Sustaining Peace: Can a New Approach Change the UN?

Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo arrive on boat at the Nsonga landing site in Uganda. The perilous journey across Lake Albert from DRC to Uganda can take up to two days and has seen a number of Congolese die during the crossing. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Today the United Nations begins convening a two-day high-level meeting on peacebuilding and sustaining peace to assess efforts undertaken and opportunities to strengthen the UN’s work. Prevention—emphasized by Secretary-General António Guterres in his first address to the Council in January last year—is at the top of the agenda. The human and economic costs of managing conflict have reached levels that are overwhelming the international system; the number of wars has more than tripled since 2010, and the global humanitarian appeal in 2017 was a record $23.5 billion.

The high-level meeting, convened by the president of the General Assembly, comes two years after the concurrent resolutions of the UN General Assembly and Security Council that adopted a new approach called “sustaining peace,” which is aimed at significantly bolstering the international effort to prevent the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict. The secretary-general recently released his first report on how he will implement and operationalize the sustaining peace approach. It is now an ideal time to take stock of how the concept has developed since it was adopted and assess the challenges to its implementation.

Leveraging the Whole UN System to Sustain Peace

The sustaining peace resolutions were negotiated and adopted in response to the findings of the UN’s peace operations, peacebuilding architecture, and women, peace, and security reviews in 2015. The sustaining peace concept was informed and inspired by the new Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, underpinned by 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In his sustaining peace report, the secretary-general says that the Agenda 2030 “contains the blueprint of the common vision of society towards which the world is trying to move.”

The Agenda 2030 recognizes that there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development. SDG16 is the main goal for “fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence,” but in all, 36 targets across seven SDGs measure aspects of peace, inclusion or access to justice. The SDGs thus contain a shared results framework that spans the development, governance, and peacebuilding nexus, which can be utilized to underpin the sustaining peace approach and align it with the more comprehensive SDG agenda.

The sustaining peace approach is a comprehensive project that is aimed at prioritizing prevention by changing the way the UN has managed conflicts since the end of the Cold War. The sustaining peace approach unfolds simultaneously across four dimensions. First, it shifts the primary agency for sustaining peace from the international to the national and local level. Second, it leverages all functional areas of the UN—human rights, humanitarian, women, development, peacebuilding, peace operations, and political—to generate sustaining peace outcomes. Third, it broadens the institutional responsibility for peace from the UN secretariat to the whole UN system, i.e., for the first time, the whole system contributes to one overarching goal—to sustain peace. And fourth, it broadens the instrumental focus of the UN beyond its current emphasis on a just-in-time capacity to respond rapidly to emerging violent conflict. It adds a new focus on supporting national actors to develop the resilient national capacities they need to address structural inequalities, exclusion, and other drivers that undermine social cohesion, and if neglected, may over time lead to violent conflict.

The secretary-general has rallied behind the sustaining peace concept. Through separate management, development, and peace and security reforms, he is attempting to put in place the leadership, management, coordination, planning, and funding instruments necessary to ensure that these four dimensions of sustaining peace are integrated and aligned to generate a whole-of-UN effect.

If one has to single out one dimension that distinguishes the sustaining peace approach, then it will have to be its focus on the primary role of national governments to identify, drive, and direct priorities, strategies, and activities for sustaining peace. The resolutions emphasize that inclusivity is key to advancing national peacebuilding processes and objectives in order to ensure that the needs of all segments of society are taken into account. They highlight that sustaining peace should be broadly understood as a goal and a process to build a common vision of a society. They further clarify that sustaining peace is a shared task and responsibility that needs to be fulfilled by the government and all other national and local stakeholders, including civil society.

An important concept that has emerged in the peacebuilding literature in this regard is resilience. If a society is fragile, it means that social institutions that govern its politics, security, justice, and economy lack resilience. Resilience refers here to the capacity of these social institutions to absorb and adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of functioning, structure, and identity under stress. In this context, prevention is about building resilient national capacities for sustaining peace, and is primarily a governance and development challenge.

Sustaining peace is thus not, in the first place, a UN or international project. It is a national project. The role of the UN system and international partners is to help build resilient national and local capacities for sustaining peace.

Unleash the Transformational Energy of Women and Youth

The sustaining peace approach also reaffirms the indispensable role of women in peacebuilding. It recognizes the substantial link between women’s full and meaningful involvement in efforts to prevent and resolve conflict, and those efforts’ effectiveness and long-term sustainability. The best predictor of a country’s ability to sustain peace is how it treats its women. The larger the gender gap between the treatment of men and women in a society, the more likely it is that a country will experience conflict.

The sustaining peace approach also recognizes the important role youth can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and as key drivers of sustainability and inclusiveness. The Independent Progress Study on Youth and Peace and Security provides a framework for partnering with and investing in young people to prevent violence, to promote their inclusion, and to translate the demographic dividend into a peace dividend. The report recommends three mutually reinforcing strategies. First, it is critical to invest in young people’s capacities, agency, and leadership through substantial funding support, network-building, and capacity-strengthening, recognizing the full diversity of youth and the ways young people organize. Second, systems that reinforce exclusion must be transformed in order to address the structural barriers limiting youth participation in peace and security. Third, partnerships and collaborative action where young people are viewed as equal and essential partners for peace must be prioritized.

Challenges and Opportunities

As one would expect with such an ambitious agenda for change, several challenges—each of which also presents opportunities—have emerged thus far during the implementation of the sustaining peace approach.

