UN Together

People cross the Ledra street crossing point that leads from north to south between the UN buffer zone in the divided capital of Nicosia in Cyprus. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

In early March, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres briefed the General Assembly on his new report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace. During this briefing, there was a resounding call for a procedural resolution that would take note of the report’s recommendations on how to carry forward the sustaining peace agenda, and request further reporting on their implementation. On March 13, the President of the General Assembly appointed the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Republic of Lithuania as co-facilitators to lead the intergovernmental consultations on a draft resolution to be adopted by the General Assembly during the High-Level Meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace in late April.

These welcome measures require an examination of how they relate to the secretary-general’s overall vision. The report focuses on four main areas: operational and policy coherence, partnerships, leadership, and financing for sustaining peace. While it unpacks clearly how sustaining peace has been implemented over the past two years, it does not provide a compelling vision as to why the sustaining peace agenda is so central to the work of the UN, nor a theory of change underpinning the recommendations. Without clarity and understanding on the “how” and its relationship to the “why,” the sustaining peace agenda runs the risk of losing momentum, and becoming just a new framework for continuing business as usual.

The Vision of Sustaining Peace

The twin General Assembly and Security Council resolutions that called for the report state that sustaining peace should be broadly understood as a goal and a process to build a common vision of a society. This common vision should ensure that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account. One way of concretizing that vision is to consider peacebuilding as the process for advancing the goal of sustaining peace.

As the resolutions intimate, this process must flow through the three pillars of UN engagement—peace and security, development, and human rights—in addition to humanitarian action. It replaces what, until now, has been a sequential approach to conflict that often resulted in silos and fragmented responses, and calls for better linkages and sharing of instruments across the system. It is intended to be holistic and inclusive, with a focus on the prevention of the outbreak, escalation, continuation, and recurrence of conflict in all societies and at all stages of conflict. This is more than negative peace or the absence of violence, but a need to address the structural issues in society which create risk of violence. As Amartya Sen advocates, it is providing the capabilities to every individual in society to live the life they wish to live. This is what the goal of sustaining peace and the process of peacebuilding and development are working towards.

As a goal and a process, sustaining peace should not be treated as a rebranding of existing work but a comprehensive, coordinated, and coherent approach towards strengthening the resilience in society. We are moving towards a proactive prevention culture that is at the core of global peace and security. The challenge is how we do this.

The “How” of Sustaining Peace: Unpacking the Secretary-General’s Report

Whether it is deliberate alignment of development, humanitarian, diplomatic, and security intervention, or operational coherence, the report is clear about how the UN system should organize itself in order to give effective support to member states in their efforts to build and sustain peace. By outlining the roles of the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), Department of Political Affairs, and the UN Development Programme, as well as a new role for Resident Coordinators and UN country teams, it is clear that the secretary-general is encouraging coordination and policy coherence between the different UN actors. As the report outlines, too often we have seen “scattershot, incoherent and occasionally contradictory or competitive international efforts as a significant source of failed peacebuilding efforts.” Moving forward, the report argues that we must ensure that all programs and activities should be conflict sensitive and “do no harm.”

We have seen success in a coordinated approach with the action in the Gambia where “swift and sustained regional engagement,” in support of national conflict prevention efforts resulted in an effective and peaceful resolution to the political impasse in December 2016. A model of context-specific multi-dimensional joint analysis, which is linked with effective strategic planning and joint monitoring and evaluations, is central to the goal of sustaining peace. And such analysis must be connected to the Un Development Assistance Framework which will “enable mission components and members of United Nations country teams to work from the same analysis and towards the same goals.”

Though the report has been heralded as an excellent step forward towards the implementation of sustaining peace, the report does not remind us as to “why” the vision of sustaining peace is so central to the work of the UN. The report does not expound on the specific actions member states should undertake to create conditions conducive to durable peace conditions that could presumably benefit from the meaningful support the UN system is ready to provide. While we realize this was not called for in the twin resolutions, it is critical that these conditions be explicitly explored in a future iteration of the report.

The “Why” of Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace

The sustaining peace agenda offers a unique opportunity for making the secretary-general’s proposed reforms in the peace and security, development, and management pillars work for one single agenda, in pursuit of a common goal.

Sustaining peace does not seek to create new mechanisms for conflict prevention, but instead to use existing mechanisms to address a conceptual shift in how we respond to not just conflict and post-conflict societies, but more importantly, to strengthen resiliencies and capacities of societies that actively promote peace.

To help build an evidence base for sustaining peace, a group of interdisciplinary researchers have looked at some commonalities that characterize peaceful societies and offered some programmatic elements that can inform the design of peacebuilding initiatives on the ground. Below are five points which are judged as central in achieving long-term peace.

  1. Analyze drivers of peace, not of conflict

Traditionally, we seek to understand the causes of conflict, and then try to establish how to fix them. But this would only result in the absence of conflict. To actively promote peace, which is much more complex than the absence on conflict, it is important to complement the standard conflict analysis by identify the aspects of a society that are already working and that could subsequently be strengthened.

  1. Marry the three pillars of the UN

No individual divides their lives between development, security, and human rights. On the ground, these three pillars are inextricably linked. To successfully build and promote peace, the UN, Member States, and local peacebuilders must create holistic approaches that promote inclusive development, strong human rights, and peace and security.

  1. Inclusivity among stakeholders

The resolutions characterize inclusivity as “ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account.” For sustaining peace to truly take hold, it is important that there is inclusivity on the part of those implementing sustaining peace. Though the primary responsibility rests with member states, it is not enough to have top-down approaches to peacebuilding that are nationally anchored. There must also be bottom-up, locally-owned initiatives that are coherent and coordinated with national and international initiatives. Both national and local peacebuilding efforts are more likely to be effective when they include traditionally marginalized groups such as women and youth, who typically have a more grounded and informed understanding of local challenges and of the viability of particular solutions.

  1. Partnerships

Partnerships are a key aspect of the resolutions and the report, and an enabler of the success of sustaining peace. Due to the widened scope of sustaining peace, it is only achievable through the participation and cooperation of a wide array of actors. By promoting partnerships with these actors, initiatives for sustaining peace can harness their capacity, resources, and knowledge.

  1. The need for education

One important aspect that is not often noted is that early, inclusive education of children that stresses the importance of peaceful conflict resolution and acceptance of difference can be key in creating a future society that regards peaceful interactions as the necessary way to settle disputes. Schools that educate children to be for rather than against one another that teach how to enlarge the “us” to make room for the “them.” Schools that develop the abilities to resolve conflicts constructively rather than destructively are the hallmarks of peaceful societies.

The Next Steps in Sustaining Peace

Though a broad understanding of sustaining peace is necessary, the report seeks to operationalize sustaining peace on the ground. Despite clear recommendations in the report on how the UN can support the implementation of sustaining peace, the report provides only general recommendations of how member states and local peacebuilders can advance the sustaining peace agenda. This is partly due to the fact that there is still little research on what initiatives are the most conducive for laying the foundations for sustaining peace on the ground. To successfully implement the vision of sustaining peace, research and evidence on what works in peacebuilding and sustaining peace is still needed, and it is this research and analysis which should guide us in the pursuit of sustaining peace.

Lesley Connolly is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Laura Powers is a Research Assistant in the Center for Peace Operations at IPI.