Geo-Political Uncertainty

The sustaining peace project is being initiated during a turbulent period in global governance. A phase-shift is underway from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. Some have responded by turning their backs on multilateralism and by reverting to nationalism and populism. Most agree that the UN, despite its imperfections, is the only globally representative body where international disputes can be settled peacefully, and common agendas like climate change can be negotiated and pursued. Organizations like the UN are often more open to change during periods of disruption than during periods of stability. States are, however, likely to be more cautious and reforms can thus be expected to unfold gradually.

Some states from the Global South have expressed concern that the sustaining peace agenda, and especially its conflict prevention elements, can be used by the Global North as an entry point for interfering in their domestic affairs. Some have also expressed concern that it represents a politicization and securitization of development, and that it may re-direct development funding away from long-term development towards short-term prevention initiatives. Some in the Global North are concerned that if they support the sustaining peace initiative, they are going to be under pressure to contribute more to multilateral institutions, and especially the UN.

Although the sustaining peace resolutions were a member state initiative, there is now growing unease among some member states about how such an approach may affect their interests. The secretary-general, with the support of like-minded member states, needs to maintain momentum and expand support among key member states in the North and South. He needs to invest more time in listening too, and taking confidence building steps to address the concerns of both blocs. Member states need to show more strategic patience, accept that reforms will need to be introduced gradually so that they can be integrated with minimum negative disruption, and keep their eye on the medium- to longer-term benefits of making the UN more fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

Conceptual and Operational Vagueness

Ever since the sustaining peace approach was first introduced via the twin resolutions, it faced criticisms that it was not specific enough to be operationalized. The secretary-general’s report has also been criticized for the same reason. The secretary-general should resist these pressures and give member states, the UN system, and the international peacebuilding community more time to collectively take ownership and develop the concept further. Member states should be encouraged to make use of the mechanisms designed to coordinate and track the SDGs, especially Goal 17 that deals with international partnerships, to collaboratively develop the structural prevention elements of the sustaining peace concept, and to align it closely with the larger SDG agenda.

Conceptually, the main tension in the sustaining peace approach is between the degree to which the emphasis should be on investing in imminent risk prevention tools, such as those in the preventive diplomacy toolbox, versus investing in structural prevention. Some argue that the success of sustaining peace will depend on it being able to demonstrate tangible results in the reduction of conflict in the short-to-medium term. It thus requires significant investment in scaling up the UN’s preventive diplomacy efforts. Others argue that prevention cannot be sustainable unless the emphasis lies on strengthening the resilience of national capacities for sustaining peace. This implies a focus on country-level capabilities and an investment in mechanisms such as the Resident Coordinator system and in the joint peace and development advisor program.

The secretary-general has attempted to find a balance between these two approaches. Both are needed, but member states have a special role to play when it comes to structural prevention, especially in taking the lead to strengthen their own national capacities for operationalizing the sustaining peace approach. The SDGs, and especially SDG 16, can serve as a basis for strengthening resilient national capacities for peace.

Innovative Financing Models

The delayed effects of destroyed infrastructure, poor health care, and lost education linger on for generations. The more we spend on responding to conflict, the less is available for development, reconstruction, and peacebuilding, without which we cannot prevent future conflicts. The sustaining peace approach is premised on the assumption that investing in preventing future violent conflict will cost the international system significantly less than the down-stream costs of managing the effects of violent conflict. The joint UN-World Bank report on inclusive approaches to preventing violent conflict, entitled “Pathways for Peace,” predicts even in its most pessimistic scenarios a net savings of close to $5 billion a year. In its neutral scenario, over $34 billion in damages would be prevented per year in countries that avoid war, and the international community would save $1-2 billion per year in responding to such crises.

Currently, the UN Secretariat spends approximately $7 billion on peacekeeping, while less than a billion dollars is spent on prevention, mediation, and peacebuilding. If the UN is serious about prevention, more will need to be invested in the UN’s capacity to identify, analyze, and assess early warning signs, and to take early action via its regional offices, special political missions and peace operations, and its special envoys.

Both the sustaining peace resolutions and the report of the secretary-general have paid special attention to work undertaken by the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). The secretary-general’s report calls for a five-fold scaling up of the PBF, and it makes a number of suggestions regarding how this can be done via, amongst others, utilizing unspent funds, re-investing saving, and diversifying available resources. Most of the remainder of the proposed reforms are meant to be achieved with the re-prioritizing of existing levels of resources.

It is not possible to reform the UN without also changing the way we finance the UN. The cost-benefit scenarios show that investing more money up-stream in prevention will result in us spending less money down-stream on conflict management. We know that if we don’t change our business model, the amounts of funding needed for conflict management, now and in the future, is unsustainable. Member states must thus come together to find new and innovative ways to finance development and peacebuilding, so that we create incentives for the system to focus on prevention and sustaining peace.


The sustaining peace project is the most serious attempt to prioritize prevention in the way the UN manages conflict since Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 Agenda for Peace. What sets it apart is that it is a member state initiative, born out of the twin peacebuilding architecture review resolutions of 2016. The secretary-general is tasked with spearheading its implementation. He has embraced the approach and integrated it into his own reform agenda. Member states, civil society, and the UN system need time to process the concept and to align their own structures, mechanisms, and instruments to the new approach. The sustaining peace project has to be a collaborative project, anchored among the member states, if it is going to be truly transformational. If we are not able to reduce the number of conflicts, humanitarian assistance costs alone are predicted to rise to $50 billion per year by 2030.

A version of this article was originally published by the Development and Peace Foundation (sef:). Cedric de Coning is a Senior research fellow with the peace and conflict research group at Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), and senior advisor for The African Center for Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). He tweets @CedricdeConing.